Studies in the Book of Kings 2 Kings 21:1-26


2 Kings 21:1-26

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Good king Hezekiah’s reign finished with a moan and he was succeeded by his son
Manasseh, a king who, unfortunately, was to reign 55 years, longer than any other king of Judah or Israel. A bad king can do a lot of damage in 55 years. An account of his reign is found also in 2 Chron. 33. Manasseh was born after Hezekiah’s illness and so was raised during the days of Hezekiah’s later spiritual malaise. Manasseh is mentioned in Assyrian annals as one of 12 kings of Palestine who paid tribute. Without his father’s faith in God, Manasseh adopted a pro-Assyrian policy and, by and large, spent his days as a loyal vassal to the Assyrian king.

Text Comment

v.1       Manasseh, if you remember, was the name of one of Joseph’s sons, born to him in Egypt. The name means “causing to forget.” In Joseph’s case his son was given that name because the Lord had caused him to forget his early misery in Egypt by raising him to great power in the land. It is thought that the name would have been more widely used for a son born after the mother had lost a child. The new baby caused her to forget her heartbreak at the loss of her former child. [Wiseman, 290] But we are inclined to remember Manasseh’s name because he caused the people of God to forget her Lord and the covenant he had made with her. [Leithart, 261]

v.3       In other words, he reintroduced Canaanite practices and the pantheon of ANE idolatry. The mention of Ahab king of Israel is ominous, of course. Judah under Manasseh became like Israel under Ahab. And look what happened to Israel!

v.4       Worse still he desecrated the temple by bringing idolatrous worship into it, thus making Yahweh simply one god among the many. Solomon made a temple for Chemosh but at least he put it on the Mount of Olives. Ahaz redesigned the altar for the temple according to an ANE model. But only Manasseh had the audacity to put an idol before the face of Yahweh himself. [Leithart, 265] Manasseh is a man who has completely broken faith with Israelite monotheism and with Yahweh as the creator of heaven and earth, the one true and living God. [Provan, 267]

v.6       Manasseh followed the lead not of his father, but his grandfather, Ahaz, but as well the examples of Ahab and Jeroboam. But here we find even an echo of Saul’s later reign, when the first king of Israel consulted mediums in a desperate hope to manipulate the future to his own advantage.

v.9       In other words Manasseh comprehensively reversed the liturgical and theological reform carried out by his father and went further than any previous king of Judah  in turning Judah’s spiritual culture into that of any other ANE people. He ignored both the commandments and the warnings of the Law of Moses which forbade, upon pain of judgment, virtually everything Manasseh chose to do.

v.11     “Amorites” is a generic term for Canaanite people. Their mention is also ominous. According to God’s covenant, the place of the people of God in the Promised Land depended upon their not being like the Amorites.

This is the first time a king of Judah is said to have made the people to sin. The phrase has been used 20 times in Kings of Jeroboam I who “made Israel to sin.” Every dynasty that reaches this point of making the people to sin is destroyed (Jeroboam, Omri, Jehu) and now that this can be said of a king of Judah the handwriting is on the wall for the house of David as well. [Leithart, 264]

v.12     Notice “God of Israel.” Israel as the northern kingdom has been destroyed. We are back to using Israel for the people of God, of which Judah, the southern kingdom, is all that remains.

v.15     These are precisely the curses promised in the covenant in Leviticus and Deuteronomy should Israel prove unfaithful to the Lord. The Lord, in other words, is simply keeping his promise. The sins of Judah in Manasseh’s day are not a new development. They reached an unprecedented degree during Manasseh’s reign, but they had been a feature of Judah’s life since she entered the Promised Land, there being only a few short periods of time during which those sins were forbidden and actually banished from the life of the people. Humanly speaking there seemed an opportunity for a turn around under Hezekiah, but it proved to be short-lived. Manasseh, evil king that he was, no matter all the good kings before him that reformed Judah’s worship but only half-heartedly, represented Judah’s authentic life and practice more than Asa, Uzziah, or Hezekiah did.

