You have asked me about one of the most interesting leaders of our nation in recent times. Of course, as God’s people, we have a long history with many interesting leaders, judges and kings. But I understand that you are interested in knowing a little more about the one that we sometimes call “the Builder” though many also call him “Herod the Great.” You asked me how King Herod fits into the story of the life of Jesus.
First of all, I need to clarify that there were two Kings called Herod that touched the life of Jesus. One was the father of the other. The father set the stage for so much that happened in the life of our Savior, but he never really had any direct personal contact with Christ. No, he died when Jesus was just a little baby. This was the Herod visited by strangers from the East when they were seeking the new “King of the Jews.” You may recall that their visit led Herod to slaughter many babies aged two years or younger in and around Bethlehem, about which I will talk more later. You need to understand that the other King Herod, the one who ruled Judea for most of Jesus’ life, and to whom they brought Jesus the night he was tried, was the son of King Herod the Builder. It was the son that had the most direct interaction with Jesus, but today, I don’t want to talk about King Herod the son. I think I will have plenty to share by focusing on the father. I will tell you more about the son another time.
Only if you are interested in history would you want to hear the saga of interactions between Herod and the Caesars of Rome that cemented him in his position as King, establishing the dynasty that would rule our people for so many years. He was followed by his sons and then his grandsons, Kings Agrippa and Felix in the time of Paul.
During times of civil unrest in Rome, this man seemed to have an innate ability to be found on the “right side” of any issue, which, over a period of time, solidified his political power. Herod was a paradoxical mix of clever, able and efficient ruler and cruel tyrant. As the latter, he was distrustful, jealous, and brutal, ruthlessly crushing any potential opponent. I call him a “cruel tyrant” because in his paranoid fear of anyone seeking to overthrow him, he had his favorite wife executed when he suspected her of plotting against him.
However, he never really got over this evil deed and had to live with deep, personal remorse over having taken her life. But she wasn’t his only victim. He was responsible for having his father-in-law and three of his sons killed, as well as several of his ten wives and his mother-in-law, all on suspicion of conspiracy. Perhaps the greatest evidence of his paranoid fear of losing power was when he heard of the birth of the “the King of the Jews,” as he was described by eastern visitors. This news of a new king drove a paranoid Herod to have all the innocent infants in and around the city of Bethlehem killed. In the light of his heinous actions, I could justifiably call him “a mad man” or “an insane king,” a man consumed by his love of power and destroyed by trying to hold on to his position of authority.
King Herod often imposed an unfair burden of heavy taxes on the Jewish citizens to pay for his lavish building projects. There was, however, another problem underlying his fears. Herod’s mother was not a Jew, so many Jewish people saw him as impure, often calling him a “half-breed.” No matter how much King Herod tried to come across as a Jew, his pro-Roman leanings were also controversial. He was infuriated that the Jews had never accepted him as their legitimate king. He ignored the laws of God to suit himself and chose to court the favor of Rome at the expense of his own people. On the other hand, Herod did many good things to try to win the favor of the Jewish people and leave behind a tangible legacy. Perhaps I can take a few moments to tell you about some of them.
During Herod’s reign, we experienced a severe earthquake which destroyed many houses and killed thousands of people. The king built a new market, a theater, an amphitheater, a new building where the Sanhedrin could convene, and a new royal palace for himself, all in Jerusalem. But nothing this King did was as important as his most significant building project – the magnificent Temple here in Jerusalem that bears his name. “Herod’s Temple” superseded even the beauty of Solomon’s Temple. It became the heart not only of our city, but of our whole nation.
We Jews cannot praise King Herod enough whenever we talk about our beautiful temple, for his other accomplishments seem to be but a shadow of the greatness of this building. But I wouldn’t be telling you the whole story if I stopped there.
Herod was indeed responsible for many other notable construction projects in our country, such as the great new buildings in Jericho and Samaria. It was in Jericho that he built one of his many palaces and it was there that he died and was buried. He also built fortified cities to protect us as a nation. At Masada, he built a mighty palace fortress on a mount, to where he could retreat if under attack.
As a Jew, I will always say that Herod’s greatest achievement was our splendid Temple. The Gentiles who live in our land, however, would probably say that his greatest achievement was the grand new port that was named Caesarea in honor of the emperor Caesar Augustus. While I have to admit that Caesarea is an impressive and opulent city, which King Herod built to rival Alexandria in Egypt, it leaves a sour taste in our mouths as Jews. It was laid out on a Greek grid plan, with a market, aqueduct, government offices, baths, villas, a circus, and pagan temples. But I do have to admit that this port is a masterpiece of engineering, even if Herod didn’t endear himself to our people by building Greek-style theaters, amphitheaters and hippodromes (outdoor stadiums for horse and chariot racing) throughout the land.
