If Hezekiah, who we looked at last time, was one of the greatest kings that Judah ever had, Manasseh was probably the worst. But though initially his reign is grim reading, it has a glorious ending. We have seen how many of the kings began well and then blew it towards the end of their life, but here’s a story of a profoundly evil man being turned around by God’s amazing grace.
To have reigned for 55 years means he reigned longer than any other Israelite king, and might suggest a prosperous reign, but none was more wicked, none plumbed the depths of sin as he did. Three times, with increasing emphasis, the evil that marked his reign is mentioned – “evil” (v.2), “much evil” (v.6), “more evil” (v.9). With calculated defiance he set out to undo his father’s reforms (v.3), and brazenly turned his back on his father’s God. God’s gracious promises (vv.4,7-8) are rejected, and his warnings are ignored (v.10).
Like the prodigal son, when brought low in a far country Manasseh finally comes to his senses. Can there have been a less likely convert? Notice the two aspects of his turning back to God in v.12: he both sought the LORD’s favour and humbled himself greatly. One without the other would have been insufficient. And we might well have wondered that even both together would have been sufficient. Verse 13 is extraordinary: that the LORD should have been “moved by his entreaty” – surely we’d have said “You can’t be taken in by that! Can righteous anger so easily be turned aside?” Of course the bigger picture of the Bible shows that his anger is not easily turned aside, for it took the death of his Son.
God’s grace is astonishing: that when this evil monster cries out for mercy, God is moved to show mercy. And of course no less astonishing is his mercy to each of us. The first readers of this book might have reflected that in Manasseh they could see their own story: once idolaters, then through the judgment of exile, also in Babylon, they came to know again His grace and were brought back to Jerusalem; and shouldn’t all of us recognise the shape of our story in him too.
The genuineness of his conversion is now demonstrated in the profound change in his life. The man who had once filled Jerusalem with detestable idolatries, now has all such idols thrown out of the city. The man who had “sacrificed his sons in the fire” (v.6), now “sacrificed fellowship offerings and thank offerings” to the LORD. The man who had once “led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray” (v.9), now “told Judah to serve the LORD, the God of Israel” (v.16). Verse 17 suggests that it was easier to lead the people into sin, though, than to lead them out of it: they adopted a veneer of orthodoxy, but underneath the same idolatry remained.
Manasseh’s story is a wonderful reminder that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace – not that person we might have prayed for for years, not that person we thought it was scarcely worth praying for, not even us.