December 24, 2017 | Christmas Eve AM Service
Doug Wilson. I have often said that nativity sets should include a set of Herod’s soldiers—that is as much a part of the Christmas story as the shepherds, or the star, or the wise men. These traditional figures all glorified Christ in His coming, but the reality of such bloody soldiers was the reason He came.
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. . . . 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. . . . Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matt 2:16–18 ESV).
The question that comes to my mind as I read this story – Herod, what’s your deal? What kind of man, at the end of his life mind you, feels so insecure that he feels threatened by a baby from Bethlehem? A baby that couldn’t possibly ever come of age in time to be an actual threat to Herod. To answer a question such as that I’m inclined to pursue a better understanding of Herod’s life and background.
So then, I intend to do two things. First, I want to take note of a few moments in Herod’s life that may shed some light on his actions in Bethlehem. And secondly, I would like to draw three lessons out of these observations.
You likely aren’t wondering and may not even care, but I would imagine that if I were to ask you which historical figure from the ancient world has more written about him than any other, you would probably not have guessed Herod the Great. You may guess figures such as Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. As Christians, you might think of figures such as Jesus or Paul. But none of them rival the information we still possess about Herod the Great, and this is solely due to the preservation of the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.
It is true that the life of Herod the Great ends in conspiracies, betrayal, and the murders of many of his own family members. Yet, his life consists of so much more than his evil and corrupt demise. Within his life we find stories of passionate unquenchable love, tremendous and creative architectural accomplishments, and years of successful rulership.
As we consider Herod, we probably know him best for his slaughter of the young boys in Bethlehem. That’s probably due our Christian heritage and our regular readings of the Bethlehem narrative. Yet, this incident goes unmentioned, maybe even unnoticed, by Josephus. Josephus does, however, go a great deal into the paranoia and murderous behavior of Herod. Intermixed within these cruel moments are more positive and remarkable accounts of Herod.
He was a remarkable politician. Of course he wasn’t really “the king” but he successfully navigated Rome and was established as a “client king” for nearly 40 years. In some senses he does deserve the title “Herod the Great.” He rebuilt the great temple in Jerusalem (Ant. 15.11.1-6). He designed and built Caesarea in 12 years, and in so doing crafted a port where there had been none prior. Caesarea was not the only city he built (Ant. 15.9.6). In fact he builds three other cities that he names after his parents and brother (Ant. 16.5.2). Not only did he build the temple in Jerusalem, but as well a gorgeous palace for himself (Ant. 15.9.3), a great stadium, and theaters (Ant. 15.8.1). On top of this he built seven great fortresses throughout his land which could serve to defend his rule (Ant. 15.8.5, 17.2.1). From this perspective, nearly everything he did was successful and he successfully kept the peace with Rome and Jerusalem.
I can imagine he desired to be known for these accomplishments. That was to be his legacy, and yet it is his volatile and murderous familial relationships that more likely became his legacy.
42 BC. Engaged to Mariamme I. Of Herod’s ten wives (Yikes!), he loved Mariamne the most. She, the Hasmonean princess, was his favorite. It is true that she was married off to him for political reasons, but nonetheless Herod had a passionate unbridled love for her.
36-35 BC. Mariamne’s brother established as High Priest and then killed. Due to the insistence of Mariamne and her mother, Herod agrees to establish her 18 year old brother as the High Priest. Two incidents occur that result in the demise of this young man. First, Herod didn’t trust his mother, so she was put under surveillance. “He gave a command that she should dwell in the palace and meddle with no public affairs.” Guards kept constant watch so that she could hide nothing. Of course she grew tired of this and hated Herod for doing it. So, she had two coffins made, and she and her son were carried away as two dead bodies in the nighttime. They were caught, so Herod’s suspicion of them both increased. (Ant. 15.3.2). Secondly, the people end up liking him. Herod sees this as a threat, and determines to have him taken out of the way. He realizes that he must do this secretly or it will make him look bad, so at a party, he directs his servants and young Aristobulus to swim – so as to relieve themselves from the heat. In so doing, those servants follow Herod’s instructions by cooling themselves in a fish pond nearby and they “dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening, as if it had been done in sport only; nor did they desist till he was entirely suffocated. And thus was Aristobulus murdered, having lived no more in all than eighteen years, and kept the high priesthood one year only . . . ” (Ant. 15.3.3).
