Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 9

Herod: Who Is Really King?

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

Power. It is an important word in the human vocabulary. It can mean vastly different things.

On the one hand, power can be understood as the right to command, order, manipulate, and control others. This is what we mean by the word when we use it in most political, business, and social settings. The person with power is the one who is at the top of the pyramid. He calls the shots. She throws her weight around. He bosses and cajoles until he gets his way. She consolidates power until the time comes to make her move.

Some villainous characters have left their marks in history via the exercise of this sort of power. Thus we remember names like Nebuchadnezzar, Ghengis Khan, Adolf Hitler, and Idi Amin. Satan offered this kind of power to Jesus when he showed him "all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor" and said, "All this will I give you, if you will bow down and worship me" (Matt. 4:8-9).

On the other hand, though, there is a form of power that does not depend on titles, armies, or money. It is the power a child has over her father. It is the power of a lover with his beloved. Or it is Barnabas' exercise of power with a rejected Saul and a crushed John Mark.

People with power of this second variety most often step aside for rather than step ahead of others. They don't threaten or manipulate; they liberate and empower. They refuse to use the lies or bribes that seem to go hand in hand with power of the sort described earlier. They deal in truth, candor, and honest challenge.

No one has ever used power this healthy way so perfectly as Jesus of Nazareth. He never manipulated or took advantage of anyone. He didn't swagger and boast. He didn't intimidate with titles or dress, pomp or exhibition.

He loved children. He showed compassion to an immoral Samaritan woman and dealt gently with the publican Zacchaeus without patronizing either. He demonstrated patience with thick-headed disciples who were aghast that he would perform so menial a task as washing feet and who kept pressing him to establish a kingdom on the traditional model of political power -- with them, of course, filling key posts of distinction.

In connection with his entry into flesh, Jesus precipitated the first of many clashes centered on the power issue. It makes an interesting case study.

Jesus was born during the time and under the territorial rule of King Herod. Most often called Herod the Great, he was allowed by the Romans to be their puppet king in Judea. In the year 40 B.C., the Roman senate gave him the title "King of the Jews."

Herod's father was an Idumean Jew named Antipater. Idumea was located in the area just south of Judea, and its inhabitants had accepted the religion of the Jews only two generations before Herod's birth-- at the point of a sword. His mother was an Arab princess.

Because he had assisted Octavian in his campaigns in neighboring Egypt, Antipater was made the Roman procurator of Palestine in 55 B.C. Until his death by assassination in 43 B.C., he played shrewd politics with the Romans and maintained power.

After Antipater's death, the Romans needed a loyal ally in the Jewish territory who would protect their interests against the intentions of a priestly group wanting to throw off all foreign presence and power. It was in this context that Herod was given the title King of the Jews. But was he really their king?

When the Romans declared him king, a member of the priestly Hasmonean group named Antigonus was in control of Jerusalem and had taken the title of king to himself. With Rome's aid, Herod fought for three years to gain control of the region. He had Antigonus crucified and beheaded. Herod also decreed the execution of over forty priests who had opposed his ascension to power.

Just before he captured Jerusalem and began his actual rule over the Jews in 37 B.C., he married a Jewish woman of the Hasmonean line named Mariamne. By means of this marriage, he hoped to mitigate the widespread hatred of the people toward him as a non-Jew. Strangely enough, the evidence seems to suggest that he came to love the fiery Mariamne more than any other of his ten wives.

King Herod was a suspicious man who always saw people scheming against him. Considering the Hasmoneans to be primary enemies, he set about to eliminate them one by one. Eventually he put even Mariamne to death for plotting against him in 29 B.C. He had his two sons by her, Alexander and Aristobulus, brought up in Rome and designated as his heirs in Judea. But they were also judged guilty of conspiring against their father and executed in 7 B.C.

For all his personal and political wickedness, Herod was a genius as a professional builder. He built the spectacular mountain citadel at Masada on the Dead Sea. In an attempt to win over the loyalty of the Jewish people who despised him as a man of mixed blood, he began a lavish reconstruction project of the Second Jewish Temple at Jerusalem in 19 B.C. -- a project still not completed at his death and which continued until A.D. 63.

Fear built Masada, and the temple at Jerusalem was a failed attempt at buying a nation's loyalty. But the Roman garrison town of Caesarea was Herod's most colossal work of self-expression. It was built to be a monument that would consolidate his power, enrich his coffers, and certify his fame.

Herod built the city in the twelve years between 22 and 10 B.C. He named it for his patron, Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. An aqueduct that required tunneling through four miles of solid rock brought water from Mount Carmel to its Roman baths and fountains. He built a large harbor in the open sea without any protective bay or peninsula. Using a concrete mixture that hardened when it came into contact with water, his engineers surpassed anything the Romans had ever done with the concrete construction technique they had invented two centuries earlier. At least 100 ships of the time could anchor in its protected waters.

Caesarea survived and occasionally even thrived for well over a thousand years after Herod. In two decades of recent excavations there, a great deal has been learned about the city's history. One of the most sensational finds was a temple stone dating from A.D. 30 that bears the name of Pontius Pilate.

So as to pursue and fund his passion for building, Herod had to play the power game with consummate skill. He had to placate his overlords in Rome and preserve his base of jurisdiction among the Jews of his Judean kingdom. He was never very subtle about preserving his mastery. He was ruthless and cold-blooded in dealing with anyone who represented a threat to his position.

No less than Emperor Caesar Augustus made this caustic comment about Herod's use of power: "I would rather be Herod's pig than his son." In Greek, there is a mocking play on words in Augustus' remark. Huios is the word for son, while hus is the word for pig.

