Posts tagged ‘Herod the Great’

A Tale of Three Kings


Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.


[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

ABC Extra – How Firm A Foundation

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of our family trips to the beach.  The sun, the white sand, the clear blue water.  Wait, check that.  I grew up in Oregon.  It was always cloudy, the sand was rocky, and the water was murky.  But I loved the beach nonetheless.  And even in the rocky sand, I loved to build sandcastles.  I would always make sure I had my pail and spade in tow, ready to create an impenetrable fortress right there at the base of beach.  Except that, inevitably, my fortress would always be penetrated – and washed away – by the water.  For sand castles, no matter how well you build them, never last.  They always succumb to the relentless pounding of the surf.

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we were introduced to one of history’s most infamous rulers – Herod the Great.  Known for his ruthlessness and megalomania, Herod would stop at nothing to protect and extend his reign and rule as “king of the Jews,” a title bestowed on him by the Roman Senate in 40 BC.  He was married to no fewer than ten women over his life, most of whom he married out of political expediency rather than out of love.  He banished his first wife, Doris, because he wanted to marry his second wife, Miriamne.  He eventually had her executed after they got into a fight.  He also killed his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, as well as three of his sons under suspicion that they were trying to usurp his power.  Herod was a tyrant indeed.

But for all of Herod’s tyranny, he was also a monarch of great skill and vision.  Most notably, Herod was a master builder.  He built a whole city called the Caesarea Maritima, situated on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, which had a breathtaking manmade harbor spanning more than forty acres.  He built himself a palace which included baths, a pool, a colonnaded garden, and a 600 foot long terrace.  He named it, modestly, the Herodium.  But most famously, Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem bigger and better than ever.  He plastered it in marble and gold.  It ascended higher than a fifteen-story building.  It was truly a monument to Herod’s skill as an artisan.  Herod began his work on the temple in 19 BC.  It was not completely finished until 68 years after his death.  If Herod died, as the German theologian Emil Schürer asserted, in 1 BC, that means the temple was finally finished in AD 67.  In AD 70, the Roman general Titus laid siege to the city of Jerusalem and destroyed its temple.  Herod’s completed temple stood for only three years.

Like my sandcastles on the beach, Herod’s building projects weren’t as enduring as he thought they would be.  His crowing achievement, the Jerusalem temple, was destroyed only a few years after it was completed.  His architecture succumbed to the relentless march of human history.

Jesus once told a story about the fate of building projects:  

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27)

Jesus warns that man’s building projects can and do fall.  The only way to make them last is to build them upon a firm foundation – and that firm foundation is Christ.  Herod never learned this.  Indeed, we learn in Matthew 2:16 that he wanted to kill Christ, not build his life and legacy on Him.

What are you building?  And more importantly, on whom are you building?  The things you build to your own fame will inevitably fall.  But what is built on the rock of Christ and to His glory will endure.  Do you build on the rock of Christ at your job, with your family, and throughout your life?  Or, like Herod, are you only building monuments to your own greatness, which are really no sturdier than sandcastles?  As the apostle Paul warns, “If any man builds…his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Corinthians 3:12-13).  May our work not be found wanting – not because of our skill, but because of Christ’s foundation.

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December 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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