Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,XIV.
(1) Herod the tetrarch.—The son of Herod the Great by Malthace. Under his father’s will he succeeded to the government of Galilee and Peræa, with the title of Tetrarch, and as ruler of a fourth part of the Roman province of Syria. His first wife was a daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king or chief, named in 2Corinthians 11:32 as king of the Damascenes. Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip (not the Tetrarch of Trachonitis, Luke 3:1, but son of Herod the Great by Mariamne, and though wealthy, holding no official position as a ruler), was daughter of Aristobulus, the son whom Herod put to death, and was therefore niece to both her husbands. Prompted partly by passion, partly by ambition, she left Philip, and became the wife of Antipas (Jos. Ant. xviii. 5, §4). The marriage, at once adulterous and by the Mosaic law doubly incestuous, shocked the conscience of all the stricter Jews. It involved Antipas in a war with the father of the wife whom he had divorced and dismissed, and it was probably in connection with this war that we read of soldiers on actual duty as coming under the teaching of the Baptist in Luke 3:14. The prophetic spirit of the Baptist, the very spirit of Elijah in his dealings with Ahab and Jezebel, made him the spokesman of the general feeling, and so brought him within the range of the vindictive bitterness of the guilty queen.
Heard of the fame of Jesus.—The words do not necessarily imply that no tidings had reached him till now. Our Lord’s ministry, however, had been at this time at the furthest not longer than a year, and possibly less, and Antipas, residing at Tiberias and surrounded by courtiers, might well be slow to hear of the works and teaching of the Prophet of Nazareth. Possibly, the nobleman of Capernaum (John 4:46), or Manaen the foster-brother of the tetrarch (Acts 13:1), or Chuza his steward (Luke 8:3), may have been among his first informants, as “the servants” (the word is not that used for “slaves”) to whom he now communicated his theory as to the reported wonders.
And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.(2) This is John the Baptist.—In Matthew 16:14, Luke 9:7-9, this is given as one of the three opinions that were floating among the people as to our Lord’s character, the other two being, (1) that He was Elijah, and (2) that He was one of the old prophets who had risen again. The policy of the tetrarch connected him with the Sadducean priestly party rather than with the more popular and rigid Pharisees, and a comparison of Matthew 16:6 with Mark 8:15 at least suggests the identity of the “leaven of Herod” with that of the Sadducees. On this supposition, his acceptance of the first of the three rumours is every way remarkable. The superstitious terror of a conscience stained with guilt is stronger than his scepticism as a Sadducee, even though there mingled with it, as was probable enough, the wider unbelief of Roman epicureanism. To him the new Prophet, working signs and wonders which John had never worked, was but the re-appearance of the man whom he had murdered. It was more than a spectre from the unseen world, more than the metempsychosis of the soul of John into another body. It was nothing less than John himself.
For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife.(3) Put him in prison.—Josephus (Ant. xviii. 5, § 2) gives Machærus, in Peræa, as the scene of the imprisonment and death of the Baptist.
For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her.(4) For John said unto him.—The Jewish historian (Ant. xviii. 5, § 2) states more generally that Antipas was afraid lest some popular outbreak should be the result of the preaching of the Baptist, working on the excitable peasantry of Galilee.
And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.(5) He feared the multitude.—St. Mark, whose narrative is here much the fullest of the three, adds that Herod himself “feared John,” knowing “him to be a just man and a holy,” and was much perplexed—this, rather than “did many things” is the true reading—and heard him gladly (Mark 6:20). There was yet a struggle of conscience against passion in the weak and wicked tetrarch, as there was in Ahab in his relations with Elijah. In Herodias, as in Jezebel, there was no halting between two opinions, and she, in the bitterness of her hate, thirsted for the blood of the prophet who had dared to rebuke her guilt.
But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.(6) Herod’s birthday.—Some critics have looked on the feast as one commemorating Herod’s accession—his birth-day as a ruler; but there seems no reason for not accepting the word in its simple natural sense. Such feasts were common enough in the imperial life at Rome, and that of Herod’s birthday had become proverbial even there (Persius, Sat. v., i. 180).
