I. CONJECTURES ABOUT CHRIST. The name of Jesus had now attained great celebrity; it was fast becoming a household word; the cures he had effected, the demons he had ejected from human bodies, the dead he had raised - his wonderful works were on every tongue. Some detracted, others wondered, but most applauded. The missionary tour of the apostles, brief as it was, had given fresh currency and wider diffusion to reports already circulated far and near. His fame had made its way into the court of the tetrarch, and thus reached the ears of royalty itself. The personality of the great Wonder-worker was keenly canvassed; conjectures were rife on the subject. Some affirmed he was Elias, who had come as the forerunner of Messiah; others, not seeing their way to go so far as to accept him for the Prophet long expected, or even the precursor of that great Prophet, simply asserted he was a prophet; while some fancied that, after a long and dreary interval, a new era of prophetic activity was commencing, and so that a person like one of the old prophets had appeared.
II. CONSCIENCE STRONGER THAN CREED. Such were the conjectures afloat, and such the conflicting opinions of the people. Not so Herod; other thoughts stirred within him; something more than mere curiosity Was at work in his case; he was startled - thoroughly perplexed, and quite at a loss (διηπόρει, St. Luke) to know what to think of the matter. in his extreme perplexity and agitation he expressed his opinion in a very surprising manner, and in the following very striking and abrupt words: - "Whom I myself beheaded - John: he is risen from the dead;" adding, "And on this account mighty powers operate in him." What a wonderful evidence of the power of conscience we have here! Herod, we have good reason to believe, was a Sadducee, for "the leaven of Herod," mentioned by St. Mark (Mark 8:15), is identified with "the leaven of the Sadducees" spoken of in the Gospel of St. Matthew (Matthew 16:6). The Sadducees denied the existence of angel or spirit, and also the resurrection of the dead; and yet this loose-living, unbelieving Sadducee fell back at once on an article of belief which he had all his life denied. The power of conscience had overmastered his creed. His guilty conscience had conjured up before him the murdered man as restored to life, and returning, as it were, with power from the spirit-world.
III. A PARALLEL CASE. A somewhat similar instance of the mighty power of that monitor within occurs in an instructive narrative in the forty-second chapter of the Book of Genesis. When Joseph, before making himself known to his brethren, had put them in ward three days, and subsequently released them on condition of retaining one as a hostage till the rest returned with their youngest brother, in proof of their good faith and of their being true men and no spies, "they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us." There was nothing apparently in the circumstances of the case, unpleasant as those circumstances were, nor in the condition imposed on them, hard as it seemed, to remind them of their cruel treatment of their long-lost brother - nothing to recall his memory, absolutely nothing, save the still, small voice within; in other words, the power of a guilty conscience.
IV. THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT OCCASIONED THE BAPTIST'S DEATH. The evangelist now turns aside to narrate the circumstances that led up to the death of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas, ethnarch of Galilee and Peraea, called "tetrarch" by St. Matthew, as inheriting only a fourth part of the dominions of his father, Herod the Great, and styled "king" by St. Mark, had seduced his brother Philip's wife, with whom he was now living in an adulterous connection. The Baptist boldly but faithfully lifted up his voice against this sin. addressing earnest and repeated remonstrances to Herod; for, as we read, he kept saying (ἔλεγε being imperfect), "It is not lawful for thee to have her," The vindictive spirit of Herodias was roused in consequence; she resolved to have her revenge, but was unable to prevail on her husband to gratify her fully in this particular. He arrested the Baptist and imprisoned him, putting him in chains. He still, however, retained some respect for him, as a good and holy man whom he had heard often, and by whom he had been influenced to do many things; though συνετήρει rather means that Herod kept him in safety, or preserved him from Herodias's machinations, than that he esteemed him highly. Besides, state policy stood in the way of further violence. Herod shrank from the unpopularity which he was certain to incur by such a course; perhaps even worse consequences might ensue. To deprive i the people of their favourite might lead to insurrection. Josephus, however, attributes the murder of John by Herod to Herod's "fear lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion." This wicked woman bided her time, harbouring her secret grudge and ill-concealed resentment (ἐνεῖχεν, equivalent to "she held fast within or cherished inward wrath," or "set herself against," Revised Version); while ἤθελεν implies "she had a settled desire" ); but the favorable opportunity at last arrived. The king was celebrating his birthday festival by an entertainment to the magnates of his realm - high officers of the army, military tribunes, or chiliarchs, and other functionaries, civil or ecclesiastical, of distinguished rank. But besides this great assemblage of Galilean nobles and the splendor of the feast itself, a new feature was added to the entertainment. Salome, daughter of Hero-dins, in forgetfulness of the due decorum of her rank and the natural modesty of her sex, volunteered to play a part little better than that of ballet-girl before the assembled grandees of Galilee, and thus to heighten the enjoyment of the king's guests. The king looked on in rapture, immensely pleased by the easy condescension, and charmed with the agility and graceful movements of the fair danseuse. He was sensible of the sacrifice she had made in compliment to his majesty; for a Persian queen once lost her crown, and was willing to submit to the loss, rather than, at the sacrifice of her queenly or womanly modesty, to appear, even by the king's express command, in the presence of his banqueters. Being, in consequence, in a grateful, generous mood, he determined not to be outdone in magnanimity. There and then, of his own motion, he promised Salome whatever she asked, if it should amount to half his kingdom: he backed his promise by an oath, yea, by more than one, for we read of oaths (ὅρκους), as confirmatory of that promise. The girl was somewhat nonplussed by the largeness of the king's bounteous offer. She hesitated; but a prompter was not far to seek. She repaired to her mother, no doubt expecting direction in the matter of gold, or jewels, or diamonds, or girlish ornaments of some sort. But no; that wicked woman had set her heart on what no gold could purchase, and no gems procure. It was no less than the Baptist's head.
