Herod: The Man Who Tried to Kill Christmas
December 16, 1990
This is the story of the man who tried to kill Christmas. It is strange and bizarre and doesn’t seem like it should be in the Bible. It doesn’t seem like we should read it during the Christmas season. It doesn’t sound right amid all the Christmas carols. It doesn’t look right surrounded by sparkling lights and candy canes. It takes all the joy away and leaves only sadness.
No, this is a story we would just as soon forget.
After all, ’Tis the season to be jolly … Joy to the World … Hark, the Herald Angels Sing … Santa Claus is Coming to Town … I’ll be Home for Christmas … Jingle Bell Rock.
This is the Christmas season. We’re all dressed up this morning. This church is decorated, our hearts are full. We’re excited because Christmas is almost here.
In your home and in mine little children look bug-eyed at the gifts under the tree. They can hardly wait for Christmas Day.
It’s Christmas … and everyone is happy, right? No, one man isn’t happy it’s Christmas. He’s angry about the whole thing. Like Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, he would prefer the whole thing went away.
Only he’s not a make-believe character. He’s for real. He hates Christmas … and he’s never even heard the word.
He is the man history calls Herod the Great. His story is told is Matthew 2.
NOT A VERY NICE MAN
The year is 47 B.C. Herod the Great is only 25 years old. He has just been named the governor of Galilee, a high position for such a young man. The Romans hope Herod can pacify the Jews.
He does … after a fashion.
First, he captured the bandit leader Ezekias and executed him.
Later, he married into the leading Jewish family, the Hasmoneans.
His wife was named Mariamne.
In 40 B .C. the Roman Senate named him “King of the Jews.” It was a title the Jews hated because (A) He was not a Jew by birth and (B) He was not a Jew by religion.
As the years roll on Herod proves to be a clever and cruel man. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people:
It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. But he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end.
You see, above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. The great historian Josephus called him “barbaric,” another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.”
Perhaps his basic character can best be seen by one incident in the year 7 B.C. Herod is an old man now. He has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn’t have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife Mariamne. He orders them put to death … by strangling.
No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”
His wife… his mother-in-law … his brother-in-law … two sons … among hundreds of others. Killing was what he did best.
“WE CAME TO SEE THE BABY”
It is now 2 or 3 years later. Herod the Great, King of the Jews, is slowly dying. Josephus describes his disease as a kind of foul distemper. His body racked with convulsions, his breath foul, his skin covered with loathsome sores, he is rapidly losing his mind.
But he is still the king. One day word comes to him in Jerusalem that some visitors have arrived from the East.
Strange men … with a strange question.
They are Magi, the Wise Men from the East. They were priests of an oriental religion who practiced astrology. In Persia they were considered powerful men. They had journeyed across the desert seeking an interview with Herod. Perhaps there were three, perhaps more. The important thing to Herod was not who they were but what they asked:
“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)
There are many mysteries about this:
Who precisely are the Wise Men? We don’t know.
Where did they come from? We don’t know.
What was this “star” they saw in the sky? We don’t know.
Herod didn’t know either. But he knew he’d better find out what this was all about. They were looking for someone “born” king of the Jews. How could that be? Herod was the King of the Jews. But he was not born that way. He had to fight and kill to gain that title. What were these men talking about?
ALL SHOOK UP
The Bible says, “When Herod heard this he was disturbed.” (3) The word “disturbed” means to shake violently. And no wonder.
jFinally, he had subdued all his enemies.
jFinally, he had killed all his foes.
jFinally, he was ready to die triumphantly.
Now these strangers come with their strange question. No time to rest now. One more person to kill.
I think I know why Herod was shaken. He was not a particularly religious man. Oh, he would gladly give money to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. But that’s about as far as it went. But you couldn’t be around these Jews very long before their bizarre religion rubbed off on you.
Herod knew the Jews were looking for a Messiah, the one God would send to save them and reign as King. I’m sure Herod didn’t take that too seriously but on the other hand, why take chances? That explains what he does next:
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” (4-6)
Suddenly things are getting serious. Maybe these strangers are on to something. What if the baby they are looking for is the Messiah of God? What if … What if … What if … ?
