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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Herod and John

J. Jackson Goadby

From Timely Words, 1869

"For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and a holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly." (Mark 6:20)

"For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother."  (Matt. 14:3-11)

Two men are here brought face to face. It will be well for us to look at them, since we shall discover that there is much in both which it concerns us carefully to note. Behind the old fact there is a present truth. For this, among other purposes, perhaps as the chief purpose, many of the incidents of the Old and New Testament are recorded. It is very possible to lose sight of this moral teaching as we read the narratives which fascinate alike simple youth and reverent age.

Perhaps this forgetfulness of the purpose for which these facts are preserved, is one reason why the reading of the Bible is less fertile of results than it should be, less distinctly moral and religious. We gaze upon others, when the glass of the Word reflects ourselves. We are quick to condemn the worldliness, the selfishness, the corruption, or whatever it may be, which appear in the lives and character of the men portrayed in the Sacred Page; but we are not infrequently slow to acknowledge, or even to see, that out of our own mouth we are condemned. No time is thought too much, if it be spent in looking at the messenger; but in gazing at the messenger we forget the message. The larger and higher advantage of Bible reading can only come through constant, humble, and penitent self-application. Let us use that whilst looking at Herod and John.

Here are two men whose positions present the very sharpest points of contrast. Herod Antipas was the son of a king; originally designed by his father as his successor, but in the last change of his will, made Tetrarch of Galilee and Peræa. With less exactness he is also described as king. Herod was brought up in a palace, with all that palaces supply. His father's home might not be very happy, but it was noted for its luxuries.

Herod now occupies a palace-fortress, standing on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. He possesses power, such as belongs to an irresponsible Eastern despot. There is no sceptre to which he bows, except that of mighty Rome, whose shadow was now flung over all the earth. There is apparently very much to envy in Herod Antipas, as he stands face to face with John the Baptist. He has not only power, but wealth, and all that wealth can buy. He has material comforts without stint; a name of some terror; palaces of some pretensions. Poor Jews, weary and footsore, might pass by the fortress-palace of Machærus and envy the owner. Outwardly, there did seem much to covet in Herod's position.

Look now at John. There is little about his position that men commonly desire. His father was a humble priest. John had been brought up by his parents in strict obedience to the angel's injunction. He was a holy Nazarite from the womb. Waxing strong in spirit, and becoming growingly conscious of that high and honourable office to which he was called, John still further prepared himself for it, by self-discipline, and by constant communion with God.

Year after year had that stern probation been unrelaxed. John had lived rather like an old Hebrew prophet, preparing himself for the deliverance of a "burden of the Lord," than like the worldly sons of the priests in his own dissolute age. The desert had been his home; and the rough fare which the desert furnished had been his daily food. He now stands before Herod with a dress unlike the purple and fine linen which men wear who dwell "in kings' houses;" a rough tunic of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle. Physically, he may be the stronger of the two, since he has breathed the freer air of the desert, and has lived in simpler and hardier fashion than the man who has been cooped up in palaces or towns. He is a Prophet, not a king; a Prophet in chains.

There is no freedom now. John’s days of liberty are ended. He is Herod's prisoner. He seems to have been his captive for some months past; and still likely to remain his captive. Machærus might have luxurious rooms for Herod. It had only a dungeon for John. Even locusts and wild honey might be dainty fare to the fare doled out to John in Herod's prison. Looking, then, at the outward conditions of the two men, perhaps numbers would rather be the Tetrarch than the Teacher, Herod than John.

But if the position of the two men presents sharply marked differences, their several characters show contrasts still more striking Herod Antipas was unscrupulous, tyrannical, weak. His cruelty was marked by cunning, and followed by remorse. He was a true type of the Oriental despot—fickle, sensual, superstitious. He had not earned much honour in his government.

