"Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem." -- 2 CHRON. xxxiii. l.
Fifty and five years -- he wore the crown a longer time than any other of the house of David. Of all the kings that reigned in Jerusalem, this man's reign filled the largest space; yet he is the one king of Judah about whom we are told least. In the modern city of Venice there is a hall which is adorned with the portraits of all the doges or kings who ruled that city in the days of its splendour -- all except one -- one who made himself infamous by evil deeds. Where his portrait ought to be, there is a black blank space which says nothing, yet speaks volumes; which says to every visitor, Do not think of him, let him be forgotten. In some such way Manasseh is disposed of by the sacred writers. They hurry over the fifty-five years; they crowd them into half a chapter, as if they were ashamed to dwell upon them, as if they wanted the memory of them and of the man to be forgotten. And that was the feeling of all the Jews. Century after century, and even to the present time, Jews have held the man's name in abhorrence. Do not speak of him, they say. He was the curse of our nation. He denied our faith. He slew our prophets. He brought Jerusalem to ruin.
Yet, strange to say, the man so hated and cursed was once a nation's hope and joy. When his father, Hezekiah, lay sick unto death, his greatest grief and the profoundest sorrow of his people was caused by the thought that he was dying childless. They prayed for his recovery mainly on that ground. He recovered, and married, and a child was born, and the glad father called him Manasseh, which means, God hath made me forget -- forget my sickness and my sorrow; and all over the land the ringing of bells was heard and shouts of rejoicing, and the prophet Isaiah sang of the child's birth in those triumphant words which we have often heard since in another connection, "Unto us a son is born, unto us a child is given"; and they thought that all would go well now that there was an heir to the throne, and they prayed that he might be sturdy and strong, and get over all the ailments of childhood. They hoped more from the child than they did from God. Their prayers were granted. God gave them their desire, and the result was such as to make us doubtful whether we are always wise in pressing such prayers. We are never sure that it will be good for us, or good for our darling child, that its life should be spared and prolonged in some time of crisis. Often the early death which we dread may be far less cruel than the evil which waits beyond. Better to leave these things in God's hands, and say that will be best for all which seems right to Thee. A whole nation prayed for the birth and preservation of this son. That same nation came to curse the day on which he was born.
Strange that a father like Hezekiah had a child like this. Hezekiah was, I think, the best of the Jewish kings, wise and brave, gentle and strong, full of reverence and faith, pre-eminently a man who walked with God and strengthened himself by prayer, and fought as earnest and true a battle for religion and righteousness as we have recorded in the Old Testament. How came it that the son was in all respects his opposite? Did an evil mother shape him, or what? We cannot tell. These are among the saddest mysteries of human life. The law that a child's training and environment determine the character of the man, often fails most deplorably. The wisest man may have a most foolish son; the godliest home may send forth a reprobate; the child of many prayers may live a life of shame. When a young man goes wrong, it is often both unjust and cruel to lay it on the home training, and to say that there has been neglect or want of discipline, or want of right example there. It is adding another burden to hearts already weighted with intolerable grief.
For the most part, children will follow their parents in what is good, and those nursed in prayer will grow up praying men. But there are hideous exceptions, and sometimes the most Christlike people have this cross to bear; and it is the most heart-crushing of all to see children turning aside from all that they have held dear, and by the whole course of their lives mocking the religious ideals and hopes which were cherished for them. God save all you fathers and mothers from this calamity, and God save all our young people from crushing tender hopes in this cruel way.
Manasseh's life was spent in undoing what his father had done. It seemed to be his great ambition to overturn and destroy the sacred edifice which his father's hands, with untiring prayer and devotion, had raised. Hezekiah had taught his people to trust in God, and in reliance on His help to sustain a noble independence separate from heathen alliances. Manasseh hastened to join hands with Babylon, and make his nation the vassal of a great heathen empire. Hezekiah had swept the land clean of idols. Manasseh filled every grove and hillside with these vain images again. Hezekiah had restored the Temple worship and the Mosaic ritual, and the moral law, and laboured to establish a reign of sobriety, purity, justice, and order. Manasseh outraged all the moralities, and delighted in introducing everywhere the licentious abominations of the neighbouring peoples. Hezekiah had cultivated and encouraged prophecy, and gathered about him great and noble souls like Isaiah and Habakkuk. Manasseh drove them from his presence, and finally slew them.
