THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
A Sermon by B.H. Carroll
SCRIPTURE LESSONS: MATTHEW 14:1-2; MARK 6:14-29; LUKE 3:19,20; 9:7-9.
From the concurrent records of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, just read from the revised text in your hearing, I wish to lead you abruptly into a mental picture gallery. Imagine yourselves, therefore, to be in a quiet, ancient hall, bare of all furniture and ornament whatever, whose emptiness and stillness are tenanted by a solitary painting, vast in outline and complex in scenes. The more prominent scene is a palace in lofty Macherus from whose battlements one’s view sweeps the far-stretching sands of Arabia, while another looks down on the desolations of the Dead Sea silently shrouding the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. The far-off background scene embraces dimly the Sea of Galilee and its western fringe of cities.
The first scene reveals the death of John the Baptist. The second reveals the annunciation of that fact to Jesus by the sad-hearted disciples of John. All the accessory human forms in the painting are dimly shadowed. But the five principal faces are so clearly outlined by the artist’s skill you feel their presence – the faces of Herod, Salome, John the Baptist, Herodias, and Jesus.
Herod’s face, overshadowed by an ominous cloud of superstition and apprehension, marks the play of many passions and emotions striving for mastery. Drunkenness, fear, perplexity, shame, pride, and horror all are there.
The face of the dancing girl glows with exercise and gratified vanity. The eyes, void of the light of conscience, gleam like the orbs of a panther cub. She is a playful, voluptuous animal, unconscious of a resident, imprisoned soul.
The face of Herodias is that of a panther dam – old in wickedness and terrible in cruelty. She is fallen beyond all hope of reformation. She no longer debates a moral question. To her ambitious and lust-corroded soul, aflame with the heat of deadly hate, there never come any of the perplexities, superstitions, fears, and remorseful pangs which harass her weaker paramour. She can patiently wait her convenient season. She can seem asleep as she crouches in the path of her victim. But the gleam which shoots from her half-closed eyes is ever vigilant and pitiless. Let Pompeii ask mercy of Vesuvius in eruption – let a baby cradled in a birch canoe plead with Niagara or the maelstrom to forego its suction – let shipwrecked and ice bound mariners in seas implore Winter in his northern home to stay his rigor – but let no man vainly dream that such a woman will fail to fully glut her vengeance when the hour of vengeance comes.
The face of John the Baptist is rigid. The eyes are sightless. The tongue is dumb. The seal of death has shut out vision from the eye and shut off utterance and eloquence from the tongue. The unlighted, vacant, inanimate clay makes no protest against indignities offered.
The face of Jesus, outlined amid shadowy forms, turns toward Macherus from far-off Galilee. There is sympathy for John’s bereaved disciples expressed like a benediction in his extended hand of welcome and protection. The glance towards the foe is stern and high. A light shadow forecasting his own doom rests on his brow. But over all and in all is the conscious, pervasive divinity which calmly discerns the yet future but certain rewards and retributions. Let these five faces be the text. Fix the eyes of your soul on them as I briefly recount the necessary historical facts. First make clear to yourselves
THE HERODS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Bible and Josephus mention so many Herods you are liable to have your minds confused. Count it a surname, like Pharaoh or Caesar. Many Pharaohs – many Caesars – many Herods. Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Herod Agrippa, and others. Now to clarify matters somewhat, open your New Testament and follow and mark the several statements. Let us commence with Matthew 2:1: “Now when Jesus was born… in the days of Herod the king,” and Luke 1:5: “There was in the days of Herod the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias.”
This is Herod the Great, the founder of the family, who rebuilt the temple. It is easy to distinguish him from all others. He was old and near his death when Jesus was born. He is the one who murdered the little children in Bethlehem, hoping thereby to destroy the infant Jesus. You see an account of his death in the same chapter (Matthew 2:19) while Jesus is yet an infant in Egypt. Of course, therefore, he is not the Herod of our theme today, for Jesus and John are now grown men, one ending, the other in the midst of his public ministry.
The first Herod was really a king and a great man. None of the others was really great. This first Herod married five times. All these wives, Doris, Mariamne (granddaughter of Hyrcanus, last of the Maccabees), Mariamne (daughter of Simon), Malthace (a Samaritan woman), and Cleopatra bore him children. He himself put to death his sons by the first two wives, and disinherited the son (Herod Philip) by his third wife.
