Prayer of Manasseh

By Mary Jane Chaignot

According to 2 Kings, Manasseh was the worst of all the Judean (southern) kings. In fact, 2 Kings 21:10-15 attributes the fall of Jerusalem to his lack of leadership and his sins of apostasy. He reigned from 698 BCE-643 BCE (give or take a few years). Though not all scholars agree when he began or ended his reign, the Bible claims that he was king for fifty-five years. Some scholars think he first came to the throne in 688 BCE, which would give him a reign of only forty-five years. Either way, that was still the longest of any Judean king. Typically, a long reign was seen as an indication of God's favor and brought great stability to the country. That, however, doesn't seem to be the case with Manasseh.

He was king during very troubled times. His father, Hezekiah, had been king for almost 30 years. During his reign, Hezekiah instituted great reforms within the country – closing down all the "high places" (rural cultic sites for the worship of Yahweh), centralizing sacrificial worship in Jerusalem, banning the Asherah poles, and even removing the bronze serpent that dated back to the time of Moses. For all intents and purposes, Hezekiah was renowned as a great and pious king. 2 Kings (18:3-6) claims, "There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him." This is high praise and undoubtedly well deserved.

However, he also reigned during politically-charged times. Assyria, under the command of Shalmaneser V, had conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BCE. His successor, Sargon II, continued Assyria's domination all the way to Egypt. Periodic skirmishes were quickly quelled by Assyrian forces. When Hezekiah came to the throne, Judah was a vassal of Assyria. This arrangement continued until Hezekiah was halfway into his reign. At that point, he began negotiations with the Babylonians, who were sworn enemies of Assyria – and had been somewhat successful in rebuffing Assyria's advances in southern Mesopotamia. In 705 BCE, Sargon, the king of Assyria, passed away and Hezekiah saw this as an opportune time to break off relations with Assyria. Obviously, it took the new Assyrian king (Sennacherib) some time to figure things out, but around 701 BCE, he invaded Palestine and put an end to the rebellions. The Egyptian forces that had been dispatched to offer assistance were also soundly defeated. After the Assyrians laid siege to Judah and captured many of its fortified cities, Hezekiah offered to surrender to Sennacherib and to pay whatever tribute would be imposed. In so doing, Hezekiah hoped to avoid the same fate as the northern kingdom had experienced at Assyrian hands in 722 BCE. A price was set. In order to pay it, Hezekiah had to strip all the gold and silver out of the temple and royal treasuries. It was a humiliating defeat, chronicled in both biblical and Assyrian texts. Hezekiah died in 698 BCE.

Manasseh was his only son. He was only twelve when he came to the throne. He had lived his whole life under Assyrian vassalage. There is no doubt that Assyria's heavy tribute imposed a severe hardship on the people of Judah. In fact, some were convinced that things were bad precisely because of Hezekiah's reforms. The people clamored to be able to go back to the old ways – the high places, the Asherah poles, and the worship of Baal. At the tender age of twelve, Manasseh was no match for the arguments of the pro-Assyrian forces. He began to undo all the reforms of his father – acts that that would be forever condemned by biblical authors.

The list of his offences is explicit in 2 Kings. He restored the "high places," erected an altar to Baal and officially recognized him as a god to worship, and reestablished the Asherah. In addition he "made his son pass through the fire," which is a reference to human sacrifice. He also dabbled in enchantments and black magic. Historians claim these actions, however, would have been in line with Assyrian demands. The Assyrians were of the mindset that conquered peoples should worship the Assyrian gods and adopt Assyrian practices. They might have made him an offer that he could not refuse. The author of 2 Kings, however, saw nothing of merit in Manasseh and blamed him for the captivity of Jerusalem.

They continued, "Manasseh shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from one end to another" (See 2 Kings 21:16). This is perhaps a reference to his treatment of prophets who were quite opposed to and possibly vocal about his "reforms." Legend also has it that he was responsible for the death of Isaiah -- by sawing him in two. The author of 2 Kings would have us believe he was a tyrant and a traitor, second only to Ahab, who was the renowned evil king of Israel (the northern kingdom).

