It is important to remember in reading the New Testament that the name ‘Herod’ belonged to several people of the same family, much as there were many kings of England named Edward, or George. The first Herod we encounter in the New Testament was the one who ruled in Judea at the time of the birth of our Lord. History refers to him as Herod the Great.
It was he who was both alarmed and mystified when the magi from the east arrived at his palace in Jerusalem, seeking ‘he that is born King of the Jews1 Herod promptly sought the advice of the religious authorities of the day, who told him the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. He directed the wise men there, but asked them to return to him to tell him what, or whom, they had found. His stated motive was that he could then go and worship the child. The angel of God, however, warned the wise men to return to their homelands a different way. He also warned Mary and Joseph to flee into Egypt because Herod intended to kill the young child, whereupon Herod infamously ordered the slaughter of all baby boys born in Bethlehem who were under the age of two. This ‘slaughter of the innocents’ showed the cruelty to which the Herod dynasty was to be no stranger. This Herod, who tried to kill our Lord in His infancy, died shortly after the slaughter of the children, and one of his sons, Archelaus, ruled briefly in his place2 These Herods were not purely Jewish; though descendants of Abraham, their line was through Esau, not Isaac, and, as such, they were not entirely acceptable to the Jews, neither were they God-fearing. They paid lip service to the Jewish way of worship, but were desperately immoral and wicked. They ‘ruled’ in various parts of Judea and Galilee, however, with Roman authority.
The Herod who figures during the life of our Lord was known as Herod Antipas. He sent his first wife back to her father, the king of Arabia, in order to marry Herodias, who had been married to his half-brother Herod Philip. What made this marriage doubly sinful was that Herodias was also his niece. The fearless John Baptist had denounced this marriage to Herod, declaring it unlawful. This so enraged Herodias that Herod was compelled to arrest John Baptist and imprison him in the dungeon of his fortress. This no doubt pleased Herodias, for John could not now travel the countryside denouncing her publicly. Yet she was disturbed by something she had not foreseen – that John Baptist at close hand was worse than John Baptist at a distance. Her ‘husband’ began to respect the preacher. Mark’s Gospel tells us ‘Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him [kept him safe]’ because he knew Herodias wanted to kill John. Mark goes on to be even more explicit: ‘and [Herod] heard him gladly’, Mark 6. 17-20. Do we read too much into this story to see Herod summoning John up from the dungeon from time to time, despite Herodias’ objections, to listen to the prophet one more time? Here was entertainment indeed for a dull winter evening. John Baptist was, after all, a powerful preacher and Herod was drawn to him as the months went by.
Despite respecting and, perhaps, even liking John, Herod was disturbed by what John had to say. Again Mark tells us, ‘when he [Herod] had heard him [John] he did many things’3 The KJV margin says Herod ‘was much perplexed’. Herod’s conscience was being pricked. Perhaps he began to change aspects of his behaviour as he listened to this preacher. It maybe that in certain respects he began to turn over a new leaf. Herodias was troubled. She had not anticipated her husband being disturbed by a preacher of righteousness. Was she the next one to be ‘turned over’, to be sent home? Was her marriage in even greater peril? Herod was reforming! Sadly for Herod, and for John, Herodias won the day. In making a rash promise to his seductive daughter to give her anything she asked for up to half of his kingdom, Herod gave Herodias the opportunity to insist that his daughter ask for the head of John Baptist on a plate. Despite realizing it was wrong to fulfil his promise in such a wicked way, Herod ‘was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake … he would not reject her’4 The king sent an executioner to dispatch John Baptist and gave to his daughter the head of the prophet on a plate, and she promptly gave it to her mother.