The daughter of Herodias danced before them.—Dances in filmy garments that but half concealed the form, commonly of an impure or voluptuous nature, were common enough both at Eastern and Roman banquets, the guests being simply spectators. But the dancers were for the most part women who made it their calling, like the nautch-girls of India; and it was a new thing, at which every decent Jew would shudder, for the daughter of a kingly house to come-thus into a shameless publicity and expose herself to the gaze of the banqueters, including as they did the chief captains and chiliarchs of the Roman legions, as well as Herod’s own courtiers and the chief men of the province (Mark 6:21). But Herodias, it would seem, knew the tetrarch’s weak point as well as Madame du Barry knew that of Louis XV. of France, and sought to bend him to her will, even though it were by the sacrifice of her daughter’s modesty. She danced before them—literally, in the midst of them—as they reclined on their couches indolently gazing. Her name is given by Josephus (Ant. xviii. 5, § 4) as Salome.
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.(7) He promised with an oath.—The scandalous chronicles of the time were not without stories of extravagant rewards paid to mimes and dancers, and Herod might fancy that in this also he was reproducing the magnificence of the imperial court at Rome. But he probably hardly expected “the half of his kingdom” (Mark 6:23) as the “whatsoever thou shalt ask.” A jewel, a bracelet, a palace, or a city, were probably in his thoughts as what she was likely to ask and he would gladly give.
And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger.(8) Being before instructed of her mother.—Better, being prompted, or instigated. The word does not imply that the girl had been instructed before she danced what to ask for, and St. Mark distinctly states (Mark 6:24) that she went out from the banquet-hall to ask her mother what use she was to make of the tetrarch’s promise. The mother’s absence shows that the supper was one for men only, and that it was among them, flushed as they were with wine, that the daughter had appeared in reckless disregard of all maiden modesty.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.(9) The king was sorry.—It was the last struggle of conscience. In that moment there must have come before his mind his past reverence for the prophet, the joy which had for a time accompanied the strivings of a better life, possibly the counsels of his foster-brother Manaen. Had there been only the personal influence of Herodias these might have prevailed against it, but, like most weak men, Herod feared to be thought weak. It was not so much his regard for the oath which he had taken (that, had it been taken in secret, he might have got over), but his shrinking from the taunt, or whispered jest, or contemptuous gesture of the assembled guests, if they should see him draw back from his plighted word. A false regard for public opinion, for what people will say or think of us in our own narrow circle, was in this, as in so many other instances, an incentive to guilt instead of a restraint.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.(10) He sent, and beheaded John in the prison.—Measured by the standard of earthly greatness, it seems almost like a paradox to say of one who had only been for a few short months a preacher of righteousness in the wilderness of Judæa, as men have said of the kings and conquerors of the world, “So passed from the earth one of the greatest of her sons;” and yet this, and nothing less than this, if we accept our Lord’s words, must be our estimate of the Baptist’s character. Intensity of purpose, dauntless courage, profound humility, self-denial carried to its highest point, a burning love that passed beyond the limits of race and nation, tenderness of sympathy for the toilers of the world, for the fallen and the outcast, all these were there; and what elements of moral greatness can go beyond them? And the consciousness of Christendom has recognised that greatness. Art and poetry have symbolised it in outward form, and the work of the Forerunner, the conviction that the preaching of repentance must precede that of forgiveness, has been reproduced in every great revival of religious life which has brought the kingdom of heaven nearer to men’s hearts and hopes.
And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.(11) She brought it to her mother.—A glance at the after-history of those who were accomplices in the deed of blood will not be out of place. Shortly after the new society, for which John had prepared the way, had started upon its great career, when her brother, the young Agrippa, had obtained the title of king, through the favour of Caligula, Herodias, consistent in her ambition, stirred up her husband to seek the same honour. With this view she accompanied him to Rome; but they were followed by complaints from the oppressed Galileans, and the result was that he was deposed from his tetrarchy, and banished to Lugdunum (the modern Lyons) in Gaul. Thither she accompanied him, faithful to his fallen fortunes, in spite of overtures from her brother to return to Judæa, and there they died (Jos. Ant. xviii. 7, § 2). A tradition or legend relates that Salome’s death was retributive in its outward form. She fell upon the ice, and in the fall her head was severed from the body. Josephus, however, simply records the fact that she married first her great-uncle Philip, the Tetrarch of Trachonitis, and afterwards her first cousin, Aristobulus (Ant. xviii. 5, § 4).
And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.(12) His disciples came.—Among those who thus transferred their allegiance to their true Lord were, we must believe, the two whom John had sent to Him from his prison. From this time they probably ceased in Judæa to be a distinct community, though, as the instances of Apollos (Acts 18:25) and the disciples at Ephesus (Acts 19:3) show, they still maintained a separate existence in the more distant regions to which the influence of the Baptist had indirectly penetrated.