V. REFLECTIONS ON ALL THIS.
1. Surely the maiden, bold as she was, must have been shocked at the proposal; surely she must have recoiled from such a cruelty; surely she must have required strong and powerful urgency to bring herself to present such a bloody petition. And this we think is implied in the word προβιβασθεῖσα employed by St. Matthew, and signifying "made to go forward," and so instigated. She soon, however, recovered her sprightliness. Once her scruples were overcome, she returned in haste, and with eagerness preferred the ghastly request for John the Baptist's head to be given her immediately - lest time might cool the royal ardor - and in a charger, one of the platters used in the feast, and thus one of those just at hand, to make sure of the execution on the spot. The terms are expressive of the utmost eagerness and haste: "Give me here - immediately in a charger," is the demand after she had "come in straightway with haste."
2. The king at once repented, but too late; he was excessively sorry (περίλυπος). This word is only used twice again in the New Testament - of the Saviour in his agony, and of the rich ruler in parting, perhaps for ever, from the Saviour. But then there was the false shame consequent on repeated oaths, and because of the presence of so many persons of quality. How could he break the former? How could he insult, by withdrawal of his kingly promise or breach of faith, the latter? How could he set aside (ἀθετῆσαι) a promise made before so many, and confirmed by so many oaths?
3. At once a guardsman (σπεκουλάτωρ, either equal to δορυφόρος, a satellite or body-guard, or equal to κατάσκοπος, a spy, or scout; at all events, a guardsman of Herod now at war with Aretas) is despatched. The head is brought, dripping with blood. Oh, horrid sight! It is handed on a platter to the maiden; and she, maiden though she was, received it, and, maiden though she was, bore it away to her mother. The word "maiden" (κοράσιον, equivalent to little or young maiden) is repeated, as if to stigmatize the untender, unfeeling, and beyond expression unmaidenly, conduct of this princess.
4. So ended the last act of this bloody tragedy. It now remained for the sorrowing disciples of the Baptist tearfully and tenderly to take up the corpse (πτῶμα, equivalent to cadaver) of their beloved master, and consign it to its last resting-place in the tomb.
VI. ADDITIONAL REMARKS.
1. A nearly parallel case, or a crime somewhat similar to that of Herod, is referred to in strongest terms of condemnation by Cicero, in the twelfth chapter of his 'Treatise on Old Age,' as follows: - "I indeed acted unwillingly in banishing from the senate I.. Flaminius, brother of that eminently brave man, T. Flaminius, seven years after he had been consul; but I thought that his licentiousness should be stigmatized. For when he was consul in Gaul, he was prevailed on by a courtesan, at an entertainment, to behead one of those who were in confinement on a capital accusation;... but lewdness so abandoned and so desperate, which was combining with private infamy the disgrace of the empire, could by no means be visited with approbation by myself and Flaccus."
2. It was in a gloomy dungeon, in the strong old castle of Machaerus, that the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded. That place was in Persia, nine miles east of the Dead Sea, and on the borders between the dominion of Herod and of Aretas. It is thus described by Josephus in relation to its strength: "The nature of the place was very capable of affording the surest hopes of safety to those that possessed this citadel, as well as delay and fear to those that should attack it; for what was walled in was itself a very rocky hill, elevated to a very great height; which circumstance alone made it very hard to be subdued. It was also so contrived by nature that it could not be easily ascended; for it is, as it were, ditched about with such valleys on all sides, and to such a depth that the eye cannot reach their bottoms, and such as are not easily passed over, and even such as it is impossible to fill up with earth." - J.J.G.
