The Great Repentance of King Manasseh

Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had broken down, and he erected altars to the Baals, and made Asheroth, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, ‘In Jerusalem shall my name be forever.’ And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. And the carved image of the idol that he had made he set in the house of God, of which God said to David and to Solomon his son, ‘In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever, and I will no more remove the foot of Israel from the land that I appointed for your fathers, if only they will be careful to do all that I have commanded them, all the law, the statutes, and the rules given through Moses.’ Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.

The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the Lord brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon. And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.

Afterward he built an outer wall for the city of David west of Gihon, in the valley, and for the entrance into the Fish Gate, and carried it around Ophel, and raised it to a very great height. He also put commanders of the army in all the fortified cities in Judah. And he took away the foreign gods and the idol from the house of the Lord, and all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the house of the Lord and in Jerusalem, and he threw them outside of the city. He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of peace offerings and of thanksgiving, and he commanded Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel. Nevertheless, the people still sacrificed at the high places, but only to the Lord their God.

Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh, and his prayer to his God, and the words of the seers who spoke to him in the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, behold, they are in the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. And his prayer, and how God was moved by his entreaty, and all his sin and his faithlessness, and the sites on which he built high places and set up the Asherim and the images, before he humbled himself, behold, they are written in the Chronicles of the Seers. So Manasseh slept with his fathers, and they buried him in his house, and Amon his son reigned in his place.”

II Chronicles xxxiii, 1-20


So far the text.

I intended to put down my thoughts on this passage on the day for which it was an appointed reading, which was last Saturday, Holy Cross Day. Alas, time and the devil impeded my efforts to this end, so I’m writing several days later. Adjust your internal liturgical calendrics accordingly, please.

It is certainly no fault that Christendom looks upon King David as the chief icon of repentance in the Scriptures. The story of his adultery with Bathseba, all shot through with murder and deceit, fittingly stands as a titanic cautionary tale to the Church and to Her every member: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Co. xx, 12). More titanic still, though, is the Law of God which arrests the sinning king and the mercy which saves him (both delivered through the ministrations of the prophet Nathan). His song in the night, Psalm 51, is one of the most well known of all the penitential verses in Scripture, showing up in numerous places in the ancient liturgy of the Church. In my own tradition, the Missouri-Synod Lutheran, King David’s refrain is sung by the faithful as the Offertory during the preparation for the Liturgy of the Sacrament: “Create in me a clean heart, O God / And renew a right spirit within me; / Cast me not away from thy presence, / And take not thy Holy Spirit from me; / Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, / And uphold me with Thy free spirit. Amen.” Indeed, this is the whole liturgy of the Church writ small, for it epitomizes the hope in which we, the pilgrim souls of the Church on earth, stand; likewise, it gives voice to the faith which lays hold of this hope as its own.

So, again, it is entirely fitting that David is seen as something of a paragon of repentance, for these and other reasons. (It’s certainly germane to point out that he pretty much wrote the Psalter— if you’ve ever been too dried out and washed up by the world, the flesh, and the devil to invent your own prayers, chances are good that you leaned heavily upon the words of King David.) In my musings today, however, I want to consider another, lesser-known icon of repentance: King Manasseh.

I must confess that I often find reading Scripture to be terribly boring. Try as I might, some days I just slog through my breviary. The Old Testament readings especially can be tedious. Some guy with eighteen syllables in his name served as a scribe, and his son, who has eighteen consonants in his name, did evil, and you’re never going to hear about them again. Now here comes Assyria. Succotash begat Balderdash, and, lo, I didn’t remember a thing. Amen.

Really, I apologize if that seems irreverent, but I’m trying honestly to convey what happens when my flimsy attention-span and lazy, disinterested mind conspire during my devotions. The fault is with me, not with the text.

Sometimes, though, out of the blue and not by my choosing, I am completely and totally arrested by something I read, and Sacred Scripture becomes an electrifying page-turner. So it was with the foregoing Old Testament reading for Holy Cross Day, the story of Manasseh. I’ll admit right off the bat: it’s usually macabre details which grip me in this way. Pious ratiocination, if it comes at all, comes later.

So, King Manasseh. Here’s what the Wikipedia has to say:

Manasseh (Hebrew: מְנַשֶּׁה; Greek: Μανασσης; Latin: Manasses) was a king of the Kingdom of Judah. He was the only son of Hezekiah with Hephzi-bah. He became king at an age of 12 and reigned for 55 years (2 Kings 21:1; 2 Chronicles 33:1). Edwin Thiele has concluded that he commenced his reign as co-regent with his father Hezekiah in 697/696 BC, with his sole reign beginning in 687/686 BC and continuing until his death in 643/642 BC. William F. Albright has dated his reign from 687 – 642 BC.

Manasseh was the first king of Judah who would not have had a direct experience of a Kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians in c. 720 BC and most of its population deported. He re-instituted pagan worship and reversed the religious reforms made by his father Hezekiah, for which he is condemned by several religious texts.

He was married to Meshullemeth, daughter of Haruz of Jotbah, and they had a son Amon, who succeeded him as king of Judah upon his death.