There were new lights in those days, as there are now. Men who sneered at all the old thoughts and ways, who swept Moses aside with disdain, and thought that David's psalms were poor and feeble things, and that the old-fashioned religion was narrow and provincial, and that the stories of victories won by faith and miracles wrought by prayer were worn-out fictions. They said that if the nation would prosper, it must turn its back on all this stuff, and follow new methods, and profess a new religion. Let them make the great empire, Babylon, their model, with its advanced civilisation, and science, and literature, and vast stores of wealth, with its worship, too, of the sun, and stars, and fire, its religion full of jollity and license, which contrasted so happily with the sober and severe worship of Jehovah, and did not trouble men with unwelcome moral precepts. See how great that empire had become, and how stationary and unprogressive was their own little kingdom, because it clung to the old ways. That was what the new party said. Away with the old-fashioned thoughts and the old-fashioned trusts and beliefs and worship. We are wiser than our simple-minded fathers. We know a few things more than these narrow-minded and crazy prophets. We will have all things new.
And Manasseh, being a young man and as foolish as he was young, drank in greedily their counsels and made himself their leader. For it is ever the temptation of young life to think lightly of their father's wisdom, and to despise what they call the narrow religious beliefs, and the careful moral scruples of the old, and to fancy that they know all things so much better than those who have gone before. They want to try experiments of their own with life, and shake off the shackles of old moral laws and religious creeds, and be free to do and think as they please, and put the Bible away on the shelf, and shove prayer aside as a sort of worn-out heirloom, and have a merrier and better time than the old folks knew. That was the course which Manasseh took, just as headstrong and irreverent youths take it now.
Then followed that time which the Jewish people never speak of without shame -- a hideous reign of idolatry, and immorality, and injustice; an awful period of persecution for the few righteous and God-fearing people who were left when the prophets had been sought out and slain. Isaiah sawn asunder, Habakkuk stoned to death, the faithful driven into dens and caves of earth. It is of this time that we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in that graphic account of the martyred faithful: "They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented: of whom the world was not worthy" (xi.37, 38). A few years of this sufficed to pull down the whole fabric of religion which Hezekiah had so painfully and patiently raised. For it is so easy to destroy; so easy for folly and irreverence to pull down what wisdom and goodness have taken years in building; so easy for a vicious and irreligious son to bring shame and ruin upon the house which a godly father and mother have spent a lifetime in rearing with honour; so easy, by a few rash acts, to destroy the character and reputation which the prayers and training of years have sought to establish. It is the easiest thing in the world to undo and overturn; there is no cleverness and courage required for destroying, the cleverness and courage are called for in building it up.
Manasseh succeeded to his heart's content. People followed him greedily, except the steadfast few. And presently the prophets were all gone, and the worship of the true God was nowhere practised except in secret, and the sacred names were no more mentioned, and the land gave itself up to all the foul rites and the shameful indulgences of the heathen world, And then God's retribution came swiftly. Where the rotting carcase was, there the eagles gathered together. These same Babylonians whose ways the renegade Jews had so much admired and imitated, swept down upon them with the talons of a vulture, with cruelty that spared neither tender woman nor innocent child, and Jerusalem was burned with fire, and Manasseh carried off in chains and flung into a foreign prison to muse in solitude over the end of his projects, and to find out there that the old ways had been the best.
There we are told that he repented, that he was stricken with shame because of all the evil that he had done, and turned with prayer and humility to the God whom he had defied. And we are told that God was merciful and heard his entreaties, and accepted his repentance, and brought him back after sorrowful years of imprisonment to his land and throne. This is the part of the story which most people emphasise. That, they say, is the main lesson of the story -- Manasseh's repentance, and how God accepted the rebellious sinner at the last and forgave him all his iniquities -- and they draw from that the conclusion that it is never too late to turn to God, and that all the dark doings of a man's life are swept clean away, if at any time the heart repents and believes.
But this is not the part of the story which the sacred writers dwell upon. In the Book of Kings, where there is another version of Manasseh's doings, no mention is made whatever of the repentance, and here it is only briefly recorded, and in a somewhat sorrowful tone.
He came back humbled and forgiven, indeed, but not in a happy state of mind. He came back to a ruined kingdom; to a sinful and demoralised and destitute people; to see everywhere the sorrow, and the evil and the misery and shame which his doings had caused; to be reminded continually that his life had been a great wicked and foolish blunder, and that there was no undoing the mischief which he had done. For the sake of his repentance he was spared a little longer, but there could be little joy in the remaining years of a life like that.
I think that that is the experience of most men who turn away in their youth from the example and precepts of godly fathers, who reject the truths which make life sober and strong, who betake themselves to thoughts of infidelity and ways of sin, and fancy that they can live life happily without God and prayer. There comes a time when they are made to feel that their life has been a mistake, that it would have been far better for them to have stuck to the old ways, that those believing fathers whom they laughed at were right after all; perhaps they repent and go back to God at last, and He accepts them; but whether repentant or not, they always carry with them an awful burden. Shame is upon them for the evil they have done, shame for the life that has been spent to so little purpose, regret and humbling that they cannot undo the blind and guilty past. Repentance at the best is a poor business when it comes in the evening hours of life. Better then than never; but better far to have gone with God from the beginning. That, I think, is the lesson which the wise man will find in the story of the evil king.