It was New Year’s Day, 1929. The University of California at Berkeley was playing Georgia Tech in the Rose Bowl. Roy Riegels, a Cal defensive back recovered a Georgia Tech fumble, ran laterally across the field, turned, and then scampered 65 yards in the wrong direction—straight toward Cal’s goal line. One of his own players tackled Riegels just before he would have scored for Georgia Tech. On the next play, Georgia Tech blocked the punt and scored.
From that day on, Riegels was saddled with the infamous name, “Wrong-way Riegels.” For years afterward whenever he was introduced, people would exclaim, “Oh, yeah. I know who you are! You’re the guy who ran the wrong way in the Rose Bowl!”
It may be that our failures are not as conspicuous as Riegels’ was, but we have our own alternate routes and wrongway runs. And we have the memories that accompany them—recollections that rise up to taunt us and haunt us at 3 o’clock in the morning. There’s so much of our past we wish we could undo or redo— so much we wish we could forget. If only we could begin again. Louisa Fletcher Tarkington wrote for all of us when she mused:
I wish that there were
some wonderful place
called the Land of
Where all our mistakes,
and all our heartaches,
and all of our poor
could be dropped like a
shabby old coat at the door,
and never be put on again.
There is such a place. It is found in the grace of God—a grace that not only completely forgives our past and puts it away, but uses it to make us better than ever before. “Even from sin,” Augustine said, “God can draw good.”
MANASSEH’S GODLY HERITAGE
Manasseh was the son of Hezekiah, one of the few kings of Judah who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Ki. 18:3). Israel’s historian tells us:
[Hezekiah] removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow Him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses (2 Ki. 18:4-6).
Hezekiah was responsible for a historic spiritual revival that rejuvenated Judah. He did away with the idols that his father, Ahaz, had worshiped, and he delivered his people from apostasy. He was helped greatly in his work of reformation by the prophetic ministries of Isaiah and Micah.
Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ascended to the throne when he was 12 years old and reigned for 10 years as coregent with his father. When he was 22, his father died and the young king took over the reins of government. He reigned 55 years—from 697 to 642 BC—the longest rule in the history of both Judah and Israel.
Manasseh was blessed with a godly father. He lived through a time of spiritual vitality and prosperity. He was tutored by the prophets Isaiah and Micah. And he saw the Lord miraculously deliver Jerusalem while under siege by the Assyrians (2 Ki. 19:35). Yet, he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.
MANASSEH’S FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP
Scripture tells us that Manasseh “did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites” (2 Ki. 21:2).
The “nations” of whom the author writes were the depraved and disgusting Canaanites. Manasseh outdid them in his insane frenzy to break every rule— a madness spelled out in the following verses:
He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put My Name.” In both courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking Him to anger. He took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple . . . . Manasseh led [Israel] astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites (2 Ki. 21:3-7,9).
Manasseh’s sins are recited here in an ascending order of deviance. First he “rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed.” Ahaz, Manasseh’s grandfather, had established “high places”—groves on the top of hills where the Asherah was worshiped. Hezekiah had torn them down (2 Ki. 18:4). Manasseh built them up again.
Then Manasseh “erected altars to Baal,” the chief Canaanite deity, and made an Asherah pole as Ahab and Jezebel, Israel’s diabolical duo, had done (1 Ki. 16:33). The Asherah were images of a female deity, the consort of Baal, who represented the Canaanite goddess of sex and fertility. The pillars erected in her honor were evidently some sort of phallic symbols.
Manasseh worshiped the hosts of heaven and served them. He practiced astrology, giving his devotion to the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars (see also Jer. 8:2; 19:13). He built altars to astral deities in the temple in Jerusalem, where God had said, “I will put My Name.”
He made his sons pass through the fire—child sacrifice. According to the chronicler, “He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.” He also “practiced sorcery, divination, and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists” (2 Chr. 33:6). The Hebrew text suggests that he did more than consult them, he “appointed” them. In other words, he gave them court appointments and put them in his cabinet.
If this were not enough, this debauched monarch then “took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple.” He took the aforementioned pornographic post, dedicated to everything ugly and obscene, and set it up in the Holy of Holies in the Lord’s temple.
Nowhere is there the slightest hint of the worship of Yahweh. Manasseh selected his pantheon from the cultures surrounding Israel—from the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Phoenicians —but there is not one reference to the God who had revealed Himself to Israel.
The historian concluded, “Manasseh led [Israel] astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites” (2 Ki. 21:9).
Understand what’s being said here: Manasseh alone bore the responsibility for bringing an entire nation down. What a legacy to leave behind!
And that’s not all. There is a footnote that is terrible in its implications:
Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end—besides the sin that he had caused Judah to commit, so that they did evil in the eyes of the Lord (2 Ki. 21:16).
