Illogical, Unexplainable Grace

By: Larry Libby

Imagine a courtroom, somewhere in a stormy sky. The clouds are blue-black, like a livid bruise. Wind seethes and surges. Wrath, like silent thunder, hangs in the air.

One voice, at once a part of the storm and yet rising above it, speaks. The defendant will rise for the reading of the charges. A cowering, disheveled man, garbed in prison gray, his arms and legs shackled, pulls himself painfully to his feet. His hair and beard, matted and thatched with gray, stream in the wind. His middle-aged face sags, dark eyes alight with terror.

Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, King of Judah, you are charged with the following crimes against the Lord your God and against your fellow human beings….

The reading of charges, covering nearly 55 years. rolls on and on and on, the prisoner’s face alternately plunged into darkness and illuminated by flashes of lightning.

Finally, the reading concludes, like thunder receding into the mountains. After a pause, the voice speaks again.

How do you plead?

The prisoner’s lips move, but no voice emerges. Silence reigns in the storm’s eye. And then a thin, choking cry, as though torn from the prisoner’s throat, flies across the courtroom.

“Guilty! I’m guilty, Your Honor.”

Silence weighs again on the prisoner’s shoulders, pressing him down.

“Your Honor . . . Your Honor . . . Lord . . . ” the words come out in a sob. “Lord, I plead mercy.”

In this courtroom, there is no need for recess or jury deliberations or consultation in the judge’s chambers. This judge requires no time at all to arrive at a decision.

The defendant will rise and face the bench for the reading of the verdict….

THE LIST OF CRIMES

Judah hadn’t seen a godly, on-fire king like Hezekiah since … well, David. The comparison was apt, and the chronicler of Kings didn’t miss the opportunity to codify it on the royal scrolls. Never mind that 12
generations stretched between Hezekiah and his ancestor, the sweet psalmist of Israel. As far as the inspired historian was concerned, David was Hezekiah’s dad. And the writer could hardly contain his
enthusiasm.

[Hezekiah] did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles…. 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. II Kings 18:3-6.

When the good king finally died, his young son Manasseh stepped into his father’s place-but not into his father’s footsteps. Manasseh’s first order of business was to reverse everything Hezekiah had accomplished in 29 years of righteous rule. And he went at it with a cold, brutal efficiency.

Had his father removed the idolatrous high places ringing the city? Fine. Manasseh would locate every one of the old sites and rebuild them all. Had the previous administration mowed down the licentious
Asherah poles? No problem. Manasseh would set an army of artisans to work carving a forest of new ones.

Had Hezekiah lovingly purified the Temple of Yahweh? Very well. Manasseh would haul one of the freshly varnished Asherah poles-linked with the worship of sex and thought by some scholars to be huge phallic
symbols-into the very courts of the Temple, mere feet away from the Presence in the Holy of Holies.

Was Hezekiah on record for a wholehearted national revival of Yahweh worship? Perhaps so. But Manasseh would make “religious tolerance and diversity” the order of the day.

He also erected altars to the Baals…. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshipped them…. In both courts of the temple

of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. II Chron. 33:3-5.

Let’s see … Baal, Asherah, starry hosts? Was anyone left out of the new pantheon? Molech.

Manasseh directed the massive idol to be set up in the Valley of Ben Himmon, just outside Jerusalem. Rabbinic writers describe a towering, hollow, bronze or iron statue, human in form but with an ox’s head.
The pit below the idol allowed for enormous fires, turning Molech into a searing furnace.

When the metal was glowing cherry-red and the chants and drumbeats reached a savage crescendo, worshipers would grasp their babies, toddlers, and young children and pitch them bodily into the hollow
center of the idol, burning them alive.

The frenzied pounding of ceremonial drums would almost (but not quite) drown out the children’s dying screams.

In recent years, archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of urns containing the bones of children, ranging in age from four to twelve, sacrificed in this manner to the appalling demon-god of the Ammonites.
Manasseh thought it such a progressive idea he took his own wide-eyed little boys with him to the festivities in Ben Himmon … and came home alone.