v.16     It is an ancient tradition, utterly plausible, that among Manasseh’s victims was the prophet Isaiah, who, it was said, was sawn in two. It does appear on other grounds that Manasseh did not tolerate criticism from the Lord’s prophets, which as we learn in vv. 10ff. we know he received. What is striking is that, so far as the ministry of prophets whose names and whose preaching is recorded in Scripture is concerned, there is total silence during the long reign of Manasseh. The unnamed prophets of v. 10 may have paid for their honesty with their lives. [House, 379]

v.18     Remember Hezekiah’s life was extended fifteen years and Manasseh reigned for fifty-five years so Amon would have been raised during Manasseh’s life not Hezekiah’s and when Manasseh was at the height of his rebellion against God.

v.26     As we have seen before, corrupt and idolatrous reigns produce violence and instability. Amon was assassinated after just two years on the throne, the conspirators were themselves killed, and Amon’s son, Josiah, was advanced to power, though he was only eight years of age at the time. We are not told what motivated the coup, whether the issues were personal, religious (perhaps the conspirators were loyal to the Mosaic law), or political (perhaps the conspirators were anti-Assyrian in their politics).

Now, when facing a text like this, another text not typically preached, we must always remember and take to heart the fact that this is our history. This is not the history of somebody else; this is the history of the church of God. Just as Paul in 1 Cor. 10 can tell Gentile believers like us that our forefathers came out of Egypt at the exodus, so he can tell us in Romans 15 that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” He also reminds us in a famous statement that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” This narrative about Manasseh is for us!

American evangelicals have a short memory. We are afflicted with what someone has called “communal amnesia.” [Leithart] Evangelicals as a rule do not know the history of the church and are not inclined to think that we as Americans have much to learn from it. But the fact is, the Bible is in large part church history and it reports that history precisely because we have so much to learn from it and precisely because the patterns of that history are everywhere to be found in later epochs and in our own day.

The perfectly true point is often made, for example, that our culture today in the Western world is eerily like the culture of the Greco-Roman world in the days of the apostles and the early church. There has been no culture in between those days and our own that has been so oriented to public entertainment. Sexual mores are increasingly the same. As Peter Jones and others have shown, the philosophy of the two cultures, the Greco-Roman and the modern Western, is increasingly similar. And so on.

But there is a very significant difference between the situation of the church in the modern West and the situation of the church in the first century. The church today faces the much more difficult task of re-evangelizing a world that was evangelized before and re-training a culture in beliefs and practices that were once part of its social fabric but which have been rejected as outworn, passé, and no longer relevant. In that sense our culture is less like Rome in the first and second centuries of the modern era and more like the culture of Judah during and after  Manasseh’s reign in the 7th century B.C.

Manasseh is a study in the spiritual possibilities of the modern West and it is not a bright picture that is painted. What we learn from Manasseh is that the prevailing culture has terrible power to blind people to the nature of what they are doing and the inevitable consequences of their choices. Why else does Manasseh imitate all the bad kings who have gone before him and none of the good, even though God’s blessing attended the good kings and his judgment fell upon the bad? And why else can he seem not to see what ought to be obvious: that ANE idolatry did nothing for Israel. She had ceased to exist, her people scattered to the four winds. How had the gods of Palestine helped her? As we read in v. 9, how did they help the nations that fell before Israel when Yahweh was fighting for her?

Culture – its patterns of thought, its attitudes, its values, its practices, its communal memory – all of this is terribly powerful. It creates a mental world that seems not only normal but inevitable to people. They can’t imagine a different one. Just as folk in Judah during Manasseh’s reign couldn’t imagine there being only one god, couldn’t imagine offering worship in any other way than the way everyone else offered it, couldn’t imagine that gods would not be influenced by the sacrifice of one of their children, so folk in our day can’t imagine a world – no matter that it existed not long ago – in which sexual promiscuity is not the norm, in which abortion is not an option, in which right and wrong are not personal preferences, in which toleration, especially of variant sexual practice, was not an ultimate value, in which divorce was not commonplace and inevitable, in which children would not live with only one parent most of their young lives, in which viewing pornography would not be viewed publicly as a protected right and as a normal practice, in which it would not be thought that women had better things to do than raising their children, and so on.

