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Manasseh, the King of Judea.


Among many, to the highest degree dramatic personalities, commemorated in the Holy Scripture of the Old Testament, one of the most dramatic is Manasseh — one of the last kings of the southern Hebrew kingdom.

In his time the northern Hebrew kingdom — that of Israel, was already destroyed and conquered by the blood-thirsty Assyrians, Salmanassar and Sargon already conquered Samaria, taking dozens, and maybe hundreds of thousands of Israelites into cruel Assyrian captivity — all the flower of the nation, and moved the pagans from the Aramaic provinces of Assyria onto their place.

But the southern kingdom — the Jewish —was still standing. Politically weak, unstable, trembling before their neighbors, deteriorated, weakened, for many times being unfaithful to their Lord, the Only True God, many times falling into the most disgusting idolatry, and multiply punished for that by God, having lost the greater part of its former possessions, former wealth and glory, in spite of all that it gave exactly in those times the inner fruits of the amazing purity and highness, spiritual fruits, which it had not given even in the best periods of its political blossoming forth. In the streets of Jerusalem was heard the voice of the relative of kings, St. Prophet of God Isaiah; were already heard his almost Evangelical words: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee," "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation."

There was already heard his bright sermon about the coming Savor: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed " (Is. 49:15; 52:7; 53:4).

The father of Manasseh, King Hezekiah, was pious. He reverently listened to his relative (an uncle or a cousin), prophet Isaiah, and the Lord gave to the king bright proves of His power, as in the personal life of the king, the same way in the destiny of his state: having fallen fatally ill and having received through prophet Isaiah the notification that his days were counted, king Hezekiah appealed to God, saying: "Remember now, O LORD, I beseech thee, how I have walked before thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in thy sight.." And he cried bitterly. Prophet Isaiah had not yet left the city, when he heard the Lord’s word: "Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the LORD, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years."

Assyrian king Sennacherib, the ruler of the whole Middle East starting with Caucasus till Egypt and from the Mediterranean sea till India, intrudes into Judea and surrounds Jerusalem, in order to conquer and destroy it, as there was destroyed the northern Jewish capital Samaria and other Israel cities. But Hezekiah prays:

"O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the God, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth: thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thine ear, O LORD, and hear; open thine eyes, O LORD, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. Incline thine ear, O LORD, and hear; open thine eyes, O LORD, and see: and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent to reproach the living God. And have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them. Now therefore, O LORD our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the LORD, even thou only."

And the Lord sends prophet Isaiah to tell the king:

"Therefore thus saith the LORD concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it. By the way that he came, by the same shall he return, and shall not come into this city, saith the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it for mine own sake, and for my servant David's sake."

"Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned" (Is. 37:33-37).

And Hezekiah, who started his rule in the political restraint and poverty, ends it in wealth and glory, both spiritual and terrestrial.

"And Hezekiah had exceeding much riches and honor: and he made himself treasuries for silver, and for gold, and for precious stones, and for spices, and for shields, and for all manner of pleasant jewels. Storehouses also for the increase of corn, and wine, and oil; and stalls for all manner of beasts, and cotes for flocks. Moreover he provided him cities, and possessions of flocks and herds in abundance: for God had given him substance very much." (2 Kings 32:27).

 

Under such impressions, such influences passed the early youth of future king Manasseh, the youngest and most loved son of King Hezekiah, the child of his elderly years. It seemed, one could have a hope that Manasseh — the son of the pious father — would inherit his piety and continue the business of his father. But that did not happen. The mother of Manasseh was the Phoenician princess Hephzibah, what meant "in her is my delight." So with love she was called by her husband, king Hezekiah, when he in his old age, after God had heard his prayers and gave him 15 years of life more, married a young, and one might think, beautiful Phoenician.

The influence of the mother-Phoenician upon Manasseh was extremely pernicious. "Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem. And his mother's name was Hephzibah. And he did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, after the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out before the children of Israel. For he built up again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made a grove, as did Ahab king of Israel; And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the LORD."

