Matthew 14:1-12

THE TRAGIC DRAMA OF JOHN THE BAPTIST

Matt. 14:1-12

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus, and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptizer. He has been raised from the dead, and because of this, these deeds of power work in him.” For Herod had seized John the Baptizer, and had bound him and put him in prison, because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John insisted to him: “It is not right for you to have her.” So he wished to kill him, but he was afraid of the crowd, for they regarded him as a prophet. On the occasion of Herod’s birthday celebrations the daughter of Herodias danced in public and delighted Herod. Hence he affirmed with an oath that he would give her whatsoever she might ask. Urged on by her mother, she said, “Give me here and now the head of John the Baptizer on a dish.” The king was distressed, but, because of his oath, and because of those who sat at table with him, he ordered the request to be granted. So he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.
And his head was brought on a dish and given to the maiden; and she brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the body and buried him. And they came and told Jesus about it.

In this tragic drama of the death of John the Baptist, the dramatis personas stand clearly delineated and vividly displayed.

(i) There is John himself. As far as Herod was concerned John had two faults. (a) He was too popular with the people. Josephus also tells the story of the death of John, and it is from this point of view that he tells it. Josephus writes (Antiquities of the Jews, 18. 5. 2): “Now when many others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it was too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner out of Herod’s suspicious temper to Machaerus … and was there put to death.” As Josephus read the facts, it was Herod’s suspicious jealousy of John which made him kill John.
Herod, like every weak and suspicious and frightened tyrant, could think of no way of dealing with a possible rival other than killing him.

(b) But the gospel writers see the story from a different point of view. As they see it, Herod killed John because he was a man who told the truth. It is always dangerous to rebuke a tyrant, and that is precisely what John did.

The facts were quite simple. Herod Antipas was married to a daughter of the king of the Nabatean Arabs. He had a brother in Rome also called Herod; the gospel writers call this Roman Herod, Philip; his full name may have been Herod Philip, or they may simply have got mixed up in the complicated marriage relationships of the Herods. This Herod who stayed in Rome was a wealthy private individual, who had no kingdom of his own. On a visit to Rome, Herod Antipas seduced his brother’s wife, and persuaded her to leave his brother and to marry him. In order to do so he had to put away his own wife, with, as we shall see, disastrous consequences to himself. In doing this, apart altogether from the moral aspect of the question, Herod broke two laws. He divorced his own wife without cause, and he married his sister-in-law, which was a marriage, under Jewish law, within the prohibited relationships. Without hesitation John rebuked him.

It is always dangerous to rebuke an eastern despot, and by his rebuke John signed his own death warrant. He was a man who fearlessly rebuked evil wherever he saw it. When John Knox was standing for his principles against Queen Mary, she demanded whether he thought it right that the authority of rulers should be resisted. His answer was: “If princes exceed their bounds, madam, they may be resisted and even deposed.” The world owes much to the great men who took their lives in their hands and had the courage to tell even kings and queens that there is a moral law which they break at their peril.

(ii) There is Herodias. As we shall see, she was the ruination of Herod in every possible sense, although she was a woman not without a sense of greatness. At the moment we simply note that she was stained by a triple guilt. She was a woman of loose morals and of infidelity. She was a vindictive woman, who nursed her wrath to keep it warm, and who was out for revenge, even when she was justly condemned. And–perhaps worst of all–she was a woman who did not hesitate to use even her own daughter to realize her own vindictive ends. It would have been bad enough if she herself had sought ways of taking vengeance on the man of God who confronted her with her shame. It was infinitely worse that she used her daughter for her nefarious purposes and made her as great a sinner as herself. There is little to be said for a parent who stains a child with guilt in order to achieve some evil personal purpose.

(iii) There is Herodias’ daughter, Salome. Salome must have been young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age. Whatever she may later have become, in this instance she is surely more sinned against than sinning. There must have been in her an element of shamelessness. Here was a royal princess who acted as a dancing-girl. The dances which these girls danced were suggestive and immoral. For a royal princess to dance in public at all was an amazing thing. Herodias thought nothing of outraging modesty and demeaning her daughter, if only she could gain her revenge on a man who had justly rebuked her.

