I’m kind of a history nerd. I particularly enjoy studying the life of John Newton. Reading his diaries and letters, I am often disappointed by missing information. Newton will write something like “went to visit Mrs. A.” or “found a lot of help in RB’s conversation” This is frustrating because it’s often difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to know the exact reference. Sometimes there are important details or mentions of various books, letters or people that have been lost to us. But it’s not just Newton’s writings that have these “missing pieces”, there are also some of these places in the scriptures.
Now, to be clear, these pieces aren’t actually missing. We have in the Word of God exactly what he wanted to give us. But we don’t have much information about Jesus’ childhood. We do not know this third letter that Paul mentioned to the Corinthians. And neither do we know the details of a prayer that King Manasseh did in 2 Chronicles 33:19. But those facts haven’t stopped some from filling in the blanks and providing their own writing. It is because of this that we have what is called the Prayer of Manasseh, fifteen verses that are not found in most Bibles. But who was Manasseh and what was this prayer?
Who was Manasseh?
Manasseh was one of the wickedest kings in all of Israel’s history, if not the wickedest. King Manasseh should not be confused with Joseph’s firstborn son (Genesis 41:51). This Manasseh is often associated with Ephraim as those sons of Joseph who are the chiefs of the tribes of Jacob. The Manasseh who would be king is a descendant of King David, the eldest son of Hezekiah. Manasseh reigned for 55 years, beginning as co-regent with Hezekiah and remaining king until his death in 643/42 BC.
A little revival of the Israelite religion took place during the reign of Hezekiah. But when the throne became the sole possession of Manasseh, he reversed his father’s policy. He restored idol worship and restored the polytheistic worship of the Jewish people. Baal worship was rampant during his reign. But it was his devotion to Moloch that led him to sacrifice young children in the fire (2 Kings 21:6). His foreign policy of Assyrian dependence also drew the wrath of the prophets of his day. Manasseh responded by having several executed. It is believed that it was during the reign of this wicked king that the prophet Isaiah was sawn in half. The consequences of Manasseh’s wickedness are recorded in Jeremiah 15, further showing the abominable character of this traitorous king.
However, in his later years, due to his treacherous policy of attempting to overtake the Assyrians and Egyptians, Manasseh was brought in chains to the Assyrian king. It was during this imprisonment that we read in 2 Chronicles 33:11-13 that he repented:
11 Therefore the LORD brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks, bound him with chains of brass, and brought him to Babylon. 12 And when he was in distress, he implored the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. 13 He prayed to him, and God was moved by his plea and heard his plea and brought him back to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.
What was the content of this prayer? This prayer appears to have been legitimate and a thorough repentance that enabled Manasseh to effectively regain the throne. But also a prayer of repentance which seems to have been only restorative for Manasseh – the people continued in the wickedness they had stirred up.
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What is the Manasseh Prayer?
The Manasseh Prayer is made up of fifteen verses that attempt to give words to the prayer that Manasseh prayed. In 2 Chronicles 33:19 it is said that this prayer was recorded in the “words of the seers” and thus opened the door to much speculation. Are the fifteen verses we have legitimately the prayer that Manasseh prayed?
Here is the full text:
1. O Almighty Lord, God of our fathers, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of their righteous seed,
2. You who made heaven and earth with all their finery,
3. You who bound the sea with the word of your commandment, you who closed the abyss and sealed it with your awesome and glorious name,
4. You against whom everything trembles and trembles before your power,
5. for the magnificence of your glory is unbearable, and the wrath of your threat against sinners is unbearable,
6. and immeasurable and inscrutable is the mercy of Your promise,
7. for you are the most high, compassionate, patient and merciful Lord, repentant of the evil deeds of people.
You, O Lord, according to the fullness of Your mercy, You have promised repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against You, and in the fullness of Your mercy You have appointed the repentance of sinners for salvation.
8. Therefore, you, Lord, God of the righteous, did not give repentance for the righteous, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had not sinned against you, but gave repentance for me, the sinner.
9. For I have sinned more than the sand of the sea; my iniquitous deeds are multiplying, O Lord, are multiplying, and I am not worthy to gaze and see the heights of heaven because of the multitude of my iniquitous deeds.
10. I am bent by too many iron bonds to lift my head because of my sins, and there is no relief for me, for I provoked your wrath and did evil before you. I have set up abominations and multiplied provocations (idols).
11. And now I bend the knee of my heart, imploring Your mercy.
12. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I know my unlawful deeds.
13. I ask, I beg you: forgive me, O Lord, forgive me! Destroy me not by my unlawful deeds, make me not angry with me throughout the ages, and condemn me not to the depths of the earth, for you, Lord, are the God of those who repent.
14. And in me you will display your goodness, for, my unworthiness, you will save me according to your great mercy.
15. And I will praise you all the days of my life, for all the power of heaven sings your praise. For yours is the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Most scholars believe it was composed in 1st or 2n/a century of our era. Many believe it was built before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Needless to say, this is much later than the reign of Manasseh. It is written in Greek and was appended to the Latin Vulgate — that is how we still have it today. It is clearly not from the pen of Manasseh, as such it was not considered canonical by most Jewish or Christian believers.
It was clearly known from an early date in the church, as there are some clear hints in the text. But it was never considered authentic or canonical. As it stands, it’s an interesting prayer. Sometimes beautifully written and yet having suspect theology (i.e. claiming that some of the patriarchs did not need to repent because of their own righteousness).
What can we learn from the prayer of Manasseh?
I guess we could get a glimpse of reading this prayer. In a sense, this is an accurate description of genuine repentance. In that sense, it might be useful in the same category as something like Valley of Vision or other prayer books. It can be used to model for us an example of penitential prayer. (Although it is wise to exercise caution – as with any book – and consider the theology present).
But more than these fifteen verses, what benefits us most is what we have in the very text of Holy Scripture. The wicked Manasseh repented and God forgave him. What important and wonderful lesson does this hold for us today? There is no sin that is so great that you are cut off from God’s mercy. When we confess and repent, we are forgiven and cleansed from injustice. This is good news for us.
The Manasseh Prayer is not a biblical book, although it may be a useful example of a prayer (although it should be read with great discernment). The bigger story here is that the wickedest king in the history of Israel repented and God forgave him.
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