If Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 could describe himself as chief of sinners, then King Manasseh might have argued that he was next. Manasseh ruled fifty-five years, more than any other monarch of Judah or Israel. During most of his reign, he apparently was a compliant vassal of the Assyrian Empire. Perhaps because of Assyrian influence, Manasseh revoked the religious reforms of his father Hezekiah that had returned Judah to exclusive worship of Yahweh. Manasseh himself participated in the rites of indigenous Canaanite gods and burned one of his sons as a religious sacrifice. This king practiced divination and sorcery. He remodeled the Jerusalem Temple, adding altars to additional gods. In addition to his religious heresy, 2 Kings 21:16 notes that “Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end.” The author of 2 Kings regards Manasseh’s reign as the tipping point that persuaded God that the nation of Judah must be punished for its spiritual rebellion. 2 Kings 21 notes no positive aspects of Manasseh’s religious or political influence.
2 Chronicles 33 also relates the history of Manasseh’s long reign. Its writer repeats verbatim much of what we read in 2 Kings 21:1-10. However, while 2 Kings portrays Manasseh’s reign as consistently evil and assigns responsibility to the heretical monarch for Judah’s subsequent exile to Babylon, 1 Chronicles records that Manasseh, exiled himself for a time by the Assyrians to Babylon, repented of his multitude of sins and prayed to God for forgiveness. While the Bible does not record Manasseh’s prayer, centuries later someone wrote a prayer based on Manasseh’s repentance as described in 1 Chronicles 33. This apocryphal prayer of Manasseh ends with this plea to a gracious God:
“Do not destroy me with my transgressions; do not be angry against me forever; do not remember my evils; and do not condemn me and banish me to the depths of the earth! For you are the God of those who repent. In me you will manifest all your grace; and although I am not worthy, you will save me according to your manifold mercies. Because of this (salvation) I shall praise you continually all the days of my life; because all the hosts of heaven praise you, and sing to you forever and ever” (“The Prayer of Manasseh,” from The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by J.H. Charlesworth, Garden City, New York: Doubleday& Company, 1985, p. 635).
In 2 Chronicles, a forgiven Manasseh returns to Jerusalem, where he initiates religious reforms and building programs that demonstrate the genuineness of his repentance. The Chronicler’s account of Manasseh’s life ends: “The other events of Manasseh’s reign, including his prayer to his God and the words the seers spoke to him in the name of the LORD, the God of Israel, are written in the annals of the kings of Israel. His prayer and how God was moved by his entreaty, as well as all his sins and unfaithfulness, and the sites where he built high places and set up Asherah poles and idols before he humbled himself – all are written in the records of the seers” (2 Chronicles 33:18-19).
Manasseh begins his reign by arrogantly turning away from the God of his father Hezekiah. He brings both religious and political ruin to his nation by his policies. Only after being exiled does he humble himself and pray. His repentance and prayer echoes God’s words to King Solomon centuries earlier, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face an turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). God’s promise is extended to people who already are in covenant relationship with him, but have violated the terms of that covenant. Such was the case with Manasseh and Judah, the nation he ruled. In modern times, it applies to Christians who have strayed from God’s will rather than to secular nations.
Manasseh’s prayer demonstrates the efficacy of calling for fire when one realizes that through his or her own disobedience, they have placed themselves in great spiritual danger. Just as Peter and John counseled Simon to pray for forgiveness in hope that God might forgive him (Acts 8), so worshipers of God who have lost their way today may ask for forgiveness. Manasseh sinned horribly, killing at least one of his children, causing the death of many others, and leading a nation into apostasy and toward political suicide. Even after his repentance, the aftershocks of his earlier sins continued to influence Judah’s history for generations. Even when we repent, we cannot always undo the effects of the wrong we have done. On the other hand, God does forgive him, and Manasseh, despite the magnitude of his earlier sin, accomplishes great acts of service for God during his remaining years. No sin is too great for God to forgive when God’s people, who are called by his name, humble themselves and pray.
God of grace and glory, Remember how you granted forgiveness to Manasseh and Saul, who became Paul the apostle. Extend the same grace to those who recognize the horror of their own rebellion. Forgive them when they humbly return to you. Saul had thrown disciples of your Son into prison, and assisted in the killing of others, but when he arose and was baptized, calling on the name of the Lord, you forgave him and gave him a mission which transformed his weakness into strength. Give us strength and courage to do your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.