“When Herod the king heard this, he was disturbed and troubled, and the whole of Jerusalem with him…” Matthew 2:3
Herod the Great was the designated king of Judea in the days when Jesus was born. Judea was already a client state of Rome and Herod was once a governor of one of its territories, the Galilee territory. When a conflict arose he hurried over to Rome to obtain favour with Caesar and, when Rome responded to quench the uprising and end the status quo hitherto, he was placed as ‘king of the Jews’, sent to rule over the entire country. He is largely remembered for his very ambitious and very expensive building projects such as the building of the cities of Caesarea, provision of water supply to Jerusalem, building of about five fortresses, and most especially the expansion of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, a portion of which still stands today as the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall). He sought to make Judea befitting to the standards of the world of his day. He also enriched and gifted other nations, creating a name for himself. These projects brought much employment to the people of Judea.
Son of an Idumean (or Edomite) father and a Nabatean (Arab) mother, his family was circumcised and converted to Judaism. But his decadent lifestyle undermined any religious identification he sought to portray.
The building of the Temple, and his marriage to a Jewess named Mariamne, was all a lobby for the favour of the Jews. But he didn’t stop there. He still lobbied for favour from the pagan population of his land and from Caesar, constructing a Roman Eagle statue over the very gate of the Jewish Temple (an abomination to the Jews), and also building the cities of Caesarea and Sebaste (formerly Samaria) in Caesar’s honour with many pagan idols and shrines. All his building projects were funded by a very severe taxing system that weighed heavy on the people. So while he transformed much of Judea, his motives were anything but selfless, and the people weren’t fooled.
He knew he was ruling a nation that resented him, so he was very paranoid for much of his reign. He had a secret police to monitor and report the general feelings of the populace, a bodyguard of about 2000 soldiers among other units, and he had his opponents forcefully dealt with. He actually had his Jewish wife and her sons for him executed on charges of unfaithfulness and incitement of revolt. So much for Jewish favour there, Herod.
For all his achievements, scholars report that he suffered through depression and paranoia throughout his lifetime. It was in these days that a contingent of Magi, a priestly order of astrologers and royal advisers from the lands of the East, came to visit him. Prepared to host such dignified guests, he was shocked when they declared that they were seeking someone who had been born ‘King of the Jews’, as they had seen his star rising all the way from their lands, and that they had come to ‘worship’ him!
“King of the Jews? I am king of the Jews!” He sent for them and when they had come, he confirmed their quest. It was clear they were seeking someone, and it was definitely not him.
It was all he could do to mask his terror behind a pasty smile. Of course he knew about the expectation in the Jewish conscious of a Messiah that was to come and deliver them from their ‘oppressors’, a term Herod knew many would call him. He mostly dismissed it as the superstitions of a weary people, but the possibility had always stood out in his mind.
Could it be true? Or had these men just come based on the rumors of another possible uprising? News of his turmoil spread to the rest of the city, and everyone else was troubled. They knew that, when Herod fears an uprising, there’s going to be blood in the streets.
Meanwhile, as his people entertained the Magi in an adjoining room, Herod paced. He had to tell them something, or these guys would consider him an uneducated idiot. He had to show these Magi that he was in the know of everything going on in his land. He wanted to find favour in the eyes of these men too. So he sent for the chief priests and learned men in Jerusalem. “So … about this Messiah you all keep talking about…” he began. “Where do the Scriptures say he will be … born, so to say?”
Without missing a beat, they replied him. “In Bethlehem of Judea, your majesty. For so it is written by the prophet Micah, ‘And you Bethlehem…’ ”
But Herod’s mind was already blanking out. He could see the priest’s mouth moving but his pulse thumped in his ears. He rubbed his beard. “Bethlehem, you say?”
His mind was in overdrive. He knew what he must do, but he had to be discrete.
With the priests dismissed he met the Magi privately. “How long ago exactly did you see this star rising?”
“About two years.” They even gave him the exact date, but much of their astrological jargon was gibberish to him.
Could he be late already? He directed them to Bethlehem, telling them to return when they’ve found the child, “…so that I too can come and … worship him.” He felt sick just uttering those words.
That night he stared out into the sky. It looked as normal as any other night sky. He had so much, he had accomplished so much, yet he felt so alone in the universe. No matter how much he tried, he much he acted, he never fully felt appreciated. Now someone else had been chosen to be king of the Jews. A child?! It brought a bitter taste to his mouth. He needed to end this.