Herod may be many things, but he isn’t stupid. Time to move fast.
The Wise Men had asked, “Where is the baby born King of the Jews?” The scribes had confirmed the Old Testament prediction of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. No wonder Herod is shaken up. He must stop this crazy act of God before it gets out of hand.
Would a man really try to kill the Christ of God? Herod did.
All tyrants are cowards at heart. They rule by force and the one thing they fear most is a force greater than theirs. If Messiah had come, then it meant that Herod was ruling in opposition to God.
Therefore, he must kill that baby … and he must do it now!
THREE WISE MEN, ONE OLD FOOL
So Herod hatched a clever plot. We pick up the story in verse 7:
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (7-8)
You may read that and say, “Why didn’t the Wise Men wise up to Herod’s trick?” Why should they? They had no reason to suspect his motives. Or you might ask, “Why didn’t Herod send some troops to Bethlehem to check things out?” He could have, but that would have attracted too much attention. Finally, you might ask, “If Herod was so concerned, why didn’t he go to Bethlehem and see for himself?”
Now that’s a good question. Why didn’t Herod go. Because he didn’t want to come face to face with the King sent from heaven. That would be too much. He would be forced to make a decision. At all costs he wanted to avoid that. So he didn’t go and he didn’t send the soldiers. He sent the Wise Men instead.
Off they went. You know the rest of the story. The star miraculously reappeared and led them to the exact house. When they found the baby Jesus they bowed down and worshipped him, offering him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Magi knew something Herod never knew–that little baby in a tiny house wrapped in rags would someday rule the world. They were not ashamed to give him gifts fit for a king.
WHO’S THE DUMMY NOW?
Just before the Magi step off center stage and drift into the twilight of history, we are told one last fact about them: “Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.” (12)
The Magi went east; Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus went west toward Egypt. Soon Bethlehem was as it had always been, a sleepy country village.
Meanwhile, back at the palace Herod rubs his hands together in glee. How stupid those foreigners are to fall for an old trick like that. Fools!
Ah, but you’re the fool, Herod, not them. They are gone and so is the child. Your plan boomeranged. You thought to make them do your dirty work for you. But God thought otherwise.
The Bible says that when Herod saw he had been tricked by the Magi, he became enraged. Why? The trickster had been tricked; the con man had been conned. The liar had been double-crossed. Now we see who is wise and who is the fool.
THE BUTCHER OF BETHLEHEM
Before I tell you what happens next, here are some facts to keep in mind:
–Herod is very old and very sick.
–He is slowly losing control of his kingdom.
–He is dying and he knows it.
–He is angry over being tricked by the Magi.
–He still must do something about that mysterious baby.
In short, he is out of his mind with rage, frustration, fear and pain. He is insanely jealous and nearly insane. He is a bloody killer by nature. All the worst instincts of a lifetime of cruelty now come to the surface.
Keep all of that in mind for it is the only way you can understand what is about to happen. In the history of the church this is called the Slaughter of the Innocents. After 2,000 years we remember Herod for this one act.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (16)
He lost his mind and did something worthy of Hitler or Stalin or Saddam Hussein. He ordered the cold-blooded murder of the male babies under two years of age.
Can you imagine the scene? Soldiers on a death squad breaking into Bethlehem homes in the dead of night, taking the baby boys and covering their faces with a sheet. One soldier grabs the legs while another takes the knife and slits the young boy’s throat. To one side the mother screams and wails.
Through the streets they go seeking every baby boy. Killing all night long. They had their orders. Kill every baby boy. Don’t miss one. They did their job well. By morning the slaughter is over, the soldiers gone, the babies dead. Over the town of Bethlehem ring out loud cries and mourning, mothers who refuse to be comforted. Their children are no more.
You ask, “Did this really happen? Could Herod really have done this?” I answer that it is consistent with everything we know about Herod the Great. Killing was how he stayed on top for 41 years. There is no reason to think he wouldn’t do something like this.
THE END OF THE LINE
Back in Jerusalem Herod leans back on his couch and hears the glad news. All the babies are dead. He can rest now. He has killed his last foe.