Neither Mark nor John has anything to say about Herod the Great. Now fix this fact in your mind: When the first Herod died his dominions were partitioned by will among his sons by the last two wives.
Archelaus, a son by the fourth wife, had Judea with Jerusalem for his capital. When Archelaus died, which was before Jesus was grown, the Romans appointed governors over Judea, called procurators, as Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:2), Felix (Acts 23:24), Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27).
Herod Antipas, another son by the fourth wife, had Galilee and Perea. This is the Herod of our theme today. See how clearly Luke distinguishes between the father and son. One is “Herod the king of Judaea'”; the other, “Herod the tetrarch of Galilee” (Compare Luke 1:5 with 3:1). You may distinguish this Herod from all others as the murderer of John the Baptist and as the one who made friends with Pilate for recognizing his jurisdiction over Jesus as a Galilean (Luke 23:7-12). It is this Herod who divorced his own wife to marry Herodias, the wife of his disinherited elder brother, Herod Philip I.
Herod Philip I, son of the fifth wife, had Iturea and Trachonitis (See Luke 3:1). This is the Herod who built Caesarea Philippi (mentioned in Matthew 16:13). In the New Testament he is called Philip. But you must be careful not to confound him with his older brother, also named Philip, who was the husband of Herodias (See Luke 3:19-20). This Herod Philip married, not Herodias, but Salome, the girl who danced off the head of John the Baptist, though Salome is herself sometimes called Herodias, her mother’s name.
Herod Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great, nephew of the Herod who killed John the Baptist, brother of Herodias and hence, by marriage, brother-in-law of his uncle. Through his influence at Rome, the Herod who killed John the Baptist was deposed and banished. Also through his popularity at Rome, he finally obtained possession of all his grandfather’s dominions. He is the Herod of Acts 12:1 who killed James the apostle and imprisoned Peter, and whose blasphemy was punished by the awful death mentioned in Acts 12:23.
Herod Agrippa II, son of Herod Agrippa I and great-grandson of Herod the Great, is the one before whom Paul makes his great defense, commencing, “I think myself happy, king Agrippa,” etc. (Acts 26:2). His sisters were Drusilla, married to Felix (Acts 24:24) and Bernice (Acts 25:23). How then may you easily distinguish between the Herods of the New Testament?
Herod the Great, who murdered the children in Bethlehem, seeking to destroy Jesus (Matthew 2:16).
Herod Philip I, the disinherited son of Herod the Great by wife three, first husband of his niece Herodias (Luke 3:19).
Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, son of Herod the Great by wife four, who took his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who killed John the Baptist, who mocked Jesus and made friends with Pilate (Luke 23:6-12).
Herod Philip 11, tetrarch of Iturea (Luke 3:1), son of Herod the Great by the fifth wife, who married his niece, Salome, the dancing girl.
Herod Agrippa I, king of Judea, grandson of Herod the Great, his father being son of Herod the Great by second wife. He is the Herod of Acts 12:1-23, who killed the apostle James, imprisoned Peter and was himself struck by an angel and eaten of worms.
Herod Agrippa II, son of the foregoing, before whom Paul pleaded (Acts 26).
With this glance at the Herod family, let us resume our subject. In one verse of Luke’s Gospel we have a summary of the political situation, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene” (Luke 3:1).
Note on a map that the part assigned to Herod was Galilee and Perea. Perea was east of the river Jordan, and reached down to the upper part of the Dead Sea, and connected with Arabia.
Now as Jesus lived most of his time in Galilee, he lived in the district that was under Herod’s jurisdiction, and most of his mighty work was done close by Herod’s home, the city of Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee, but when Herod went over into Perea, the other section of country under his jurisdiction, his capital was Macherus, about nine miles north of the upper part of the Dead Sea, and just on the border of Arabia.
Here was an immensely high hill, the top of it a plain, and from that plain there went up another part very high, and on top of that highest part was a citadel, and under that citadel, dungeons, deep dungeons in the rock. They are there now, and in that dungeon on the top of that high hill in the capital of Perea, there John the Baptist died.
Now, you will understand that Herod never could have put to death John the Baptist if he had remained in Judea, for Judea was not under Herod’s jurisdiction, but we learn that John went over into Perea, and he was baptizing in Perea. That brought him into Herod’s jurisdiction, and close to Herod, and hence it would be legal for Herod to arrest him.
