2 Kings 21 (NIV)✞: Manasseh King of Judah, Amon King of Judah
Over the last few passages I’ve talked a lot about what a faithful king Hezekiah was because the author(s) of Kings were explicit that he was the most faithful king Judah ever had.
His son Manasseh and grandson Amon, however, are the opposite. The author(s) don’t say in explicit words “the least faithful king of Judah,” but even without that exact phrasing it’s clear that Manasseh was (and his son follows in his footsteps). Verse 11✞ tells us that he did more evil than the Amorites who’d been in the land before God’s people took it over – and part of the reason God had his people conquer the land in the first place was because of the evil of the people living there! He goes out of his way to not just abandon his father’s ways but actively undo everything Hezekiah had achieved in bringing the nation of Judah under God’s rule.
I won’t quote it here but verses 1–9✞ are a litany of ways in which Manasseh moved as far as possible away from worship of the LORD, culminating in God prophesying that He is giving up on His people. Well, “giving up” is my phrasing; here’s His:
10 The LORD said through his servants the prophets: 11 “Manasseh king of Judah has committed these detestable sins. He has done more evil than the Amorites who preceded him and has led Judah into sin with his idols. 12 Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I am going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 13 I will stretch out over Jerusalem the measuring line used against Samaria and the plumb line used against the house of Ahab. I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. 14 I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and give them into the hands of enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their enemies; 15 they have done evil in my eyes and have aroused my anger from the day their ancestors came out of Egypt until this day.”
Remember that Samaria was the capital of Israel and the house of Ahab was a line of kings who ruled in Israel for years and years, consistently leading the people away from God. So the message is clear: God will do the same thing to Judah that He did to Israel. And, once again, a particular poetic phrase feels so evocative to me: “I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.” It’s such pure, concise, visual imagery.
Manasseh doesn’t live to see this judgement, however. He dies, and is succeeded by his son Amon. Amon’s story, in verses 19–26✞, is shorter than his father’s:
- He only reigns for two years
- During that time he follows in his father’s ways – that is, he is unfaithful to the LORD and worships other “gods”
- His officials conspire against him and assassinate him. We’re not given a reason why, but the people don’t seem to agree with that reasoning because they turn around and kill the officials and make Amon’s son Josiah king.
Having the reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh back-to-back like this—Judah’s most faithful king followed by their least faithful—immediately makes one think of a rebellious son acting out against his father. It was striking, when Hezekiah took the throne, how much he was able to accomplish – for example, he even removed the high places, something no other king—not even the best of them—had been able to achieve! But when the author(s) list Manasseh’s “accomplishments,” the first thing mentioned is that he rebuilds those high places. It’s like he’s purposely undoing his father’s work. Sadly, Amon goes the other way and does follow his father’s ways. (Is there something to be said here for it being easier to follow a negative example than to follow a positive one? Maybe…)
I don’t think Manasseh being a rebellious son can possibly be the full answer, however. For one thing, he’s only twelve when he becomes king; when someone that young takes the throne he’s not making decisions on his own, he’s being led by advisors.
In fact, I think Manasseh and his advisors were simply men of their time: I’m sure it felt “old fashioned” and “out of date,” to them for the nation to be worshipping just one god. “Just one?!? Why would we limit ourselves to just one god?!? There are so many! Why not hedge our bets? How can we possibly have good crops if we don’t worship the goddess of fertility, or succeed in battle if we don’t worship the god of war, or …” I’m picturing Manasseh’s advisors as cringing every time Hezekiah had reformed something. “Oh no, he’s removing the Asherah poles! Oh no, now he’s removing the high places! Wait, now he’s removing the idols from the Temple – why would he do that?” When Manasseh takes the throne I think they get their chance to undo the things they thought Hezekiah had done wrong.
So I think it’s understandable why they would do this, but does that make it acceptable? Obviously not! When we look at the words of God He is clear: what they have done is “detestable” and “evil” (vv 11✞, 15✞). They were following the practices of people in the nations around them (and the ones that came before them), which is exactly the problem: God had called His people to be different from the nations around them. He had already proven, time and time again, that He is real and the “gods” of the other nations weren’t; His people should have known better.
How should we react?
Once again on my journey through the Old Testament I’m reminded that we’re not intended to read these stories and simply think to ourselves that these were stupid, ignorant people. Which is difficult, because it feels strange to us to be reading about people worshipping “gods!” “They sacrificed children to ‘gods’ hoping that these ‘gods’ would help them have good crops or win wars? How dumb!”
But that’s never the point when reading the Old Testament; the point is that Manasseh and his presumed advisors were people of their times and the way they abandoned the LORD was how people of the time acted – so we should be thinking about how we are people of our time, and considering (and trying to counteract) the ways we abandon God!
- If they were to look forward in time and see how we treat our children, might they not judge us for abandoning them by working such long hours that we have no time to raise them?
