A Sermon Preached on National Aboriginal Day in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
2 Chronicles 33 gives us an often overlooked snippet from Israel’s history. This is an episode many generations after King David when the kingdom had been divided. The northern half has been conquered, and the southern half, Judah, is just four generations from extinction. Soon Jerusalem would be burned to the ground and the Jews taken to Babylon in exile.
Manasseh was undoubtedly the worst king of Judah. Chronicles lists all the different gods he went after:
He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had demolished; he also erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles. 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, “My Name will remain in Jerusalem forever.” In both courts of the temple of the LORD, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger. He took the carved image he had made and put it in God’s temple … Manasseh led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray, so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.
This is a pretty damning indictment: Israel had become morally worse than their enemies.
2 Kings 24:3 even tells us that just a few generations later Judah’s downfall was Manasseh’s fault: “Surely these things happened to Judah according to the LORD’s command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done…”
This occurred despite the fact that Manasseh “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…”
This also occurred despite the fact that King Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson, was one of the best kings of Judah. It was Josiah who rediscovered the Book of Moses that had been lost in a dusty corner of the temple for generations. Cut to the heart after reading it, Josiah renewed the covenant with all of the people and undertook a thorough purification of the kingdom. 2 Kings writes “Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did — with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.” But again this is followed by “Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke him to anger.”
To be sure, after Manasseh is dragged off to Babylon by a fishhook and he turns to God, God brings “him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom” (33:13). This is real forgiveness.
But notice two things. First, Manasseh had to experience some of the consequences of his sin in order to repent. Second, even after repenting, the consequences still lived on and affected the next generations. It would seem that in terms of saving the kingdom, Manasseh’s repentance was too little too late.
Does this mean his repentance wasn’t worth it? No. Chronicles is clear that repentance does delay some of the effects of sin. So the Lord tells Josiah when he repents that “Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place and on those who live here” (2 Chron 34:28). Rather, future generations would pay the full price for Manasseh’s sin.
But this is where things get really problematic for me. How is it fair that Manasseh is literally let off the hook while his great-grandchildren still pay the price? Because, make no mistake, this is the nature of all sin whether one repents or not. One generation implements a change and dies before they really become aware of the consequences on the next. There’s no justice because they’re not around for us to rub their nose in it; we can’t point the finger back at them and say “Aha! See how the facts prove your policy wrong? Look at the disaster you’ve caused!” Hitting close to home, what would you say to John A. McDonald if he were around to see the fallout of his policy of assimilation? What will the future generations say to our own, with our abortion mills and our government’s silence around — or rather positive approval of — suicide? No doubt all of this is justified in high-minded terms as a bestowal of the benefits of Western civilization on Native peoples, or as a compassionate response to women and the terminally ill. We need not doubt the honesty of these policies to still know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
And so, Manasseh, despite your good intentions and repentance did you know you were still responsible for the ruin of the kingdom? Did you know that all your grandchildren would pay for your idolatrous policies? Did you know that they, too, would sacrifice their sons in the valley of Ben Hinnom?
Mustn’t there have been some in Jerusalem crying this out as the Babylonians tore down their walls and slaughtered their families? Where is the justice?
Justice, it would seem, is deferred. Our fathers pass the buck to us, and we pass it to the next generation. The consequence of one generation’s sin is deferred to the next, and no one is quite getting what they deserve. Meanwhile, according to Chronicles, the judgment stored up is steadily building and building year by year.
It might be some consolation that just as often as one generation evades suffering the consequences of its own sin, they suffer the consequences of the previous generations’. But it is hard to see any proportionality in it all. Take Zedekiah, Manasseh’s great-grandson and the last king of Judah. He may have been a sinner, but Manasseh was worse. Despite this, Zedekiah is the one who suffers more when Jerusalem is destroyed.
Yet had Zedekiah listened to the warnings of Jeremiah the prophet, the consequences would have been lessened. Because he didn’t, Zedekiah’s children are slaughtered in exile for Zedekiah’s mistake. So even Zedekiah doesn’t suffer the full consequences of his sin; those consequences fall on others. Meanwhile the judgment stored up is steadily building and building year by year until Judgment Day.
The problem is that because judgment builds up over time, the last generation before Judgment Day will get it worse than all the others — and this regardless of whether they are worse sinners or not. As I said, even if Zedekiah wasn’t as bad than Manasseh, he still suffered a worse fate. And so how will justice be served if, after thousands of years of deferral, it finally all comes down at one time — at the end of time? How is that fair?
To sum up what I’m trying to say: Nothing is fair. It isn’t fair that I don’t suffer the consequences of my own sin, it isn’t fair that I suffer the consequences of other peoples’ sin, and it certainly isn’t fair that later generations often get it worse than earlier ones. Moreover, it isn’t fair that by repenting I get let off the hook while my great-grandchildren continue to suffer for what I’ve done. Will Judgment Day really set this all right? Will justice finally be served?
The fact is that as Christians we think justice is served but that it isn’t fair, because for us Judgment Day refers first and foremost to Good Friday. On that Day, Jesus, who came at the end of the generations of Israel, suffered more unfairly than us all. All that judgment that had been building — that justice that was being unfairly deferred — it all finally came crashing down on him. Jesus, who was more righteous than a Zedekiah or even a Josiah, and certainly more than a Manasseh, Jesus, the Creator made flesh, against whom all of humanity was rebelling, suffered the most unfairly of all. And he did this so that we could take advantage of it. Forgiveness isn’t fair. Forgiveness is when the forgiver bears the consequences.
No doubt you heard about the shooting of nine African-Americans in South Carolina. And perhaps you saw their relatives stand up in court and one-by-one tell this 21-year-old white boy that they forgave him. Or maybe you saw the families of the Coptic Christians beheaded in Libya do the same earlier this year.
Forgiveness isn’t fair. It isn’t fair because the innocent take responsibility for the guilty. It isn’t fair that those Coptic widows have to raise their kids without fathers or that the congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have to go on without their loved ones, and it certainly wasn’t fair that Christ died because of us. But he did this so that we could take advantage of it.
We Manassehs get to take the hook out of our nose and go free. We know that we will not suffer the full consequences of our sin, we will only suffer enough to remind us of our need for grace. Yes, our great-grandchildren will still suffer for our sins — something we take full responsibility for when we repent. But we keep in mind that one of Manasseh’s great-grandchildren was Christ the Lord, who would put an end to this whole unfair process by dying unfairly on the Cross. We shift the consequences of our sin to him, and in turn he sets us free. Amen.
The featured image is a crucifix in the Pasbrug Cemetary, Belgium. It is licensed under Creative Commons.