Summary: The tragedy of Herod contrasts with the triumph of King David.
There are two different gatherings mentioned in our readings this morning. One of them takes place in the court of King David, and the other takes place in the court of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Judæa. They are similar in that they tell about two powerful leaders putting on elaborate feasts of celebration for their people, but the end results of these celebrations could hardly be more different.
The celebration we find in Second Samuel surrounds the moving of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinidab into the City of David. Moving the ark is no small feat. It is made of acacia wood, and assuming a cubit is eighteen inches, it is three feet, 9 inches long by 2 feet, three inches wide and tall. That’s not so bad, except that it is also covered with lots of gold and cherubim and things, so it is an effort to move.
Still, they all seem to have a good time moving it. They build a new cart for it and set it on there, and the sons of Abinidab set out to bring the ark to the City of David.
Meanwhile, the city of David is getting ready to receive the ark. They are "celebrating before the Lord" with tambourines, cymbals, castanets, lyres and harps and a bunch of other instruments they don’t name, except to say that they are made out of fir wood.
When the ark shows up, David sacrifices an ox and a fatling, and "dances before the ark with all his might," wearing a linen ephod. This ephod thing needs some explaining. An ephod may have been sort of like a vest or an apron, and it was worn by the high priests of Israel, and inside the ephod they carried sacred lots. These may have been coins, or rods, or dice, or any number of other objects, but what matters is that they were used to help determine the will of God.
So the point here is that David is NOT wearing his royal robes, as a secular leader, but he is wearing an EPHOD, the garment of a high priest. He was acting as a RELIGIOUS leader, not a SECULAR leader. David wore an ephod to show the people that, no matter what happened, no matter what Israel faced as a nation, and no matter what David face as a king, God was going to be their true leader, and they were going to think and act as God led them.
Now let’s take a look at another gathering, another festival, the one that the tetrarch Herod gave for himself on his birthday. There may have been lots of exotic food and entertainment, but Herod and his guests had seen it all and done it all before, and they were all really pretty bored. It is only when Herod’s wife’s daughter (by a previous marriage), dances for the party that things began to pick up a little.
This dancer, of course, is Salomé. To put some flesh on the bones of Mark’s telling of this story, I read Oscar Wilde’s one-act tragedy called Salomé. If you read it, I think you will be struck by how world-weary everybody seems in it, and how everybody seems real lethargic and anemic, and everybody just sort of floats through the play like a bunch of ghosts, like nothing really matters.
But Herod does take ONE thing seriously, and he puts some real energy into it. In the play, Salomé is reluctant to dance, but Herod talks her into it by promising her anything she wants, up to half his kingdom.