HEROD: THE WORST KIND OF BONDAGE
READ: Matthew 2:1-8, 16-18, Luke 4:16-21 (Click here to read selections from the NIV)
Herod the Great was nearing the end of a twisted and tormented life on that momentous day when magi from the east came looking for the Messiah. At age 68, his body was wracked with a horrible disease that left him barely able to function. With grim determination, the troubled king of Judea fought to retain his hold on the throne, having no use for anyone who might seek to usurp it. Though clearly he'd be dead long before this prophesied One would become a threat, the deranged king had all baby boys under the age of two in the region slaughtered anyway. It was one more atrocity in a lengthy span of evil, the likes of which this world has rarely seen.
Herod's meteoric rise to fame began when his father made him the tetrarch of Galilee as a teenager. By the time he was 30 he had paid his way into the highest levels of Roman government, and as a reward was made king of Judea. Because of his excessive cruelty and questionable adherence to Judaism (his mother was of Arab descent), he was never accepted or viewed with regard by the Jews under his reign. When the Sanhedrin began to take a stand against his pagan practices, he abolished their rule and replaced the centuries old inheritance system with one of buying and selling, so that he could ensure every priest's loyalty to Rome. In the process, he had many of them killed, including one who had become like a spiritual father to him.
Later, in an effort to garner favor with the Jews, he rebuilt Solomon's Temple, a beautiful edifice of white, blue and yellow marble. However, when he placed a pagan golden eagle at the entrance, some young Hebrew men tore it down and smashed it to pieces, a stand that cost them their lives. Needless to say, as lovely as the Temple was, it did not serve to increase Herod's popularity with the vast majority of his Jewish subjects.
Though Herod had several wives, his greatest love was a beautiful Hasmonean princess named Miramne. For no apparent reason, he began to suspect her of having an affair, and being riddled with jealousy, brought charges against her. Miriamne was executed after he bribed his own sister to testify against her. Many suspected the real problem was that Miriamne had greater favor with the Jews than he did, something he could not bear. History suggests that shortly after this event, Herod lost his mind and never fully recovered.
Time will not allow the stories of all those whom Herod had brutally murdered because he perceived them to be a threat. Throughout the 37 years of his monarchy, his cruelty cast a long dark shadow over his accomplishments, one that remains to this day. When he realized that he was facing his final hours, he demanded that all Jews be rounded up and executed, so that the nation would have reason to mourn upon his death. In the end, his sister Salome released the thousands of Jews from the Hippodrome, preventing a massacre of immeasurable proportion.
Herod lived in a prison of soul, a dungeon of depravity from which no amount of fame or fortune or political power could free him. What brought him to such a fate? Perhaps it began with his mixed race heritage that prevented him from ever being accepted in either culture. Maybe it was the hurt he felt when his father gave him the region of Galilee, while his brother got the coveted one of Jerusalem. Or maybe it was the outcome of being born under the banner of Rome, a tyrant government that showed no mercy for weakness and little use for anyone who didn't serve their purposes. We can only guess at the reasons for Herod's brutality, but the truth is that the king who tried to have the baby Jesus killed, lived in bondage all his life, shut up in the worst kind of prison--that of the mind.
So as Christmas carols fill the air and warm fires burn in our decorated living rooms, let us not forget this dark page in the story of Christ's birth. Yes, the plan to kill the babe was thwarted by a Sovereign God, but there is a greater lesson to glean from Herod's life than that. Let us remember that the seeds of such evil dwell in the sinful souls of every one of us, and that the bondage Herod knew is one many people awake to this very day. May our hearts soar with wonder that though we too were once shut up in a prison, with no means of escape, we follow a King who came to bring God's favor--a favor that saves and heals, that sets captives free and leads the oppressed to liberty. And as we remember, let us give thanks for the babe who grew up to crush the bars and rescue you and me, and now stands ready to bind our broken hearts, heal our hidden hurts, and restore our souls to wholeness, once again.
Read the following words of Jesus slowly and meditatively (meditation implies turning something over and over in your mind again and again, like looking at all the facets and prisms in a beautiful diamond):
The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Spend a few minutes pondering what your life would have been like, had Jesus not set you free. Don't rush past this...what kind of mental prison might you be living in now, if He hadn't?
Are there any areas you still feel bound up in? Offer this to the Lord, and ask Him to free you and heal you. Read the above passage one more time and affirm that it is true for your personally, as you wait in His presence. Then worship the King of grace.
A CHRISTMAS ACTIVITY
Many of the neediest people in the world are those who live in mental prisons. Reach out to one of them today. You'll find them in mental wards and on the streets--people who have lost touch with reality, and know no way out. Pray for God's direction, and do an act of practical kindness. Bring a stocking to someone in a mental hospital or ward, or offer a cup of coffee or some Christmas goodies to a troubled homeless person. Pray for them when you do!