How Fear Led One Man to Heaven and Another to Hell
There's no easy way around this story, so let me come straight to the point and say it as honestly, yet delicately, as I can. On the surface the story in Mark 6:14-29 feels more at home in the National Enquirer than it does in the Bible. I would expect to read about this sort of thing in the gossip column of some Hollywood blogger, but hardly in the Bible!
Why do I say that? Well, look at the text for yourself:
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, "John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him." But others said, "He is Elijah." And others said, "He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you." And he vowed to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom." And she went out and said to her mother, "For what should I ask?" And she said, "The head of John the Baptist." And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6:14-29).
It's a remarkable passage in that it talks about divorce and adultery and incest and cold-hearted cruelty and jealousy and revenge and an erotic dancer and lust and drunkenness and injustice and murder and decapitation. Do I have your attention now? I thought so.
Actually, the story is about two men, both of whom were driven by fear. But not the same kind of fear. And the ends to which fear led them are as far apart as heaven and hell. One man, named Herod Antipas, was filled with the cowardly fear of men and women. He was afraid of public opinion. He was gripped by fear of the loss of political prestige and power. He was afraid of losing face. The other man, John the Baptist, was driven by a righteous fear of God. But before I go any further, let me set the stage of this seedy melodrama by introducing you to the cast, the characters each of whom plays a vital role in the story.
Our first character is Herod, son of King Herod the Great. It's not always the case that a man grows up to be like his father, but when it came to this family, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Herod the Great, the father of the man in our story, was born in 73 b.c. He was wealthy, politically gifted, an excellent administrator, yet suspicious of everyone and indescribably cruel. He had 10 wives, and Herod Antipas in our story was the son of his fourth wife, a woman named Malthace.
If Herod Antipas had been asked to describe his dad, he would have said: "Well, where do I begin? First off, he murdered his wife, my mother. He also murdered his own mother-in-law. Her name was Alexandra. He murdered three of his own sons, my brothers; it's probably a miracle I survived. He killed his uncle and his brother-in-law. And you may also remember him as the man who was ruling Judea when Jesus was born and gave the order for all the male infants in Bethlehem and the surrounding area to be slaughtered. And to top off his legacy, just before he died he imprisoned several prominent citizens of Jerusalem and ordered that when he died they should be immediately executed. The reason for this is that he knew people would celebrate his own death rather than mourn, so he wanted make sure tears would be shed on the day of his death, even if they were for someone else." Such was the legacy inherited by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great.
When Herod the Great died in 4 b.c., his kingdom was divided into three parts and given to his three surviving sons, one of whom was this Herod Antipas of whom we read in Mark 6. Herod ruled from 4 b.c. until he died in 39 a.d. You may recall that this is the same Herod who beheaded James and imprisoned Peter and was eventually struck by an angel "because he did not given God the glory" and he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:23)!
Oh, it doesn't stop there. Fasten your seatbelts! In 29 a.d., just about the time that Jesus is beginning his public ministry, Herod makes a visit to his brother, Philip, and instantly falls in love with his sister-in-law, whose name was Herodias. Now here's where it gets tricky. Herodias was not only Herod's sister-in-law, she was also his niece (she was the daughter of his other half-brother, Aristobulus). Philip and Herodias already had a child, a daughter named Salome, whom we'll meet in just a moment. Herodias also falls in love with Herod, but the only way they can get together is if Herod divorces his wife who happens to be the daughter of Aretas, the Arabian ruler of the Nabateans. She runs to daddy and tells him what Herod is up to, all of which later results in a full scale military conflict as most of Herod's army is destroyed. But that's another story for another day.
But this is enough information for you to understand why John the Baptist is denouncing and rebuking Herod. He unlawfully divorced his first wife to marry Herodias who was both his sister-in-law and his niece! Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 prohibit a man from marrying his sister-in-law while his brother is still alive. Therefore, the marriage of Herod and Herodias was not only unlawful, it was incestuous.
To sum up: Herod was the husband, brother-in-law, and the uncle of Herodias! He was also both great uncle and step-father to Salome! Both Herodias and her daughter Salome called Herod uncle! And you thought your typical 21st century soap opera or reality show was slimy! Jersey Shore and All My Children couldn't touch this if they wanted to!
Now we come to Herodias, surely one of the most perverse and vindictive women in all of the Bible. From the time of John's first rebuke of Herod for having married her, she wanted John's head on a platter: literally! She began scheming to rid herself of this meddlesome prophet. She was biding her time, waiting for just the right opportunity. Well, it was about to unfold.
Additional testimony of her sadistic nature comes from Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century. Josephus records the fact that when the head of John was brought in, she spit upon it and then pierced his tongue with a pin just for spite. To top it off, she never hesitated to exploit her only daughter and to sacrifice her honor by making her a sexual spectacle, all in order to trick Herod into killing John. If that weren't enough, she has no qualms about exposing her young daughter to the grisly scene of John's bloody head on a platter.
Next, we are introduced to Salome, although she is not named here; she is only called "Herodias's daughter" (v. 22). She is called Salome by Josephus. As I said, she was both Herod's step-daughter and niece. She was probably only fourteen or fifteen at the time, but here performed as a prostitute would; a first-century version of a modern day stripper, a lascivious, sensual, and seductive dance that mesmerized Herod. To say, as the text does, that it "pleased" Herod needs no explanation.
Our final character is, of course, John the Baptist. Here we see again his unwavering will, his unflinching righteousness. He didn't hesitate to confront Herod and Herodias and to denounce their relationship as immoral. Holy boldness! Note: v. 18 - "John had been saying" indicates that it wasn't a one-time indictment; John was repeatedly and often denouncing the relationship. Everywhere Herod and Herodias went they heard reports of John's judgment against them. He was a real thorn in their side!
We're now prepared to walk our way through this seedy story and try to figure out what relevance it has for us today. Is there something we are supposed to learn from it? Yes, and we'll look closely at it in the next article.
About Sam Storms
I am an Amillennial, Calvinistic, charismatic, credo-baptistic, complementarian, Christian Hedonist who loves his wife of 42 years, his two daughters, his four grandchildren, books, baseball, movies, and all things Oklahoma University.
In 2008 Sam became Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Sam is on the Board of Directors of both Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, and also serves as a member of the Council of The Gospel Coalition. Sam was recently elected to be Vice-President of the Evangelical Theological Society. Read more...