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Chapter IX. Manasseh: Repentance And Forgiveness. 2 Chron. xxxiii.
In telling the melancholy story of the wickedness of Manasseh in the first period of his reign, the chronicler reproduces the book of Kings, with one or two omissions and other slight alterations. He omits the name of Manasseh's mother; she was called Hephzi-bah—“My pleasure is in her.” In any case, when the son of a godly father turns out badly, and nothing is known about the mother, uncharitable people might credit her with his wickedness. But the chronicler's readers were familiar with the great influence of the queen-mother in Oriental states. When they read that the son of Hezekiah came to the throne at the age of twelve and afterwards gave himself up to every form of idolatry, they would naturally ascribe his departure from his father's ways to the suggestions of his mother. The chronicler is not willing that the pious Hezekiah should lie under the imputation of having taken delight in an ungodly woman, and so her name is omitted.
The contents of 2 Kings xxi. 10-16 are also omitted; they consist of a prophetic utterance and further particulars as to the sins of Manasseh; they are virtually replaced by the additional information in Chronicles.
From the point of view of the chronicler, the history [pg 445] of Manasseh in the book of Kings was far from satisfactory. The earlier writer had not only failed to provide materials from which a suitable moral could be deduced, but he had also told the story so that undesirable conclusions might be drawn. Manasseh sinned more wickedly than any other king of Judah: Ahaz merely polluted and closed the Temple, but Manasseh “built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the Temple,” and set up in it an idol. And yet in the earlier narrative this most wicked king escaped without any personal punishment at all. Moreover, length of days was one of the rewards which Jehovah was wont to bestow upon the righteous; but while Ahaz was cut off at thirty-six, in the prime of manhood, Manasseh survived to the mature age of sixty-seven, and reigned fifty-five years.
However, the history reached the chronicler in a more satisfactory form. Manasseh was duly punished, and his long reign fully accounted for.429 When, in spite of Divine warning, Manasseh and his people persisted in their sin, Jehovah sent against them “the captains of the host of the king of Assyria, which took Manasseh in chains, and bound him with fetters,430 and carried him to Babylon.”
The Assyrian invasion referred to here is partially confirmed by the fact that the name of Manasseh occurs amongst the tributaries of Esarhaddon and his successor, Assur-bani-pal. The mention of Babylon as his place of captivity rather than Nineveh may be accounted for by supposing that Manasseh was taken [pg 446] prisoner in the reign of Esarhaddon. This king of Assyria rebuilt Babylon, and spent much of his time there. He is said to have been of a kindly disposition and to have exercised towards other royal captives the same clemency which he extended to Manasseh. For the Jewish king's misfortunes led him to repentance: “When he was in trouble, he besought Jehovah his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed unto him.” Amongst the Greek Apocrypha is found a “Prayer of Manasses,” doubtless intended by its author to represent the prayer referred to in Chronicles. In it Manasseh celebrates the Divine glory, confesses his great wickedness, and asks that his penitence may be accepted and that he may obtain deliverance.
If these were the terms of Manasseh's prayers, they were heard and answered; and the captive king returned to Jerusalem a devout worshipper and faithful servant of Jehovah. He at once set to work to undo the evil he had wrought in the former period of his reign. He took away the idol and the heathen altars from the Temple, restored the altar of Jehovah, and re-established the Temple services. In earlier days he had led the people into idolatry; now he commanded them to serve Jehovah, and the people obediently followed the king's example. Apparently he found it impracticable to interfere with the high places; but they were so far purified from corruption that, though the people still sacrificed at these illegal sanctuaries, they worshipped exclusively Jehovah, the God of Israel.
Like most of the pious kings, his prosperity was partly shown by his extensive building operations. Following in the footsteps of Jotham, he strengthened [pg 447] or repaired the fortifications of Jerusalem, especially about Ophel. He further provided for the safety of his dominions by placing captains, and doubtless also garrisons, in the fenced cities of Judah. The interest taken by the Jews of the second Temple in the history of Manasseh is shown by the fact that the chronicler is able to mention, not only the “Acts of the Kings of Israel,” but a second authority: “The History of the Seers.” The imagination of the Targumists and other later writers embellished the history of Manasseh's captivity and release with many striking and romantic circumstances.
The life of Manasseh practically completes the chronicler's series of object-lessons in the doctrine of retribution; the history of the later kings only provides illustrations similar to those already given. These object-lessons are closely connected with the teaching of Ezekiel. In dealing with the question of heredity in guilt, the prophet is led to set forth the character and fortunes of four different classes of men. First431 we have two simple cases: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. These have been respectively illustrated by the prosperity of Solomon and Jotham and the misfortunes of Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah, and Ahaz. Again, departing somewhat from the order of Ezekiel—“When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations of the wicked man, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds that he hath done shall be remembered; in his trespass that he hath trespassed and in his sin that he hath [pg 448] sinned he shall die”—here we have the principle that in Chronicles governs the Divine dealings with the kings who began to reign well and then fell away into sin: Asa, Joash, Amaziah, and Uzziah.