The question now comes up: What occasioned a meeting between Herod and John? Herod would never go to hear John preach, that is, in public places, where the people heard him; of course not. How, then, did John and Herod ever get together? This way, as I think: Herod had a use for John and the use was this: Herod had married a daughter of a king of Arabia, a country lying right next to Perea. He went to the city of Rome on some business, and while there, stopped with his disinherited elder brother, Herod Philip I, and fell in love with his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias, seeing that her husband had been disinherited, having neither property nor a princely title, and being very ambitious, divorced her husband on condition that Herod would divorce his wife, so these two could marry. And so there, while a guest of his brother, partaking of his hospitality, this infamous agreement was reached between this man and this woman, and they married.
When he came back to Judea with this wife, having sent his first wife to her father, there arose two troubles. First, Aretas, the king of Arabia, justly very much incensed at the indignity put upon his daughter, began to raise an army for attacking Herod and soon afterward did attack him, and but for the intervention of the Romans, Herod’s government would have been swept from the face of the earth. That trouble was pending and caused Herod much anxiety.
The other trouble was that the conscience of the Jewish nation revolted at this infamous marriage. He had in two notorious particulars violated their law. In the first place, Herodias was Herod’s niece, and therefore any marriage to her, under any circumstances, would have been violative of the Mosaic law, but mainly she was the wife of his brother, and that brother was living. The only instance in the Bible where a woman divorces her husband is this case. That could be done in Rome, but it could not be done in Judea. Among the Jews, the husband could divorce, but not the wife. Doubtless Mark 10:12 was meant for the Gentiles.
Now the Jewish conscience rose up in rebellion against such an iniquity. Here was a governor of Galilee and Perea, the head man of the nation, living in open violation of a fundamental law, threatening the Jews with unnecessary war. Their indignation threatened to break out in open revolt. Hence Herod, seeing the approach of a formidable external enemy, was much embarrassed by feeling insecure of support from his own people, whose conscience had been shocked by this marriage. He must see to it that both evils did not come at once. Herod, whom Jesus calls the fox, cunning like, fell upon an expedient to get himself out of this trouble.
Here had come over to his country John the Baptist, a great man, a wonderful prophet, and all the people united in one thing, that John was the holiest man of his day. He was great. His word was more potent in governing the ideas of the people than a proclamation of the king. I mean the masses of the people, and it was upon the masses that Herod had to rely in this extremity. So he sends for John to get John to endorse this marriage. He thought, “Now, if I get John here in my palace, in the presence of Herodias, and he looks in the face of this grandly beautiful woman, the queen, that sits by my side, he, a rough country man, who has never been in the presence of a king, where people wear soft clothing; he, accustomed to dress in rough camel’s hair garments if I get him here in the midst of the pomp and splendor of the court, and he can see what power I have to promote him, and I say, ‘John, spread the mantle of your approbation over this marriage of mine,’ the masses will be influenced by John and what he says, and I can at least appease the home opposition, and be better prepared to meet Aretas on the battlefield.”
John comes and the case is put before him. What did he say? He rises like Elijah. He stands up in all the sublimity of the attitude of that ancient prophet of God who confronted the priests of Baal, who rebuked Ahab and Jezebel, and shaking his finger in the face of Herod, said: It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” As if he had said: “I am poor; I have nothing in this world, but you, with all of your wealth and power, cannot bribe me or my conscience to say that you are living righteously in the sight of Cod.”
Nor did he stop at that. Luke says he went on; he made it the occasion of preaching a sermon on the sins of Herod. Luke says he told Herod of all the evil things he had been doing. You will find that in Luke 3:19-20. He lifted the veil off Herod’s tortuous life. He caused each dark sin to rise up before him, and there, faithful to his God and to the truth, with a courage that has never been surpassed, knowing what would be the penalty, standing alone, surrounded by the court of the tyrant and his guards, he rebuked sin in high places, knowing that if the leaders sinned, demoralization would spread throughout all the ramifications of society.
