"The number of thine own complete,
"Descend, and solve by that descent
Under Royal Surveillance -- "It is not Lawful." -- The Revenge of Herodias -- The Upbraidings of Conscience -- Devotion to Truth -- "A Sin unto Death."
Our story brings us next to speak of the Baptist's relations with Herod Antipas, son of the great Herod, a contemptible princeling who inherited a fourth part of his father's dominions (hence known as the Tetrarch), ruling over Galilee and part of Perea. For the most part he lived at Tiberias, in great state, which he had imported from Rome, where he had spent part of his early life. From an early age he had been entrusted with despotic power, and, as the natural and inevitable result, had become sensual, weak, capricious, and cruel.
It is of the collision between this man, whom our Lord compared to a fox, and John the Baptist, that we have now to treat. We need only notice here that every great character on the page of history has had his vehement antagonist. Moses, Pharaoh; Elijah, Ahab; Jeremiah, Jehoiakim; Paul, Nero; Savonarola, the Medici; Luther, the Emperor Charles V.; John Knox, Queen Mary.
I. THE CAUSE OF THE COLLISION. -- All the world had flocked to see and hear John the Baptist. Every mouth was full of his eccentricities and eloquence. Marvellous stories were being told of the effect which he had produced on the lives of those who had come under his influence. All this was well known to Herod. His spies were present in every great gathering, and served the purpose of the newspaper of to-day; so that he was well informed of all the topics that engaged the popular mind.
For some months, also, Herod had watched the career of the preacher. When he least expected it, he was under the surveillance of the closest criticism. A fierce light, like that which beats about a throne, fell strongly on his most secret actions. And the result had been perfectly satisfactory. Herod felt that John was a true man. He observed him, and was satisfied that he was a just man and a holy. Reasons of state forbade the king from going in person to the Jordan Valley; but he was extremely eager to see and hear this mighty man of God: and so, one day, at the close of a discourse, an argument with the Pharisees, or the administration of the rite of baptism, John found himself accosted by one of the court chamberlains, and summoned to deliver his message before the court. Herod "sent for him."
We might wonder how it could happen that a man like Herod, who notoriously lived in a glass house, so far as character went, should be so willing to call in so merciless a preacher of repentance as John the Baptist was -- before whose words, flung like stones, full many a glass house had crashed to the ground, leaving its tenant unsheltered before the storm. But it must be remembered that most men, when they enter the precincts of the court, are accustomed to put velvet in their mouths; and, however vehement they may have been in denouncing the sins of the lower classes, they change their tone when face to face with sinners in high places. Herod, therefore, had every reason to presume that John would obey this unwritten law; and, whilst denouncing sin in general, would refrain from anything savouring of the direct and personal.
Another reason probably actuated Herod. He knew that the land was filled with the fame of the Baptist, and it seemed an easy path to popularity, and likely to divert attention from his private sins, which had made much scandal, to patronize the religion of the masses. At this point he probably entertained much the same feeling toward the desert-prophet that led Simon the Pharisee to invite Jesus to eat with him. "Yes, let John the Baptist come. Court life is dreary and monotonous enough. It will make a little diversion, like a breath of fresh air on a sultry day. It is worth risking a little roughness in his speech, and uncouthness in his manner, if only he while away an afternoon. Besides, it will please his following, which is considerable. Let him come, by all means."
We are reminded of a similar scene in Old Testament history, when, at the solicitation of Jehoshaphat, Ahab sent for Micaiah. "The messenger that went to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, 'Behold, the words of the prophets declare good to the king with one mouth; let thy word therefore, I pray thee, be like one of theirs, and speak thou good.'"
One interpretation of Mark vi.20 suggests that the Baptist's first sermon before Herod was followed by another, and yet another. The Baptist dealt with general subjects, urged on the King's attention some minor reforms, which were not too personal or drastic, and won his genuine regard. We are told that he used to hear (the imperfect tense) him gladly, and "did many things." It was a relief to Herod's mind to feel that there were many things which he could do, many wrongs which he could set right, while the main wrong of his life was left untouched. Ah! it is remarkable how much men will do in the direction of amendment and reform, if only, by a tacit understanding, nothing is said, or hinted at, which threatens the one sin in which the heart's evil has concentrated itself. But John knew that his duty to Herod, to truth, to public morality, demanded that he should go further, and pierce to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow; and therefore on one memorable occasion he accosted the royal criminal with the crime of which men were speaking secretly everywhere, and uttered the memorable sentence which could not be forgiven: "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."
We can imagine how some room in the palace, which had often been the scene of wild riot, would be improvised as an audience chamber, filled with seats, and crowded on each occasion of the Baptist's appearance with a strange and brilliant throng. In the midst, the king and the woman with whom he was living in illicit union; next them her daughter, Salome; around them courtiers and ladies, nobles and pages, soldiers and servants. On all sides splendid dresses, magnificent uniforms, rare jewels, luxurious upholstery, added light and colour to the scene.