Mother in law blames Herod. Apparently Herod was not quite as sneaky as he was hoping and Aristobulus’ grandmother (Mariamne’s mother) blames Herod and looks for ways to get justice. She contacts Mark Antony and demands that he punish Herod for his crime. Herod is called to Mark Antony to explain himself. In going, he leaves his Uncle Joseph to care for his wife. He also leaves very specific instructions. If he is killed, Herod wants Joseph to kill her. Due to his love and passion for her, he just couldn’t imagine her marrying someone else and him being separate from her in death. Joseph ends up telling Mariamne about this agreement and of course she becomes upset. She confronts Herod when he returns and Herod surmises that Joseph must have been intimate with her to know that, so he has Joseph killed.
Mariamne lives with bitterness. From this point on, she lives in open bitterness towards him. Josephus tells us that she “would behave herself after a saucy manner to him, which yet he usually put off in a jesting way, and bore with moderation and good temper” (Ant. 15.7.4). This troubled Herod, seeing his wife harbor this hatred for him and fail to conceal it. He took it poorly and was unable to bear it “on account of the fondness he had for her . . . and thus was entangled between hatred and love, and was frequently disposed to inflict punishment on her for her insolence . . . but being deeply in love with her . . . was not able to get quit of this woman.” Frankly, he often desired to have her punished, but he realized that if he put her to death he would probably incur a greater punishment (Ant. 15.7.2).
29 BC. Mariamne attempts to poison him. In a moment of great affection, Herod calls for Mariamne. “She came in accordingly, but would not lie down by him; and when he was very desirous of her company, she showed her contempt of him; and added by way of reproach, that he had caused her father and her brother to be slain” (Ant. 15.7.4). He took this injury very unkindly and was ready to physically abuse her. Herod’s sister intervenes. A plot had been orchestrated to present to Herod a “love potion” which was actually poison. The servant who brings the potion to Herod fails to follow through with the instructions given to him and he informs the king. The consequences – Mariamne is eventually killed and Herod goes into a state of insanity.
at this time his love to Mariamne seemed to seize him in such a peculiar manner, as looked like divine vengeance upon him for the taking away of her life; for he would frequently call for her, and frequently lament for her, in a most indecent manner. Moreover, he bethought him of everything he could make use of to divert his mind from thinking of her, and contrived feasts and assemblies for that purpose, but nothing would suffice: (242) he therefore laid aside the administration of public affairs, and was so far conquered by his passion, that he would order his servants to call for Mariamne, as if she were still alive, and could still hear them (Ant. 15.7.4).
At this same time, a great pestilence broke out among the people. The people blamed Herod. They concluded that God was judging him for his injustice to Mariamne. He became more and more entrenched in his own sorrow and physical sickness, that he went away into the desert. As a result, Mariamne’s mother deems him insane and declares herself to be queen. This coup is sufficient to shake the illness from Herod and he returns to Jerusalem, kills Alexandra (Mariamne’s mother). He kills four of his closest friends, and apparently feels a lot better. He’d go on to live another 25 years, and 5 years later he remarried his new beautiful wife, Mariamme. (Ant. 15.9.3, 18.5.4).
Herod kills three of his sons. Remember, Herod had ten wives, and seven of these wives produced male princes that all desired to get dad’s spot in the kingdom. We are aware of a whole bunch of plots against Herod and one another, as each son jockeyed for position. Imagine the number of plots of which we are unaware. Mariamne’s two sons (Alexander and Aristobulus) became under suspicion of treason. “All Syria and Judea was in great expectation, and waited for the last act of this tragedy; yet did nobody suppose that Herod would be so barbarous as to murder his children” (Wars. 1.27.3). Yet, after a period of deliberation, he ordered them to be strangled. “And this was the end of Alexander and Aristobulus” (Wars. 1.27.6).