A while after John Baptist’s disciples had come to Herod’s fortress and taken away the body of their teacher to be buried, Herod began to hear news of a powerful preacher who was also able to do miracles. This preacher also had disciples who went out and taught in His name and with His authority; they were able to cast out demons and heal the sick. Herod heard this preacher was called Jesus of Nazareth. A great many questions were being asked about this new preacher. Was He a prophet, following on in the line of the Hebrew prophets of old? Was He even Elijah, who had never died and was expected to return to the Jewish nation one day? Speculation was rife, but Herod’s troubled conscience was working overtime. This, to him, was no new prophet. This was John Baptist, whom he had wrongly executed, risen again from the dead and empowered to do miracles because of the injustice of his death. Is it not typical of a guilty conscience that we fear our wrongs return to punish us, sometimes years after we have done them? Herod was troubled by a preacher even after he had killed him. ‘He being dead yet speaketh5
Several years passed by and this preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, became more and more prominent, though Herod had still not met Him. Then, one day, sitting in his court in Jerusalem at a feast of the Passover, a messenger from the Roman governor, Pilate, comes in to see him. Standing outside in his palace is a prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, with an armed guard and a deputation from the chief priests and Pharisees. The message from Pilate is a simple one: the prisoner had been handed over to Pilate by the Jewish Sanhedrim. They accuse the prisoner, who is a Galilean, of stirring up trouble in Galilee and further afield. Pilate wishes to hand the prisoner over to Herod for trial, as Herod was king over Galilee. Herod was delighted. Here was his chance to see this Jesus, to see whether He was, indeed, the risen-again John, and to watch Him perform miracles, Luke 23. 8-9.
Herod summons Jesus of Nazareth in to his throne room and begins to question Him. The prisoner remains silent. Herod turns to the chief priests and Pharisees and talks with them. They accuse our Lord ‘vehemently’ before Pilate, laying down the charge of sedition. The prisoner remains silent. Herod talks to Him again, perhaps even asking Him to prove who He is by performing some miracle in front of Herod. It may very well be that this was the first prisoner who had ever stood before King Herod on his judgement seat who made no plea for mercy, who put up no defence, who did not plead for his life. In fact, this was a prisoner who pointedly ignored Herod.
Herod made up his mind. The claims of this preacher to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews, were false. So Herod began to mock our Lord, and to give permission to his soldiers to mock Him. ‘Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe and sent him again to Pilate. And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves’, Luke 23. 11-12.
Why did our Lord ignore Herod? After all, He answered the high priest, and He answered Pilate. Could it be that, in ignoring Herod, our Lord was judging him for what he had done to His prophet? Who can say? It is certain that He had no time for Herod, whom He once called ‘that fox’6 However, in a day to come the roles played out that day will be reversed, and that Herod will be the one who will stand before the Lord on His judgement throne. On that day, every mouth shall be stopped. Herod, though he dismissed our Lord from his presence with scorn, will meet Him again one day and answer to Him for all that he did.
We grieve once again for our Lord that He had to stand so patiently in front of one wicked, upstart judge after another in His sufferings here on earth. But what of ourselves? Are we anything like Herod? How often have we been entertained by preachers? Oh, we can all take them off; we know their pet phrases and mannerisms and we are entertained by their idiosyncrasies. We need to be careful that, in doing this, we do not also ignore what they teach from the word. We have all been troubled by preachers, as the Spirit has convicted us through their ministry; perhaps we have even been disturbed by them, and gone away determined to ‘do many things’.
Let us be careful that our attendance at the meetings and conferences of the Lord’s people goes deeper than just entertainment. Let us be careful that we don’t just rely on tinkering with our bad habits and behaviour, our sinful attitudes, our gossiping tongues, putting things right here and there but never truly repenting of them. We should remember that, for any unbeliever reading this, all mankind will one day stand before God in the day of judgement and answer to Him for their sins, their attitudes and their flippancy with the things of God. And for those that are believers, let us never forget that we will one day stand before the judgement seat of Christ to answer to Him for what we have done in our Christian lives. Let us be careful so that we will not suffer a loss of reward for the flippant attitude we sometimes show to God, to Christ, to His word and His things, as Herod once did. Entertained by preachers to no eternal blessing? How dreadful!