The problem is that the author of Chronicles has quite a different view of Manasseh. Granted the list of offenses is pretty much the same. After reporting them, however, the Chronicler states the Lord spoke to both Manasseh and the people about repenting for their many sins. They, of course, ignored that warning. So the Lord sent a contingency from Assyria to capture Manasseh and take him to Babylon in chains (actually with a nose hook) and shackles (See 2 Chron. 33:11ff). Knowing that he was in big trouble, Manasseh immediately dropped to his knees in prayer and asked for help. (This prayer was supposedly recorded in two documents, which have never been discovered.) He completely repented, at which point God heard his supplication and forgave him. Manasseh was restored to his throne in Jerusalem with a newfound understanding that God really was in control. Upon his return, he rebuilt the wall of the city, removed all the pagan idols from the temple, and restored sacrificial worship. Needless to say, the people thought he was crazy and ignored his commands to worship God alone. They continued in their evil ways.

Scholars disagree whether there is any historical evidence for this captivity. It is unlikely that the Assyrians would have acted preemptively in such a manner since there is no record of any disloyalty on the part of Manasseh. On the other hand, Assyrian documents say that Egyptian rulers were, in fact, brought into captivity to be humiliated and subjected around 669 BCE. It is not totally out of the question that Manasseh could have been involved in this as well. Another possibility dates to the years of 652-648 BCE, during the Babylonian revolt. Babylon tried to overthrow Assyria but was defeated, at which time the Assyrian king moved his residency to Babylon. Manasseh might have been taken there at that time, if for no other reason than to renew his loyalty to Assyria. Given the words of the Chronicler, however, it is more likely that Manasseh participated in the rebellion against Assyria and was taken to Babylon in chains.

Assyrian records do not mention Manasseh at this point. But there is a comparable story involving the king of Egypt. He suffered a similar fate and was later restored to his throne. The same might have happened with Manasseh. For whatever reason, Manasseh was returned to Jerusalem and his throne where he instituted new reforms. Regardless of his good intentions, it is very clear that his reforms were not effective. There is no mention of them at all in 2 Kings and by the time of his son, Amon, things were back to normal – "evil in the eyes of the Lord."

So why are the accounts so different? Scholars attribute the difference to the Chronicler's attempt to explain why such an evil king enjoyed such a long reign. The only thing that made sense was to assume that somewhere along the line he had had a complete change of heart. This change had to be accompanied by religious reforms, even if the people didn't accept them. Instead of being evil through and through (like the portrayal in 2 Kings), Manasseh, then, stands as an example of a true repentant who is forgiven and restored (like the portrayal in 2 Chronicles).

The "Prayer of Manasseh," then, is a later attempt by an author to delineate the content of his transforming prayer. It also shows him as a model of repentance and a recipient of God's great mercy. If God can forgive someone as evil as Manasseh, he can forgive anyone. In this document, Manasseh acknowledges his many sins yet begs for forgiveness. He appeals to God's great mercy, counting on the fact that God is God to all, not just to those who are righteous. If God does forgive him, he promises to praise Him all the days of his life.

The style and vocabulary of the prayer are more consistent with a later date, possibly late first or early second century. Dates range, however, from 200 BCE to 300 CE. It was not part of the LXX nor is it found in any extant Jewish writings. It is believed to have originated in Alexandria and was possibly written in Greek. It could very well have been written by a pious Jew as a penitential lament psalm. It is part of the Apocrypha and found in Slavonic Bibles.

There are four sections to this prayer: 1:1-7 – An Invocation to God; 1:8-10 – A Confession of Sin; 1:11-14 – A Petition for Pardon; 1:15 – A Doxology.

