According to the biblical record, many of the rulers of ancient Judah and Israel were exceedingly bad. If we ask “How bad did they get?” the answer might well be “Manasseh.” Manasseh was certainly one of Judah’s worst rulers, yet the end of his story is a surprising and inspiring one.
Manasseh was the son of the good king Hezekiah with whom he seems to have co-ruled in the last years of his father’s life. He became sole king around 687 BC and reigned for a total of 55 years (2 Kings 21:1; 2 Chronicles 33:1). His reign was soon after the conquering of the northern tribes by Assyria in 720 BC, and during his time Judah itself was constantly under the shadow of possible Assyrian invasion.
Despite the good influence of his father, Manasseh annulled the religious reforms made by Hezekiah and re-instituted the worship of pagan gods and idols. 2 Kings 21 outlines the extent of his apostasy, telling us that “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal ... He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them … In the two courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts” (2 Kings 21:2-5).
As if introducing pagan idols and altars into the temple of God were not bad enough, we are told: “He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists” (2 Kings 20:6). The Book of Kings also suggests he may have executed prophets of God and supporters of his father's reforms, for much “innocent blood” was shed by him in Jerusalem (2 Kings 21:16 and see Jeremiah 15:4).
Yet we are given some fascinating further information in the Book of Chronicles which tells us, not surprisingly, that the anger of God was roused against Manasseh and that God caused the king to be led away in chains by the King of Assyria. Only then did Manasseh apparently realize his folly: “In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors. And when he prayed to him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so he brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God” (2 Chronicles 33:11-13). After his return to Jerusalem, Manasseh cleansed the temple, did away with idols, and re-instituted the worship of God (2 Chronicles 33:14-16). Despite his earlier evil, Manasseh turned his life around, and his story gives us a flesh and blood example of what the prophet Ezekiel tells us:
“... if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right … None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him…” (Ezekiel 18:21-23).
In these words Ezekiel paints a clear picture of how, if we turn our lives around, what matters is how we end up – a fact by which the repentant Manasseh, formerly one of Judah’s most reprehensible kings, was greatly blessed.