The price of arrogance

Throughout history, there have always been people who believed too much in their own power. We call them tyrants, autocrats, dictators. Sometimes, they go as far as to believe themselves to be gods, as did the Roman emperors of old. 

History does not treat such leaders kindly.

And there may be a price to pay in their own time.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, was the Roman appointee who ruled Judea as king. Luke drops him rather abruptly into the story of Acts at the beginning of chapter 12.

And it doesn’t take long for him to disappear again.

Wanting to crush the Jesus movement, Agrippa had killed James and arrested Peter. Peter was kept under heavy guard until the end of Passover, when the king intended to make a political example of him.

But Agrippa had no concept that he was fighting God rather than mere men. An angel freed Peter from prison in the dead of night; Luke doesn’t tell us how they escaped without being seen by the soldiers. His description of the next morning’s commotion, however, suggests that they were completely baffled over what could have happened to Peter.

Agrippa ordered a search, but to no avail. Then he interrogated the soldiers who were supposed to keep his prize prisoner safely under lock and key. Failure in that duty was punishable by whatever fate the prisoner had coming. Thus, the soldiers, innocent of Peter’s escape, were executed.

His rage satisfied for the moment, Agrippa left Jerusalem for Caesarea, the Roman seat of power in the province of Judea.

What Luke describes next is independently corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews. The Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, several miles up the Mediterranean coast from Caesarea, depended on the goodwill of Judea for food. But somehow, they had angered Agrippa (I imagine this was quite easy to do).

They decided, therefore, to find a way to bury the hatchet. “They persuaded Blastus, the king’s personal attendant, to join their cause” (Acts 12:20, CEB) — they bribed him, in other words, to get an audience with Agrippa in Caesarea. 

When the day came, the crowd was filled with dignitaries. Josephus describes Agrippa’s grand entrance and reception:

Agrippa put on a robe made of silver throughout, of quite wonderful weaving, and entered the theatre at break of day. Then the silver shone and glittered wonderfully as the sun’s first rays fell on it, and its resplendence inspired a sort of fear and trembling in those who gazed at it. Immediately his flatterers called out from various directions… they invoked him as a god… ‘Hitherto we have reverenced you as a human being, but henceforth we confess you to be of more than mortal nature.’ He did not rebuke them, nor did he repudiate their impious flattery.

One gets the impression that this is the kind of reaction Agrippa wanted. But then he looked up, and saw an owl. According to Josephus, years before, Agrippa had seen an owl which then had been a personal sign of good fortune. But the one who interpreted the sign for him also predicted that if he ever saw the owl again, he would be dead in five days.

Five days later, Agrippa was dead.

Earlier, an angel of the Lord had struck Peter to wake him up and free him from prison. Then some months later and just as suddenly, an angel of the Lord struck the arrogant Agrippa down after a reign of three short years, “because he didn’t give the honor to God” (Acts 12:23). 

Just like that, he vanishes from the story. By contrast, “God’s word continued to grow and increase” (Acts 12:24).

That is, after all, where the real story lies.