It is very hard to get people to prefer a world that they can scarcely imagine or understand; a world that seems a violation of everything they hold to be true. And so it was in Manasseh’s day. What Manasseh created in Judah was a situation that seemed normal. He had to silence the Lord’s prophets, but the people as a whole took to the changes very naturally. They seemed right precisely because they were the accepted convictions and habits of the culture around them. No one should underestimate the power of an intellectual and spiritual culture to blind people to other alternatives of thought and life. Add political power and muscle to a culture’s deep and constant influence and you get what you got in Manasseh’s day: a perfect willingness to abandon the God who had made Israel what she was and had proved himself to her the one living and true God times without number.

The lesson here, for you and me, brothers and sisters, is that it becomes our task as Christians, as parents, as evangelists to face our culture on the one hand with loving contempt and on the other with confidence. We are always to remember that the certainty of people in their convictions is no measure of the truthfulness of those convictions. After all, if you had asked educated, sophisticated Germans in 1939, the most sophisticated society in Europe in those days, if Jews were sub-human, most of them would have said “Yes!” without a second thought. Our calling must be to be relentless in exposing the twin facts that the orthodoxies of this culture rest on sand and the horrific consequences that we are everywhere encountering are only to be expected. We must be, Christians have always had to be counter-cultural. “My kingdom is not of this world,” our Savior said, and you will never get to the truth by counting noses.

Or consider another lesson of this history, a lesson often taught in the history and the prophets of the Old Testament and repeated in the New, and a lesson of perpetual relevance to thoughtful Christians. It is this. There comes a time, call it what you will, when repentance on a large scale becomes impossible. The sins have so become so deeply rooted that they cannot be got out and the Lord has lost his patience and will not bring people to repentance.

From this point and again and again we are going to hear that Judah went into exile, that Jerusalem was razed and the temple destroyed, because of the sins of Manasseh, or the sins that Manasseh caused Judah to commit. Not only that, but even brief revivals such as occurred under Amon’s son Josiah, a revival that at first Jeremiah greeted so enthusiastically with so much hope, even those revivals were insufficient to overcome the momentum and the effect of Manasseh’s 55 years of thoroughgoing idolatry and paganism.

In 23:16 we read that after all that Josiah so faithfully did to restore the true worship of God in Jerusalem and Judah,

“Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. And the Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah out of my sight, as I have removed Israel…’”

And when Nebuchadnezzar comes against Jerusalem we read in 24:3-4:

“Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, and also for the innocent blood he had shed.”

We heard this last week that Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, a congregation of the Church of Scotland, the church where Florence and I worshipped for three years in the mid-1970s, has decided to leave the Church of Scotland on the heels of its approval of ministers who are practicing homosexuals. It is very hard to read church history and not to believe that the Church of Scotland long ago passed the point of no return and that efforts to revitalize true faith and living in the church were doomed to failure. This is what happens and it is not faith but presumption to think that revival is just around the corner when the convictions and practices of unbelief have become so deeply rooted that a people considers them entirely normal and are unable any longer to appreciate, or even understand, the teaching of Holy Scripture and have become hostile to that teaching. This is all the more the case when the people in view are the church of God but a church that has for generations now flaunted the Word of God.

