“How do you sleep at night?” That is a loaded question in certain contexts. Sure, it can be as banal as questioning the comfort of one’s mattress, the snoring of one’s spouse, or the fussiness of one’s infant child, but there are other things that keep a person up at night. No doubt we have also heard the question asked of someone who is particularly callous, cold-hearted, or whose deeds have just been brought to light. It concerns an experience so common to most of us that we find it shocking when it is lacking in others, the call of that interior voice that convicts us of our sins, the voice of conscience that makes us toss and turn. That voice is not easy to escape. Human beings seem to know instinctively that some things are wrong, and yet we still often choose to do those things. Christian theology identifies this tendency as our sinful nature. We all universally have the tendency to sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and what we leave undone. For this reason we all have experienced the persistent jab of a wounded conscience. J.C. Ryles writes,
“God has not left Himself without witness in the hearts of unconverted people. Fallen and corrupt as man is, there are thoughts within him accusing or excusing, according as he lives—thoughts that will not be shut out—thoughts that can make even kings, like Herod, restless and afraid.”
Indeed, this week’s Gospel reading reveals King Herod as precisely that—a man terrified by his guilt-ridden conscience.
Despite Jesus’ lukewarm reception in his hometown, news of Jesus’ ministry has spread. Jesus’ disciples have been sent and they too are spreading his message and demonstrating it with power. The Kingdom of God is breaking in! People have begun to ask questions. Who is this guy anyway?! Many people believe that Jesus is the promised second appearance of Elijah. The scriptures record that Elijah was carried away into heaven in a fiery chariot, and many—based on Malachi 4:5—believe that Elijah will return in the last days, before the time of the Messiah, when all things will be put right. Others think, if not Elijah, perhaps Jesus is some other prophet of old. Herod, on the other hand, is convinced that he is John the Baptist. Herod believes that John, the man that he beheaded, has been raised from the dead.
Herod is of course wrong about this. It is difficult to understand how someone could even come to this conclusion given the fact that John’s life and Jesus’ ministry overlapped with each other. Herod’s paranoia, brought about by his guilty conscience, may have led him to draw an irrational conclusion, but his instincts are actually not too far from the truth. In an odd way his statements foreshadow the judgment that will be proclaimed later by the apostles after Jesus’ own death, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”(Acts 5:30 ESV). Herod knows that he has sentenced an innocent man--a great and holy man--to death. He recognizes that God is at work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, setting things right and calling him to account for his wickedness and tyranny. God has indeed vindicated John, not by raising him from dead, but by fulfilling John’s prophesies in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is bringing about the very thing that John prophesized, the great day of reckoning and the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Herod is living in the shadow of his father’s great legacy. Like his father, his greatest ambition is to be recognized as the true king of the Jewish people. He has been continuing the reconstruction of the Temple that his father started in order to commend himself to the people, but they are growing increasingly disdainful of Herod’s compromised Temple system. John’s prophetic ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins was a direct challenge to the temple establishment. He called Herod out as the phony and tyrant that he really was. Would God’s true king act in the self-serving and immoral way of Herod, taking his own brother’s wife and colluding with the Romans? No, there was a much greater king coming who would reign with justice and integrity. Deep down, Herod knows that John was right and so he is terrified of him even after his death.
Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Phillip, hated John and wanted him dead. She couldn’t stand to be told that she was a sinner for living with her husband’s brother. Herod, because he was afraid of John, kept the prophet safe. Herod was fascinated by John, even though John denounced him. Herod believed that John was a holy man and even “heard him gladly.” How many people today are exactly like Herod? Maybe you can even see yourself in him. It is possible to have a fascination with religion and spiritual things, even go to church and hear the preacher gladly, and yet still be unprepared to accept the consequences of such truth for one’s own life. Such people—people like Herod—are like what was sowed along the path in Jesus’ parable of the sower, they receive the word but ultimately fail to understand it and so the evil one snatches it away. They may also be like the seed that fell among thorns and was prevented from growing. Herod’s circumstances were certainly “thorny” and not particularly hospitable to the kingdom life. Herod lived in decadence among cruel and ambitious people who hated the truth, and they snared his heart.
One night, after a lavish birthday celebration for Herod where the wine flowed freely, Herodias finally got her opportunity to take vengeance on John the Baptist. Her daughter was dancing for the men, no doubt in a highly erotic and seductive manner. Herod was so enticed by her that in a booze-soaked moment he made a rash and ill-conceived promise to give her whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. The girl returned to her mother, who was perhaps the one who put her up to seducing the king, and said, “for what shall I ask?” When she returned to Herod she gave him her request, the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod was trapped. He didn’t want to break his oath in the presence of all of his guests, nor did he want to appear weak or afraid. Reluctantly, he gave the order and John was executed. Afterwards, John’s followers took his body and laid him in a tomb, but unlike Jesus, there would be no glorious resurrection on the third day.
John’s death seems all the more tragic for the senseless way in which it happened. What a pathetic and unceremonious way for such a great man to die! Sometimes it looks as if those who speak out for what is right are the losers, while “all the criminals in their coats and their ties, are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.” The vindication of the righteous—like John—however, is in the resurrection and ascension into Heaven of Jesus Christ. Jesus was condemned to death and viciously executed by the powers that be, but God raised him up. Jesus was God’s own son in whom he was well pleased, and the world’s true lord. Through his death and resurrection, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15 ESV). The rulers of this world were unmasked and their wickedness and corruption were revealed because they “murdered the author of life whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15).
When Jesus returns and the kingdom that he inaugurated will at last be consummated. Those who suffered and died for the cause of truth and justice, like John, will be the first to take their seat with him in glory. All of those who have aligned themselves with God’s son and God’s Kingdom—with truth and righteousness—will be glorified, but the proud, the cruel, and the oppressive—those who have rejected God’s kingdom—will be thrown down and suffer the judgment of God.
Herod had the chance to turn and repent. God spoke to him through his conscience, and yet he chose to listen to those around him instead. Herod made the tragically foolish decision ignore what he knew to be true and right. Herod sought to gain the world, but instead lost his soul. We may not be a tyrant or a murderer like Herod, but how often have we compromised our integrity by doing what we know to be wrong because of the pressure of those around us or for the sake of some advantage we hoped to obtain? Despite Herod’s ambitions, he died in disgrace after being banished to Gaul. He has gone down in history as a tyrant and a fool. John on the other hand continues to honored all these many centuries later because of his faithful testimony to Jesus. Despite how it may appear, it is those who obey the witness of God in their conscience who are ultimately honored.
So, how do you sleep at night?