Scripture goes on to record that the king “practiced sorcery and divination, and consulted mediums and spiritists” (2 K. 21:6). In royal chambers where his father had once consulted Isaiah and other
prophets of the Lord, Manasseh held council with witches, warlocks, mediums, and wizards. Demons were welcome guests in the hallways, dungeons, and banquet rooms of the king’s palace-and most likely felt
right at home.

 

TRUE WORSHIPERS

Not everyone, however, went along with the new regime. There were still worshippers and prophets of the One True God who would not bow the knee to Baal. There were still brave men and women willing to stand fast against the black tide sweeping through the land of Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and David. But not for long.

The king sent out his SS troopers, who were as coolly proficient at the craft of killing as their leader. Scripture says that Manasseh “also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end”
(2 K. 21:16). Reliable tradition tells us that Manasseh found the prophet Isaiah hiding in a hollow tree, and directed his soldiers to saw both tree and prophet in two.

Once he’d stamped out worship of the Lord, Manasseh found ample room to pursue his peculiar hobbies. Murder, gross sexual perversions, and child sacrifice became national pastimes for Judah, with their king an ever-eager cheerleader. Darkness descended deeper and deeper over the city of David. Judah approached the line of no return, but as 2 Chron. 33: 10 intimates, she laughed in God’s face and danced right over the edge. And the Lord grieved.

If Manasseh’s wholesale abandonment of the God of his fathers was meant to score political correctness points with his overlords in Assyria, he was cruelly deceived. Scripture describes the end-game for Hezekiahs monstrous son: “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”(2 Chron. 33: 11)

 

UNEXPLAINABLE GRACE

Yes! Hook him! Bind him! Take him! If Manasseh’s life had been a movie, this would have been the moment for people in the theater to erupt in spontaneous cheers and applause.

Most of us, if we were honest, would be inclined to close the Bible at that point with a surge (or at least a twinge) of satisfied indignation. We like to see punks and pushers get thrown in the slammer. We enjoy seeing state patrol cars nail idiots who pass on curves and run red lights. We applaud the idea of rapists, child pornographers, and double-murderers being sent up for hard time-or sent packing into eternity. We feet warm all over when bully-boy dictators get knocked off their little pedestals, and we don’t much care where they land.

And if ever anyone had painted a divine target on his head (in neon red), it was Manasseh. Not satisfied to match the debauchery of the dispossessed Canaanites, he one-upped them in every category of perversions. Not content to take his own joyride through hell, he drug a whole nation with him. And seemingly loved every minute of it. If I could have been God for a day, I’d have been well content to let this guy rot in his bronze shackles, deep in that maximum security ward. No parole. No work-release. No college credit by
correspondence. No conjugal visits on weekends. And good riddance.

But I’m not God. God is God. And something profoundly disturbing happened one dark night in Manasseh’s miserable little cell. He repented. “In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God
and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (2 Chron. 33:12).

Ah, that was bad enough. But it gets worse. God heard him, broke him out of that foreign jail, brought him home, and put him back on his throne. Here’s how the biblical writer sets down the account: “And
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” (2 Chron. 33:13). Can you top that? It would be like bringing Hitler out of that bunker in Berlin and making him Chancellor of Germany. Or calling Stalin up  from Hades and naming him Secretary General of the United Nations. Or appointing Sadaam Hussein as your church’s next AWANA leader.

Nevertheless, God did it, and He never bothered to consult me. Manasseh was restored to the throne of David, and allowed to finish his reign with dignity and honor.

If we didn’t know God better, we might imagine that Manasseh had somehow pulled the wool over His eyes. That the old reprobate had bottomed out, sobered up, and shrewdly decided to back the winning
ticket.

But no. Manasseh’s repentance was no cynical ploy or slick political maneuver. It was real. Something clicked in the man’s soul. The tears were hot and genuine. The whispered confession rang true. The
tentative hand reaching toward heaven trembled with longing-and the Almighty God of the universe ran to embrace him.

When Scripture says Manasseh “sought the favor” of the Lord, one commentator renders the literal Hebrew: he “stroked or smoothed the face” of the Lord. He touched God’s face. And instead of the Lord
recoiling in understandable disgust and revulsion, He let His heart be moved.

