Fallen human nature wishes to avoid many things it deems undesirable. Besides general pain, arguably the most pressing of these is guilt. We do not like feeling guilty or condemned. Of course, many times we can be made to feel guilty illegitimately—whether by our own warped standard of righteousness that expect more of us than God does, or by the legalistic, simplistic demands of others. But the emotional sensation is such that regardless of its legitimacy, the human heart recoils from it and wants to do as much as it can to avoid feeling it. Rationalization, justification, anger, and simple avoidance are all tactic we use to not feel guilt.
It is both encouraging and disturbing that this problem is by no means unique to our day. It is encouraging because it demonstrates this problem is one “common to humanity” (1 Cor. 10:13), ad so we are not unusual or worse off for feeling this tension. It is disturbing because it demonstrates the dogged endurance of our fallenness, and that only the miracle of regeneration can change it.
Herod’s life is an example of the wicked lengths to which people go to avoid shame. We will look at his story in the order in which the events occurred, not in the order they appear in the text.
A. The Act (vv. 17-28)
Being a preacher of righteousness and more importantly the prophesied forerunner of Messiah who would lay the foundation for the new covenant ministry of turning sinful hearts to one another (Mal. 4:5-6), John the Baptist took seriously his responsibility to declare truth to a wicked people. His boldness extended even to crying out against the personal wickedness of his political leaders—in this case, Herod Antipas, who was committing adultery with his brother’s wife, Herodias. (Incidentally, Herodias was the niece of both Herod Antipas and her current husband, Philip! Their union was doubly illegitimate because it was both adulterous and incestuous.) The man of God caused a division in the illicit union. Herodias, like Jezebel of old, loathed this troubler of Israel and wanted to put him to death. Herod, however, took an odd pleasure in hearing John—perhaps John’s no-nonsense boldness and passion for what he believed was right was refreshing to the man used to political machinations, groveling obeisance, and flattery. He made sure to hide John (by arresting him and tossing him in prison for about a year, which led to an interesting encounter between John and our Lord in Matthew 11) so his wife’s bloodlust could not seize him. Doubtless this only enraged Herodias more.
When Herod’s birthday came, he threw a lavish party and invited all of the various dignitaries and heads of state. At this point, knowing her husband’s weakness in the area of moral purity, Herodias sent in her daughter, Salome. In that culture, it was very common for birthday parties to be celebrated as acts of sheer and reprehensible debauchery, and lewd dancing girls who would become sexual playthings were very common. Doubtless Herodias knew of her daughter’s way with men, and perhaps had caught Herod eyeing the girl. She decides to use her daughter’s power to her own advantage. Salome dances for the guests—the Greek for “dance” implies a highly suggestive, sexually arousing dance—and it has its intended effect. Drunk on lust, wine, and rich food, Herod loses all inhibition and declares he will give the harlot girl anything she asks for.
This is why God tells us not to make rash vows.
Siding with her godless mother, Salome says she wants the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Recall that Herod has been manipulated and demoralized by a power-hungry, ungodly wife. Moreover, his willingness to be manipulated by fear and shame demonstrate a persistent unbelief and ungodliness on his part. He is so afraid of his wife that he has imprisoned John to buy himself time, and now that fear and desire to avoid shame will be John’s undoing.
You see, Herod is a slave to the opinions of others. Public individuals are often acutely susceptible to this, in that image is reality, and the wrong image spells the death of their influence, money, and power. Not wishing to look foolish in the eyes of dignitaries and other powerful people—who doubtless were just as afraid and manipulative of him for their own selfish purposes—Herod agrees to kill John.
We know Herod had felt conviction under John’s preaching. And the text implies that whatever fear he had of this godly man or how the people would react if he killed him (Matt. 14:5), the time John had in prison allowed some admiration and enjoyment to come out of their interactions. But Herod was still a coward, still an irreversibly-bound slave to that form of unbelief that another John tells us damns for all eternity (Rev. 21:8). So whatever enjoyment he had of John, it wasn’t strong enough to overrule his desire to look a certain way in the eyes of men. He sends an executioner, who kills John and brings back his head to Salome, who gives it with glee to her mother. Godly men and women who knew John and followed him—and who, I hope, loved the Messiah he loved—took his body and buried it, in the well-founded hope of the resurrection.