"Many evil things" were done by him during his reign, but he was chiefly notorious for his open defiance of moral and social law. He was married to the daughter of Aretas, the king of Arabia Patræa. Whilst on a visit to Rome, and living in his half-brother Philip's house, he became ensnared by the charms of Herodias, Philip's wife and niece. Plans were mutually formed between them. Herod Antipas was to divorce his wife, and then return to fetch Herodias. The intrigue came to the knowledge of the daughter of Aretas, who, under a ruse, desired to be sent to Machærus, from whence she escaped to her father's court. Herod and his step-niece, and half-sister, were now living in shameless adultery and incest. Herodias had the stronger nature of the two; and her ambitious spirit afterwards spurred Herod to seek that which cost him his life. The true wife had fled from Machærus, and the paramour occupied her place.

Herod, like too many other kings, ancient and modern, showed his people "ill example." When rulers are sensual, courtiers catch the contagion, and help to spread it far and wide. Evil in the palace is evil at the nation's fountain head. All the streams become tainted. No part of the government escapes pollution. Some of the worst calamities that have ever afflicted nations have been born of the immoralities of the palace.

The history of other times, nay, the history of some nations in our own days, furnish lamentable evidence of this general truth. That people is already on the high road to national disaster and ruin whose sovereign despises the decencies and moralities of social life. Here, then, was Herod, doing his best to bring on the worst evils that can scourge a nation. He was a capricious tyrant, a weak and shameless sensualist. He had adopted nothing more than the surface polish of Roman civilization. He had copied the vices by which that civilization was now beginning to be tarnished.

How different from all this was the Prophet! There might be sternness about his morality; perhaps, to many, something that was a little forbidding. It did not, it could not, win universal acceptance. It was ascetic, and therefore not assimilative. "All men mused in their hearts of John whether he were the Christ, or not;" (Luke 3:15) but all men were not disposed, and were not intended, to live his life. If, however, John's morality were severe, it was also true and thorough. He was not one to accept half measures; and yet he was no mere enthusiast. He saw everywhere around him among his countrymen the most fearful corruption. Religion was a sham, morality a pretense, honour a thing unknown. It was the darkest day of their national history. Like many others of pure and lofty mind in such surroundings, his soul recoiled from it; and the recoil produced uprightness, severe and stern.

In John’s case there was no playing with conscience; no weak hesitation about right and wrong; no readiness to yield through the adverse pressure of outward circumstances. He was a pure stainless soul, in the midst of depravity. Even the very haunts of men seemed to be filled with taint, and John shunned them with all the loathing of an Arab of the desert. No man could accuse the Prophet of injustice or impurity. So free from taint was he that corrupt men leaped to the conclusion that he had a devil. They pronounce the same verdicts still, and so repeat the example of John's contemporaries. When great principles fire the soul, then men who lack this fire have the same ready way of excusing themselves by despising or pitying the reformer. "He is mad. Nothing else will explain his fervor. Why then heed him?" But it is worth considering, that only by such men have great revolutions in morals and in kingdoms been effected.

John did not lose his purity in the presence of Herod. In this he was unlike too many others. Their morality is strong enough so long as it is untried, so long as they are among their equals. Once let them be brought into any kind of relation with others of higher station and corrupt life, and forthwith they grow ashamed of their purity. The rank dazzles and destroys. But with sadly too many it only needs the presence of evil companions to scatter their little dust of self-righteousness to the four winds. They leave the neighbourhoods where they are known. They come to live in the desert of great cities. They are daily thrown into company with others who have already become corrupt; and not themselves forsooth, daring to be "singular," or unable to face the mockery of all tenderness of conscience as a childish folly, to be put away when you leave home, they follow the multitude to do evil.

Many young men, brought up in homes as pure as John's, thus bring dishonour on their hitherto spotless names, and whelm the heart of their godly parents in unspeakable sorrow. "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not. If they say, Come with us…Cast in thy lot among us…My son, walk not thou in the way of them; refrain thy foot from their path; for their feet run to do evil." (Prov. 1:10-16)

There was, further, a wide difference in the mutual estimate of Herod and John. "Herod feared John." (Mark 6:20) There was very much in the Forerunner to make Herod fear him. The very difference of character produced fear. However explained, bad men always fear those who are indisputably good. There is a conscious disparity of thought and life which any, even the least, contact at once makes apparent. Deep down in every bad man's heart this fear of good men exists. Nor does it always remain concealed. It will crop out in many ways. Sometimes it takes the form of subtle detraction; sometimes of temptation; sometimes of open hostility.