In Herod's death agony, he ordered a group of Jerusalem elite to be arrested. At his death, they were to be killed so that tears would be shed on the day he died. The order was countermanded when he died as that of a madman, and it is unlikely that any tears fell for Herod the Great when he expired in 4 B.C. In the words of one historian: "He stole to the throne like a fox, ruled like a tiger, and died like a dog."

What we know of this King of the Jews as a figure of history fits perfectly with what we know of his behavior toward the birth of a child destined to be "King of the Jews." What a jolt it must have been for nervous and jealous Herod when visitors from the East came to his court and asked about a baby destined to rule over the Jews. As Matthew relates it: "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, `Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him' " (Matt. 2:1-2).

What a tragic mistake the wise men made. But it was an understandable mistake. If one were looking for the birthplace of the new Jewish king, where better to inquire than at the palace of the reigning king? What these strangers knew about Herod and his paranoia over power is unknown. More than likely, they knew practically nothing about him except that he was King of the Jews. The machinations of such a petty monarch would not have been a topic of interest in Persia, Babylon, or any other eastern country. Let's not fault the Magi, then, for a blunder we see in hindsight but they could not have foreseen.

There is a classic instance of understatement in the biblical text when Matthew writes: "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed" (Matt. 2:2a). Disturbed? He must have been unsettled to the depths of his soul. And he must have turned in a masterful performance before his guests to restrain his anger. Can't you imagine, however, that eyes darted all around the room when the question was put to him? His court knew that Herod had killed his own wives and children when he thought they threatened his reign as Jewish monarch.

The understatement continues when Matthew says that "all Jerusalem [was disturbed] with him" (Matt. 2:2b). They knew the unpredictable rage of this power-mad Idumean. It was not beyond anyone's imagination in Jerusalem that Herod would set about to search houses and kill children. In fact, the locals must have been surprised at the restrained response to his visitors.

King Herod called together the chief priests and teachers of the Law of Moses. He asked for whatever light they could shed on the matter. Had they heard of a star? Were there rumors about a baby? Did their Scripture have anything to say on the matter?

As a matter of fact, they responded, their holy books contained a prediction about the Messiah's birth. Thus they told Herod that he was to be born in Bethlehem and cited the prophecy on which they based their belief: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (Matt. 2:6; cf. Mic. 5:2).

Furnished with this information, King Herod called the Magi for a final, private interview. Before telling them what he had learned, he first pressed them for additional details about their experience. What sort of "star" did you see? How did you know that you were supposed to follow it? Exactly when did you first see it?

Then, after learning all he could from them, he passed on the information about Bethlehem. From the way Matthew describes the scene, Herod appears to have tried hard to avoid raising any suspicions among his guests. He simply sent them to Bethlehem, five or six miles from Jerusalem, and told them to "make a careful search" for the newborn king. "As soon as you find him," he instructed the Magi, "report to me, so that I too may go and worship him" (Matt. 2:7).

Apparently still naive about King Herod and what plans he might have had in mind for the baby they were searching for, the eastern stargazers left for Bethlehem. They must have left the king's court with a sense of confirmation about their mission and with renewed excitement. The heavenly sign they had been following led them not just to the town of Bethlehem but to the very house in which the baby and his family were living.

They entered, worshipped the child, and presented the gifts they had brought to him. Did they stay for just the one visit? Were they in Bethlehem for several days? The text of the Bible leaves us without a clue. What we are told about their departure returns the focus to Herod the Great: "And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route" (Matt. 2:12).

How long did Herod wait for word from the Magi? Probably not very long. Nervous and insecure as he was, it would not have taken long for to conclude that someone had gotten wise to him and that his guests were not coming back with word of the child. The man whose fear of rivals had already bathed his own family in blood dispatched soldiers to dispose of this latest one.

Calculating back to the time when the Magi had first seen the star -- and perhaps allowing another six months to a year for good measure -- King Herod gave orders that all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under were to be killed. Given the size of Bethlehem at the time as a town of 1,500 to 2,000 people and an annual birthrate of perhaps thirty children per thousand, the number of male infants murdered by Herod would likely have been no less than twelve and no more than twenty-four. There is no non-biblical record of the event. Given the obscurity of the town and the grosser cruelties of Herod, we are not surprised that this atrocity doesn't survive in ancient archives.

In the meanwhile, miraculously, Jesus was saved from death. Joseph was warned in a dream about Herod's plot and fled Bethlehem in the middle of the night to save Jesus (Matt. 2:13-15). What awkward-sounding language! Jesus, the Savior of the World, was saved by faithful Joseph.

Herod wielded his power as King of the Jews. He built his towers, fortifications, and cities. He fought armies and murdered babies. Then, two or three years after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod died -- unmourned.

What has been the verdict of history on these two figures? King Herod is a footnote to history; King Jesus is the one from whose coming all history is dated.

Years ago, someone summed up the impact of Jesus with these words:

Here is a young man who has born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter's shop until he was grown, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a really big city. He never traveled over 200 miles from the place where he was born. He never did any of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

While he was still a young man, the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth -- his coat. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.

I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned -- put together -- have not affected the life of man upon this earth as has that one solitary life.

So who is really king? Is it the one who bullies, pushes, and destroys with his power? Or is it the one who loves, serves, and empowers others?

The kingdoms of this world and all whose hearts are dominated by the sinful nature can only model the Herodian ideal. The Kingdom of God and the hearts of those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God must put on the new garments of compassion, forgiveness, and love. Where these traits are lived, the Babe of Bethlehem reigns. He is Sovereign, Lord of Lords, and King of Kings.

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