He was not of the number that select some weakling without friends and arraign him. He spoke to the chief sinners, the Pharisees that were at the head of ecclesiastical affairs, to Herod, the ruler of this Jewish people, as if he had said: “If you, the ruler of this people, violate a plain law of God and live a life of shame and infamy, what is to become of the country? Will not all the weak pattern after the ruler? Is it not the custom for those who wish to stand well with authority to imitate the manners and customs of the rich and great and those who are in position? For the sake, then, of truth, for the sake of the people, for the sake of God’s high and holy law, I impeach you as a tyrant, as an adulterer and as a cunning, scheming, fraudulent impostor, and arraign you before the bar of God, where you shall stand and be judged.”
Well, you can imagine the effect of such testimony. It shocked Herod off his base. He was terribly offended, but nevertheless he was wonderfully struck with the character of such a man, and if left to himself, perhaps would have said, “John, you are a great man. I know that what you say is true, but I cannot follow it.” But sitting by the side of Herod was one whose heart had also been laid bare by this denunciation of John-Herodias. And when John denounced her, she set her heart against him, and whenever a woman is bad, she is always worse than a man. Generally a woman is far better than a man, but when she begins to go down in iniquity, she fixes no limit. She goes always and forever down; and in her heart she determined that that witness against her sin should die.
Here was the sin and there was the man exposing it; here was the iniquity and there was the witness to the iniquity. Here was the transgressor and there was the vindicator of the violated law, and she said he must die. She demanded of Herod that he should die. Herod said, “You cannot put him to death; he told the truth; you know it and I know it, that we are living in sin, and I will keep you from killing him.” Will he? When did ever a wicked man keep a wicked woman from doing what she intended? “How will I keep you from killing him? Up yonder is a citadel, and no one is ever allowed to enter it; that citadel is under the control of my creatures; down under its foundations are deep dungeons that never see light. I will put John there, and how will you get him?” The woman smiled and waited. She said nothing at the time, but she knew Herod. “I can’t get Herod to do this while sober; I cannot induce him in his normal state, in his right mind, to kill John, but I will watch and wait.”
When a man is wicked, in some hour of weakness you can find a way to work your purpose with him, if he throws off the restraints of the divine law. If he does not allow God to prescribe the rule of moral actions, none of his protests against greater wickedness will avail him anything. He may say, “I know I am bad, but I won’t go that far. I am perplexed when I hear John preach,” and he would slip off to that dungeon and say, “Talk to me again, John.”
The original Greek text certainly intimates that there were many interviews between John and Herod. The tense expresses continued conversations. He would slip off from his wife, drawn by a strange kind of fascination, to hear a man talk that feared not the power of kings, that, though alone and unsupported, would speak out for the truth. He was an original speaker and thinker. There was a sublimity about his character that this weak, vacillating man found to be very attractive, and so he would hear John, and there in that dungeon, the voice of God would speak to Herod, through John: “Herod, you are living in sin; you are living in open and shameful violation of God’s laws. Is it true?” Yes.” “Ought you to do it?” “No.” “Will you quit this?” Now listen: “And he was much perplexed.” The perplexity that comes to a weak man, a wicked man, a man who has discrimination enough to know right from wrong, a man whose conscience and judgment will approve the right, and yet who is not prepared to give up sin. There comes his perplexity.
And I want to make this one observation, that to a man who knows and approves the right but will not do it, to that man all life is a perplexity; all life and death and eternity are problems. He will find himself continually agitated in mind, duty pointing in one direction, conscience approving of doing duty, and inclination turning him in another direction – a divided mind.
The connection tells of another perplexity that came to him later. I shall refer to that directly. Now mark, here was a man who had gone certain lengths in sin, but was not prepared to go other lengths; here was a woman who, having gone so far, was more logical. “Having descended this distance, why not descend all distances? Why set up any barriers? Why set up any limit? This man denounced us. This man must die.” The record says that when a convenient day came – convenient to whom? Not to Herod, not to John, but to that woman. What was the convenient day? It was an occasion that the devil often uses for such purposes – a birthday celebration. Do you know that more men lose their souls on occasions of celebration, on great festive occasions, than on all the funeral occasions in the world? At that time a man is weak. At that time his heart is given up wholly to joy and pleasure.
A boy says about Christmas: “Now, Christmas comes but once a year; ordinarily I would not think of such a thing.” But how adroitly the devil waits for the convenient time “here, let’s have an egg-nog today. I know you never drink, but this is Christmas day (or a birthday) and this is a festive occasion.” One hour of weakness may cause the downfall of one who has stood the test of a thousand ordinary temptations. It would be an interesting thing, if I had the time, to relate the many instances that occur to me, mentioned in history, of souls lost on their birthdays or other festivals.
