Herod we go again (First Advent 2019)

With apologies to Shakespeare, one might say that King Herod the Great was a real piece of work. Like a first-century Henry VIII, he would do anything for power and political gain: marry a woman out of expediency then brush her aside; execute rivals without a trial. In Matthew 2, he begins to panic when the visiting wise men tell him of a child who has been born to be the true king of the Jews.

And when a tyrant like Herod gets nervous, the whole city of Jerusalem gets nervous with him (vs. 3).

But he’s no rookie at politics. He checks his sources: Yes, there’s a prophecy that corroborates what he was told by the wise men. Then he begins to plot and scheme. He calls the wise men back, thinking to woo them with his pretend piety: Please, friends, go find the child and then let me know. I want to worship him too! 

I imagine him watching the backs of the departing magi, thinking to himself, Fools. So easily manipulated.

What Herod doesn’t realize, of course, is that he’s trying to outwit God.

When he discovers that his cleverness has failed him, he throws a royal tantrum. Oh, yeah? We’ll see who has the last laugh. With murderous rage, he orders soldiers to kill the children in and around Bethlehem. That ought to do it. No one’s going to take my throne!

But the final word in his story is simply this: “After Herod died…” (Matt 2:19). That’s it. Matthew’s story brushes the ruthless man aside as Herod had brushed others aside. His power had come to nothing. God’s plan would not be thwarted.

Two generations later, another Herod would sit on the throne of Judea: Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great. He was more popular with the people than his grandfather, and in part, he had his grandfather to thank. Herod the Great had been Idumean by descent, and resented by the Hasmoneans (descended from the legendarily heroic Maccabees), who had long ruled Judea. To compensate, Herod married Mariamne, a Hasmonean princess. Then he proceeded to bump off her family, and finally Mariamne herself.

Like I said, a piece of work.

Agrippa was the grandson of that union — which meant that he had Hasmonean blood in his veins. For those who still honored the memory of Judas Maccabeus, the great liberator of the Jews, that was a plus in Agrippa’s favor. But as we’ve seen in our study of Acts, Agrippa was a tyrant like his grandfather.

And like his grandfather, his story came to a similar end.

Luke’s story of the church began, of course, in Jerusalem. But his emphasis on the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles means that the story must shift away from Jerusalem, first to Antioch, then to other places around the empire.

But before he makes that shift, he tells the story of Agrippa in a way that seems to echo that of Herod the Great.

In Acts, Agrippa is called “King Herod.” He is violently opposed to the Christian movement, to the people who follow Jesus as their Messiah and King. So he maneuvers against them. He kills one Christian leader, James, then claps Peter in irons, with the intent of making an example of his execution. 

Like the earlier Herod, however, he is unaware of how God is orchestrating miracles behind his back. When he finds out that Peter has somehow escaped, heads roll. Literally. But in the end, Luke leaves us with only this for his epitaph: “he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). That’s probably not a medical diagnosis as such; it’s a way of saying he died the death he deserved.

Then Luke’s story simply brushes him aside.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t mourn the suffering caused by either man, from the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem to the execution of James the son of Zebedee. But we are meant to understand once again that God will not be denied, whatever the plans of the ruthless may be.

That’s a good thing to remember as the season of Advent begins.