But there is something else in this narrative that the thoughtful reader of the Bible cannot miss and must consider. This too is a lesson of biblical history, but more subtly taught. Here it is taught by its absence rather than by its presence. As you know, in 2 Chron. 33 we have a very similar account of Manasseh’s sins as we find here in 2 Kings 21. Some sections of 2 Chron. 33 are word for word repetitions of the account here in 2 Kings 21.  But in 2 Chronicles, between the account of Manasseh’s corruption of Israel’s worship and life and that of the reign of his son Amon, is sandwiched the account of Manasseh’s quixotic rebellion against Assyrian rule late in his reign, his capture and exile to Babylon, which then was a vassal state of Assyria, his conversion in Babylon, and, after Manasseh’s repentance and prayer to God, his being returned to the throne in Jerusalem. “Then,” we read in 2 Chron. 33:13, “Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.” And in the remaining few years of his reign he sought to undo the damage he had done during the many years he had ruled Judah as a pagan king. As you may remember, the “Prayer of Manasseh”, a beautiful prayer of confession and repentance, is one of the fourteen books of the Apocrypha, the library of inter-testamental writings that Roman Catholics consider part of Holy Scripture.

But though his late repentance and efforts at reform strike us as far and away the most interesting part of Manasseh’s history, it is entirely unmentioned in Kings. That is why the one who preaches from the history of Manasseh from 2 Chron. 33 is likely to preach a very different sermon than one will who preaches on 2 Kings 21. Manasseh’s repentance is the climax of the story in one account; it is utterly unmentioned, not even hinted at in the other account. Why?

Well, the most obvious answer is that, so far as the history of Judah is concerned, so far as her progress to judgment is concerned, Manasseh’s repentance was of little consequence. His effort to undo the damage he had done was altogether too little and too late. The die had been cast in the long years Manasseh reigned as a pagan king leading his people into a thoroughgoing paganism.

We are individualists in the American church and we rejoice in Manasseh’s late repentance. We take from it, as we have every right to, the realization that it is never too late to repent, that God’s grace and mercy are such that no matter how evil a man has been, if only he or she will cry out to God for forgiveness in Christ’s name, that person shall receive it. In that respect Manasseh is like the Apostle Paul who was a persecutor of the church before he became her champion. If I had 2 Chronicles 33 before me, I would rightly draw attention to the majesty of divine grace as it is demonstrated in the conversion of Manasseh at the end of such a horrible life. I think of William Hone, the arch-blasphemer, that’s what he was called, the arch-blasphemer of the first half of the 19th century in England. Hone was even tried in court on charges of blasphemy for his parodies of the Litany, the Athanasian Creed, and the Church of England’s catechism. He was the most convinced and outspoken enemy of Christianity of his time. Yet, near the end of his life he was converted to Christ in a most dramatic way. He composed these verses to commemorate his conversion.

The proudest heart that ever beat
Has been subdued in me:
The wildest will that ever rose
To scorn thy cause or aid Thy foes,
Is quelled, my God, by Thee.

Most glorious Saviour, here I see
A trophy of Thy grace,
Such as should ever silence those
Who would Thy Majesty oppose,
And dare Thee to Thy face.

Thy will and not my will be done!
I’d be for ever Thine;
Confessing Thee, the living Word,
My Savior Christ, my God, my Lord,
Thy cross shall be my sign.
[In S.M. Hougton, My Life and Books, 75-81]

If that were true of William Hone, how much more concerning Manasseh whose repentance also came very late in his life, after long years of doing what he could to destroy the Christian faith.

But why then is there nothing of this is the principal narrative of Manasseh’s life in 2 Kings? Surely this is too important to omit. But obviously it is not. Wonderful as Manasseh’s repentance was as a matter of personal salvation, it had little effect on the progress of unbelief and the deepening moral and spiritual catastrophe that had overtaken Judah under Manasseh.

There is a great difference between what happens in the life of the occasional convert and what happens to the church as a whole. C.S. Lewis’ conversion was an immensely important moment for evangelical Christianity worldwide, but it had little impact on the Church of England of which Lewis was a member throughout his Christian life. There was a short and encouraging spurt of evangelical life in the Church of England in the 1950s and 60s – not unlike the short-lived revival under Josiah – but it has largely petered out and the English church is marching steadily toward oblivion as it had been when Lewis came to Christ in 1931.