"The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth." (Ps. 37:12) So David had found it to be, and many others have had bitter evidence of the same fact since his day. There is persecution, petty or fierce, according to the measure of the power possessed. All this springs out of the mutinies in evil men's hearts, which may be stirred by the presence, or even by the recollection, of the righteous. There is enough knowledge of better things still left to make such men uncomfortable sinners. Herod knew the difference between his own character and the character of John; and that knowledge made him fear the Prophet.

Herod's fear of John sprang from John's bold denunciation of his particular sin. The man whom his Master described as "more than a Prophet," (Matt. 11:9) was not one of those men who carefully pick their words, and are more solicitous to please their hearers than to discharge the duties of their sacred office. If John could reprove, he could also rebuke. The solitary Voice that had rung through the desert, and awakened its echoes with the cry, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," (Matt. 3:2) was not hushed into a whisper when speaking of the sin even of a ruler. It was notorious what a shameless life Herod and Herodias were then living.

John's judgment concerning that life soon came to be equally notorious. "It is not lawful for thee to have her." (Matt. 14:4) This denunciation was a sore point with Herod. He was like some other men when they hear the truth. They can smile complacently, so long as the denunciations of sin are general, but as soon as you touch upon their particular sin, they wince like the patient whose wound the surgeon is probing. You are no longer "acceptable." You have grown "personal." You have become "offensive;" or perhaps, with the milder sort of sinners, you are deemed "inconsiderate."

“This kind of teaching is not to be endured; nor the man who gives it. Vague platitudes, if you like; general pouring out of the vials upon the ancient Scribes and Pharisees; but let us have no modern instances. We will hear your facts, but we do not want to hear your applications." So it has come to pass that foul vice lurks under smug appearances; and that teacher is too often most esteemed who deals as much as possible with evil doers of the past, and as little as possible with the evil doers of the present.

Herod's fear of John was cowardly. It was not the mere lashing out of indignant rebuke because of John's condemnation of his shameless life that led Herod to look with alarm upon John's teaching. The Tetrarch began to tremble at the possible consequences of John's teaching among the people. Though the multitude were not disposed to imitate John, "all [the people] hold John as a prophet." (Matt. 21:26) Herod was too fond of his position to care that another should fill his place. Like other men of his type of character, he was willing enough to make tools of the people, to use them for his own ends. But how would it be, if the people should rise up in offended majesty, and refuse to be tools any longer?

How, if John should so sting the people with a sense of righteous wrath that they should lay violent hands upon Herod, and hurl him from his throne? More improbable things than this have happened in the history of nations. Moral revolutions always precede social changes. Herod's alarm at the possible effects of John's teaching might not, therefore, be so far wrong after all. It was the working of this craven fear which had something to do with Herod's laying hands on John, and casting him into prison. No doubt Herodias "screwed his courage up to the sticking place," like another Lady Macbeth; but political jealousy and suspicion goaded him on to do this cowardly deed. It was fear of the people alone that had already restrained him from putting John to death.

There is another and altogether different fear shown by Herod. He listened to John after he had made him a prisoner; and even "did many things" (Mark 6:20) according to John's suggestion. What those "many things" were to which the sacred Evangelist refers, we have no means of ascertaining. Herod was willing enough,—if we may venture a surmise founded on the absence of any reformation of life,—to do anything, except give up the sin which John emphatically denounced. This is a form of relieving conscience of its burden which has never lacked imitators.

A species of compounding for sins to which we are inclined, by an open show of denouncing and shunning those which, for us at least, do not possess any attractions. Men can be wrathful against misers, because they are careless about money, or warm in their condemnation of insobriety, because they are never likely to err on that side, or indignant at dishonesty, since they are put out of the reach of temptation, or horror-stricken at social infidelities, because "the very ice of chastity" is in them. But while "doing many things," and denouncing others, the one thing they are not willing to do is this—give up their particular sin. Herod would "do many things" when he heard John. What he would NOT do was this—give up Herodias.