But the days passed. And the Magi never returned. Herod was furious. The rejection and flouting of his orders stung. He ordered his soldiers to invade Bethlehem and its surrounding hills, to kill every boy two-years-old and under. Surely that would be his boot to squash this ant before it became a problem (spoiler alert: God sent angels in an undercover mission, i.e. while Joseph was asleep ‘under covers’ ;), to warn him to escape with the child and his mother to Egypt before the soldiers arrived)
But the massacre never brought Herod the satisfaction he craved. He died not much longer, but his last days were wrought with much turmoil and political intrigue. Quarrels with his eastern neighbours brought him into displeasure with Caesar Augustus, a relationship he had laboured to build for years. His health dwindled into a ferocious temper as his insides withered. He felt so much excruciating pain that he even attempted suicide. He is recorded to have said to his sister and her husband, “I shall die in a little time, so great are my pains; which death ought to be cheerfully borne, and to be welcomed by all men; but what principally troubles me is this, that I shall die without being lamented, and without such mourning as men usually expect at a king’s death.”* He ordered that a multitude of distinguished men be invited and, upon his death, they should be killed so that there would, at least, be some mourning in the land. Thankfully, upon his death, his son cancelled that order.
He lived his life seeking the favour of men and died that way. He even tried to kill the One who had come to give him a full and abundant life. He didn’t know.
Herod’s story is a picture of many today. We live in a self-conscious culture where everyone wants to be affirmed and appreciated by others. It is a human desire which, in itself, is not bad, but is also sad. On the social media, for example, it is easy to judge our relevance and fulfilment by the number of likes and retweets on our posts and selfies, to feel hurt or that we did something wrong when we don’t get enough or any, to try to please men so that they can favour us. And this has been translated to how we live our lives. If we could, we would even want to know how many people would mourn us if we died!
It is why many are suicidal today. And it is not a joke.
We all want to be affirmed, because no matter how much we try, there is a void inside that cries for more.
And, as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Our desire for affirmation tends to lead to selfish disregard for the well-being of others as we crush them in order to obtain some acceptance. We may not all execute those that hate us, but it has become the base evil of humanity. It was the root of the first murder, when Cain killed Abel because he didn’t get the favour he desired. It is the core of every villain, both in fiction and in reality. At their core, everyone, be they heroes or villains, wants fulfilment. How we go about obtaining that fulfilment tells on our very natures. The hero obtains fulfilment in helping others, while the villain obtains fulfilment in hurting others.
It is why people cheat, slander, betray … assuming that putting others down automatically lifts us up. But all it does is send us all sinking into miry clay (or quicksand). It ruins relationships and marriages too, when each person is seeking their own gain, focused on receiving from the other instead of giving, and judging them based on personal needs.
The void in man is a form of death, and it is a consequence of the sinful nature. There is nothing we can do to fill it, and it always cries out for more. Only Jesus can fill it, and that is what He came to do. God came that we may be whole, complete in Him, fulfilled and full-filled. He came so that we can have Life and live it to the full (John 10:10).
He fills our hearts with His love (Romans 5:5) and lets us know that we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10), lacking nothing. In Him, we see our true selves: beautiful, loved, accepted, affirmed. We are His own, and He is ours. The more we grow in Him the less we will base our fulfilment on the approval of others. Rather we will realise more and more, and it will be more real in our mindsets, how He fills and surrounds us with His everlasting and boundless love. We have never really been alone, and we never will be.
Herod did not realise that he had a front row seat on God’s plan to answer the cry of his heart. Don’t miss out on the opportunity God has presented before you too. Call to Him. He is closer than near, and He hears. He wants you to know Him much more than you think. He’s got so much for you.
And, from this place of affirmation in Him, we can more effectively be a blessing to others. This is the kind of life that can give to others without expecting appreciation or reward, and would not be hurt if it doesn’t come. It is the kind of heart that can be slapped (or cheated), and will turn the other cheek. It is the confidence that will put out its best foot forward in love, knowing that it might be stepped on but not minding. It is the life that can break through cold hearts, and warm and comfort them with love.
It is the life Jesus spoke about. It is bizarre and crazy, like walking on water. But it is also supernatural and amazing, just like walking on water.
He showed us what it’s like, dying for us when we were still ungodly, sinners, in enmity with God and without a promise or care of responding to His love. He rose to make the way that we may be united with God in Him, by believing in Him. The way is still open today.
Remember that, this Christmas.
You are loved, and can love.
*Source of Herod’s dying quote: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 6, note 5 (translated by William Whiston)