When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.(13) When Jesus heard of it.—We may, I think reverently trace as the motives of this withdrawal, (1) the strong personal emotion which the death of one whom Jesus had known and loved could not fail to cause, and (2) the wish to avoid being the centre of the popular excitement which the death of John was likely to cause, and which we know, as a matter of fact (Jos. Ant. xviii. 5, § 2), was so strong that men looked on all the subsequent troubles of Antipas and his wife as a retributive judgment for it. This was, indeed, sufficiently shown by the eagerness with which the people followed Him into His retirement. Two other circumstances, named by the other Evangelists, tended to increase the crowd that thronged around Him. (1) The Twelve had just returned from their missionary circuit (Mark 6:30-31; Luke 9:10), and it was, indeed, partly to give them, too, an interval of repose that He thus withdrew from His public work; and (2) the Passover was coming on (John 6:4), and all the roads of Galilee were thronged with companies of pilgrims hastening to keep the feast at Jerusalem.
Into a desert place.—St. Luke names this as “a city called Bethsaida,” i.e., one of the two towns bearing that name on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. The name (which signified House of Fish=Fish-town) was a natural one for villages so placed, and the topography of all countries, our own included, presents too many instances of two or more places bearing the same name. with some distinctive epithet, to make the fact at all strange here. In St. Mark’s account the disciples sail, after the feeding of the five thousand, to the other Bethsaida (Mark 6:45); and as this appears in John 6:17 to have been in the direction of Capernaum, the scene of the miracle must have been Bethsaida-Julias. on the north-east shore of the lake.
And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.(14) And Jesus went forth.—The words imply that our Lord, from the height to which He had withdrawn, saw the crowds drawing near, and then, instead of retiring still further, went forward, moved by the touch of pity which the sight of an eager and suffering multitude never failed to rouse in Him (Matthew 9:36), to meet them and relieve their sufferings. St. Mark (Mark 6:34) adds that the source of His compassion was (as in Matthew 9:36) that they were as sheep having no shepherd.
And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.(15) And when it was evening.—The narrative that follows is, in many ways, one of the most important in the Gospel narratives. (1.) It is the only miracle recorded by all the four Evangelists, and thus is practically one of the chief data for interweaving the supplemental narrative of St. John with that of the other three. (2.) It was the fullest manifestation of the sovereignty of the Son of Man over the world of nature. The act was distinctly, if we accept the facts of the case, one of creative power, and does not admit. as some of the works of healing might seem to do, of being explained away as the result of strong faith or excited imagination on the part of those who were its objects. The only rationalising explanation which has ever been offered—viz., that our Lord by His example, in offering the five loaves and the two fishes for the use of others than His own company of the Twelve, stirred the multitude to bring out the little store which, till then, each man in his selfish anxiety had kept concealed—is ludicrously inadequate. The narrative must be accepted or rejected as a whole; and if accepted, it is, as we have said, a proof of supernatural, if not absolutely of divine, power. (3.) No narrative of any other miracle offers so many marks of naturalness, both in the vividness of colouring with which it is told, and the coincidences, manifestly without design, which it presents to us. It is hardly possible to imagine four independent writers—independent, even if two of them were derived from a common source—reproducing, in this way, a mere legend. (4.) The nature of this evidence will be seen in all its strength by combining the facts of the four records as we proceed. (5.) The miracle was important, as we see from John 6, on account of its dogmatic symbolism. It became the text of the dialogue at Capernaum in which (not to anticipate the Notes on the fourth Gospel) communion with the life of Christ was shadowed forth under the figure of eating the flesh of Him who is the true Bread from heaven.
His disciples came to him.—In St. John’s narrative, Philip and Andrew are prominent as speakers, and our Lord puts to the former the question, “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” As Philip and Andrew both belonged to one of the Bethsaidas, their local knowledge made the question natural. It was apparently after this private conversation that the main body of the disciples came to their Master beseeching Him to dismiss the multitude that they might buy food in the nearest villages. They were met by what must have seemed to them the marvellous calmness of the answer: “They need not depart, give ye them to eat.” Philip’s rough estimate having been passed on to the others, they answer that it would take two hundred pennyworth of bread (the Roman penny, as a coin, was worth 7½d. of our money, but its value is better measured by its being the average day’s wages of a soldier or labourer, Matthew 20:2) to feed so great a number (Mark 6:37; John 6:7). Then Jesus asks them, “How many loaves have ye?” and Andrew (John 6:8), as the spokesman of the others, replies that they have found a lad with five loaves (barley loaves, in St. John, the food of the poor) and two fishes.