Well, this day comes, and Herod has all of the chief men of Galilee and Perea about him, and you can see from reading this context just how drunk he was. The tense indicates that he kept swearing that he would give this girl anything she asked him. Now, a sober man who has been pleased and who wishes to make a gift will state it in quiet language and be done with it, but if a man is excited by a stimulant, he will keep on saying, “I will give you whatever you want,” and keep on saying, “Il give you anything you ask me, to the half of my kingdom.” You can see from the record that he is drunk.
Well, this waiting woman knew this. She reasoned with herself: “When Herod becomes merry with liquor, and mellow, I’ll strike for John the Baptist.” The first sacrifice she made – listen at this emphasis – “the daughter of Herodias herself came and danced.” Why does the Scripture say that? Why does it say the daughter of Herodias “herself” came in and danced? Because no reputable woman danced, either in Judea or in Rome. To be a dancing woman announced that you were either a slave, bought with some man’s money, or that you were fallen, and when the men were at their banquets they made their women slaves come in and dance. It was an act of utter and inexcusable indecency for this woman to make her daughter go in and dance before that drunken company. “No, I have an object to accomplish. That man rebuked my sin. He must die.”
Do you remember a similar instance with which she was doubtless quite familiar? She had lived at Rome. She was living at Rome when she first met Herod, and not a very great while before this, Fulvia, the wife of Antony, had heard that Cicero, in the senate, rebuked and excoriated Antony; had heard that Cicero pleaded for Roman freedom against Octavius and Antony, and Fulvia said, “Cicero shall die.” And when men were willing to forgive Cicero, she said, “I will never rest until I have his head. Give me nothing but Cicero’s head.” And when the head of the great Roman orator was brought to her in a dish, she pryed the mouth open and drew out the tongue that had denounced her husband, and drove her hairpin through it repeatedly and spat in the cold face: “You speak again against my husband!”
That is where Herodias got her idea, and Jerome, one of the early fathers of the church, declares upon authority that he had, which we have not, that, when the head of John the Baptist was brought as the most palatable dish that could be presented from Herod’s table to this woman, she pryed open his mouth and drew out that dumb tongue which had denounced her crime, and, in imitation of Fulvia, drove her hairpin repeatedly through it. And the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced.” “In order to have my vengeance, I will sacrifice my daughter’s reputation. I will make her take a place of indecency. I will make her take a position that will announce to the world that she is either a slave or a fallen woman.”
So far the daughter had not been taken into the mother’s confidence. I know that in the English version of one Gospel it says she that had before been instructed of her mother, but it is not so in the text, and two of the Gospel histories state distinctly that when Herod kept repeating, “I swear I will give you anything, to the half of my kingdom, if you ask it,” (he had no kingdom), she ran in and submitted the case to her mother: “Mother, what shall I ask him?” That was a filial thing to do. Who would forbid a daughter on any occasion going to her mother and saying, “Mother, what shall I ask?” Now notice: “Go back in a hurry and tell him to give you immediately,” that is what Mark says, “instantly,” “the head of John the Baptist in one of the dishes there on the table (one of those huge dishes). They are at a feast. I am not permitted to go and sit at that feast, and I want something sent to me, a delicacy, and what I ask for is the head of my enemy. Go and tell him to send me instantly the head of John the Baptist.”
Why instantly? “When Herod becomes sober, he will not kill John. If I strike at all, it must be now. This is the convenient time. It may never come again. It is here now. He is committed by a promise. He has confirmed that promise by an oath. This oath was public. It was made in the presence of the members of his court, and he is a weak man, and no weak man wishes to be thought weak. He wishes to seem consistent, and I know it, and if he will say anything and swear to it, and swear to it publicly, he is too weak to refuse to keep his promise, and I must strike him while he is drunk.” That is the reason of the haste.
