1 Chronicles 5:23–26 (ESV)

23 The members of the half-tribe of Manasseh lived in the land. They were very numerous from Bashan to Baal-hermon, Senir, and Mount Hermon.

This is a very tragic account, and yet it recurs over and over throughout the Bible. Manasseh was abundantly blessed with great tribal increase, possessed some of the most fertile regions of all the tribes (Bashan, Mount Hermon, Senir; 1 Chronicles 5:23), and possessed great military power. All of this prosperity caused them to trust in their own power and strength. Moses had warned them about this even before entering the land (Deuteronomy 8:11–14, Deuteronomy 8:17–18). Yet the Manassites went back to those very gods. The heart of man is desperately wicked; it knows no end to devising evil schemes, and continued submission to this heart of evil will end in the bondage of the whole man to a foreign power who rules without mercy. That was the case of Israel in Egypt and later in the bondage of Assyria. This is none other than preferring the devil, the liar, the deceiver of the brethren as preferred ruler.

The Chronicler ends his account of Manasseh with these words: “So the God of Israel took them into exile…namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day” (1 Chronicles 5:26). Most commentators see the last three words as referring to the Chronicler’s own day,1 as he assures the returning exiles that God has not forsaken his seemingly forgotten people. He notes that even in his own time, members of the Transjordanian tribes were to be found among the returning exiles. The Chronicler also continues, however, to draw attention to the centrality of the house of David and its relentless continuation through the exile and beyond.

But there is a far more solemn theological interpretation attached to the words to this day. Up to this very day, Israel largely remains in self-imposed bondage by the continued rejection of their Messiah who has come, David’s true Son, the very focus of the Chronicles. As long as they steadfastly hold to their own system of works-righteousness, which leads to death due to disobedience, they remain captive to the world, the flesh, and the devil. A foreign king still rules over them, no longer Pharaoh, Tiglath-Pileser, Nebuchadnezzar, or Cyrus, but Satan himself of whom all these kings are but types. Release alone comes when a King stronger than the strong man overpowers him and sets his prisoners free: When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil (Luke 12:21–22). The Jews still thought that obedience to the law would bring salvation and life, but letters carved on stone can never save but only administer condemnation because of the hardness of man’s heart in failing to love God and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6).

The Jews remain in the wilderness, in bondage to a foreign king and his false gods and to a law they cannot keep. Their hearts and minds are set upon pleasing God with their meaningless acts of goodness, believing that the God of Israel can be appeased by their doing their best according to the Rule Book of dos and don’ts that they have set up for themselves. Where is the sacrifice for sin as clearly taught in the Old Covenant for the infringements of their law book?

The only solution is given by the apostle Paul, a converted Jew himself. The problem is that veil that covers the minds and hearts of the covenant people of old, blinding them to the promised Messiah who has come: “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Corinthians 3:15–16). How does this happen? Only through a powerful work of the Holy Spirit who takes the letter of command and writes it on a transformed heart of flesh. Through our mighty King who has been given, not to keep us in slavery, but to deliver us by doing all for us that is necessary to return to our Creator as forgiven children.

The observance of the law now no longer is slavery, drudgery, and a ministry of condemnation but one of loving obedience to a God who has graciously made a way open for man to be reconciled to him.

Is the Jew alone to blame? Absolutely not. Once again, the apostle Paul tells us that the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of men who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). Because man must worship something, “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:23). They worship the idols of this world—“the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Was this not the problem with Manasseh and the other Transjordanian tribes? They turned their back on the Giver of all good gifts so as to revel in the plenitude of his gifts. They used prosperity and human power as a sign of achievement rather than a gracious gift of God.

This is the sad condition of all mankind—lost and wandering in a waste howling wilderness, enslaved to a foreign king and his false gods who has deceived them into thinking that success in this world is all that is necessary to live a fulfilled life. No, the King of Glory, the Strong Man, needs to arise, break the chains of enslavement of mankind to sin and Satan, destroy the power and destruction of sin that abides upon mankind, and set them free into the liberty of serving God.

Until then, like Manasseh, they remain in foreign places, wandering in sin and lostness, to this day. Yet this is not the last word. A glorious hope lies before Israel and the whole world. The Chronicles form the last book of the Hebrew canon, implying that Ezra, the Chronicler, still viewed his people as being in bondage to foreign kings, notwithstanding the fact that they had returned to the land. They were not yet truly free. Hope springs eternal in the opening words of the Gospel of Mark: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:2–3). The King is coming who will lead his people out of the exile of sin and death.