Mothers and fathers could be heard weeping openly and loudly. There was no comforting these grieving parents and families at the loss of their children, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and grandchildren. These innocents were cruelly and systematically murdered without hesitation, without remorse, all to fulfill the desires and political ambitions of one, evil man. This is not a mass murder scene in some modern metropolis, but the scene in a little, obscure village two thousand years ago.
The perpetrator of this heinous, unforgettable slaughter was king Herod the Great. Herod (meaning “hero” or “son of a hero”) was an Idumean by birth, though it was claimed, apparently falsely, that his family came from one of the more important Jewish families to come out of the Captivity. He is said to have been intelligent and capable but mercilessly conniving and cruel. He aligned himself with whatever political forces in Rome would best serve his fortunes. He would stop at nothing, not even blatant infanticide, to advance his political standing and power and he ruled firmly for the next thirty-three years (37 B.C. – 4 B.C.).
Much has been made by modernists over the fact that in all of contemporary, written history only Matthew records this gruesome event (Matt. 2:16-18). But it is well known that this slaughter was clearly within the moral capabilities of Herod. After Herod took Jerusalem by military force (37 B.C.), he summarily executed forty-five of his political enemies, including all of the Sanhedrin save two. He also had John Hyrcanus, his wife’s grandfather, strangled because he thought he was plotting to take the kingdom from him. Indeed, he “slew also all those of his own family” who believed “that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it” (Ant. 17:2:4), including his wife and sons.
It was during the last days of Herod the king that Jesus was born (Matt. 2:1, 19,20). Hearing that influential foreigners were looking for the one born king of the Jews not only troubled Herod but also all Jerusalem. The citizens of Jerusalem were no doubt troubled because they feared what this old despot would do. Their fears were justified for he slaughtered dozens of innocent children to kill just one whom he feared would depose him as king.
The Holy Spirit says that these events fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:15). Some, including McGarvey, have said that Jeremiah did not intend this as a prophecy of these events but that Matthew merely adopted the wording as a fitting representation of the current situation. But the greater context of the passage in Jeremiah is clearly Messianic and other passages are used in the same way (i.e., Is. 7:14; II Sam. 7:12,13). If the author (in this case, the Holy Spirit) of a passage (Jer. 31:15) says that this is it’s fulfillment (Matt. 2:16-18), what right do we have to tell Him that He is wrong?
Josephus tells us that before Herod died, he realized no one would mourn his death. To make certain that there would be mourning on that occasion, Herod called to Jerusalem “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation, wheresoever they lived” and locked them in the hippodrome and ordered his sister to have them all killed when he died so that there would be mourning in the land upon his death (Ant. 17:6:5). Fortunately, his sister did not carry out those wishes and set the men free. But so many are the cruel acts of Herod the great that the slaughter of dozens of innocent children is perfectly in keeping with his character.
The son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea (4 B. C. – 39 A. D.), is also involved in the life of Christ and the early church. This Herod, motivated solely by unbridled lust for his illegitimate wife’s daughter, was responsible for the beheading of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1-12). Antipas is also the Herod mentioned in scripture who laboriously questioned Jesus, hoping to see some miracle (Luke 23:8) and when Jesus would not so much as speak, He, with his men of war, contemptuously mocked the Saviour (Luke 23:11). Interestingly, one of the early leaders in the church at Antioch had been brought up with this Antipas (Acts 13:1).
In Acts twelve we have recorded for us the acts of Herod Agrippa I, King of Judaea (41–44 ce), who “stretched forth his hand to vex certain of the church (12:1) and killed James, the brother of John (12:2) and imprisoned the apostle Peter, intending to kill him, as well. Because of his pride, however, the Lord smote him dead and he was eaten of worms (Acts 12:20-24). Agrippa II is seen in the trial of Paul and is notable because of his admission, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 25:13-26:32).
It is ironic that these descendants of “Esau tried still to get from Jacob the forfeited blessing (Gen. 27:29, 40), in vain setting up an earthly kingdom on a professed Jewish basis, to rival Messiah’s spiritual kingdom” (Fausset). While the Jews rejoiced over the death of Herod because they were set free from a mad tyrant, the world ever rejoices over the death and resurrection of Jesus because He sets us free the spiritual bondage of sin.
Eric L. Padgett