Now look, I want you to see it – that great company of men – you see the long table, you see the viands on the table, you see the wines and strong drinks, you see the drunken men there, and standing just as she had danced is the girl there, in the costume for such a dance, silent – waiting for what? Herod turns around to the guard: “Go at once and bring me the head of John the Baptist,” and the girl and the company stand silent. That interval! Oh! Let it be impressed upon your minds – waiting, and directly the guard comes in, and there on the bloody dish is the head of the man of whom Jesus said none greater than he had ever been born of woman. A girl holding such a dish! And she carried it to her mother! There she, the imitator of Fulvia, spits in the cold face of God’s dead prophet. See her try to put an indignity upon that tongue that, while the soul warmed the body, no king’s chains could bind. “Thou didst rebuke my sins – I have thy head.” And yet, in putting to death that witness, she but filled the whole earth with the sound of her crime. By that barbarous execution, her adultery, which was known in limited circles only, was advertised to the ends of the earth, and age after age, and age after age, until eternity shall come. Wherever the Book goes, into ten thousand languages translated, and wherever men preach to nations then or yet unborn, they hold up before the world the sins of this woman who thought by the death of John to silence the testimony against her crimes.
Now notice again: Jesus had come over into Perea about this time. That is what the preceding context intimates. He is now not very far from Macherus. He had but recently sent out his apostles. They went abroad working miracles, and his fame fills the land, and Herod hears it. Now let us suppose it is night. Herod is trying to sleep – he who has murdered sleep – and while he tries to sleep, he hears a soft falling footstep, and there glides into his room an apparition, which parts the curtains of his bed, and before him is the dancing girl with the head of John the Baptist in a dish.
So his superstitious fear cries out: “This new man that has come into Perea, into the same places from which I called John, must be John the Baptist risen from the dead. I did not silence him. I thought to silence him. I thought to put the seal of death on his dumb lips, but my conscience arouses me at night and tells me that this is John the Baptist, who was put to death.” Now what does he do? Well, you have only to read a little further on to see. He did one of the slyest things. He did a thing that made Jesus call him a fox. His conscience was hurting him.
Now, we see where that second perplexity comes in: “And when Herod heard of the works of Jesus, he was much perplexed, and he said, ‘This is John the Baptist risen from the dead.'” Perplexed when he heard John and would not do right; perplexed again when the works of Jesus make him think that it is John risen from the dead. That perplexity will never leave him. Like a tangled web will be his mind as long as he lives, perplexed living and perplexed dying, until the judgment ends all of his earthly perplexity.
Well, what did he do? “Since putting a man to death does not silence him and end his testimony, I have tried that, and now here he has risen from the dead – now what?” He called to his side some Pharisees (in the thirteenth chapter of Luke, you will find it) and said: “You go yonder where Jesus is preaching; don’t let him know it came from me, but do you go and say to him, ‘Get up and get out of this country, for Herod would fain kill you, ” trying to scare Jesus out of the country, resorting to a trick to scare him! And so when the Pharisees came where Jesus was preaching, prompted by this guilty conscience of Herod that made him think that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead, they said to Jesus, “Get up and get out of this country, for Herod would fain slay thee.” Jesus turned and said: “You go and tell that fox that I will be here today, tomorrow, and next day.” As if he said: “I see through the stratagem. I know who sent you. You go tell that fox that I will remain here till my time comes to depart.”
And now we can see how rapidly approaches the doom of Herod. Soon after, he was defeated in battle by Aretas. Some years afterward his nephew, Herod Agrippa I (the Herod of Acts 12:1 who murdered James and imprisoned Peter) begins to supplant him. His wife urges him to go to Rome to obtain from the emperor the kingly title over all the country. But the nephew was also a fox, and he sent word to Rome, too, such a catalogue of Herod’s crimes, that Herod was not only not made king, but was deposed from his tetrarchy and banished into Spain.
At this juncture occurs the only favorable thing recorded in history about this woman. The Emperor of Rome offered her a large annuity and the title of princess, but she declined both and went into exile with Herod and died with him.
Now look again at the painting. Contrast the faces. There is Herod. Count the steps of his downfall. Through lust and ambition he marries his brother’s wife. Rebuked for that sin, he imprisoned the witness against the sin. Having imprisoned the witness, he becomes drunk on a public occasion, swears repeatedly that he will do a certain thing. Bound by that oath, as he thought, he yielded to its requirements and committed murder. Afterward he sees in every good man that passes through the country John the Baptist risen from the dead. War comes and smites him. His people rise up and denounce him. His emperor deposes and banishes him, and far away in a foreign land, in a place almost unknown, in obscurity, he ends his days. He and his wife end their days on earth, to meet God and John the Baptist in the hereafter, at the judgment.