And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.(19) He commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass.—This, too, was done with a calm and orderly precision. They were to sit down in companies of fifty or a hundred each, and thus the number of those who were fed became a matter of easy calculation. St. Mark, with a vivid picturesqueness, describes them as presenting the appearance of so many beds of flowers in a well-ordered garden. The bright colours of Eastern dress probably made the resemblance more striking than it would be with a like multitude so arranged among ourselves.
Looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake.—The act was natural and simple enough, the “saying grace” (St. John uses the word, “giving thanks”) of the head of a Jewish household as he gathered his family around him. The formulæ in such cases were commonly short and simple, like our own, such e.g. as, “May God, the ever-blessed One, bless what He has given us.” Looking, however, to the teaching which followed the miracle, as in John 6, and to our Lord’s subsequent use at the Last Supper of the same words and acts, with others which gave them a new and higher meaning, we can hardly be wrong in thinking that as He now distributed the earthly bread to the hungering crowd, through the agency of His Apostles, there was present to His mind the thought that hereafter He would, through the same instrumentality, impart to souls that hungered after righteousness the gift of communion with Himself, that thus they might feed on the true Bread that cometh down from heaven.
It lies in the nature of the case, as a miracle of the highest order, that the process of multiplication is inconceivable in its details. Did each loaf, in succession, supply a thousand with food, and then come to an end, its place taken by another? Was the structure of the fishes, bone and skin and head, reproduced in each portion that was given to the guests at that great feast? We know not, and the Evangelists did not care to ask or to record. It was enough for them that the multitude “did all eat, and were filled.”
And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.(20) Twelve baskets full.—The basket here is the cophinus, a small basket carried in the hand, and often used by travellers to hold their food. So Juvenal (Sat. iii. 14) describes the Jews of Italy as travelling with “their cophinus and a wisp of hay,” by way of pillow, as their only luggage. St. John records that the gathering was made by our Lord’s express commands, “that nothing be lost.” The marvellous display of creative power was not to supersede forethought, thrift, economy in the use of the gifts it had bestowed. It is probable, from the language of the disciples in Mark 6:37, and from John 13:29, that they were in the habit of distributing food to the poor in the villages and towns in which they preached, and the fragments were, we may believe, reserved for that use.
And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.(21) Beside women and children.—St. Matthew is the only Evangelist who mentions their presence, but all the four use the word which emphasises the fact that all the five thousand were men. As the crowd had come in many cases from considerable distances, the women and children were probably few in number, were grouped together by themselves, and were not counted, so that the round number dwelt in men’s minds without reference to them.
And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.(22) Straightway Jesus constrained his disciples.—St. John narrates more fully the impression made by the miracle. It led those who witnessed it to the conclusion that “this was the Prophet that should come into the world.” They sought to seize Him and make Him a king against His will (John 6:14-15), and He, shrinking from that form of sovereignty, withdrew from His disciples, dismissed the multitude, and on the mountain height passed the night in prayer. The disciples at His bidding were crossing to the other side to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45)—i.e., to the town of that name on the western shore of the lake near Capernaum (John 6:17). It was, we may reverently say, as if in this unwonted stir of popular excitement—not against Him, but in His favour—this nearness to a path of earthly greatness instead of that which led onward to the cross, He saw something like a renewal of the temptation in the wilderness, needing special communion with His Father, that He might once again resist and overcome it. And once again, therefore, He desired to pass through the conflict alone, as afterwards in Gethsemane, with no human eye to witness the temptation or the victory.
But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.(24) Tossed with waves.—Literally, vexed, or tormented.
And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.(25) In the fourth watch of the night.—The Jews, since their conquest by Pompeius, had adopted the Roman division of the night into four watches, and this was accordingly between 3 A.M. and 6 A.M., in the dimness of the early dawn. St. John adds, as from a personal reminiscence, and as guarding against explanations that would minimise the miracle (such as that our Lord was seen on the shore, or was swimming to the boat), that they were about twenty-five or thirty furlongs from the point from which they had started—i.e., as the lake was five miles wide, nearly three-fourths of the way across.
Walking on the sea.—Here, again, we have to choose between the simple acceptance of the supernatural fact as another instance of His sovereignty, or rejecting it as a legend. On the former supposition. we may see in it something like an anticipation (not unconnected, it may be, with the intensity of that crisis in His life) of that spiritual body of which we see another manifestation in the Transfiguration, and which became normal after the Resurrection, reaching its completeness in the wonder of the Ascension. We speculate almost involuntarily on the nature, and, as it were, process of the miracle, asking whether the ordinary laws that govern motion were broken or suspended, or counteracted by higher laws. No such questions would seem to have suggested themselves to the disciples. They, as yet not free from the popular superstitions of their countrymen, thought that it was “a spirit” (better, a phantom, or spectre) taking the familiar form, it might be, to lure them to their destruction, or as a token that some sudden mischance had deprived them of that loved Presence, and, therefore, in their vague terror, they were troubled, and cried out for fear.
