Summary: However crafty, however ruthless Herod might have been, he could be no more successful than his evil superior Satan. The Redeemer would come just as was planned, would live just as planned, and would die just as planned.
Matthew 2:13-18 Rachel’s Sorrow
12/15/02 D. Marion Clark
I do like our Live Nativity we put on at our church. We show the manger scene; we have a full inn, a market square retail booth, angels singing to shepherds, and a tax collector at his booth. We even have the three wise men traveling to find the “king of the Jews.” We have added scenes over the years. There is one scene we will never add – soldiers killing infants and toddlers.
“There is a dark side to the Christmas story,” as Philip Ryken has noted in referring to this scene. The birth of Jesus is a beautiful story, as long as we end it with the wise men’s visit. What takes place soon afterwards, however, is a horrible nightmare.
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
I said last week I would get to Herod. Let’s consider who this infamous king was. He was called Herod the Great, no doubt his public relations department helping to popularize this nickname. In light of the standards of the Roman and ancient world, he fit the title fairly well. He was acclaimed as an architect and builder. He built the town of Caesarea on the model of a Roman city, equipped with a hippodrome for chariot races. His great achievement for that coastal city was to build the largest man-made harbor in the Mediterranean. It is an achievement of great proportions. For the Jews, his greatest work was the new temple, built on a magnitude far beyond the previous temples.
Herod ruled as king of the Jews for 33 years, which in itself was a noteworthy achievement, similar to that of his contemporary Caesar Augustus. To survive as king anywhere in the empire was no mean accomplishment, and especially in Palestine. Herod had to first outwit and outfight rivals and rulers ahead of him. He then had to contend with enemies and rivals seeking his overthrow. Being under the rule of Rome, he had to play the deadly political games of keeping in good stead with the emperor. Twice he had to appear before the Roman emperor not knowing if the outcome would be his execution. (He made arrangements, by the way, that he did not return home alive his wife would also be killed.)
We’ve noted this reality while reading through the Psalms. It seems that David is always worrying about enemies out to get him. Well, they were out to get him! Enemies were also out to get Herod as well. The Pharisees and the common people despised him because he was not a half-Jew and friendly with the Romans. The Sadducees had sided with a rival in Herod’s bid for the throne. In return, he executed forty-five of them and confiscated their property to pay tribute to Mark Antony. Even Cleopatra intrigued against him.
His most bitter enemies were the Hasmonean family. This is the family descended from the Maccabees, the family that led a successful Jewish revolution for independence. For generations they had been the recognized ruling and priestly family of the Jews. Herod married into this family, but far from creating good will, it only produced the fruit of bitterness and revenge in his relations and children. Throughout his reign, Herod would defend his position, but often through the tried and true method of ancient politics – murder. His wife’s grandfather, her brother, her (and his) two sons, another son, and eventually she came under his death stroke. These were not the actions merely of a crazy man obsessed with violence. They are those of a shrewd man who knew, and was ready to play, the game of obtaining and keeping power. Herod survived because he trusted so little, and because he was willing to crush resistance.
Near the end of his life, when he was thought to be weak, two rabbis incited a crowd to tear down the Roman eagle insignia posted on the temple gate. Herod had the offenders burned alive. Realizing his own death was not long coming, he had notable Jews locked in a hippodrome to be slaughtered when he died in order to assure there would be mourning at his death. That final wish was not carried out, thank goodness, but as Matthew lets us know, others were not so fortunate.
Do you understand, then, why Herod would be troubled by the news of the wise men that they had come to worship the new king of the Jews? By this time, Herod has been reigning thirty years. He is no novice to conspiracy theories, nor is he naïve about how to deal with such conspiracies, real or imaginary. We can also understand the concerns of the populace. Will there be yet another uprising or another reprisal by Herod? Yes, there will be another reprisal and the worse one of all.