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.
It is only when he swears a solemn oath to do as he says he will do that she does indeed dance. The oath is important, because Salomé and her mother know that Herod is keeping John the Baptist in something like protective custody.
We are told, in fact, that Herod actually enjoys listening to the prophet, even if he doesn’t really understand what he is talking about. The problem is, Herod’s wife HATES John the Baptizer because he has been saying that it was not lawful for Herod to marry her, because she had been his BROTHER’S wife.
But now that the time has come for Herod to pay up, he is stuck. Herod’s wife sees her opportunity to get rid of a troublesome prophet, and tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate, and there is nothing Herod can do about it. A prophet of God dies because Herod has sworn an oath in front of his friends for no reason other than to get a cute girl to dance at his birthday party.
Let’s stop and compare all this to the images that we have in our Old Testament reading. Here David wears an ephod, representing his determination to be a Godly leader of his people, and, as the ark of his people’s covenant with God comes into his city, he leaps and dances before it and his God "with all his might." David burns offerings, blesses his people in the name of God, and then, after all that, he sends everybody home with a loaf each of raisin and nut bread.