Similar examples are legion in church history: wonderful conversion stories, sometimes of prominent people, that had little or no influence on the spiritual culture as a whole. Some of the remarkable Christian men who surface in the history told in Eric Mataxas’ new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were men who, by the grace of God, we might have expected to turn the spiritual tide in Germany toward evangelical faith in the years after the war. After all, events had proved them right. It appears now that they were more evangelical Christianity’s last gasp than its future hope. What will future historians say of some of the conversions that we have witnessed in America in the past twenty years? Were they the dawn of new life in the American church or were they rather, as seems much more likely, the evening star heralding the approach of the darkness of night?

To be faithful readers of the Bible we must take these two narratives together and learn what each has to teach us. The happy lessons are found in 2 Chronicles 33. The lessons of 2 Kings are more grim, but no less true for that. The world can be a very grim place. You need to accept that fact or your Christian faith will have to be detached from reality.

  1. Conversion, no matter how wonderful, does not necessarily erase the damage that has been done during the period of unbelief. How many parents who became Christians later in life or began to take their faith seriously later in life have learned that to the breaking of their hearts? If only they had come to Christ earlier? If only they could have raised their Amons during the time of their faith and not during the time of their unbelief. Such is the mystery of God’s sovereign grace. There is no explaining it. There are only tears and prayers until the night comes when no man can work. Don’t allow anyone to take the iron, the steel, the painful realism of Holy Scripture away from you. Don’t let the Pollyannas drive a wedge between what the Bible teaches about reality and our own experience of it and commentary on it. We want to believe that grace wipes the slate clean. And it does, if you are thinking about Manasseh’s own forgiveness. But it does not if you are thinking about Amon and about Judah and about what eventually happened to Judah because, as the Bible repeatedly says, of the sins Manasseh caused Israel to sin.
  2. The salvation of an individual does not a revival make. The Lord does not leave himself without a witness. Surely it is a spectacularly wonderful thing that the worst king in the history of Israel prayed for forgiveness and received it. That the man who caused the greatest harm to the soul of God’s people will be at last in heaven among the saints, rejoicing in the grace of God forever. It’s wonderful beyond the power of words to describe. But those he harmed, those he sent to hell by the thousands, were not delivered from their unbelief because he was.
  3. The responsibility of parents for the spiritual life of their children is perhaps the greatest weight ever placed upon a human life. I am aware that God himself has sometimes interfered with what we would think would be his interests, by saving the parents only after the children were well along in life and giving them no opportunity to nurture their children in the faith in Christ they now have. But in every other case, we are to take the lesson from the negative. Turn it around and impress it upon your own heart if you are a parent or parent to be. When Manasseh failed to raise his son for Yahweh he was not able to undo the damage to his boy’s soul when, late in his life, he realized what he had done to the boy and how he had failed him. That is surely a summons for all of us to strike while the iron is hot, to take with utmost seriously our responsibilities as Christian parents to raise our children while we can in the fear and the love of God and Christ. You only get this opportunity once and once lost it is usually lost forever. Not always, thankfully, but usually.

 

2 Kings 21 is a miserable chapter in just the way that reality in this world of sin and death is often miserable. It is part of our faith to face facts as those facts are uncompromisingly presented to us in Holy Scripture. It is not as if what happened through Manasseh has not happened many times since. A leader who encourages the church to adapt to the culture, to accommodate its faith to the convictions and orthodoxies of the culture, and so creates a momentum no one can stop: how many times has that happened in the history of the church? And even a dramatic conversion cannot undo what has been long done beforehand.

I looked and looked for an encouraging word in 2 Kings 21. This too is the Word of God; this too is the history of the church in the Bible and ever since. This too is the instruction of Scripture and its training in righteousness. Christians are to be happy people, joyful people indeed; but there is to be a hard edge to them as well, the edge that facing facts adds to a godly character.