Herod a "real" King

Original Date: 
Sunday, December 27, 2015

Matthew 2:13-18 Herod: A “Real” King

Matthew 2:13-18

13When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him."
14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,
15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
16When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

(Being wheeled in on a wheelchair, covered by a blanket, coughing and scratching.)

Slow down! Slow down! This isn’t a chariot race!

Stop! Just stop! Hold it still!

(Moving toward the throne) No, I can do it myself! Just get my blanket. Cover me up and get out of here. Leave me alone.

When will you all get it through your heads? I’m Herod the Great. The Great! I’m the King of the Jews. It’s about time you all start showing me some respect!

Not like those star-gazers from the east. Wise Men! Pah! If they had any brains in their heads they’d know that I’m the King of the Jews.

I am, you hear? I earned it.

Looking for the “one born King of the Jews.” Well, I don’t think that’s something you’re just born to, at least, I wasn’t. I’ve earned my power. I’ve worked for it.

Hah, I’m not even Jewish, at least not really. I’m Idumean, like the Jew’s poor step-brother. But my father knew how to play politics with Rome. He got me a job as the military governor of Galilee, and that’s all I needed to make a name for myself.

How’d I do it? Well, the only way to rule, with an iron fist. I cracked down on the rebels, I executed the thieves, whatever it took. It didn’t take long, and I had the attention of Marc Antony. Oh, it wasn’t fun playing the nicey-nice with Antony and Cleopatra, but a man’s got to know when to be humble, right? Antony helped my cause, helped me work my way up to Jerusalem.

But Antony got what was coming to him. Octavian—the great Emperor Augustus, long may he reign—put him in his proper place, and the coward took his own life. Oh, it was a little tense there when Octavian still thought I was actually on Antony’s side—it took some smooth talking on my part—but I made it clear that I was glad Octavian was on the throne.

So he made me the basileus—the client king of Judea—the King of the Jews. I converted—not that I really take any of that religious stuff seriously—and I took my throne. Like I said, I earned it.

And the people? Oh, they love me, well…at least they respect me… or fear me. They’re like dogs, kick ‘em every once in a while to keep ‘em in line, and throw them a bone to chew on the rest of the time. And I throw them plenty of bones.

Judea has never had it so good. Palaces, fortresses, markets. We’re modernizing, I tell you. We don’t have to be a backwater anymore. My new city, Ceaserea, on the sea, is as beautiful as any city in the world.

And the temple, have you seen the temple? The Temple of the LORD they say. Herod’s temple, I say. They like that plenty good. Twice as big as it was in the days of Solomon. We built a whole mountain to hold it. Covered it with gold. It shines like the sun.

They like that. They’ll remember me for that. Who cares if they won’t let me go inside of it? Just because I put the Roman Eagle on the front gate. Well, they can try to tear it down, I’ll find them and burn them alive, just like the last ones who were foolish enough to try it.

You see? That’s what being a king is all about. Give ’em something to be proud of, keep ‘em in line. They ought to love me, they don’t know how good they’ve got it.

But then these Magi waltz into Jerusalem with their giant camel caravan bumbling on about stars and prophecies and some baby born to be King of the Jews. Got the whole city stirred up and talking about the Messiah.

Nonsense, like some imagined “all-powerful” God is going to send some long awaited savior to restore the fortunes of His “chosen” people. Ancient superstition.

And yet, you can never be too careful. I don’t put any stock in prophetic mumbo-jumbo, but Messiahs can produce themselves. You mix revolutionary politics with fanatic religion and you can make a Messiah out of just about anybody—even a baby.

So I don’t take any chances. I didn’t work so hard to get all this power just to lose it. And let me tell you something about power—if you don’t use it, you will lose it.

Don’t look at me that way! You can’t judge me, I’m the king. Nobody can judge me! If people get in my way, I get them out of the way. That’s how it works.

That’s what happened with my father-in-law. He had royal blood, I didn’t. So I had him killed. Problem solved.

That’s what happened with my brother-in-law too. He was making moves to take my throne—MY THRONE!—so he had an unfortunate accident in my swimming pool. Oh, everybody knows it wasn’t an accident, but I’m the king. What are they going to do?

My sons? What are sons? Just vultures waiting for me to die. Yeah, I’ve had some killed. Antipater, Alexander, Aristobulus. They were plotting and scheming against me. They thought they could outsmart me. Oh well, I’ve got plenty of sons.

Miriam? Oh, that was a misunderstanding. She just didn’t understand. I loved her. When I left orders for her to be killed when I died, that was because I loved her. It was for her good. But she didn’t see that. She plotted against me. She was having an affair. So I had her killed too. No regrets. I’ve got other wives. I’m the king. I don’t apologize for anything.

So I’m not taking any chances with this new baby. I brought in all the chief priests and teachers of the law and I had them search the scriptures to see where this so-called Messiah was supposed to be born. They said it would be in a town called Bethlehem of Judea, about 6 miles from here. Just a tiny town, home of King David. Another guy who earned the throne.

Then I called for a private conference with those wise men. They were so pathetic. All anxious and excited to worship the King of the Jews. Who did they think they were talking too? But I kept my cool. I asked them when they had first seen this star, and then told them that I had been waiting for the Messiah too. I told them what the religious people had said about Bethlehem and then told them to go on ahead and see if they could find him. And I told them that if they did, they shouldn’t tell anyone else, but come right back to me, so that I could put together a royal procession and go to honor him myself.

Gullible Magi. They believed every word. And now they’re off doing my scouting for me. But if they think I’m actually going to bend my knee to some crying child, they’ve got another thing coming.

When these so-called Wise Men get back and tell me where the baby is, I’ll go to greet him all right—but I’ll go with a detachment of soldiers. I’ll kill the baby, and I’ll kill his parents too, for good measure. I’ll stop any revolution before it gets started.