- We would say that neglect of children isn’t even comparable to killing them, and they’d probably say that death comes to everyone which isn’t even comparable to life-long mistreatment. One child dying to benefit a whole community, versus entire generations of children who are neglected?
- If they were to look forward in time and see how we ignore the poor, might they not judge us for our cruelty and inhumanity?
- We would say that it’s an insoluble problem, too big to fix, and they might rhetorically ask why that means we feel we don’t have to do anything.
My point isn’t to say that nothing is worse than anything else—I really do think sacrificing children in the fire is worse than mistreating them, as bad as that is—but it’s to say that people of a particular time and age tend to get stuck in the mindset of that time and age, and can’t always see clearly how they’re abandoning God. The people of Manasseh’s time didn’t think it was such a big deal to worship other gods; it’s how the world worked. (How can you have good crops if you don’t worship Asherah???) We don’t think it’s a big deal to ignore the poor; it’s how the world works. (Why should I give my hard-earned money to people who haven’t worked for it – what if they don’t deserve it???)
But, again, because it’s the way the world works it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable! What Manasseh did was “evil” and “detestable,” and what we do can also be “evil” and “detestable.” God’s people should pray that the Spirit will enable us to see the ways we should be moving against the trends of our world because without His help we likely won’t be able to see the problems in the first place.
A Better Example?
I mentioned above that Manasseh’s advisors might have thought it would be “old fashioned” to worship just one god when there are so many out there. I’m guessing that this kind of thinking would be very relevant to people of our day. (Bear with me…)
I’m guessing that people of Manasseh’s day felt their society had progressed by learning about all of the “gods” that exist, and what those “gods” require of humans. “We used to think,” they might have thought, “that there were regional gods who only served particular geographies, but we’ve progressed to a point where we now know that different gods have different abilities, regardless of geography!” The idea that Hezekiah would be clinging to an outdated system of worshipping a single deity showed that he was behind the times.
A 21st Century, city-dwelling Westerner would look at that and say the people of Manasseh’s day were stupid. There aren’t a bunch of gods with different capabilities, and sacrificing children—or anything else!—wouldn’t “appease” a god who didn’t even exist! We know better! In fact, science has proven that there aren’t any gods. The universes is, at the same time, both very, very random and also highly structured along scientific principles. Praying to a “god” doesn’t change any of that.
A Christian would say that, actually, there is a God, He has always existed and always will.
To the people of Manasseh’s day we’d say that Hezekiah had it right and his advisors had it wrong. It’s not a matter of being “modern,” nor of being “narrow-minded,” it’s just that there’s a God—one God—and He had instructions for His people on how to worship Him, which Manasseh was doing his best to follow.
To the people of our own day we’d say that yes, it’s true that the universe is structured along scientific principles and we’ve come a long way in understanding those principles and putting them to use in our own inventions. But science hasn’t proven that there isn’t a God, and just because we don’t always understand His ways it doesn’t mean that the universe is random. (For some reason the book of Job is constantly on my mind; God’s speech in Job 38—41 (NIV)✞ is a good passage to read whenever we start feeling like we can understand everything.)
Hezekiah and others like him might have felt they were fighting an uphill battle in trying to get people to worship the LORD and Christians in the 21st Century might feel we’re fighting an uphill battle in trying to get people to do the same thing.
Unfortunately, Christians are often one step behind the times. 🙂 There was a modern age, with the belief the science holds all of the answers, and for a while we weren’t very good at explaining Christianity to people with a modern outlook, who felt we were just being superstitious.
But we started to get our heads around it and figure out how to articulate Christianity in a way modern people could understand – just in time for the postmodern age to begin, in which people started feeling there’s no such thing as “truth,” and Christianity is all well and good but it’s only one of many ways, and rather narrow-minded of us to say it’s the only one.
I feel we’re starting to get our heads around this and figuring out how to articulate Christianity to postmodern people, but I also feel like the postmodern age may be coming to an end. (Ironically, I think some high profile cases of people shouting about “fake news” and proclaiming they’re only going to accept facts that are acceptable to them is making it more and more obvious that yes, some things are objectively true.) But I don’t know what’s going to come next, or how we’ll articulate God’s ways to a new generation of people.
I’ll give a big caveat here that I know very little about the world of philosophy, so these aren’t educated opinions. But I’ll also say that there’s some good news1 in all of this: not having the right words to articulate the Gospel isn’t an impediment to it spreading. What’s important is that we love God, and out of that love we feel a desire to share His love and Grace with others. When we do that the Spirit can use even the feeblest of words to bring salvation to the lost. The Church grew during the modern age, it grew during the postmodern age, and it still grows today.
I don’t remember any big, articulate speech that brought me to Christianity, and I’m sure that some of the things that were told to me were probably flat-out wrong (given the fact that most of the people giving me the Gospel were teenagers like myself); yet here I am, more than thirty years later, still a Christian, still figuring things out, but saved nonetheless. Whatever was said to me in those days was enough for the Spirit to work with to soften my heart.
- Pun intended? ↩
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