The meaning of these deeds of Manasseh was intensified by the fact that the temple of God in Jerusalem was at those times the only temple of True God in the whole world, in the time when the whole earth was filled with the heathen temples. So, Manasseh did not spare the unique temple of God, but filled it with Phoenician abominations. The special indignation of the Jews, who stayed faithful to God, was caused, because Manasseh "set a graven image of the grove that he had made in the house" (4 Kings 21:7). Serving to Astarte and its idols (fallos) was connected with the cultural corruption, cult prostitution of boys and girls.

"And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom" (2 Kings 33:6). About that in several centuries with indignation remembers holy prophet Jeremiah: "They have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire" (Jer.7:30 and 32:34). The tophet — is a Phoenician word, which means the stone platform, on which stood the idol of Moloch, copper or bronze, inside of which there was set a fire, and when the idol got very hot, on his stretched hands were put the children, brought as a sacrifice to Moloch, and were burnt alive. This terrible custom was widely spread in all Phoenician and Punic cities. About Carthage the Roman writers reported that there in the festive days hundreds of children were sacrificed to Moloch and goddess Tanit, both the offspring of the Punic families, and the children of the prisoners of war).

"Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (4 Kings 21:16).

He ordered to execute the elderly relative of his, the spiritual leader of his father, great prophet Isaiah. The ancient targums, and St. Justin the Philosopher ("Against Tyron," p.120) tell that demonstrating the acute cruelty, Manasseh ordered to saw the prophet in halves with a wooden saw.

"Because Manasseh king of Judah hath done these abominations, and hath done wickedly above all that the Amorites did, which were before him, and hath made Judah also to sin with his idols" (4 Kings 21:11).

Surely, the cruelties and abominations in the beginning of Manasseh’s rule, until he still was an adolescent, we can assign to his mother-Phoenician and her servants. But the horror and abomination of the acts of Manasseh lasted for 45 years, when his mother was already dead. In these abominations passed his youth and mature life, and his old age approached.

Could there be any hope for the change and moral revival of such a man? He sinned out of ignorance: he was a son of the righteous king, he heard almost the whole Evangelic sermon of St. Prophet Isaiah, his relative. And he trampled on everything, he bathed everything in blood and dirty, disgusting impurities. Can such a man repent? For there must be a limit even for the Divine patience. But there is no limit for the Divine forgiveness. And Manasseh repented.

It is hard to think about it without inner spiritual anxiety. In our terrible time, which had seen the blood of the righteous, lavishly shed in the streets of settlements and our cities, and seeing now in every step of the way abominations, which exceed those Phoenician ones, we, the children and descendants of the righteous fathers and great grandfathers, who had violated their faith, we by all means need to know, that there is no limit for the Divine forgiveness, that for no one, even for us, are shut the gates of repentance.

In 647 BC Shamash-shum-ukin, the brother of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who was to inherit the rule of Babylon, raised a rebellion against his brother, the king, and invited Manasseh, a semi-vassal in the respect of Assyria king, to join Babylon as an ally against Assyria. In his turn, Manasseh had to start the negotiations with the equal semi-vassal kings of the Phoenician cities-states, attracting them into the alliance with Shamash-shum-ukin. Manasseh agreed but acted indecisively. Meanwhile, Ashurbanipal decisively intruded into Babylon, routed his rebellious brother, and the latter, being afraid to find himself in the arms of his enraged and famous for his cruelty brother, burnt his palace and himself in it. Ashurbanipal demanded Manasseh to arrive to him into Babylon and report back about his actions.

The representatives of the Assyrian king arrived to Jerusalem. The moment was decisive and ominous. The king of Assyria, in the head of his triumphant, victory-bearing, inspired by the success troops, stayed in Babylonia, in several days of walk from Judea. If Manasseh does not show submissiveness, Ashurbanipal, intruding into Judea, would captivate the country and Jerusalem. It was hard to believe that the Lord would repeat a miracle, which He revealed to Hezekiah, for Manasseh. Even if Manasseh would show submissiveness, then maybe this would not happen to his country, but personally for him there was almost no hope. There Manasseh for the first time revealed some gleams of kindness and courage: being a 59-year-old man, facing the old age, he agrees to go to the king of Assyria without resistance.