We reached this point in our discussion of the doctrine of retribution in connection with Asa. So far the lessons taught were salutary: they might deter from sin; but they were gloomy and depressing: they gave little encouragement to hope for success in the struggle after righteousness, and suggested that few would escape terrible penalties of failure. David and Solomon formed a class by themselves; an ordinary man could not aspire to their almost supernatural virtue. In his later history the chronicler is chiefly bent on illustrating the frailty of man and the wrath of God. The New Testament teaches a similar lesson when it asks, “If the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?”432 But in Chronicles not even the righteous is saved. Again and again we are told at a king's accession that he “did that which was good and right in the eyes of Jehovah”; and yet before the reign closes he forfeits the Divine favour, and at last dies ruined and disgraced.
But this sombre picture is relieved by occasional gleams of light. Ezekiel furnishes a fourth type of religious experience: “If the wicked turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all My statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of his transgressions that he hath committed shall be remembered against him; in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, saith the [pg 449] Lord Jehovah, and not rather that he should return from his way and live?”433 The one striking and complete example of this principle is the history of Manasseh. It is true that Rehoboam also repented, but the chronicler does not make it clear that his repentance was permanent. Manasseh is unique alike in extreme wickedness, sincere penitence, and thorough reformation. The reformation of Julius Cæsar or of our Henry V., or, to take a different class of instance, the conversion of St. Paul, was nothing compared to the conversion of Manasseh. It was as though Herod the Great or Cæsar Borgia had been checked midway in a career of cruelty and vice, and had thenceforward lived pure and holy lives, glorifying God by ministering to their fellow-men. Such a repentance gives us hope for the most abandoned. In the forgiveness of Manasseh the penitent sinner receives assurance that God will forgive even the most guilty. The account of his closing years shows that even a career of desperate wickedness in the past need not hinder the penitent from rendering acceptable service to God and ending his life in the enjoyment of Divine favour and blessing. Manasseh becomes in the Old Testament what the Prodigal Son is in the New: the one great symbol of the possibilities of human nature and the infinite mercy of God.
The chronicler's theology is as simple and straightforward as that of Ezekiel. Manasseh repents, submits himself, and is forgiven. His captivity apparently had expiated his guilt, as far as expiation was necessary. Neither prophet nor chronicler was conscious of the moral difficulties that have been found in so simple a [pg 450] plan of salvation. The problems of an objective atonement had not yet risen above their horizon.
These incidents afford another illustration of the necessary limitations of ritual. In the great crisis of Manasseh's spiritual life, the Levitical ordinances played no part; they moved on a lower level, and ministered to less urgent needs. Probably the worship of Jehovah was still suspended during Manasseh's captivity; none the less Manasseh was able to make his peace with God. Even if they were punctually observed, of what use were services at the Temple in Jerusalem to a penitent sinner at Babylon? When Manasseh returned to Jerusalem, he restored the Temple worship, and offered sacrifices of peace-offerings and of thanksgiving; nothing is said about sin-offerings. His sacrifices were not the condition of his pardon, but the seal and token of a reconciliation already effected. The experience of Manasseh anticipated that of the Jews of the Captivity: he discovered the possibility of fellowship with Jehovah, far away from the Holy Land, without temple, priest, or sacrifice. The chronicler, perhaps unconsciously already foreshadows the coming of the hour when men should worship the Father neither in the holy mountain of Samaria nor yet in Jerusalem.
Before relating the outward acts which testified the sincerity of Manasseh's repentance, the chronicler devotes a single sentence to the happy influence of forgiveness and deliverance upon Manasseh himself. When his prayer had been heard, and his exile was at an end, then Manasseh knew and acknowledged that Jehovah was God. Men first begin to know God when they have been forgiven. The alienated and disobedient, if they think of Him at all, merely have glimpses of His vengeance and try to persuade themselves [pg 451] that He is a stern Tyrant. By the penitent not yet assured of the possibility of reconciliation God is chiefly thought of as a righteous Judge. What did the Prodigal Son know about his father when he asked for the portion of goods that fell to him or while he was wasting his substance in riotous living? Even when he came to himself, he thought of the father's house as a place where there was bread enough and to spare; and he supposed that his father might endure to see him living at home in permanent disgrace, on the footing of a hired servant. When he reached home, after he had been met a great way on with compassion and been welcomed with an embrace, he began for the first time to understand his father's character. So the knowledge of God's love dawns upon the soul in the blessed experience of forgiveness; and because love and forgiveness are more strange and unearthly than rebuke and chastisement, the sinner is humbled by pardon far more than by punishment; and his trembling submission to the righteous Judge deepens into profounder reverence and awe for the God who can forgive, who is superior to all vindictiveness, whose infinite resources enable Him to blot out the guilt, to cancel the penalty, and annul the consequences of sin.