Look at John. See the colossal man. Five distinct prophecies point to him. Isaiah, seven hundred years before, had told about him as a voice in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord and make straight his paths” Malachi, four hundred years before, had seen him as a messenger of the Lord, coming in the spirit and power of Elijah. The angel prophesied about him when he stood in the Temple by the side of his father and announced his birth. The father prophesied about him on the eighth day after his birth, as the spirit of inspiration rested upon him, and John prophesied about himself. His own prophecy of himself had in it just three words – “I must decrease.” “He must increase.” “I must decrease.”
And there in that castle a great man ended his life. He prepared for it thirty years. He prepared thirty years to do six months’ work. Though his public life lasted over two years’ time, it culminated when he baptized Jesus Christ. Thirty years preparation for six months’ work! And yet in that six months he was so prepared that he shook the world with his work.
What a lesson to those who run hastily, having nothing to tell, not understanding about what they speak, not having studied under a subject and over it and around it and through it – unprepared.
John prepared by thirty years of self-denial and temperance. He took no wines, no strong drink, temperate in his food, and by meditation and prayer and consecration and communion with God, he filled himself full of his great mission, and when he did speak, he spoke where there was no man in the wilderness and his voice that broke the solitude of that wilderness was so loud and so persuasive and so attractive that it drew to that infrequented and solitary place the population of the country and of the cities, and they came, thousands, massing together there where no synagogue could hold them. No building had walls enough to surround the crowds that came. This greatest of men-this man that reformed his generation and was the forerunner of the Son of God-fulfilled his course. What if he did die? What if he did die alone? What if he did die in that prison? What if indignities were heaped upon that dead body? He had done his work. He had fulfilled his course. He had made his impress, and this you can say about him: No wealth could bribe him, no power could purchase that unpurchasable soul.
John was a man who had a mission; a man who knew why he lived; a man who left not the chapters of his life to accident; not a reed blown that way by a wind and back again by a contrary wind; not bending as the wind would blow, but a man independent of effeminate life, gluttonous eating, luxurious living: that cared nothing for the circumstances of dress and food and society, but stood upon the incorruptibility of his integrity, upon the greatness of his mission, and who fulfilled that mission. How small is Herod by the side of John! These are some of the lessons of this Scripture. I pray God that they may reach some hearts here today. I want to make this one application. This is a new year. A long time ago – I do not think I was more than eleven years of age – a man from New England, a teacher of mine, and one of the best teachers I ever knew, on one New Year’s day said to me, “Now today, my boy, I want you to fix your mind on definite things. Do not be a dry leaf that this wind will pick up and carry that way, and yonder wind pick up and carry another way be somebody; have a purpose; preserve your own individuality; do your own thinking; regard the teachings of the Bible, for,” said he, “if you are ever whipped in this life, it will be because you are whipped inside. There is the place men are whipped.” I never shall forget his language.
Now you look at this man that was whipped inside – this Herod. Why, of course, Aretas, could whip him, and his nephew could whip him, and a dead man could whip him, and a girl could whip him. He was whipped inside. He was purchasable. There was no granite in his character. There was no moral fiber in his being – swayed hither and thither, as influences were brought to bear on him. I do pray to God that if there is in you an inclination to weakness, an inclination to let other people push you where they want you to go, and thrust you into situations that you do not approve of, you will today, for manhood’s sake, try to settle one question, come to one resolution: “I will not only be myself, but I never will, God helping me, demoralize myself.” I know that that is one thought that comes to me in the darkest situations of my life, and I have been in many a trying place, but I never yet have been in depths so deep nor in situations so unfavorable, but in the darkest hour of it, when I am alone I say to my. self: “As far as men are concerned, I will be the master of my own fate. I never will take counsel of my fears. I will not be demoralized.”
And now that is what I want you to do. Seek to have character. You cannot sin as Herod sinned and remain strong. You cannot undermine the foundation and leave the house in safety. You cannot honeycomb veracity and remain a brave and true man. Be not a liar, an adulterer, a deceiver, a fraud, or a man that will sell his soul for sixpence in a trade. Touch not, taste not, handle not anything of the unclean things, and resolve this year to live true; live true to God and your conscience, even if it puts you in hard and trying circumstances. Oh, be true to the truth, and to the right, and to God! Then, should you die young, like John the Baptist, you will, like John, fulfil your course.