As to the gladness with which Herod heard John, is not the explanation of this rather to be found in John's character than in Herod's morality? What was Herod? A willing tool of a crafty and sensual woman? A man surrounded by feeble copies of himself, obsequious courtiers, willing dupes? The things that were most conspicuously absent from Herod's court were reality and zeal. Sensualism wraps the soul in softness, and saps its very life. What was John? A man all reality and fervor; a soul set on fire of God Himself. It was something in Herod's court to see a man in earnest, even though that man was a prisoner. John's zeal created, for these jaded voluptuaries, "a new sensation." He spoke "in the spirit and power of Elijah;" (Luke 1:17) and that was altogether fresh to such an audience as John gathered about him in the palace of Machærus.

The gladness, therefore, was not moral, but sensational. It was the joy of a man who finds some new pleasure where all others have begun to pall; and, to him, it is of little consequence whether he find it in a dancer or a Teacher. He who could gladly hear John speak, very soon as gladly looked on while Salome danced; perhaps but too faithful a portrait of men less known than Herod Antipas, and not quite so far removed from the present century.

But if "Herod feared John," John did not fear Herod. There is nothing weak, fickle, and yielding about this last of the Hebrew prophets, and the man who was pronounced by the Son of God Himself to be greater than all. The Forerunner was to Herod and his infamous paramour what Elijah had been to Ahab and Jezebel, although not for the same reason. His boldness was shown in spite of the dangers into which it brought him. But why did not John fear Herod? BECAUSE HE FEARED GOD.

At the worst, Herod could put John to death; but after that, he had no more that he could do. His power was strictly confined to the present world. He could not touch a hair of his head in the future. Over that future the God whom John feared was alone the Ruler. He reigned supreme in the world invisible. Hence, then, the heroism of John; and hence, also, that power which chases out all moral cowardice from the heart. Possessed of this, men will bravely dare to swim against any popular current, to proclaim any unpalatable truth, and run all present risks. From this springs, also, that less conspicuous, but not less noble purpose, which checks the first rising up of evil desire in the heart, even though the opportunity favour, and the chances of detection be apparently small and remote. This is the fear of which the world and the Church are now in such sore need. If men feared God more, they would fear men less.

There is a wide difference, lastly, between John's treatment of Herod, and Herod's treatment of John. The very outspokenness of John to the Tetrarch was kindness, not petulant complaining. "Open rebuke is better than secret love," (Prov. 27:5) says the wise man. "Let the righteous smite me," says David, "it shall be a kindness; let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head." (Ps. 141:5)

John's rebuke was prompted by a desire to remove a public scandal, and secure Herod's reformation. There was no end to be gained by the Prophet, except the gain which comes from delivering one's heart of the burden of the Lord, of snatching a soul from death, and so hiding a multitude of sins. But this was not a gain such as could be assayed in any other court than that of Heaven. John knew the great evil of Herod's example, and the imminent danger of that evil to Herod's soul. The continued indulgence in one sin is the sure preparation for the commission of others. When the defences of the soul are broken, "the enemy will come in like a flood."

Nor was John's denunciation of Herod the cry of a demagogue who was envious of Herod's higher social position. The Prophet who could live and thrive on the hard fare of the desert, was as little likely to covet the delicacies which groaned on the Tetrarch's table, as Daniel and his companions were to lust after the king's wine and meat. His meat and drink, like his Master's, was "to do the will of Him that sent [him], and to finish His work." (John 4:34) He had the clear insight of a holy character, and would far rather be the humble Prophet than the haughty king. John would not have changed his camel's hair and leathern belt for all the stores of Herod's purple and fine linen if he could. He was jealous for the Lord of Hosts, not envious of the Tetrarch of Galilee.

How different was Herod's treatment of John! To put a preacher you gladly hear in chains, and to keep him in them, is, to say the very least, a wretched way of showing your respect for his instructions. It is using the Prophet as kings once used jesters—to make sport when their own dull minds were wearied by court inanities. Yet even this does not complete the proofs of the difference of Herod's treatment of John. He would rather behead the Teacher he professed to love, than break his oath, or permit himself to be thought imprudent in promising, or inconstant in performing. He was "exceeding sorry," (Mark 6:23) when the artful daughter of an artful mother asked for the head of John the Baptist in a charger.