To be more objective, however, I must confess that we prospered as a nation under Herod’s rule, and he stabilized our economy. I think the more I listen to myself talk, the more I realize just how much a man of contradictions King Herod really was. You must also remember that he ruled our people for thirty-three years, long enough to leave a deep footprint on our national identity.
Even such a bird’s eye view of Herod’s life has not yet addressed your original question about how his life was interwoven with the life of Christ. As I noted above, this Herod never had any direct contact with Christ himself, but how could any of us talk about the life of the Master and not talk about the Temple and the synagogues, the Pharisees and Sadducees? All of these dovetail in some way into the life and rule of King Herod. But the major act that always stands out when we think of King Herod is the slaughter of the innocent babies at the time of Christ’s birth.
One day, visitors from the East came to the palace of Herod bringing news that would only deepen his paranoia and fear of conspiracy. As I mentioned, even his own wife and children had not escaped his sword when he thought they might have perceivably been a threat to his power. How much more threatened he felt when men of position, power, and influence came asking him where a new King of the Jews was to be found! No doubt, they thought it proper to come to a king’s palace to discover the birth of a new prince. They undoubtedly expected – and why wouldn’t they? – that this child was of the lineage of Herod, a child of blessing to the current King. They must have been shocked and confused when King Herod didn’t know anything about the birth of this future ruler of the Jews.
I can only imagine what thoughts must have darkened the mind of King Herod as a new shroud of fear swathed and tightened around his soul. He managed to control his demeanor, however. Concealing his inner rage and appearing to be quite composed, he requested that the wise men and scholars of the land be brought to him and asked them, “Where is this future King of the Jews to be born?” They quickly came up with the answer that it would be in Bethlehem. I suspect that even while smiling and treating his special visitors to the expected forms of royal hospitality, he was ready to burst a blood vessel as he angrily devised a ruthlessly destructive plan of… mass infanticide!
True to his evil heart and disturbed mind, Herod began to execute his murderous scheme. “Go find this king,” he said, “and then come back and tell me where he is so I can go and worship him as well.” The eastern visitors agreed to do so, and left the palace of King Herod. They found the child they were seeking, but they never came back to the palace of the King. For reasons known only to them, they returned to their country by different eastward leading roads.
It was a while before King Herod knew what had happened. Waiting impatiently for the visitors to return, he began to realize, as the days passed, that they weren’t coming back with the location of this “new king.” He was so possessed with paranoiac fear that in a fit of rage, he called for his commanding officers and ordered them to mobilize immediately a sufficient number of soldiers to carry out a diabolical act. He decreed the death of every child of two years of age and younger in and around the city of Bethlehem. As the blood of their slain children stained the floors of their violated homes and city streets, the horrified screams and piercing wails of grief-stricken mothers echoed across the city and beyond. The King consoled himself with the delusional belief that through the death of many, he had now destroyed the one little baby that he feared so greatly.
Of course, we all know what happened that night. Joseph had a dream, and he and Mary fled to Egypt, sparing the life of their baby Jesus from that night of death. But Herod would not live long enough to find out that his demonic plan had, in the end, been an utter failure.
Herod became ill with an intestinal problem, perhaps some type of cancer, that proved to be terminal. Whatever his illness, it was excruciatingly painful, a putrefying condition that many now call “Herod’s Evil” when the same calamity befalls someone. The pain of his illness led King Herod to attempt suicide by stabbing himself, an attempt that was thwarted by his cousin. The knowledge that he was dying only fed his insanity. He changed his will several times in a short period of time, trying to find some self-gratifying way to maintain his control of power, even after he was dead. He wanted to be sure that the nation would mourn when he died, so he ordered many of the most influential people of the nation to gather together in one place where they were to be held until he died, giving orders that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would actually take place. However, his son Archelaus and his sister Salome did not carry out his dying wish. You can be sure that many were glad to see him gone. In spite of his many and magnificent achievements, it is the evil act of his insanity that became his best remembered legacy.
While this King Herod slaughtered members of his own family and people, and made Jesus and his parents into refugees, King Herod the elder didn’t directly touch Christ’s life. It was his son who had John the Baptist beheaded and, along with Pontius Pilate, was instrumental in the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, repeating his father’s murderous example. This is the Herod that Jesus called “a fox.” I hope to tell you more about him on another occasion.