The Bible concludes the story by noting the death of Herod in verse 19. Josephus says that when he died maggots had eaten away part of his body. He died in agony–insane, tormented and delirious.
When he died, they buried his body in a grave not far from Bethlehem. Not long after that, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus returned from Egypt, settling in the Galilean village of Nazareth.
The man who tried to kill Christmas … almost did … but he didn’t. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem. But he didn’t get the one that mattered the most. God saw to that. He murdered thousands in his lifetime … but he couldn’t kill the most important person of all.
THREE WAYS OF LOOKING AT CHRISTMAS
Although Herod is the leading figure in this tragic drama, he is not the only player on the stage. Besides Herod, there are the Wise Men and the scribes of Jerusalem. All three represent different ways of looking at Christmas.
1. Hostility. Herod stands as a symbol for the kind of world Jesus came into. He represents the world’s welcoming committee for the Son of God. It’s not the way you thought it would be, is it? Jesus is born and the rulers try to kill him. The Bible says, “He came to what was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) Herod stands for the bloodthirsty, cruel, vindictive side of the world system. A world where human life is cheap. A world where killing is accepted and even expected.
Herod died but his spirit lives on. To this day there are those who are offended by Jesus, even by the mere mention of his name. They oppose spiritual truth and want to erase every trace of Christmas from public life. This group includes those cowardly school administrators who want even the word “Christmas” banished from the classroom and the lawyers who sue to have the crÃ©ches removed from city halls across America. Herod would be proud of them.
2. Indifference. The scribes represent the religiously indifferent. These are the insiders who know all the facts and do nothing about it. They don’t care enough to get excited. When Herod asked where the baby was to be born, they knew the answer. They told him where to look, but didn’t care enough to investigate for themselves. Bethlehem was only six miles from Jerusalem but even that was too far to go. It was all academic to them. “Hope you have a nice trip. If you find the Messiah, let us know.”
They should have been singing and dancing because the Messiah had come; instead they ignored his birth.
Who looks worse? Herod or the scribes? The scribes look worse because Herod, for all his excesses, is at least acting consistently with his basic nature. By contrast, these men knew the truth and did nothing about it.
3. Worship. There is one final group on stage. They are the Wise Men who when they found the baby, bowed down and worshipped him. It is an ironic twist of the Christmas story that it is the pagans who recognize Jesus for who he really is. Herod knows and tries to kill him; the scribes know and ignore him. But the Wise Men prove themselves worthy of their name. When they found him, they worshipped him gladly.
These three responses picture the different ways people will always respond to Jesus. Some will always be hostile; some will always be indifferent; some will always worship him.
Sometimes you will see all three responses in one family; often you will see all three responses in the place where you work.
After 2,000 years Herod has many grandchildren, the scribes are still too busy to go to Bethlehem, and Wise Men still seek him.
HOW DO YOU RESPOND?
The ultimate question is not how someone else responds but how you respond to Jesus. That’s really the only thing that matters. Are you with Herod or with the scribes or with the Wise Men? Suppose we were to start at the back of the sanctuary and ask each person to tell us where you stand. That might prove surprising. Are you hostile to Jesus? Are you too busy to get involved? Are you coming to worship him as Savior and Lord?
As I read Matthew 2, one fact strikes me above all others. Everybody involved had the same basic information. They all knew a baby had been born in Bethlehem and they all knew who the baby was. Herod knew and tried to kill him; the scribes knew and ignored him; the Wise Men knew and worshipped him.
If information alone could save you, then even Herod would have been saved. But information alone will not save you. It is not what you know but what you do with what you know that saves you.
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from heaven … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ came to save you from your sins … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross in your place … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven … .
KIf you believe that Jesus Christ will one day return to the earth as
King of Kings and Lord of Lords … .
If you believe all of that … then do what the Wise Men did. Come with an open heart, bow down before the Lord Jesus and worship him. As the hymn says, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”
Father, give us eyes to see the baby Jesus in a new and fresh way this Christmas season. Help us to see him as he really is–a king sleeping in a stable. Give us ears to hear the angels singing. Give us feet like the shepherds to go swiftly to Bethlehem. Give us hands like the Wise Men to offer him the best that we have. Give us hearts of love to worship him. Amen.