After a reign of 55 years (for 10 of which he was co-regent with his father), the longest in the history of Judah, he died in c. 643 BC and was buried in the garden of Uzza, the “garden of his own house” (2 Kings 21:17-18; 2 Chronicles 33:20), and not in the City of David, among his ancestors. The biblical account of Manasseh is found in II Kings 21:1-18 and II Chronicles 32:33-33:20. He is also mentioned in Jeremiah 15:4.

He repented of idolatry in 2 Chron 33:12-14, and was apparently forgiven.

So Manasseh is really, truly evil. He consorts with sorcerers, worships demons, and commits filicide, offering his sons as holocausts to Baal. The king of Judah, the physical remnant of God’s chosen people, is completely and totally given over to malevolence and darkness. Something like dread comes over me when I read the list of the ways in which he manifestly rejected God and reveled in wickedness. And then there’s this summation: “Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel.” If you’ll recall what kind of things the Canaanites were into, that’s really saying something— that Manasseh led his people into more evil than all of them.

“The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention,” the chronicler says. So, yes, here comes Assyria with hooks and bronze chains. I’m reminded of what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain: “Pain is God’s megaphone.” Indeed, and Assyria hurts real bad. But it works like a charm: Manasseh feels the pain, and he repents. I love the simplicity of the text here: “And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom.” And then this: Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.”

So…that’s it. Affliction, terrors of conscience, abasement, prayer, mercy, restoration, followed by new obedience:

Afterward he built an outer wall for the city of David west of Gihon, in the valley, and for the entrance into the Fish Gate, and carried it around Ophel, and raised it to a very great height. He also put commanders of the army in all the fortified cities in Judah. And he took away the foreign gods and the idol from the house of the Lord, and all the altars that he had built on the mountain of the house of the Lord and in Jerusalem, and he threw them outside of the city. He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of peace offerings and of thanksgiving, and he commanded Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel.

I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling of, “Wait… that’s it?” when I read this. I think that this strikes many of us sort of a “low” form of repentance. It certainly does me. “Of course he repents!” we’re thinking. “He just got kicked to the curb by the biggest baddies of the ancient world!” It would be more genuine, more authentic, more virtuous if before everything hit the fan he had realized how terribly bad he was being, surceased, made great lamentation over his sin, and then turned over a new leaf. As it was, he basically just caved under pressure, tapped out, screamed “Uncle!”, etc.— insert a metaphor of your choice. And we should note that after his repentance, we don’t see “Manasseh’s Best Life Now”; it certainly isn’t “Morning in Judah”, at least not for long. Sure, he tries to redeem the time, and that’s good in its own way. But his son Amon takes things right back to the gutter after his death. The other account of Manasseh in Scripture in II Kings 21 doesn’t even mention his repentance. Why? Well, it doesn’t really figure largely into the trajectory of Judah’s history. It’s a mere blip.

So where’s the virtue in all of this?

Well, I think the point is that there is none. No virtue, that is— not no point. Repentance isn’t born out of some virtue from within. Rather, it is worked in us, and often (usually?) by nothing less than an encounter with the temporal reality— if not the fully-fledged temporal consequences— of our sin. (Yes, I’m leaving out the Holy Spirit; if it’s repentance, then it’s a given that the Holy Spirit is the one who employs these means and turns them into efficient causes.) I’m not sure we’re capable of repenting any other way.

When I consider that, according to Christ’s emendations in the Beatitudes, I am as much a murderer and an idolater as Manasseh, I wonder how my own repentance must necessarily be of a piece with his. I wonder how the psalm of a penitent filicidal idolater reads and whether I could pray it without a conscientious sense of irony. Probably not. Part of me would silently thank God that (as far as I’m concerned) my own niggling repentances entail only minor turnarounds by comparison: “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like this wicked king, whatever else I may be.” However, I think that the mere capacity to imagine this distinction in grades between repentance is the best indicator that the distinction is itself fictitious. The aphorism of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke seems apposite: “Each moment is equidistant from eternity.” When anyone faithlessly abandons the promise of the Gospel— whether that person lived before the Incarnation or lives during it— the only way he’s getting back on the Narrow Path is gracious, unmerited restoration from without. An erring sinner is put back. His feet are set upon the rock. He doesn’t “find his way back” from whatever broad and destructive road he’s on.

With all that said, I still find that I am still more prone to remember Manasseh for the enormity of his sins than for the immensity of Divine Mercy. Come on, he sacrificed his sons!

And just when I was forgetting that Sacred Scripture is a book about Christ.

  • Manasseh is a type of God the Father.
  • His sons are a type of the God the Son.
  • Manasseh, the murderous priest who gives his own over to death, is a type of Christ, the lifegiving priest who gives Himself over to death for His own.
  • Christ the King immolated Himself in the righteous wrath of the Father on the altar of the cross to atone for King Manasseh’s murderous idolatry.

I suppose the list could go on, but that’s all that this layman can readily come up with on the spot. Suffice it to say, though, that the more I consider the Scriptural account of the repentance of King Manasseh, the more it seems entirely apropos for Holy Cross Day, after all.

 

+VDMA