Manasseh silenced the prophets with terrifying fury. Josephus, the Jewish historian, reports that Manasseh “slew all the righteous men that were among the Hebrews, nor would he spare the prophets, for he every day slew some of them until Jerusalem was overflown with blood.”
There is a longstanding Jewish tradition reported in the Talmud that Manasseh put his old teacher, Isaiah, in a log and sawed it in two. This is almost certainly the background of the statement in the book of Hebrews that at least one of God’s heroes was “sawn in two” (Heb. 11:37).
THE REST OF THE STORY
As for the other events of Manasseh’s reign, and all he did, including the sin he committed, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah? Manasseh rested with his fathers and was buried in his palace garden, the garden of Uzza. And Amon his son succeeded him as king (2 Ki. 21:17-18).
Here is an odd thing: Manasseh thumbed his nose at God for 55 years, indulged himself in every lustful passion, corrupted and ruined an entire nation, and God sat on His hands.
Or did He?
Normally, we see only one side of God—His longsuffering patience: “He longs to be gracious” (Isa. 30:18). But there is another side: His “strange work” of judgment.
The whole story is not told in the books of Kings. The purpose of 1 and 2 Kings is to trace the decline of Israel and Judah to the Babylonian exile and to supply the reasons for that exile. The stories are necessarily abridged. The writer dwells only on those facts that contribute to his theme. The account of Manasseh’s reign is resumed and supplemented in 2 Chronicles 33. The purpose of the chronicler was different. His theme was the restoration of the Davidic throne. For this purpose he selected events that contributed to that motif and included a number of facts that are omitted in Kings.
The first nine verses of 2 Chronicles 33 are basically a rewrite of 2 Kings 21:1-9 with a few minor changes. Then a new story emerges:
The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they paid no attention (2 Chr. 33:10).
God’s judgment did not fall precipitously. It never does. Theologian John Piper says, “[God’s] anger must be released by a stiff safety lock, but His mercy has a hair trigger.” God loves us too much to let us go. He pursues us—even into our sin and guilt—and pleads with us to turn back.
An old Turkish proverb says that God has “feet of wool and hands of steel.” We may not hear Him coming, but when He gets His hands on us we cannot wriggle away. The flip side of the promise “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Josh. 1:5) is the pledge that He will never leave us alone. He will hound us, badger us, bother us, pester us, and heckle us until we give in.
God has many ways to deliver us from sin: sometimes by a drawing we feel in our souls; sometimes by a word dropped by a friend; sometimes by an incident related; or sometimes by a book, a sermon, a chance meeting. In these ways God appeals to us to come back to Him.
I remember a student I met at Stanford University years ago. He was sitting on a bench in front of Memorial Church reading a Stanford Daily. I sat down next to him, and we began to talk. The conversation went well until it turned to the subject of his relationship with God.
He leaped to his feet with a curse and stalked away. Then he stopped and turned around. “Forgive me,” he said. “I was raised in a Christian home. My parents are Presbyterian missionaries in Taiwan, but I’ve been running away from God all my life. Yet wherever I go someone wants to talk to me about God.”
More than anything, God wants us to give in to His love. “Love surrounds us,” George MacDonald said, “seeking the smallest crack by which it may enter in.” God waits tirelessly and loves relentlessly. But if we will not have Him, He will let us have our way and let us reap the consequences of our resistance. But even this is for our good. It is the redemptive judgment of God. God knows that when the cold wind blows it may turn our head around.
So the Lord brought against them the army commanders of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon. In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to Him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so He brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God (2 Chr. 33:11-12).
The Assyrian king mentioned here was probably Esarhaddon, the son of Sennacherib. Esarhaddon put a ring in Manasseh’s nose, manacles on his hands and feet, and marched him off to Babylon, where for 12 years he languished in a dungeon. A ring in the nose was the Assyrian way of humiliating conquered kings, a custom clearly illustrated on Assyrian artifacts. What utter humiliation! What awful ruin! But all to bring Manasseh home to God.
THE WAY BACK
Recovery begins with shame. MacDonald wrote, “To be ashamed is a holy and blessed thing. Shame is shame only to those who want to appear, not those who want to be. Shame is shame only to those who want to pass their examination, not to those who would get to the heart of things. . . . To be humbly ashamed is to be plunged in the cleansing bath of truth.” Humility and contrition are the keys to the heart of God. Those are the keys Manasseh used.
In his distress he sought the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers (2 Chr. 33:12).
Josephus said that Manasseh “esteemed himself to be the cause of it all.” He accepted full responsibility for what he had done—no denial, no excuses, no justification, no blame-shifting, no special pleading. Then Manasseh “humbled himself greatly.”
Our tendency to make excuses for ourselves comes from thinking that God will never take us back unless we can minimize or explain away our wrongdoing. But, as C. S. Lewis observed, “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, that sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the one who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness; and that we can always have from [God].”