Herod the tetrarch heard.διηπόρει imports that the man who was in this condition was perplexed, really stuck in the mud. That is the literal import of the word. He could not move easily, and in all his movement he was trying to escape — now he was moving to the right, then he was moving to the left; now forward, now backward, now sideward; he was making all kinds of motion with a view to self-extrication, and he could not deliver himself from this mood of hesitancy and incertitude. Herod was perplexed about Christ, and curiously perplexed; for his instinct put down his dogma, his conscience blew away as with a scornful wind his theological view of life and destiny. Why was Herod perplexed? — "Because that it was said of some, that John was risen from the dead; and of some, that Elias had appeared; and of others, that one of the old prophets was risen again" (vers. 7, 8). Why did Herod trouble himself about these dead men? As a Sadducee he did not believe in spirit or in resurrection. If he had been quite faithful and stedfast to his creed, he would have said in answer to all these rumours — Whoever this man may be, he has nothing whatever to do with another world, for other world there is none; as to resurrection, dismiss the superstition and forget it. But Herod had never been in this situation before. Circumstances play havoc with some creeds. They are admirable creeds whilst the wind is in the south-west, and the way lies up a green slope, and birds are singing around us, and all heaven seems inclined to reveal its glories in one blaze: then we can have our theories and inventions and conjectures, and can play the little tricky controversialist with many words: but when the wolf bites us, how is it then? When all the money is lost, when the little child lies at the last gasp, when the doctor himself has gone away, saying it will be needless for him to return — how then? Men should have a creed that will abide with them every day in the week without consulting thermometer or barometer; a creed that will sing the most sweetly when the heart most needs heaven's music; a great faith, an intelligent, noble, free-minded faith, that says to the heart in its moods of dejection, All will come well; hold on, never despair, never give up; one more prayer, one more day, in a little while. A faith of this kind saves men from perplexity; it gives the life of man solidity, centralization, outlook, hope. It is an awkward thing to have a creed that will not bear this stress. Herod's Sadduceeism went down when a tap came to the door by invisible fingers. We can do what we will with matter; if the fingers are of bone and flesh they can be smitten and broken; but who can touch invisible fingers? Then what have we to take down by way of comfort? We have declared that we know nothing, and have taken quite lofty pride in our boundless ignorance, but here is a hand at the door, and the door must be answered, and you must answer it. Herod was perplexed, hesitant, now on this side, now on that side; he could not tell what to do. So are men perplexed about Christ to-day who do not believe in Him. It is one of two things in regard to this Son of Man: cordial, loving, positive trust, the whole heart-love poured out like wine into a living flagon; or it is now belief, now unbelief, now uncertainty, now a prayer breathed to the very devil that he would come and take possession of the mind so as to drive out all perplexity and bewilderment. The latter course ends in deepening confusion and darkness. The only thing that will bear the stress of every weight, the collision of every conflict, is faith — simple, loving, grateful faith: Lord, increase our faith.
(J. Parker, D. D.)I. ITS MIGHT.
1. It faithfully reminds of the evil committed.
2. Judges it rightly.
3. Chastises it rigorously.
II. ITS IMPOTENCE. It is not able —
1. To undo the past.
2. To make the present endurable.
3. To make the future hopeful.
I. ALL SUCH UNBELIEF, LIKE HEROD'S, DISTRUSTS ITSELF. Scepticism is never wholly satisfied with its own creed; never rests confidently on its own reasonings. So it was with Herod. As a Sadducee, he rejected the doctrine of the Resurrection, whether of angel or spirit. And yet, suddenly startled from his self-possession by an alarm of conscience, he is seen in the text to affirm strongly the truth whose denial was fundamental to his system l Sincere faith is serene, self-possessed, reliant. The traveller on the king's highway walks calmly and confidently, because he feels that his feet are on adamant; while he, in a marsh or a quicksand, is all restless and excited, through his distrust of the road. This very vapouring of unbelief in behalf of its tenets is significant of insincerity.