Antipater attempts to poison Herod. Another of his sons plotted to kill him. The plot was found out, and eventually Antipater was as well executed. He was so enraged that he tortured many innocent people out of fear that he would leave a guilty person untortured (Wars. 1.30.4). The story is told of one young woman who simply decided to “throw herself down from the top of the house, in order to prevent any examination and torture from the king” (Wars. 1.30.5).
When he had done those things, he died, the fifth day after he had caused Antipater to be slain; having reigned, since he had procured Antigonus to be slain, thirty-four years; but since he had been declared king by the Romans, thirty-seven.—A man he was of great barbarity towards all men equally, and a slave to his passions (Ant. 17.8.1)
Herod nearly has hundreds of Jews slaughtered in the Hippodrome. We end this hideous tale with one final act of horror. Of course the vast majority of people, in Jerusalem, hated Herod by this time. As a result, he was concerned that Jerusalem would throw a party when he died. His solution to this potential travesty? He called all the most illustrious men in the whole Jewish nation together and gathered them into the great stadium and shut them in. He then directed his sister and brother in law to have them all killed upon his death. This would insure that all Jerusalem would mourn at his death (Wars. 1.33.6).
No mention of babies in Bethlehem. You may notice, there is one travesty that Herod committed that has yet to be discussed. The murder of the male babies in Bethlehem. It is because it isn’t mentioned in any of Josephus’ writings. Many have concluded that the slaughter of the innocent boys in Bethlehem must not have occurred due to its absence in Josephus. Of course we accept the biblical account and we don’t assume that just because Josephus didn’t mention it that it couldn’t have happened. Maybe Josephus hadn’t heard of it, or maybe Josephus didn’t warrant it as impressive enough for his readers. After all, it may have been within a year or two of the hundreds of Jews being put in the stadium awaiting Herod’s death.
The sad reality is that the number of children that were killed was probably relatively small, comparatively. Bethlehem was likely no bigger than 1,500 residents. It is estimated that Bethlehem and its’ surrounding area would probably not have had more than a couple dozen babies. Assuming that half of them were girls, there were probably about a dozen boys that were killed.
Herod lived in a world of suffering, betrayal, and evil. Herod was the cause of much of the evil done in his lifetime, but he was as well the recipient of much evil. After all he was the product of a conniving and evil culture. Even his wife and a few of his sons tried to kill him. It is within this evil and perverse culture that Christ was born, and it is within this same perverse and evil culture that we each were born. Just like Herod and his family members, we often become either the victim of others pursuit of power, selfish ambition, and greed, or we are the perpetrators ourselves.
This evil exists both horizontally and vertically. Our relationships on a horizontal plane are often a wreck and tainted by power struggles and selfishness. On this horizontal plane, we are impacted by broken relationships with others but as well suffer the ongoing consequences of living in a creation that is groaning through decay due to the Fall. So then we suffer pain as we endure broken relationships and we suffer pain as our bodies slow down, become sick, and eventually die.
As well, our vertical relationship with God is broken. We live at enmity with Him. We are antagonistic towards him. We do not appreciate his rule. We actively look for ways to upset his rule in our lives. Paul writes in Romans, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom 8:7 ESV). Earlier in Romans he wrote, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10 ESV).
He attempted to hold on to his legacy by means of earthly conniving and force. Before we too quickly dismiss the idea that we might be like Herod, let me attempt to draw a comparison. Herod held tightly to his power and apparent successes. He wanted nothing to interfere with his legacy and his plans. He did what he thought he had to do to hold on to his ideal. The comparison falls apart when you understand that what he did to hold on to his ideal was kill a lot of people, mostly his own family. I can say with great certainty that none of you have responded as dramatically as Herod did, but it’s possible that our heart motivation is similar. We all struggle wanting to cling to whatever it is we crave and possess, and we often do whatever is in our power to keep it. And, we punish those who get in the way. We get rid of them by ignoring them, trying to get them fired, unfriending them, gossiping about them or slandering them. We may at times want to dispose of people who threaten what we cherish. At the root, our hearts can be as broken and corrupt as Herod.