THE FALL OF HEROD

Matt. 14:1-12 (continued)

(iv) There is Herod himself. He is called the tetrarch. Tetrarch literally means the ruler of a fourth part; but it came to be used quite generally, as here, of any subordinate ruler of a section of a country. Herod the Great had many sons. When he died, he divided his territory into three, and, with the consent of the Romans, willed it to three of them. To Archelaus he left Judaea and Samaria; to Philip he left the northern territory of Trachonitis and Ituraea; to Herod Antipas–the Herod of this story–he left Galilee and Peraea. Herod Antipas was by no means an exceptionally bad king; but here he began on the road that led to his complete ruin. We may note three things about him.

(a) He was a man with a guilty conscience. When Jesus became prominent, Herod immediately leaped to the conclusion that this was John come back to life again. Origen has a most interesting suggestion about this. He points out that Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elisabeth, the mother of John, were closely related (Lk.1:36). That is to say, Jesus and John were blood relations. And Origen speaks of a tradition which says that Jesus and John closely resembled each other in appearance. If that was the case, then Herod’s guilty conscience might appear to him to have even more grounds for its fears. He is the great proof that no man can rid himself of a sin by ridding himself of the man who confronts him with it. There is such a thing as conscience, and, even if a man’s human accuser is eliminated, his divine accuser is still not silenced.

(b) Herod’s action was typical of a weak man. He kept a foolish oath and broke a great law. He had promised Salome to give her anything she might ask, little thinking what she would request. He knew well that to grant her request, so as to keep his oath, was to break a far greater law; and yet he chose to do it because he was too weak to admit his error. He was more frightened of a woman’s tantrums than of the moral law. He was more frightened of the criticism, and perhaps the amusement, of his guests, than of the voice of conscience. Herod was a man who could take a firm stand on the wrong things, even when he knew what was right; and such a stand is the sign, not of strength, but of weakness.

(c) We have already said that Herod’s action in this case was the beginning of his ruin, and so it was. The result of his seduction of Herodias and his divorce of his own wife, was that (very naturally) Aretas, the father of his wife, and the ruler of the Nabateans, bitterly resented the insult perpetrated against his daughter. He made war against Herod, and heavily defeated him. The comment of Josephus is: “Some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, who was called the Baptist” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18. 5. 2). Herod was in fact only rescued by calling in the power of the Romans to clear things up.

From the very beginning Herod’s illegal and immoral alliance with Herodias brought him nothing but trouble. But the influence of Herodias was not to stop there. The years went by and Caligula came to the Roman throne. The Philip who had been tetrarch of Trachonitis and Ituraea died, and Caligula gave the province to another of the Herod family named Agrippa; and with the province he gave him the title of king. The fact that Agrippa was called king moved Herodias to bitter envy. Josephus says, “She was not able to conceal how miserable she was, by reason of the envy she had towards him” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18. 7. 1). The consequence of her envy was that she incited Herod to go to Rome and to ask Caligula that he too should be granted the title of king, for Herodias was determined to be a queen. “Let us go to Rome,” she said, “and let us spare no pains or expenses, either of saver or gold, since they cannot be kept for any better use than for the obtaining of a kingdom.”

Herod was very unwilling to take action; he was naturally lazy, and he also foresaw serious trouble. But this persistent woman had her way. Herod prepared to set out to Rome; but Agrippa sent messengers to forestall him with accusations that Herod was preparing treacherously to rebel from Rome. The result was that Caligula believed Agrippa’s accusations, took Herod’s province from him, with all his money, and gave it to Agrippa, and banished Herod to far off Gaul to languish there in exile until he died.

So in the end it was through Herodias that Herod lost his fortune and his kingdom, and dragged out a weary existence in the far away places of Gaul. It is just here that Herodias showed her one flash of greatness and of magnanimity. She was in fact Agrippa’s sister, and Caligula told her that he did not intend to take her private fortune from her and that for Agrippa’s sake she need not accompany her husband into exile. Herodias answered, “Thou indeed, O Emperor, actest after a magnificent manner, and as becomes thyself, in what thou offerest me; but the love which I have for my husband hinders me from partaking of the favour of thy gift; for it is not just that I, who have been a partner in his prosperity, should forsake him in his misfortune” (Antiquities of the Jews, 8. 7. 2). And so Herodias accompanied Herod to his exile.

If ever there was proof that sin brings its own punishment, that proof lies in the story of Herod. It was an ill day when Herod first seduced Herodias. From that act of infidelity came the murder of John, and in the end disaster, in which he lost all, except the woman who loved him and ruined him.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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