B. The Heart (vv. 14-16)
This part of the text moves us forward to a point after the death of John the Baptist. Having entrenched himself in ungodly fear and desperation to avoid shame, Herod hears of the ministry of our Lord. Evidently, the ministry of John the Baptist was one visited with divine and miraculous power, in that when people saw the powerful ministry of Jesus and His Apostles, some thought He was John risen from the dead (v. 14). While others speculated that Jesus was Elijah or simply a prophet (cf. Matthew 16:13-14), Herod knew who he thought Jesus was. He was wrong, of course. But the unbidden, unsought reflex of his heart—a profound and reliable index of character if there ever was one—is that the John he unjustly executed, the John he feared and was drawn to, the John whose preaching confronted him with realities he just wanted to suppress, the John hos wife manipulated with her rage and bloodlust into killing—this John, somehow, has come back. And if he has come back, maybe he will come for Herod!
Then only explanation for this is that Herod has known, indeed has always known, despite his best efforts to suppress it, that his killing of John was nothing short of murder. His guilt has pressed inexorably forward in his heart, rising to the surface like a buoy in the sea. This is the response of a guilty and fearful man. Ironically, these were the very emotions he sought to avoid, in some measure, by killing John in the first place!
Here, we see Herod’s heart functioning exactly as God designed it to: Accusing him of guilt he knew he had, even if that guilt was applied in a mistaken way. He had been lying to himself, but his inner man knew the truth. The guilt was there, and real, and he knew it. Even a fallen heart knows more than we realize, and sometimes it will share its secrets with us.
C. The Mind (Luke 23:6-12)
We must go to another passage to see the mind at work. Here, we have distinguished between the heart and the mind in that the heart’s emphasis in this text is unbidden and reflexive, while the mind shows itself to be the calculating, reasoning, argument-making part of the inner person.
In this passage, our Lord stands before Herod at one of the multiple illegal trials He faced prior to His death. Herod questions Him, but our Lord refuses to cast His pearl before this fox. And this is a most interesting moment. For this would be an opportune time to own his sin and unbelief and repent before the One who could forgive him. But time has allowed Herod to harden his ehart, and become even more wicked, and repentance and contrition are nowhere. Indeed, the man who was once sinfully fearful is now simply arrogant, cold, and hard. He has nothing but contempt for the Lord Jesus, sending Him back to Pilate in a mocking robe, the sting of curses and mocks still fresh in our Lord’s ears.
Herod’s story is one of the encroaching, hardening, enveloping effects of sin. Specifically, we see the lustful demand to avoid shame and be approved of in the eyes of men, as well as the enslavement to fear that is a most pernicious kind of unbelief. Herod is an illustration of a man who has sinned and responds in the worst way. But how ought we to respond? Another adulterous king, this one the first installment in a line of anointed men that would culminate in the Greater Son, gives us his answer. Dear King David owned his ungodliness, and our Lord has preserved his words for us in our Bible. Psalm 32 records David’s contrition and humility before the Lord. He also is our model for the right posture of contrition and repentance, and of the blessings this unlocks for us. We are to confess our sin to the Lord (vv. 3-5). We ae not to hide it, ignore it, rationalize it, or justify it. We are to have the mind of Christ and call it what He calls it—sin. This confession is the first step to the right posture before a holy God. Then, we are to commune with the Lord in prayer (vv. 6), worshipping Him, thinking Him, and weeping before Him, knowing in this way His deliverance (v. 7). All of this must be out of a heart of humility—we are to be willing to be counseled and taught by Him, and trust Him to lead us well (vv. 8-10). And then, in light of who He us and the heights to which He has raised us—and the blessings that our ours in our risen Savior—we are to have lavish, shameless joy (v. 11). This can only be the fruit of faith. After all, how can one conscious of their sin be assured of joy and favor from a holy God? Only the one who has taken Him at His Word and confessed and repented thereby.
Christian, be warned by Herod! Know the deceptiveness of your sin and the danger of wanting to be approved by men. And press into the arms of your loving Savior, who wants everything good for you and to raise you to the heights fitting for the Bride of the Man who will inherit all things.