Herod is in a position many would envy. He is king over a very beautiful country; everything in the land is his. He can have the wife he wants, he can afford some lavish building programmes and he enjoys the protection of his Roman overlords. He lays on lavish parties where the wine flows and the finest cuisine is enjoyed money is no object. Palaces, lands, wealth are his, he is the most gifted member of his family, he is known as a cunning politician, Herod the fox, his name is now written in the pages of history; who would not envy Herod?
Yet Herod is one of the most pathetic men in the whole of the Bible. He is known of course as the man who beheaded John the Baptist but look at the word the Bible places alongside Herod’s is afraid. Here in Matthew we learn he is afraid of the crowds, in mark that he was afraid of John. He is self-evidently afraid of his wife, Herodias, and he is afraid of losing face in front of his friends; despite his wealth and power Herod was a man riven with fear. As we see with John the Baptist Herod had the power of life and death over everyone on his kingdom but the man who slept least easily in his bed at night was Herod, he was a tortured soul.
Fear must always have played a dominant role in Herod’s life. His father was Herod the Great who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth Herod the Great rules Israel for thirty six years from 40BC to 4BC.
The early years of Herod’s reign were fraught, he had been placed in power by the Romans after a series of incidents where he ruthlessly put down revolts by the Jews guerrillas. His ruthlessness endeared him to the Romans but made the people of Israel hate him. To the south he feared Cleopatra who had hopes of annexing Israel and adding her empire. That issue was resolved by the battle of Actium after which Herod the Great was affirmed as king of Israel by the great emperor Augustus. But he was never accepted by his own people.
Herod the Great was not a Jew he was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau and was despised by the fiercely proud nationalistic Jews and their religious leaders the Scribes and Pharisees. He tried hard to win their favour, he had the Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt on a grand and large scale in an effort to reclaim the glory of the days of Solomon but still they hated him. He married the daughter of the previous king Mariamne and had sons to her, but he was suspicious of them thinking they were plotting against him he had them strangled and the Jews hated him more. He even suspected Mariamne and had her strangled and people hated him more. Little wonder that when the magi visited Herod seeking the new king of Israel Herod in fear of this new king launched the massacre of the Innocents, a man who could strangle his own sons would think little of slaughtering the babies of a few peasants. Herod the Great was king but though he was a merciless despot he had no peace fear gripped him and lay at the root of all he did.
When Herod the Great died he split the kingdom between three of his sons: to Archelaus, whom we read of here he bequeathed Judea and Samaria, Galilee and Perea to Antipas and the northern territories to Philip.
There could not have been a time in his life when Herod did not know fear; his half-brothers had been murdered by his father; his family was hated and he lived in terror of someone snatching the throne from him. He feared the crowds, He feared his friends. He feared his wife. He even feared John the Baptist.
Then in Herod we see what constant, gnawing fear can do to someone.
Firstly we see in Herod how fear can paralyse someone. It is his birthday he and his friends are half drunk; they have his niece Salome dance for them, she was probably about twelve at the time. They are all so enthralled with her Herod makes a proud boast offering her up to half his kingdom. The girl does not know what to ask for so she runs to her mother and her mother full of bile and hatred tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.
At the request Herod is paralysed he does not know what to do. I often think it is one of the greatest acts of God’s mercy and grace that He allowed Herod arrest John the Baptist and throw him in jail, because Herod loved to hear John preach and in these months John was virtually chaplain to the king. The message John brought was a tough one; he did not spare Herod, he told him plainly what was right and what was wrong; but as long as John preached in Herod’s court, Herod had hope.
Isn’t that wonderful; that John brought the offer of divine mercy and forgiveness right into the heart of Herod’s home into this house where Herod’s father had his mother and his brothers strangled. Into this palace where so many fearful memories lingered John brought the mercy and grace of God. In facing the death of John, Herod was also facing the death of the last hope he had of ever finding peace.
And he is paralysed he does not know what to do. Give in to Herodias or be a true king stand up to her squash her vile request and seek mercy through John or give in to his fear. Fear won.