II. That all unbelief, like Herod's, not only distrusts itself, BUT OFTEN, AND IN THE END, ALMOST ALWAYS DISAVOWS ITSELF! It may clamour against the hard things of revelation, as opposed to its instincts and its reason; yet will ever and anon make practical confession that they seem not unreasonable. This is strikingly exhibited in this history of Herod. Yea, and the text's illustration on this point goes much further. It shows, not only that the Resurrection is a reasonable doctrine, but that all the Bible teaches as to the effects of that Resurrection upon its subjects is as well reasonable and philosophic. These teachings may be embraced in two particulars — the positive identity, and the greatly enlarged powers and faculties of the Risen Immortal.
1. The Bible affirms this identity. The creature raised from the grave is to be the same creature who goes down into it. Death has no power to destroy or alter human nature. He says, "It is John. It is John the Baptist. He is risen from the dead!"
2. The Bible teaches that, along with this identity, the raised body shall possess powers and faculties very greatly enlarged. Indeed, there is in human nature something instantly responding to the .voices of revelation. And it is by reason of this that unlearned and weak-minded Christians do maintain their faith so grandly against all the assaults of philosophic infidelity. They cannot argue for the truth, but they can apprehend it. And this natural moral sense exists originally in all men. The Bible never came to a human spirit that did not at some time respond to its felt truthfulness.
III. Passing this, observe, That all such unbelief, like Herod's, POSITIVELY PUNISHES ITSELF. Conscience! Conscience! It was itself a resurrection-power within him! And look at the Tetrarch now! His cheek pale, his lip quivering, his wild eye glaring upon vacancy! He starts from his couch! The wine-cup drops from his hand as he whispers with white lips, "It is John the Baptist — he is risen from the dead!" Ah me! What aileth the Tetrarch there amid princes and nobles? John the Baptist sleeps still in his distant grave. But a simple thought long buried within his murderer's soul hath been unsepulchred! He thought to silence the living voice of God's prophet, but that voice in the dark chambers of his soul will wake echoes for ever! Here then we say is a striking illustration of the power of a roused conscience as God's avenger of sin. I have no room nor necessity here for an argument for retribution. I have only to do with this natural illustration. I am not prophesying what God will do, but only showing what man himself does! It is a favourite postulate, even of the infidel philosophy, that no impression once made on the thinking principle is ever obliterated. And it has doubtless happened unto you all to observe, how some trifling thing — a remark in conversation, the view of a familiar landscape, a strain of some longforgotten harmony, yea, a thing so slight as the rustle of a falling leaf, or the breath of a flower's perfume — has awakened in the mind a long train of recollections. Thoughts long forgotten move again powerfully within us; we are borne away suddenly to other scenes; we live virtually in other times and other conditions. The magic of memory has summoned from the past shadowy forms, faces, voices, it may be of the dead. They rise upon us, they move before us, as life's great realities, and for the time we are under their mysterious power as our angels or avengers l Now, whether or not conscience be but a modification of memory, certain we are it follows the same great law. Conscience, too, may be beguiled for a season of its avenging power. But this you cannot do — you cannot destroy it. Sin, sin it is, as an operative principle within you, that, by arming conscience with an eye of fire and whip of scorpions, gives to the "worm" its fang, and to the "fires" their fierceness. Believe, if you will, that God is too merciful to make a hell. Yet you know, for you have seen, that every sinful man is making it. This is the law of man's moral nature, and under it you are all working out your own retribution. You are doing it always, each one for himself.
(B. Bouchier, M. A.)locus, they come up in awful vividness before us .... As when a flash of lightning reveals but for a moment the dangers of the shipwrecked crew, so now there is an awful recollection of all our past transgressions. They have long been covered up, but only covered like the beautiful carvings of some old minister, or the frescoes on its walls were covered, before the hand of the restorer was brought to bear upon them. They were always clear and open before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. Now we see them for a little with something of the insight that pertains to Him.
(J. G. Pilkington.)
"The mind that broods o'er guilty woes,
Is like the scorpion girt by fire;
In circle narrowing as it glows.
The flames around their captive close,
Till inly searched by thousand throes,
And maddening in her ire,
One sad and sole relief she knows,
The sting she nourished for her foes
Whose venom never yet was vain,
Gives but one pang and cures all pain,
And darts into her desperate brain:
So do the dark in soul expire,
Or live like scorpion girt by fire.
So writhes the mind remorse has riven,
Unfit for earth, undoomed for heaven,
Darkness above, despair beneath,
Around it flame, within it death."
(D. Thomas, D. D.)Torments of conscience: — It is said of Charles IX., that he could never bear to lie awake at night unless his thoughts were diverted by the strains of music in an adjoining apartment; and of Tiberius, it is asserted that he declared to his senators that he suffered death daily.
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