But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.(27) Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.—The accuracy with which the words are given by St. John, as well as by St. Matthew and St. Mark, shows the impression which the incident made on the minds of the disciples. To hear the familiar tones and the cheering words was enough, even amid the howling of the winds and the dashing of the waves, to give them confidence and hope. We can scarcely doubt that in after years that moment came back to their recollection, invested for them, as it has since been for the Church at large, with something of a symbolic character. Often the sky became dark, and the waves of the troublesome world were rough, and the blasts of persecution beat on them, and the ark of Christ’s Church was tossed on the waters, and they were wearied and spent with rowing. They thought themselves abandoned, and then in the dim twilight they would see or feel once again the tokens of His presence. He was coming to them through the storm. “Be of good cheer” became the watchword of their lives.
And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.(28, 29) And Peter answered him.—The incident that follows is narrated by St. Matthew only. It may have been one which the Apostle did not willingly recall, and which was therefore omitted by his disciple St. Mark and by his friend St. John, while St. Luke, writing as a compiler, came into the circle of those among whom it was seldom, if ever, mentioned. It is, however, eminently characteristic. Eager but not steadfast, daring and yet fearful, the Apostle is on that stormy night, as he was afterwards among the scoffs and questionings in the porch of the high priest’s palace. “If it be Thou . . .” The voice, the form are not enough for him. It may yet, he thinks, be a spectre or a dream, and therefore he demands a sign. He, too, must walk upon the waters. And at first his faith sustains him. He is a sharer with his Master in that intensity of spiritual life which suspends the action of natural laws by one which is supernatural.
But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.(30) When he saw the wind boisterous.—The adjective is wanting in the best MSS.
He was afraid.—In the conflict between sight and faith, faith was worsted, and with that came fear. The supernatural strength left him, and the swimmer’s art would not now avail, and so the waters were closing over him, and he cried out in his agony. And then the gracious pity of his Lord helped the “little faith” with the firm sustaining grasp, not, indeed, without a word of loving reproof, and yet as unwilling even here to quench the smoking flax.
And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.(32) The wind ceased.—St. Mark adds that “they were above measure astonished” at the sudden lull. For the most part these mountain squalls died away gradually, and left the waves rough. Here the wind ceased in a moment, and ceased as their Lord entered the boat. And he gives a significant reason for their astonishment, “For they reflected not on the loaves, for their heart was hardened.” This was the later analysis which the disciples made of their feelings on that night. Had they understood all the divine creative energy which the miracle of the loaves involved, nothing afterwards, not even the walking on the waves, or the lulling of the storm, would have seemed startling to them.
Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.(33) They that were in the ship.—The peculiar description was apparently intended to distinguish them from Peter and the other disciples, and probably indicates that they were the crew of the boat, or some chance passengers, who had no previous knowledge of our Lord and of His works. They too were led, in that moment of wonder, to the confession that the Prophet of Nazareth was more than man, and in this, as far as the Gospel record goes, they anticipated the faith even of the foremost of the disciples. It is significant that Peter’s confession that He was “the Son of God,” or “the Holy One of God” (John 6:69), follows shortly upon this.
And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.(34) They came into the land of Gennesaret.—The name, possibly a corruption of the older Chinneroth (Numbers 34:11; Joshua 11:2; Joshua 12:3), belonged to the western shore of the lake to which it gave one of its titles, and included Capernaum, to which, as we learn from John 6:17; John 6:24, the disciples were steering. The region was one of singular fertility (the name has been explained as meaning the “Garden of Sharon”), and was then one of the most populous districts of Palestine.
And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased;(35) And when the men of that place.—We have to remember, though not in this place to discuss, the fact that it was here, in the synagogue of Capernaum, that our Lord, meeting with those who had seen the miracle of the loaves, led them into that higher region of spiritual truth which the discourse of John 6:22-65 brings before us. The manifestation of divine power in the works of healing coincided with the divine wisdom revealed in the new teaching.
And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.(36) That they might only touch the hem of his garment.—The wide-spread belief may be noted as the natural result of the miracle already recorded in Matthew 9:20-22, and as the touch implied the faith which was the condition of receptivity, it was now also, as before, effective.