The second consequence of fear is Herod begins to lose touch with reality. When Herod heard about Jesus he lapsed into superstition; the gnawing guilt over the execution of John the Baptist made him fear that John had come back as a ghost to haunt him. Irrationality begins to take a grip in Herod’s life. I am sure that in the many sermons John preached in Herod’s court John must have spoken about the one who would come after him, the thong of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. I am sure he would have preached to Herod that though he, John, baptised with water Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
But Herod collapsed before Herodias’ intimidating request, he has John executed at that moment all hope for Herod is lost and he sinks further and further into the morass of his fears until he believes this nonsense about Jesus.
One of the saddest stories of the Old Testament is the story of Saul. A fine young man arrives in his court, a young warrior who has just led the armies to a famous victory and this young man proves to be invincible on the battlefield, he is unquestionably loyal and is like a brother to Saul’s son Jonathan. But then Saul hears the girls singing in the streets, ‘Saul has slain thousands but David has slain tens of thousands!’ and Saul is consumed with jealousy and fear that David will usurp him and seize the throne. Saul all but destroys the nation as he throws all his might into trying to kill David.
A few years ago I read the book Cold Cream by Ferdinand Mount; the cold cream referred to his earliest memory of the cold cream his mother used as part of her makeup he remembered the smell and the texture. Ferdinand Mount was a speech writer and adviser to Margaret Thatcher and he writes very warmly and appreciatively about her. He admired her resolution and her courage all through the Falklands war she never wavered in her commitment to liberating the Falkland Islands, she feared nobody and pursued what she believed was right tenaciously. But Ferdinand Mount was also with her when she called the election on 1982 and he writes that he saw this fearless woman who was so strong all through the Falklands war through the sinking of the Belgrano and the loss of British ships reduced to a quivering jelly at the thought of going to the polls even though she had a commanding lead in the opinion polls and the opposition was weak and divided she was terrified for she feared loss and public humiliation.
John in his first epistle has something fascinating and wonderful to say about fear and how fear is overcome. He writes, ‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’
Was that the root of all Herod’s dark fears? Herod knew his father had bought the kingdom with the blood of many innocent people that his family did not deserve to rule over the land, quite the opposite they deserved to die for all the evil they had done. How could Herod find any pleasure in any of his palaces or his wealth when it had been obtained by the shedding of the blood of so many innocent lives? Herod knew too that John was right in denouncing his adulterous marriage. Herod was guilty too of killing the greatest prophet God had ever given to Israel. Herod deserved to be punished, that knowledge haunted him and filled him with terror.
But says John, love drives out fear. The love that John is thinking of here is not your love for God but God’s love for you. The word for drives out is a kind of picture word; it is word that means picking someone up by the scruff of the neck and throwing them out of the door and sending them on their way.
Do you believe you deserve to be punished? Maybe it is something from way back from before you were born something in your family; Herod Antipas could not help being Herod the Great’s son, he was not responsible for all the gross crimes of his father but he had to live with the consequences. Maybe it is something you are responsible for Herod was responsible for marrying the his brother’s wife. Maybe you believe you deserve to be punished for your failure to heed many warnings and being weak as Herod was in showing no mercy to John.
What matters says John is not your love for God but God’s perfect love for you. Jesus said, ‘God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through Him.’ What you must do is go to Calvary; Calvary is the place of punishment. At Calvary blaspheme, sin against God is punished. At Calvary insurrection the root sin against man is punished. Jesus was punished for us at Calvary. When Jesus comes to us He grabs our fears by the scruff of the neck and throws them out into the street because He wants us to know only perfect love.
I remember the first time a certain gentleman was on door duty in BVP he said ‘the last time I did this job I was chucking people out not pulling them in.’ This is one of Jesus great jobs He is a bouncer who chucks out fear. I can testify that it is one of the great jobs He has done in my soul.
Jesus throws our fear so that love can take root in our lives. Perfect love drives out fear.