I -- 1:1-7 – An Invocation to God

  • 1:1
    • Manasseh calls upon the Lord – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
    • God is also the God of their descendants 
  • 1:2-3
    • Manasseh calls upon God as creator
    • He uses creation language found in Genesis
    • God not only created the world but also gave it order
    • He shackled the sea with a word of command
    • He confined the deep – controlled the chaos
    • (This is in contrast to pagan gods who did not create the heavens and earth) 
  • 1:4
    • The appropriate response to God's creation is one of fear
    • All of creation shudders and trembles before God's power 
  • 1:5
    • God's glory is great
    • God's glory is so great that no creature can bear it
    • Imagine sinning against a God of such might and glory!
    • Sinners cannot endure the threat of God's anger
    • They can only quake before the Lord
    • (This would include Manasseh)
    • God's power is a threat to their very existence
  • 1:6
    • God's mercy is a ray of hope
    • Manasseh can approach God in prayer only because of God's "immeasurable and unsearchable" mercy
  • 1:7
    • God's qualities
    • God is a God of compassion, long-suffering, and merciful (See Ex. 34:6-7)
    • This was part of God's revelation to Moses
    • Manasseh invokes it here
    • God is the Lord Most High
    • He "relents" over human suffering intervening on their behalf
    • Because of his goodness, he has promised repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against him
    • All this reflects Manasseh's position as sinner
    • He is suffering, promises repentance, and asks for forgiveness and salvation
    • He brings nothing to the table in this request
    • He stands before God's goodness and mercy and hopes for the best

II -- 1:8-10 – A Confession of Sin

  • 1:8
    • He stands before God who is a righteous God
    • It is only through repentance that a sinner, like Manasseh, can even approach God
    • God has given sinners repentance for this very purpose
    • Repentance is a way for sinners to connect with God 
  • 1:9
    • Acknowledgement of sins
    • Manasseh admits his sins are numbered more than the sand of the sea
    • His transgressions are multiplied beyond measure
    • He is unworthy to look up and see the height of heaven 
  • 1:10
    • The iron fetter
    • He is weighed down – a possible reference to the "nose hook"
    • He has been rejected because of his sins
    • He has provoked God's wrath by doing evil in God's eyes
    • He acknowledges setting up abominations and multiplying offenses 

III -- 1:11-14 – A Petition for Pardon

  • 1:11
    • The moment of truth
    • He opens the petition with an image of humility: "I bend the knee of my heart"
    • This unusual phrase indicates a poignant and intense feeling
    • (This is very different from what he had been like previously)
    • He begs for the Lord's kindness 
  • 1:12
    • Twice, he confesses that he has sinned
    • The repetition shows he is intensely aware of his transgressions 
  • 1:13
    • Twice, he also asks for forgiveness
    • He also pleads with Yahweh not to destroy him for his transgressions
    • Nor does he want the Lord to be angry with him forever
    • Nor does he want to be separated from him in the "depths of the earth" (Sheol)
    • He begs forgiveness on the basis that God is a God of "those who repent" 
  • 1:14
    • He also believes that God does not stop being God to those who sin
    • The goodness of God is manifested to all – including sinners
    • By forgiving sinners, God's mercy is manifested to all
    • Observers will be in continual awe of God's greatness
    • He prays all this on the basis of God being a merciful God 

IV -- 1:15 – A Doxology

  • 1:15
    • He promises to praise God continually for His goodness
    • He will praise him "all the days of my life"
    • He along with all the host of heaven sings His praises
    • It is as though Manasseh is saying that God's mercy will not be wasted on him
    • He knows he doesn't deserve it; but if forgiven, he will respond with gratitude
    • "Thine is thy glory forever."

In light of such poignant words, the Prayer of Manasseh speaks to the infinite compassion of God. It makes plain that even the worst of offenders can stand before God in humble repentance and find forgiveness. It is a prayer meant to encourage those who feel their estrangement and hope for a restored relationship with God.


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Harrington, Daniel. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Metzer, Bruce, Ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, eds. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2002.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha