Jo Acharya | June 27, 2022
A long time ago in a land far away, a man named Manasseh was crowned King of Judah, and the people must have been cautiously optimistic. Manasseh’s father, Hezekiah, had been a righteous ruler who had trusted God and led the people well. Judah could still avoid the fate of its northern sister kingdom, Israel, who had been ruled by a string of evil kings and had now finally been invaded and conquered by its enemies.
But Manasseh turned out to be very different from his father. He undid all the good Hezekiah had done, and set Judah on a course that would lead to exile in Babylon just three generations later. Manasseh worshipped false gods, setting up alters to idols in the Temple and even going so far as to sacrifice his own son. In the blunt judgment of 2 Kings 21:2, Manasseh ‘did evil in the eyes of the LORD.’
But there’s something the writer of Kings doesn’t mention. In 2 Chronicles 33, we read the same account of Manasseh’s horrifying acts. But we also learn that that wasn’t the end of his story.
The LORD spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention. So the LORD brought against them the army commanders of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon. In his distress he sought the favour 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.
Manasseh repented! He turned back to God, changed his ways and reinstated the worship of God alone. Manasseh’s restoration is an incredible example of God’s forgiveness and grace.
It’s a little messier than that. Because there is still that clear, unequivocal summery in 2 Kings, and the strange omission of his later transformation. And there is still the harsh reality of Judah’s defeat and exile not long after. If he repented, why was Manasseh a bad king?
One man, two stories
The books of Kings and Chronicles cover the same period in Israel and Judah’s history. They tell the story from the end of King David’s reign to the exile of God’s people from the land they had been given. But these books were written at different times, and for very different purposes.
1 and 2 Chronicles were written after the exile was over, when the people of God were released from exile and returned to their land. The writer wanted to inspire this new generation to reconnect with their calling to be God’s holy people. They picked out the high points from the history of Judah, painting a vision of what this nation had been at its best and could be again if the people would only commit to trusting God and serving him as their Lord. For the writer of Chronicles, Manasseh’s repentance was a beautiful picture of the mercy God was offering to all his people, and the chance they now had to come back to him wholeheartedly.
1 and 2 Kings were written much earlier, while the people were languishing in Babylon. This writer wanted to make sense of where they had ended up and to give an account of how everything had gone so wrong. Their verdict was clear: Israel and Judah had sinned and rejected God, and God had finally withdrawn his protection from them. For this writer, Manasseh’s reign was the tipping point. He had raised his son Amon to follow in his evil footsteps, and Amon’s reign continued the same destructive course. Even though the next king, Josiah, did everything in his power to lead Judah back to God, the nation was by then on an irreversible course.
Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to arouse his anger.
It matters who we follow
So was Manasseh forgiven? Yes. On a personal level his repentance and sincere commitment to change made him right with God. But a decades-long legacy is a difficult thing to tear down. It’s easier to stop your own legs moving than to halt the march of those who follow behind you. It’s easier to change your own direction than to redirect the crowds who are steaming ahead on the trail you blazed.
Manasseh repented and received mercy, but for the people of Judah, it was too late. The damage was done. 2 Chronicles 33 tells us that although Manasseh destroyed his altars to idols and reinstated true worship in God’s Temple, ‘the people, however, continued to sacrifice at the high places, but only to the LORD their God.’ The people were reluctant to fully give up their religious practices, and soon, idol worship returned in in full force (2 Chronicles 34:3). The people changed, but not enough. They turned back, but not for long. They were too far along a path that would end in untold suffering.
The writer of Kings teaches us a valuable lesson: leadership matters. Our fate is always tied to those who govern us, whether it be in our churches or our countries. For better or worse, our leaders will leave a mark on us. The people we follow will take us somewhere – the only question is where.
Today, most of us live in secular societies. Political leaders who truly love God are few and far between. But when we decide who to vote for, or who to follow in our own lives, we can still choose those who reflect God’s character and his values. Leaders who prioritise justice and compassion, and who act with wisdom, courage and integrity. Leaders who inspire us to be better and who guide us closer to our Father’s heart.
Especially in our churches, let’s not be distracted by charisma, power, wealth or success, but look for leaders who humbly live out the words recorded in 2 Kings 22:2 about Josiah: “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.”
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