The sermon began. As was John's wont, he arraigned the sin, the formalism, the laxity of the times; he proclaimed the advent of the Kingdom, the presence of the King; he demanded, in the name of God, repentance and reform. Herod was, as usual, impressed and convinced; he assented to the preacher's propositions; already he had settled himself into his usual posture for hearing gladly. It was as when we watch summer-lightning playing around the horizon; we have no fear so long as it is not forked.
Presently, however, John becomes more personal and direct than ever before. He begins, in no measured terms, to denounce the sin of men in high places, and holds up the dissoluteness which disgraced the court. As he proceeds, a breathless silence falls on the crowd sitting, or hanging around him, their dresses in curious contrast to his severe garment of camel's hair, their nervous dread in as great contrast to his incisive and searching eloquence. Here were the people clothed in soft raiment, and accustomed to sumptuous fare, bending as reeds before the gusts of wind sweeping fiercely across the marsh.
Finally, the preacher comes closer still, and pointing to the princess who sat beside Herod, looking Herod in the face, he exclaims: "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."
We need not dwell on all the terrible details of that disgraceful sin. But every circumstance which could deepen its infamy was present. Herod's wife, the daughter of Aretas, King of Arabia, was still living; as was Philip, the husband of Herodias. The liaison commenced at Rome, when Herod was the guest of his brother Philip, while apparently engaged on a mission of holy devotion to the religious interests of the Jewish nation.
The ground of John's accusation calls for a heavier emphasis than appears in a superficial consideration of the words. He might have said: "It is not expedient; your wife's father will rise in arms against you, and threaten the Eastern border of your kingdom. It is not expedient to run the risk of war, which may give Rome a further excuse against you." He might have said: "This is an unwise step, as it will cut you off from your own family, and leave you exposed to the brunt of popular hate." He might have said: "It is impolitic and incautious to risk the adverse judgment of the Emperor." But he said none of these things. He took the matter to a higher court. He arraigned the guilty pair before God; and, laying his axe at the root of the tree -- calling on Herod's conscience, long gagged and silent, to take part in the impeachment -- he said, in effect: "I summon you before the bar of God, and in the pure light which streams from his holy Oracle, your consciences being witnesses against you, you know perfectly well that it is not right for you to be living as you are living. 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.'"
Every hearer stood aghast. A death-like hush fell on the assembly, which probably broke up in dismay. So paralyzed was every one that no hand was laid on the preacher. We are expressly told that "Herod sent forth and laid hold upon John" (Mark vi.17); from which we infer that the fearless preacher passed out through the paralyzed and conscience-stricken assemblage, leaving dismay, like that which befell the roysterers in Belshazzar's court, when the hand of the Almighty traced the mysterious characters on the palace wall in lines of fire.
The first feeling of awe and conscience-stricken remorse would, however, soon pass off. Some would hasten to condole with Herodias; some to sympathize with Herod. Herodias would retire to her apartments, accompanied by her high ladies, vowing fiery vengeance on the preacher -- a very Jezebel, thirsting for the blood of another Elijah. Throughout Herod's court there would be an effort to dismiss the allusion as "Altogether uncalled for;" as "What might have been expected from such a man;" as "A gross breach of manners," as "An affront against delicacy of taste."
But Herodias would give her paramour no rest; and, perhaps one evening, when John had retired for meditation and prayer, his disciples being off their guard and the people absent, a handful of soldiers arrested him, bound him, and led him off to the strong castle of Machaerus.
II. JOHN'S IMPRISONMENT AND ITS OPPORTUNITIES. -- The castle of Machaerus was known as "the diadem," or "the black tower." It lay on the east side of the Dead Sea, almost on a line with Bethlehem. The ruins of the castle are still to be seen, in great masses of squared stone, on the top of a lofty hill, surrounded on three sides by unscaleable precipices, descending to such depths that Josephus says the eye could not reach their bottom. The fourth side is described as only a little less terrible. Wild desolation reigned far and near. A German traveller mentions the masses of lava, brown, red, and black, varied with pumice-stone, distributed in huge broken masses, or rising in perpendicular cliffs; whilst the rushing stream, far below, is overgrown with oleanders and date-palms, willows, poplars, and tall reeds. Here and there, thick mists of steam arise, where the hot sulphur springs gush from the clefts of the rocks.
On this impregnable site, Dr. Geikie tells us that Herod had erected a great wall, enclosing the summit of the hill, with towers two hundred feet high at the corners, and in the space thus gained had built a grand palace, with rows of columns of a single stone apiece, halls lined with many-coloured marbles, magnificent baths, and all the details of Roman luxury, not omitting huge cisterns, barracks, and store-houses, with everything needed in case of a siege. From the windows there was a magnificent view of the Dead Sea, the whole course of the Jordan, Jerusalem, Hebron, the frowning fortress of Marsaba, and away to the north, the wild heights of Pisgah and Abarim. Detached from the palace was a stern and gloomy keep, with underground dungeons still visible, hewn down into the solid rock. This was the scene of John's imprisonment.
