Many people, including myself, have had life-changing experiences. We have experienced a tragedy or a crisis that was so intense and personal that it changed the course of their lives. King Uzziah, for instance, insisted on offering incense in the temple, as only a priest had the right to do, and he was smitten with leprosy. It changed his life. Not only was he excluded from the temple for the rest of his life, but his son, King Jotham was so scared that never went in either, during all his reign. In Hezekiah’s case, he nearly died of an illness but repented and lived another fifteen years. Coming to the brink of death can change us. The greatest return from the depths of catastrophe, among the kings at least, had to be that of Manasseh.
To begin with, Manasseh was the worst of all the kings of Judah. A century earlier, Jehoram had suffered immediate consequences for having married Ahab’s daughter and legalizing the worship of Baal. He died a painful death from the plague. Just twenty years earlier, Ahaz suffered immediate consequences for again legalizing Baal worship, as hundreds of thousands of valiant men were killed or taken captive. Knowing all this history, Manasseh still undertook the most ambitious program of promoting the worship of foreign gods. He rebuilt the high places of worship and altars for the worship of Baals, Asheroth, and all the host of heaven. Ahaz had built them originally. Hezekiah tore them down. Manasseh rebuilt them.
His greatest crime against humanity was shedding innocent blood, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 21:16 and 24:4. No other kings, even the kings of Israel, are accused of this. It “filled Jerusalem from one end to another”. According to the latter verse, it was an unpardonable sin, for which even his own conversion could not atone. “Innocent blood” is a powerful expression. Innocence is specifically applied to children and the prophets but implies any unfair judgment. “Blood” implies physical destruction, and usually death. However this came about, “innocent blood” implied a general suspension of the justice system and the extensive abuse of the most noble people.
Morality comes from the nature of God, and we learn God’s nature from what he says and what he does. One thing we learn about God is that swift and fair punishment is an indication of God’s love. That is not to say that God particularly loved Jehoram, Ahaz, and Manasseh. God loved the nation of Israel like we love a person. Swift consequences would come to Manasseh for the sake of the nation, more than for his own good. David was known for responding quickly to God’s promptings. Manasseh led the people astray “to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Chronicles 33:9). He was so stubborn and determined, ignoring the warnings of prophets, that it would take torture at the hand of a ruthless king to get his attention.
The setting of this event was probably the Babylonian rebellion that took place between 652 and 648 BC. Esarhaddon prepared two of his sons to rule after him. Ashurbanipal ruled over the entire Assyrian Empire, while Shamash-shum-ukin ruled over Babylon. This worked for seventeen years, until the complex intrigues of the family and the court resulted in four years of civil war. If Manasseh took sides in the conflict, that could explain how he ended up on the wrong side and was taken prisoner by the King of Assyrian to Babylon.
Manasseh’s capture does not appear in any texts other than 2 Chronicles 33:11. There, he is described as being led away with hooks and chains of bronze. From what we know about Assyrian practices, we can imagine Manasseh being pulled through the streets by a fishhook through his lip. The one who once exercised absolute control over Judah is now painfully controlled by the most lowly. He probably endured months of humiliation in prison. His abject helplessness and submission ultimately led to his repentance and return. This was truly a life-changing experience. He recognized Jehovah as God (33:13), but it was too late to avoid the inevitable. Judah would still go into captivity.