A Lesson from the Life of Herod the Great

Photo: Zvonimir Atletic
Published January 10, 2012

Will the Arab Spring become an Arab winter? That’s the question commentators have been asking as events unfold in the Middle East. This past year was certainly one of upheaval in many Arab countries. Popular uprisings led to the overthrow of three governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Violence and civil unrest continue in other countries —Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and even Egypt remain unstable.

For the most part, since recorded history the Middle East has been governed by despots, tyrants and dictators. Sadly, rulers such as the late Colonel Qaddafi and Syrian President al-Assad are more the norm than the exception.

One ruler, however, stands out for particular cruelty to his people—Herod, who lived over two thousand years ago. We can meet him in Matthew 2:112.

Who was this Herod? His name means “sprung from a hero” and his family was originally Greek. When Rome conquered Israel in 70 B.C., local leaders scrambled for power in the new world order. A soldier by the name of Herod rose in the ranks and ruled for 20 years until he was murdered.

This first Herod established two sons in government. Upon his death, one son took charge. He ruled between 37 and 4 B.C. and became known as Herod the Great.

Herod courted Roman favour so successfully that eventually he was given the right to be called “king of the Jews.” His Jewish followers—Herodians—believed that collaborating with Rome was in their self-interest.

Herod was a grand builder. He added on to the temple in Jerusalem, making it one of the great wonders of the ancient world. He built a shrine over Abraham’s tomb and erected magnificent palace-fortresses in Jericho, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Masada.

Herod was also unscrupulous and even vicious where his own security and self-interest were concerned. He executed one of his wives and two of his sons because he thought they might threaten his rule. A contemporary joke had it that it was safer to be one of Herod’s dogs than one of his sons.

According to William Barclay, author and professor of divinity and biblical criticism at the University of Glasgow, Herod left orders that, when he died, his soldiers were to round up a group of well-known citizens and frame them for a concocted crime, then kill them. That way, Herod assured himself, somebody would shed tears upon his death—even if the tears weren’t for him.

Many scholars view Herod as a man with a split soul. On the one hand, he had the soul of a modern ruler, cultured in Greek civility and longing to retire in the wilderness to reflect. After all, every palace-fortress he built was on the edge of the desert. On the other hand, he revealed the soul of a despotic ruler with messianic aspirations—a man who was utterly ruthless with anyone he perceived as a threat to his reign.

It is in this context that the epiphany story begins with the visit of the wise men from the east (Matthew 2). They arrive in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

Can you imagine the reaction of Herod, a despot who has already murdered his wife and two sons because they threatened his throne?

The Bible says Herod was “frightened” about the birth of this child, a possible rival to his throne. So he assembles the priests and scribes and asks where the Jewish Messiah will be born. In Bethlehem, they answer, only six miles away.

This is all too much for Herod.

Secretly he summons the wise men and tells them, “Go and search diligently for the child: and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also and pay him homage.”

Of course, Herod is lying, for his intention is not to worship the child but to kill him.

The wise men go to Bethlehem and find the child; they give him gifts, which Joseph might use to pay for his family’s unexpected trip to Egypt.

The wise men, though, do not return to Herod, having been warned in a dream; instead, they go home by a different route.

Herod, when he realizes he has been duped, becomes enraged and orders a detestable deed. He sends his soldiers into Bethlehem and has them kill every male child from birth to two years—probably 18 or more children by best estimates. It is certainly a tragic ending to the Christmas story.

So far, we have asked, “Who is Herod? What did he do?”

We must also ask, “Why did Herod have no qualms about murdering innocent children?” The answer, perhaps, sheds light on why, even today, dictators and despots do such detestable deeds to maintain their power.

When I lived in California, one of my favourite pastimes was to hike either in the mountains or the desert. Every serious hiker knows about the fight-flee line of most predatory animals. Should you approach a bear in the woods, for example, the animal will likely run from you. You’ve crossed its flee line. But if you dare to move closer, the animal will turn and attack you. You’ve crossed its fight line.

We humans also have a sense of turf. There are times when we flee and times when we fight, depending on whether, in our own minds, a line has been crossed. You can see this played out in the corporate world, where there are hostile takeovers and unfair competition. An ad in a business magazine a few years ago even stated, “In the end, cunning and ruthlessness will overcome ability and youth.”

Wherever people get together, there is a pecking order, with little kingdoms of “self” and conflict about who will rule.

Look at the state of American politics: partisanship can take on such an ugly and hostile tone that compromise and consensus become all but impossible. Is it principle or personality—or, more likely, protection of one’s turf? In politics these days, power is to be preserved, not shared.

And yet, what happens at Christmas? God becomes human, walking onto our turf, crossing our fight-flee line. God comes threatening our little kingdoms, encroaching on our lives.

Jealousy is not an uncommon response on our part. Consider 5-year-old Tommy’s response when asked about his new baby brother: “He’s got Mom’s eyes, Daddy’s forehead, and my bed!”

The key to understanding Herod’s response comes in understanding stewardship. Is this all mine or does it actually belong to God?

The Bible is clear. Everything I have comes from God; it is God’s right now and it will most certainly return to God. Therefore, I possess nothing. I only manage all this for the Lord. That means, I hold all things in an open palm. But when I begin to squeeze it, to mutter the word “mine,” then my soul is in danger.

Such was the soul of Herod the Great, and such is the history of the human race—for any time we fight to save our little physical kingdom from encroachment, any time we let our selfish concerns rebel against God’s kingdom, we are following in the footsteps of Herod.

Just look at the 20th century—over 100 million people lost their lives in wars.

Just look at the murderous rage of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, or the legacy of Colonel Qaddafi or President al-Assad, or Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden.

We do violent, crazy things because we want to protect our turf against encroachment—all of which makes the actions of the biblical wise men so counter-intuitive. Tradition calls them kings and yet they sought Jesus. Think of it: a king seeking another king that he might worship him! Here, we actually see persons loving Jesus, giving up their own turf to his rule.

How about us—how shall we respond to Jesus? Fight? Flee? Or love?

In January 1998, on the 50th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, the actor Ben Kingsley read from the writings of the Mahatma, or “great soul,” in the pulpit of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, England. At the end of the reading, Kingsley unexpectedly added: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and, for a time, they have seemed invincible, but, in the end, they always fall. Think of it: always.

Today, in the midst of wars and rumours of wars, with tyrants and despots in power, terrorists on the loose and crazed political leaders in possession of nuclear weapons or wanting them, take comfort in these words. Truth will overcome the lie, love will triumph over hate and the light will swallow the darkness.

Two thousand years have passed and Christians the world over call Jesus “king,” and rightly so.

That other king of the Jews, Herod, has gone the way of all tyrants, relegated to a footnote in history for his infamous crimes against the saviour of the world.

Ben Kingsley had it right: “There have been tyrants, and, for a time, they have seemed invincible, but, in the end, they always fall. Think of it: always.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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