“Reactions to Christ’s Birth” series: (post #5)
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. (Matthew 2:3-4, N.K.J.V.)
Thus far in our series on the reactions to the news of Christ’s birth, everyone’s reaction has been positive. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men all responded beautifully to the news. But now we come to a man who got it wrong. Actually, he couldn’t have responded any worse. His name was Herod the Great, and he was a real piece of work.
Once the Roman empire had gained control of the land of Israel, the Romans needed handpicked leaders to rule over it for them. One of those chosen rulers was Antipater, whom Julius Caesar installed as procurator of Judea in 47 B.C. Antipater was from Idumea, which was located in the larger general region of ancient Edom. Edom, of course, was historically famous as the land of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother. Antipater, through his wife Cyprus (who was the daughter of an Arab sheik), fathered Herod, the second of his five sons.
Shortly after being named procurator of Judea, Antipater used his influence to get his oldest son, Phasaelus, appointed the governor of Jerusalem and Herod appointed as the governor of Galilee. Herod was 25 years old at the time. Following the murder of Antipater in 43 B.C., Rome’s Marc Antony appointed Phasaelus and Herod as tetrarchs to rule over the Jews. Following Phasaelus’ death, not to mention a great deal of military and political fighting, Marc Antony named Herod as the sole ruler over the Jews in 37 B.C. Herod then reigned as “king” over the Jews from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C.
Herod wasn’t a pure-blood Jew, but he was half-Idumean, and the Idumeans did practice a nominal version of Judaism. This gave him an understanding of the Jewish people that allowed him to keep them somewhat appeased under his rule. The most prime example of his efforts to win Jewish approval was his massive reworking of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Under Herod, that temple was restored, renovated, and outright rebuilt to become even larger and more opulent than Jerusalem’s original temple of Solomon had been.
Still, we must never forget that Herod was a moral monster. Putting it simply, his god was power and he would do anything to gain it and keep it. All told, he married ten different wives, each one for political purposes, and fathered multiple children through them. By the end of his life, however, in his unceasing efforts to stamp out all rivals and keep his throne secure, he had at various times ordered the executions of one of these wives, her two brothers, and three of these sons. This explains why Caesar Augustus once famously said of Herod, “I’d sooner be Herod’s swine than Herod’s son.”
Keep in mind, now, that Herod was the guy who was ruling over the Jews when those wise men showed up in Jerusalem and asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” Talk about asking the wrong man the wrong question! Herod surely thought, “Wait a minute, I’m the King of the Jews!” As our text says in the K.J.V., the N.K.J.V., the N.A.S.V., and the E.S.V., he was “troubled” (Matthew 2:3). Other translations render his reaction as “disturbed” (N.I.V.), “deeply disturbed” (H.C.S.B., N.L.T.), “alarmed” (N.E.T.), and “frightened” (N.R.S.V.). I think all of these descriptions accurately describe how Herod felt when he first heard the news that a King of the Jews had been born. He certainly wasn’t glad to get the information. Interestingly, he wasn’t mad, either. He was just deeply troubled and more than a little afraid as he instinctively viewed this baby as a major threat to his throne.
Herod’s next move was to summons some of the Jewish priests and scribes to his palace and ask them, “Where is the Christ (Messiah) supposed to be born?” (Mathew 2:4). The fact that Herod knew enough to ask such a question shows that somewhere along the line he had heard about a Messiah who was supposed to come and rule over Israel. That prophecy was, after all, common knowledge among the Jews. And so those priests and scribes didn’t have to race back to the temple and consult their ancient texts to find the answer Herod needed. They knew full well that the prophet Micah had prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6).
Now it was time for Herod to enact his plan to use the wise men in his sinister attempt to execute the newborn king. So, he called them back to him and gave them the answer, “Bethlehem.” Then he added in the lie, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him bring word back to me, that I may come and worship Him also” (Matthew 2:8). Like I said, Herod was a real piece of work. He had every intention of letting those good men unwittingly play the role of bounty hunters in his service.
Thankfully, God stepped in and thwarted that plan. Shortly after the wise men found Jesus, presented their gifts to Him, and worshiped Him, God warned them by way of a dream not to report back to Herod. They promptly obeyed those instructions and returned to their homeland by way of a route that didn’t backtrack them through Jerusalem. Furthermore, not long after the wise men had left the little family, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him” (Matthew 2:13, N.K.J.V.). Like the wise men, Joseph immediately did as he was told and took the family south into Egypt by night (Matthew 2:14-15), and they remained in Egypt until Herod’s death a short while later.
As for Herod, once he figured out that the wise men weren’t going to return to him, he flew into an absolute rage and issued a decree that every male child two years old or younger in Bethlehem and its surrounding districts should be killed (Matthew 2:16). This heinous act has become known as “the massacre of the innocents.” You might ask, “Why did the decree extend to children up to two years of age?” The Bible leaves no doubt about that answer. Matthew 2:16 says that Herod chose this age “according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” This kicks back to Matthew 2:7, where we’re told that he “determined from them what time the star appeared.” This leaves us to believe that the star first appeared on the night Jesus was born, and it took the wise men several months — perhaps as long as two years — to arrive in Jerusalem.
Getting back to Herod’s slaughter of those precious children, did you know that even that sadistic crime fulfilled prophecy? The prophecy was from Jeremiah 31:15, and under the inspiration of God Matthew applied it to “the massacre of the innocents” (Matthew 2:17-18). We don’t know how many children died as a result of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus. Since Bethlehem and its surrounding districts didn’t make for a very large area, there probably weren’t that many children two years old or younger who lived there at that time. Needless to say, though, if there was even one, that was one too many to die because of the insane workings of Herod’s mind.
In closing, let me say that even though Herod the Great is long gone, there are still plenty of people around today who despise the news of Christ’s birth about as much as he did. Satanists certainly don’t get excited about that birth. Neither do atheists and Jews. For that matter, the world’s billions of lost people don’t truly have much to celebrate at Christmas, either. The truth is that one day they will be shocked to find that the babe in the manger has become their eternal Judge and Jury (John 5:22; Acts 17:30-31), and they’ll spend eternity in the same lake of fire as Herod (Revelation 20:11-15). Is that too blunt for you? Well, forgive me, but this is what will ultimately become of any and all who reject Jesus. That’s God’s word, not mine. And in the end, His is the only one that counts.