Who was Manasseh?
Manasseh was a king of Judah, son and successor of Hezekiah; reigned 55 years (2 Kings 21:1 ; 2 Chronicles 33:1 ), from circa 685 onward.
His was one of the few royal names not compounded with the name of Yahweh (his son Amon's was the only other if, as an Assyrian inscription gives it, the full name of Ahaz was Jehoahaz or Ahaziah); but it was no heathen name like Amon, but identical with that of the elder son of Joseph. Born within Hezekiah's added 15 years, years of trembling faith and tender hope (compare Isaiah 38:15 f), his name may perhaps memorialize the father's sacred feelings; the name of his mother Hephzibah too was used long afterward as the symbol of the happy union of the land with its loyal sons ( Isaiah 62:4 ). All this, however, was long forgotten in the memory of Manasseh's apostate career.
I. Sources of His Life.
The history (2 Kings 1 through 18) refers for "the rest of his acts" to "the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah," but the body of the account, instead of reading like state annals, is almost entirely a censure of his idolatrous reign in the spirit of the prophets and of the Deuteronomic strain of literature.
The parallel history ( 2 Chronicles 33:1-20 ) puts "the rest of his acts" "among the acts of the kings of Israel," and mentions his prayer (a prayer ascribed to him is in the Apocrypha) and "the words of the seers that spoke to him in the name of Yahweh." This history of Chronicles mentions his captive journey to Babylon and his repentance (2 Chronicles 33:10-13 ), also his building operations in Jerusalem and his resumption of Yahweh-worship (2 Chronicles 33:14-17 ), which the earlier source lacks. From these sources, which it is not the business of this article either to verify or question, the estimate of his reign is to be deduced.
II. Character of His Reign.
1. Political Situation:
During his reign, Assyria, principally under Esar-haddon and Assur-banipal, was at the height of its arrogance and power; and his long reign was the peaceful and uneventful life of a willing vassal, contented to count as tributary king in an illustrious world-empire, hospitable to all its religious and cultural ideas, and ready to take his part in its military and other enterprises. The two mentions of his name in Assyrian inscriptions (see G.A. Smith, Jerusalem , II, 182) both represent him in this tributary light.
His journey to Babylon mentioned in 2 Chronicles 33:11 need not have been the penalty of rebellion; more likely it was such an enforced act of allegiance as was perhaps imposed on all provincial rulers who had incurred or would avert suspicion of disloyalty. Nor was his fortification of Jerusalem after his return less necessary against domestic than foreign aggression; the more so, indeed, as in so long and undisturbed a reign his capital, which was now practically synonymous with his realm (Esar-haddon calls him "king of the city of Judah"), became increasingly an important center of wealth and commercial prosperity. Of the specific events of his reign, however, other than religious, less is known than of almost any other.
2. Reactionary Idolatry:
That the wholesale idolatry by which his reign is mainly distinguished was of a reactionary and indeed conservative nature may be understood alike from what it sought to maintain and from what it had to react against. On the one side was the tremendous wave of ritual and mechanical heathen cults which, proceeding from the world-centers of culture and civilization (compare Isaiah 2:6-8 ), was drawing all the tributary lands, Judah with the rest, into its almost irresistible sweep. Manasseh, it would seem, met this not in the temper of an amateur, as had his grandfather Ahaz, but in the temper of a fanatic.
Everything old and new that came to his purview was of momentous religious value - except only the simple and austere demands of prophetic insight. He restored the debasing cults of the aboriginal Nature-worship which his father had suppressed, thus making Judah revert to the sterile Baal-cults of Ahab; but his blind credence in the black arts so prevalent in all the surrounding nations, imported the elaborate worship of the heavenly bodies from Babylon, invading even the temple-courts with its numerous rites and altars; even went to the horrid extreme of human sacrifice, making an institution of what Ahaz had tried as a desperate expedient.
All this, which to the matured prophetic sense was headlong wickedness, was the mark of a desperately earnest soul, seeking blindly in this wholesale way to propitiate the mysterious Divine powers, his nation's God among them, who seemed so to have the world's affairs in their inscrutable control. On the other side, there confronted him the prophetic voice of a religion which decried all insincere ritual ('wickedness and worship,' Isaiah 1:13 ), made straight demands on heart and conscience, and had already vindicated itself in the faith which had wrought the deliverance of 701. It was the fight of the decadent formal against the uprising spiritual; and, as in all such struggles, it would grasp at any expedient save the one plain duty of yielding the heart to repentance and trust.
Meanwhile, the saving intelligence and integrity of Israel, though still the secret of the lowly, was making itself felt in the spiritual movement that Isaiah had labored to promote; through the permeating influence of literature and education the "remnant" was becoming a power to be reckoned with. It is in the nature of things that such an innovating movement must encounter persecution; the significant thing is that already there was so much to persecute. Persecution is as truly the offspring of fear as of fanaticism.
Manasseh's persecution of the prophets and their adherents (tradition has it that the aged Isaiah was one of his victims) was from their point of view an enormity of wickedness. To us the analysis is not quite so simple; it looks also like the antipathy of an inveterate formal order to a vital movement that it cannot understand. The vested interests of almost universal heathenism must needs die hard, and "much innocent blood" was its desperate price before it would yield the upper hand. To say this of Manasseh's murderous zeal is not to justify it; it is merely to concede its sadly mistaken sincerity. It may well have seemed to him that a nation's piety was at stake, as if a world's religious culture were in peril.
4. Return to Better Mind:
The Chronicler, less austere in tone than the earlier historian, preserves for us the story that, like Saul of Tarsus after him, Manasseh got his eyes open to the truer meaning of things; that after his humiliation and repentance in Babylon he "knew that Yahweh he was God" (2 Chronicles 33:10-13 ). He had the opportunity to see a despotic idolatry, its evils with its splendors, in its own home; a first-fruit of the thing that the Hebrew exiles were afterward to realize.
On his return, accordingly, he removed the altars that had encroached upon the sacred precincts of the temple, and restored the ritual of the Yahweh-service, without, however, removing the high places. It would seem to have been merely the concession of Yahweh's right to a specific cult of His own, with perhaps a mitigation of the more offensive extremes of exotic worship, while the toleration of the various fashionable forms remained much as before. But this in itself was something, was much; it gave Yahweh His chance, so to say, among rivals; and the growing spiritual fiber of the heart of Israel could be trusted to do the rest.
It helps us also the better to understand the situation when, only two years after Manasseh's death, Josiah came to the throne, and to understand why he and his people were so ready to accept the religious sanity of the Deuteronomic law. He did not succeed, after all, in committing his nation to the wholesale sway of heathenism. Manasseh's reactionary reign was indeed not without its good fruits; the crisis of religious syncretism and externalism was met and passed.
IBSE (in the public domain) with minor edits.