It would have been mercy-better than Manasseh deserved-if God had allowed him to live out his days in the dungeon. After all, the New Testament’s King Herod was “eaten by worms” and died in writhing agony
for simply neglecting to praise God. Not a wise method of operation, granted, but what was that alongside Manasseh’s bloody resume?

 

BEYOND MERCY

It would have been mercy if Manasseh had been allowed to return home to the countryside of Judah as a lowly shepherd.

It would have been mercy if he had been given permission to return to the royal city as a beggar.

It would have been mercy if he had actually been permitted back into the palace as a stable hand or latrine attendant.

But God went beyond mercy. Something unbelievably powerful happened in that reeking Babylonian dungeon. Something mightier than the splitting of atoms inside the reactor of a nuclear power plant.

Manasseh tapped into a shining, shoreless reservoir, vast beyond reckoning, deep beyond knowing. The grace of God.

Mercy means he didn’t receive the punishment he so richly deserved. Grace means he did receive the favor, kindness, and brimming-over-blessing he by no means deserved!

How did he respond? Give Manasseh credit, the chastened king did put some feet to his repentance, initiating reforms reminiscent of his father’s. It may have been too little too late to save the nation from
impending judgment, but Hezekiah’s son wrapped up his career as the Lord’s man, the servant of the living God.

Still, we wonder. Was justice done here? It’s all very well for Manasseh to get back his throne and his gold chariot and his designer robes, but what about his victims? What about the voices of those little ones, dying so cruelly in the black maw of a idol? What about the bold, clear-eye prophets whose blood ran along the gutters of Jerusalem for simply declaring the word of the Lord? What about the desolate widows and grieving parents and abandoned orphans? Didn’t they rate a voice in the decision to acquit this mass-murderer? Was it right for Manasseh to get early parole? Was it just for him to slip on the old crown and the sapphire slippers and shuffle through his sunset years in comfort and safety? Shouldn’t God have required restitution? In fact, He did.

A heavy price was required, and a heavy price was paid. Heavy beyond comprehension.

 

ANOTHER SACRIFICE

A few short miles from the Valley of Ben Himmon, where Manasseh sacrificed his own sons in the fire, another innocent was sacrificed. Another son was forsaken by his father and consigned to death. Another
son felt white-hot fire consume him, and screamed in agony. Another son writhed and died while death-hardened crowds mocked and jeered. But this Son went willingly.

This Son’s death was not to appease the blood-lust of a demon-god, but to pay the price for man’s reconciliation to a holy God. And part of the tab that dark Friday on a little hill called Calvary was run up by a king named Manasseh.

But it wasn’t the whole tab. I have my own charges on that bill. I can’t even tell you how many. I added a couple more just yesterday. Someone paid in full, and it wasn’t me. Someone picked up a tab light-
years beyond my credit limit. That’s mercy. As a matter of fact, the English word “mercy” comes from a Latin root that means “price paid.” At some point, in my own dungeon, when I was in distress, I looked up
to a God I hardly knew, cried out … and fell headlong into a golden ocean of mercy. And that would have been wonder enough.

To be forgiven is wonder enough. To be allowed to live out my days under the sun is wonder enough. To be granted a place in heaven is a wonder of wonders. Like the prodigal son, I would have been content to
enter my Father’s house as a hired hand. Just hand me a broom and let me sweep those golden sidewalks!

But this is a God who goes beyond mercy. He made me a son. Could it be? A brother to the Morning Star. An heir of God, and a fellow heir with the Son of God Himself. And He has filled my earthly sojourn with
overflowing provision, daily cleansing, a vast storehouse of wisdom in His Word, the smile of His favor, the touch of His hand, and the endless delight of His companionship. Surely that’s something more than mercy.

That’s grace.

THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED IN THE DISCIPLESHIP JOURNAL, ISSUE  NINETY-TWO 1996, BY LARRY LIBBY, PP. 41-44. THIS MATERIAL MAY BE USED FOR STUDY AND RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.

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