But whence Herod’s sorrow? If it had sprung out of genuine reverence for John, he would have refused the request. Was not his sorrow traceable in part to the Roman superstition into which Herod had fallen? To take away life on a birthday was a bad omen, and Herod trembled to face it. Was there not also another source of the sorrow outside the walls of Machærus? John had many adherents among the people. How would they take the murder of their Prophet? Might not danger spring from that source too? Here, as it appears to us, are the true causes of Herod's sorrow at Salome's request.

He might plead his oath, and the possible effect of his breaking it, upon "the high captains and chief estates of Galilee," who were now at his table; just as men will put forward one reason rather than another for their conduct, when they are ashamed of the true motive. A man who had broken marriage oaths was not likely to be over careful in any oaths that he might chance to utter, especially if they leaped out of the lips in momentary excitement.

He who did not scruple to trample under oaths deliberately and solemnly taken was the last person in the world to have any very tender conscience about oaths hastily uttered, except his apparent regard for them suited his purpose. It needed no casuist to show Herod that, from a silly promise made over his cups, any law would at once absolve him. Herod did not want absolving. He wanted to hide the secret motives for his conduct, and he took the one that came readiest, although his previous and present life were a standing protest against its mockery.

The order went forth. The tools of tyranny are always sharp and within reach. Herodias took care that there should be no impediment to the gratification of her fiendish desire to gloat over the head of the man who had dared to speak unwelcome truth. Still bemused with wine, Herod slept that night a drunken sleep, scared, it may be, with dreams of his evil doings to the "just man and holy," burdened with the crimes of incest and murder, but that night the pure and stainless soul of John fled upward to the sweet paradise of God.

Could any picture be more fearful than that which Herod supplies of the downward tendency of sin? He begins with adultery and incest; he proceeds to personal violence; he ends in murder. He might have shrank back appalled from the first sin, if he could have seen the end from the beginning. He would have found less readiness in his heart to commit the crime of murder, if he had not already made it easy by his former evil life.

If, then, there be one lesson more than another that speaks trumpet-tongued from this guilty life of Herod, it is surely this: to beware of listening to the first solicitations to evil. They are the first, but if regarded, they will not be the last. The appetite of sin grows on what it feeds, until earlier sins seem tame, and others, more daring and more abominable, will alone satisfy the corrupt and evil heart. Men may think the grave warnings of the servant of God misplaced, or unnecessary, but the blasted lives of hundreds of young men too sadly testify that there is still need to cry aloud against the seductions of vice. Look not upon the bedizened siren, in whatever form she may tempt you, or however tricked out with meretricious garb and grace. Look at the end. Think of that, and start back, ashamed and penitent, from her fatal embrace and her poisonous breath.

There is also another lesson as plainly upon the face of this ancient story. Beware of letting mere delight in hearing the truth proclaimed suffice. There may be much about that truth to win your attention and stir your heart. Like Herod, you may hear the preacher gladly. The subjects on which his mission demands that he should touch, are the highest that can engage human thought,—God, Christ, the soul, life, death, eternity; are pregnant with issues, both now, and hereafter—that you cannot fail to listen, if only the preacher be faithful to his Lord. And should there be any want of interest in the preaching, it is never owing to the preacher's theme. It is owing to his defective treatment, or to your unwilling ear and unprepared heart.

But, if fired with the love of Christ, and travailing in birth for souls, who will not confess the preacher's power? You, surely, who owe to his earnest words your first stimulus to a higher and nobler life, will not deny their potency; and you, who hear them, even though they may be spoken with a stammering tongue, and not with the scathing power of the Voice which once cried in the wilderness, have not you also, in moments of pointed appeal, risen up to a present better thought and purpose?

In the delineation of a holier life, have not you felt a thrill of passing delight? But take heed how you allow this to stand in the place of something else. Be a hearer of the Word; but be something more. Be a doer. Then shall you be blessed in your deed.