The messengers of the Assyrian king did not stand on ceremony with him. They "took Manasseh among the thorns, and bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon" (2 Kings 33:11).

About this event tell the Assyrian chronicles. Mentioning the kings, defeated by Ashurbanipal, they name "Manasseh, the king of Yagudu" (Keilinschriftliche Bibliothek, Schrader II. 149,239).

In this captivity Manasseh spent several years, how many exactly, we do not know, but surely not less than 5.

The Holy Bible narrates: "And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, And prayed unto him: and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom" (2 Kings 33:12 and 13).

The prayer, composed by him in captivity, reached us, but not in the Hebrew original, which was lost, but in the ancient Greek translation, though in the Hebrew variant of the Holy Scripture there is some mention about it (2 Kings 33:19).

It is astounding in its power. Let us cite it in Russian, church-Slavonic variants, which literally reproduce the Greek text:

 

O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is immeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot life up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquities. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

From many historical sources, narrating about those times, we know about the dozens and hundreds of prisoners, who suffered in the cruelest Assyrian bondage. Rarely any nation even in the heathen antiquity had such insatiable thirst for tortures and murders. "It is in his heart to destroy and cut off nations not a few" — says about Assyria prophet Isaiah. He calls the Assyrians "a fierce people." And St. Prophet Nahum calls the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, "the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery."

Many of the proud and cruel statements of the Assyrian kings about how many countries they ruined, how many cities they destroyed, how many people they killed, made blind, have driven into the bondage. They boast with their cruelty, mercilessness, ruthlessness. By these boastful monuments are filled the contemporary museums and collections of historic sights.

Meanwhile, the voice of their victims, those whom they captivated and tortured, is almost unheard of, muffled by the multitude of the past centuries, and also by the fact that probably no one came out of the Assyrian bondage alive, to tell about one’s own sufferings, and those of the co-prisoners, with only one exception: with the exception of the given here prayer of king Manasseh. Therefore we can say that in it he speaks not only for himself but for the hundreds of thousands of those, who, like him, were suffering in terrible Assyrian prisons. More than that, he speaks on the behalf of the millions of other prisoners, including the contemporary ones.

When he says: "I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot life up mine head, neither have any release" —he does not speak figuratively. He speaks of his real physical state, when he could not lift his head, which was bound by iron chains and bands. On the contrary, he could only say figuratively that he "bows the knee of his heart," — he could not kneel physically to pray at that time.

For us, as for all the rest of the readers of his astounding prayer, in these definite images is hidden the important and profound figural meaning, for the sin bounds and ties the man not less severely than the Assyrian prison-guards.

Returning to Jerusalem, Manasseh tried as much as possible to efface the harm, caused by him. "Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God…And he took away the strange gods, and the idol out of the house of the LORD, and all the altars that he had built in the mount of the house of the LORD, and in Jerusalem, and cast them out of the city…And he repaired the altar of the LORD, and sacrificed thereon peace offerings and thank offerings, and commanded Judah to serve the LORD God of Israel" (2 Kings 33:13-16).

It is hard to say why the Assyrians took mercy on him, against their customs. Maybe, having not conquered Judea, they thought it to be wiser to put on the Jerusalem throne the man, who saw their power and was amazed by their cruel authority. We can only guess that it was on the Divine will that this heavily sinned and ardently repented king was let out of these terrible bounds, so that he would tell the world about his experience and would pass his fiery prayer to all the repenting generations, showing by his example the necessary for all people truth, that there is no limit for the Divine All-Forgiveness, and the gates of repentance are shut for no one.

Entered into the order of the Great Compline and placed in all the Christian book of Hours, read in the Orthodox churches daily in the time of Great Lent and many times in the rest of the year, having found a response thanks to that in the hundreds of millions of hearts, this prayer of Manasseh, the king of Judea, composed in the stinking darkness of the Assyrian prison, sounds, of course, infinitely louder than all those boastful monuments of the Assyrian rulers, superficially recalled of just for some minutes by the visitors of museums and the compilers of historical collections, testifying by it that the power of God is fulfilled in infirmity since the ancient years till nowadays.

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