Manasseh was not forsaken. Despite his monstrous wickedness, the Lord was still Manasseh’s God. Although anger swept across God’s face, He never turned away His eyes.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom laments, “I’s wicked I is— mighty wicked. Anyhow I can’t help it!” Sin is our nature. It’s how we make our way through life—and we can’t help it. Yet our repeated failures do not change God’s fundamental disposition toward us. If it’s our nature to sin, it’s His nature to save. Without that understanding we could never survive our sin. It would only terrorize us and drive us away from God.
We’d have grounds for that terror if God had chosen us in the beginning because we were so wonderful. But since our original acceptance did not depend on anything in us, it cannot be undone by anything in us now. Nothing in us deserved His favor before our conversion; nothing in us merits its continuation.
God saved us because He determined to do so. He created us for Himself, and without that fellowship His heart aches in loneliness. That’s why Christ suffered for us—“the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He will never give up. He loves us too much to give up. “He who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion” (Phil. 1:6).
We must accept God’s full and free forgiveness, and then forget ourselves. That we are sinners is undeniably true. That we are forgiven sinners is undeniable as well. We must not dwell on our sinfulness. God’s heart is open to us. We must take what forgiveness we need and get on with life.
There is more. God not only forgives our sin, He uses it to make us better than ever before. Consider Manasseh. He was released from prison after 12 years and restored to his throne. Then he set out to strengthen his defenses:
When [Manasseh] prayed to Him, the Lord was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so He brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord is God. Afterward he rebuilt the outer wall of the City of David, west of the Gihon spring in the valley, as far as the entrance of the Fish Gate and encircling the hill of Ophel; he also made it much higher. He stationed military commanders in all the fortified cities in Judah. He got rid of the foreign gods and removed the image from the temple of the Lord, as well as all the altars he had built on the temple hill and in Jerusalem; and he threw them out of the city. Then he restored the altar of the Lord and sacrificed fellowship offerings and thank offerings on it, and told Judah to serve the Lord, the God of Israel (2 Chr. 33:13-16).
Manasseh destroyed his pagan gods and removed the terrible idol he had set up in the house of the Lord. He hated his idols with as much fervor as he had loved them before.
He repaired the altar of the Lord, which he had broken down. He sacrificed on it peace offerings and thank offerings to praise God for His deliverance. He used his power now to reform his people rather than to corrupt them.
This is what John the Baptist described as “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8). True repentance involves a fundamental change in our outlook and attitude. It is not mere sorrow over sin. It is a radical reversal of our thinking. It will manifest itself in a determined effort to strengthen ourselves in those areas where we are weak and where we have fallen before. There will be a fierce determination to guard ourselves against sin.
True repentance will mean staying away from the company of a man or woman whose influence corrupts us. It will mean staying out of situations in which we’re inclined to stumble and fall. It will mean staying away from polluting influences in movies, books, magazines, and cyberspace. It will mean finding another person to hold us accountable when we travel, someone who will keep us honest when we’re away from home. Whatever it means, our waywardness will have made us stronger and better than ever before. Even from our sin God can draw good.
God gave Manasseh 20 more years of rule. He got a fresh and better start, and he made the most of it. He became one of the greatest kings of Judah, and for 22 years was a glorious example to Israel of God’s unimaginable grace. God will do the same for you.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Manasseh’s name is taken from a Hebrew verb that means “to forget.” That’s the word God writes over Manasseh’s past and ours— forgotten. “I will forgive [your] wickedness and will remember [your] sins no more” (Jer. 31:34). Oswald Chambers says, “God forgets away our sins.”
Jeffrey Dahmer comes to mind when sin of unforgivable proportion is considered. Dahmer confessed to murdering 17 young men, dismembering some, having sex with their corpses, and eating parts of their bodies.
The media exposure surrounding his crimes turned Dahmer into a national symbol of evil. After his bloody death at the Columbia Correctional Center in Wisconsin, everyone was convinced that he was going straight to hell. One columnist uttered a fervent plea to the powers of darkness: “Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.”
But as it turned out, Dahmer had begun attending Bible studies in prison. He subsequently made a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. He found forgiveness and peace. He was calm about his fate, even after an inmate attempted to slit his throat during a chapel service. If he was sincere, and it appears that he was, we will see him one day in heaven.
Odd, isn’t it? But such is the grace of God.
During halftime of that Rose Bowl game in 1929, Riegels hid in a corner of the UCLA locker room with a towel over his head. His coach, Nibbs Price, said nothing to him and very little to the team.
Three minutes before the second half he said quietly, “The team that started the first half will start the second half.” Riegels called out, “I can’t, coach; I can’t go back in. I’ve humiliated the team, the school, myself. I can’t go back in.” “Get back in the game, Riegels,” Price replied. “It’s only half over.”
What a coach! What a God!