“There is forgiveness with Thee, That Thou mayest be feared.”434
The words that stand in the forefront of the Lord's Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy name,” are virtually a petition that sinners may repent, and be converted, and obtain forgiveness.
In seeking for a Christian parallel to the doctrine expounded by Ezekiel and illustrated by Chronicles, we have to remember that the permanent elements in primitive doctrine are often to be found by removing the limitations which imperfect faith has imposed on the possibilities of human nature and Divine mercy. We have already suggested that the chronicler's somewhat rigid doctrine of temporal rewards and punishments symbolises the inevitable influence of conduct on the development of character. The doctrine of God's attitude towards backsliding and repentance seems somewhat arbitrary as set forth by Ezekiel and Chronicles. A man apparently is not to be judged by his whole life, but only by the moral period that is closed by his death. If his last years be pious, his former transgressions are forgotten; if his last years be evil, his righteous deeds are equally forgotten. While we gratefully accept the forgiveness of sinners, such teaching as to backsliders seems a little cynical; and though, by God's grace and discipline, a man may be led through and out of sin into righteousness, we are naturally suspicious of a life of “righteous deeds” which towards its close lapses into gross and open sin. “Nemo repente turpissimus fit.” We are inclined to believe that the final lapse reveals the true bias of the whole character. But the chronicler suggests more than this: by his history of the almost uniform failure of the pious kings to persevere to the end, he seems to teach that the piety of early and mature life is either unreal or else is unable to survive as body and mind wear out. This doctrine has sometimes, inconsiderately no doubt, been taught from Christian pulpits; and yet the truth of which the doctrine is a misrepresentation supplies a correction of the former principle [pg 453] that a life is to be judged by its close. Putting aside any question of positive sin, a man's closing years sometimes seem cold, narrow, and selfish when once he was full of tender and considerate sympathy; and yet the man is no Asa or Amaziah who has deserted the living God for idols of wood and stone. The man has not changed, only our impression of him. Unconsciously we are influenced by the contrast between his present state and the splendid energy and devotion of self-sacrifice that marked his prime; we forget that inaction is his misfortune, and not his fault; we overrate his ardour in the days when vigorous action was a delight for its own sake; and we overlook the quiet heroism with which remnants of strength are still utilised in the Lord's service, and do not consider that moments of fretfulness are due to decay and disease that at once increase the need of patience and diminish the powers of endurance. Muscles and nerves slowly become less and less efficient; they fail to carry to the soul full and clear reports of the outside world; they are no longer satisfactory instruments by which the soul can express its feelings or execute its will. We are less able than ever to estimate the inner life of such by that which we see and hear. While we are thankful for the sweet serenity and loving sympathy which often make the hoary head a crown of glory, we are also entitled to judge some of God's more militant children by their years of arduous service, and not by their impatience of enforced inactivity.
If our author's statement of these truths seem unsatisfactory, we must remember that his lack of a doctrine of the future life placed him at a serious disadvantage. He wished to exhibit a complete picture of God's dealings with the characters of his history, so that [pg 454] their lives should furnish exact illustrations of the working of sin and righteousness. He was controlled and hampered by the idea that underlies many discussions in the Old Testament: that God's righteous judgment upon a man's actions is completely manifested during his earthly life. It may be possible to assert an eternal providence; but conscience and heart have long since revolted against the doctrine that God's justice, to say nothing of His love, is declared by the misery of lives that might have been innocent, if they had ever had the opportunity of knowing what innocence meant. The chronicler worked on too small a scale for his subject. The entire Divine economy of Him with whom a thousand years are as one day cannot be even outlined for a single soul in the history of its earthly existence. These narratives of Jewish kings are only imperfect symbols of the infinite possibilities of the eternal providence. The moral of Chronicles is very much that of the Greek sage, “Call no man happy till he is dead”; but since Christ has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, we no longer pass final judgment upon either the man or his happiness by what we know of his life here. The decisive revelation of character, the final judgment upon conduct, the due adjustment of the gifts and discipline of God, are deferred to a future life. When these are completed, and the soul has attained to good or evil beyond all reversal, then we shall feel, with Ezekiel and the chronicler, that there is no further need to remember either the righteous deeds or the transgressions of earlier stages of its history.
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