This is the world in which we live. It is an evil, corrupt, and broken world. Our bodies are broken and decaying. Our relationships often suffer from hurt and brokenness due to our own sin and the sin of others. And our relationship with God is broken and in desperate need of help. What we need is someone to save us.
He ignored the hope that lay 5 miles away in the birth of Christ. It was only about 3 years earlier that Herod had killed two of his own sons because he was suspicious of them. The year before Christ’s birth, he had arrested another of his sons and very likely this son wasting away in prison on the night of Christ’s birth. Herod had a lot more on his mind than whether or not there was any merit to the wise men’s journey to Bethlehem to worship a king. It most certainly piqued his interests, but in the moment he may have been wondering whether or not to kill his own son.
Instead of finding in this baby at Bethlehem any kind of hope and peace he deemed him to be a threat. After all, what’s a dozen babies in Bethlehem, when he has hundreds imprisoned in a stadium awaiting his death? Let’s just kill them all just in case one of them might be a problem.
As Herod lived out the last portion of his life at odds with his family and the entire culture, 5 miles away hope was born. In Christ, peace entered into this broken, corrupt, and evil world. Herod could have found everything he needed there, but he decided to look instead to himself.
Have you ever felt like you “were so close.” “I was this close.” If you were to stand in Bethlehem and look 3 miles south east of your position, you would see Herodium rise above you. Herod’s palace, the place he was buried, stands in a direct line of site of the place where Christ was born. He was so close. It’s as if he could have reached out and touched all that he needed. Instead he sent soldiers to destroy anything that might interfere with his legacy.
We are sufferers. We suffer through our own sin and the sin of others. We suffer alone at times and sometimes we suffer because we aren’t alone. We suffer through physical ailments. We suffer through exhaustion. We suffer with anxiety. We suffer with shame and guilt over hidden sin as well as revealed sin. We suffer feeling lost and overwhelmed and unable to rise above the circumstances that seem to be pushing us further and further down into an abyss of depression and anxious trepidation.
It is in the midst of that suffering that Christ was born, to offer us hope and peace in the midst of that darkness that plagued mankind. We can choose to navigate the darkness without Christ, or we can accept the hope and peace that only come with Christ.
And with tears, we greet one another, “Merry Christmas, Behold the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.”
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1–2 ESV).
In an article, titled “The God of All Comfort,” David Powlison draws our attention to an interesting observation. “You become truly helpful to someone else by finding for yourself the kinds of comfort that every other struggler actually needs.” If you’ve never experienced or embraced the comfort that is found in Christ, you are going to be unable to extend true and lasting comfort to others. The second half of his article then offers 8 ways in which God comforts us.
 Doug Wilson. “And Slew the Little Childer.” (Blog and Mablog, December 15, 2012). Accessed December 21, 2017. https://dougwils.com/books/and-slew-the-little-childer.html
 Tony Reinke. “Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem?” (Desiring God Ministries, December 22 2012). An interview Tony Reinke had with Dr. Paul Maier. Accessed December 21, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 588. “Now the king had nine wives, and children by seven of them;”
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 587.
  Tony Reinke. “Truth or Fiction: Did Herod Really Slaughter Baby Boys in Bethlehem?” (Desiring God Ministries, December 22 2012). An interview Tony Reinke had with Dr. Paul Maier. Accessed December 21, 2017. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/truth-or-fiction-did-herod-really-slaughter-baby-boys-in-bethlehem
 David Powlison. “The God of All Comfort.” Journal of Biblical Counseling 31.3 (2017). 2-16. doi 12/2017.