And if those Star Gazers wise up and decide not to come back, well, I’ve got a plan for that too. They can’t outsmart me. I’ll just send the soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under. There can’t be that many—what 10, 20? That blood won’t be on my hands. It’ll be the Magi’s fault. They should know better than to mess with Herod the Great.

What? What!? You think that’s going too far? Don’t you get it? I’ve got to protect my throne. It’s my throne, I’ve earned it. This is what being a king is all about. How many times do I have to say that? If you’ve got power, you’ve got to use it, or you’ll lose it. And if that means killing babies, then I’ll kill babies.

And don’t talk to me about God. If God’s got a problem with the way I run my country, then He can come down and do something about it. All these notions of right and wrong. Well, I just don’t see it. Might makes right, I say, and I’ve got the might.

Besides, maybe a few dead babies is just what this country needs. Too much talk about salvation. Too much talk about freedom. Sure they’ll be mad for a while. Sure, I’ll stir them up a little. But I’ll scare them too. And that’s what matters.

I’ll give them another building project, make some more improvements to my temple. That’ll tide them over. They’ll forget all about their Messiah soon enough.

Just like dogs. Give ‘em a good kick every once in a while to keep ‘em in line, then throw them the occasional bone to keep ‘em happy.

They love me. Of course they love me. I’m Herod the Great. The GREAT I say.

Now, where’s that boy? Boy! BOY!

A Real King
When I set out to write a first person monologue for King Herod, I was worried that I might end up making a caricature of him. You know, here’s the guy famous for ordering the execution of innocent children, it’d be pretty easy to turn him into a cartoon villain.

But the more I researched him, the more I realized he would be impossible to caricature. This was a truly evil man. What the Bible reveals of his depravity is only the tip of the iceberg. Secular historians—historians with no particular concern to substantiate the Biblical story—tell us that he was one of the most criminally insane rulers to ever live. He plotted and schemed to gain power, and he spared no expense to keep it. He wasn’t afraid to order the death of friend or foe, and he was gripped by a paranoia that led him to execute many of his own family members. At one point Augustus Caesar—while signing yet another death warrant on Herod’s behalf—commented that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than to be his son. A serial bigamist, he had 10 wives, and probably many mistresses besides. He died a horrible death—being consumed by gangrene infested with maggots—most likely brought on by an untreated case of gonorrhea. Just before his death he ordered that all the heads of household in Jerusalem be rounded up and killed at the same moment he died—so as to ensure that there would be mourning in Judea on the day he died. This last order—mercifully—was not carried out.

He was bad. As bad as a person can get.

So why take time at a Christian worship service to let the voice of this ruthless tyrant be heard? That’s another thing I worried about this week: how do you give a Christian message from the perspective of an incorrigibly wicked man?

Well, there are a couple of reasons why I thought we needed to hear from Herod today.

1) First, Herod’s story helps us to remember that Jesus was born into a very real, and very violent, world. The Christmas Story isn’t just a Mother Goose fairy tale with twinkling stars, cuddly sheep, and singing angels. It’s a great story, a wonderful story for bathrobe pageants and bedtime readings—yes—but it’s more. It’s also a story about real people, living in a real place, with the same very real problems we face today.

As you can see from this story, terror and madness are not unique to our time in history. In fact, the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the ongoing reports of violance in Afghanistan and Syria are in keeping with what the Bible says about the world: it is a fallen, broken place. It is a world corrupted by sin and prone to death. That’s why Jesus came.

Jesus was born into a world full of evil, power, and pain. And it was that pain which he came to redeem. That may not answer all our questions, but it does tell us that God has not left us alone in the midst of our sorrow.

2) And the other reason I think it is important to consider King Herod is because of the contrast he offers to the kingship of our Lord Jesus.

The Bible makes no bones about calling Jesus King. It’s in the prophecies, the wise men said it at His birth, it was printed above His head when He died. The Apocalypse of John tells us that when Jesus comes again, the words “King of kings and Lord of lords” will be written on His thigh (Rev. 19:16).

Jesus is King. And there is an expectation in Scripture that we will honor Him as such. We are called to give Him our allegiance, and we are told that someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). Make no mistake, God wants you to make Jesus your king.

But that can be tough, especially in a world where kings are a whole lot less than admirable. Talking with Milan Johnson this week, he told me that scholars now believe Herod’s behavior was pretty typical for a ruler of that day. If Jesus is a king like Herod, then I want no part of Him. But that’s just the point, Jesus is nothing like Herod.

Jesus told His followers that if they wanted to be leaders, they were going to have to be different than the leaders of the world. He said they would have to serve. And He set the example. The prophecy that directed the wise men to Bethlehem, the one from Micah, said that the ruler to be born in Bethlehem would be different. Listen to it:

2But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times…
4He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.

Did you hear those words? “Shepherd.” “In the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.” “They will live securely.” “Peace.” Which of those things sound like Herod?

Even today, you’re rarely going to find a king—or a leader of any stripe or title—who is truly interested in what is best for you. You might get a politician willing to lower your taxes or raise your Medicaid, but you’re not likely to find one who cares about your heart. A “shepherd.” Someone looking to bring you real “peace.”

But that’s the kind of king Jesus is. He didn’t come to claim power and lord it over us, He came to use His power to make our lives better. Herod got one thing right, the title King is something you earn. But Jesus didn’t earn it in Herod’s way, He earned it by the way He lived, and by the way He died.

The baby born in Bethlehem, the one who avoided Herod’s murderous plot, really is the King. He came to give Himself for our salvation.

Herod’s power was fear. Jesus’ power is love. That’s the kind of king I want to serve.