The Evangelist says expressly that they bound the child of the desert-wastes, with his love for dear liberty -- sensitive to the touch of the sunshine and the breeze, to the beauty that lay over the hills, accustomed to go and come at his will -- as though it were the last indignity and affront to fetter those lithe and supple limbs, and place them under constraint. Ah, it is little short of a sin to encage a wild bird, beating its heart against the bars of its narrow cage, when the sun calls it to mount up with quivering ecstasy to the gates of day; but what a sin to bind the preacher of righteousness, and imprison him in sunless vaults -- what an agony! What a contrast between the gay revelry that reigned yonder within the palace, and the slow torture which the noble spirit of the Baptist was doomed to suffer through those weary months!
Is there anything like that in your life, my reader? In many an old castle the attention of the visitor is directed to a haunted room, where ghosts are said to walk at night; but in how many hearts there are dark subterranean apartments, where conscience, gagged and bound, lies imprisoned! Outwardly there is the gaiety and mirth as of a palace; but inwardly there is remorse, misery, unrest. In lonely hours there is a voice which pierces the thickest walls of your assumed indifference, and rings up into the house of your life, where the soul seeks to close its ear in vain. It is a sad, monotonous, heart-piercing cry which that voice repeats: "It is not lawful, not lawful, not lawful." Whenever there is a moment of silence and respite, you hear it -- "Not lawful, not lawful." And nothing can stay it but repentance, confession, restitution, so far as may be, and the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, which cleanseth from all sin.
From time to time it would seem as though the strictness of John's imprisonment was relaxed. His disciples were permitted to see him, and tell him of what was happening in the world without; but stranger than all, he was summoned to have audiences with Herod himself.
Another rendering of Mark vi.19, 20, which is perfectly legitimate, and is favoured by the R.V., suggests that the king was ill at ease, and swept to and fro by very different currents.
First, he was deeply incensed. As he thought of the manner in which the Baptist had treated him, denouncing him before his court, the fire of anger burnt fiercely within his breast; and he had beside him a Lady Macbeth, a beautiful fiend and temptress, who knew that while the Baptist lived, and dared to speak as he had done, her position was not safe. She knew Herod well enough to dread the uprising of his conscience at the appeals of truth. And perpetually, when she saw her chance, she whispered in Herod's ear, "The sooner you do away with that man the better. You don't love me perfectly, as long as you permit him to breathe. Unmannerly cur!" "Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him; but she could not."
On the other side, Herod was in fear. He feared John, "knowing that he was a righteous man and a holy." He feared the people, because they held him for a prophet. And, beneath all, he feared God, lest he should step in to avenge any wrong perpetrated against his servant.
Between these two influences he was "much perplexed" (Mark vi.20, R.V.). When he was with Herodias, he thought as she did, and left her, almost resolved to give the fatal order; but when he was alone, the other influence made itself felt, and he would send for John:
"I would like to see him again, chamberlain -- tell the gaoler to send the Baptist hither; let his coming to my private room be, however, kept secret. I don't want all my court blabbing."
And the gaoler would come to the cell door, and call to his prisoner, with a mixture of effrontery and obsequiousness, "Up, man; the king wants you. Put on your softest speech. It will serve you better than that rasping tongue of yours. Why cannot you leave the king and his private affairs alone? They are no business of yours or mine."
And might not Herod attempt to induce the prophet to take back his ruthless sentence? "Come," he might say, "you remember what you said. If you unsay that sentence, I will set you free. I cannot, out of respect for my consort, allow such words to remain unretracted. There, you have your freedom in your own hands. One word of apology, and you may go your way; and my solemn bond is yours, that you shall be kept free from molestation."
If such an offer were made, it must have presented a strong temptation to the emaciated captive, whose physique had already lost the elasticity and vigour of his early manhood, and was showing signs of his grievous privation. But he had no alternative; and, however often the ordeal was repeated, he met the royal solicitation with the same unwavering reply: "I have no alternative. It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. I should betray my God, and act treacherously to thyself, if I were to take back one word which I have spoken; and thou knowest that it is so." And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and a judgment to come, the royal culprit trembled.
John could do no other; but it was a sublime act of devotion to God and Truth. He had no thought for himself at all, and thought only of the choice and destiny of that guilty pair, from which he would warn and save them, if he might. Well might the Lord ask, in after days, if John were a reed shaken with the wind. Rather he resembled a forest tree, whose deeply-struck and far-spreading roots secure it against the attack of the hurricane; or a mighty Alp, which defies the tremor of the earthquake, and rears its head above the thunder-storms, which break upon its slopes, to hold fellowship with the skies.
How many men are like Herod! They resemble the superficial ground, on which the seed springs into rapid and unnatural growth; but the rock lies close beneath the surface. Now they are swayed by the voice of the preacher, and moved by the pleadings of conscience, allowed for one brief moment to utter its protests and remonstrances; and then they feel the fascination of their sin, that unholy passion, that sinful habit, that ill-gotten gain -- and are sucked back from the beach, on which they were almost free, into the sea of ink and death.
You may be trying, my reader, to steer a middle course between John the Baptist and Herodias. Now you resolve to get free of her guilty charms, and break the spell that fascinates you. Merlin will emancipate himself from Vivien, before she learn his secret, and dance with it down the wood, leaving him dishonoured and ashamed. But, within an hour, the Syren is again singing her dulcet notes, and drawing the ship closer and closer to the rocks, with their black teeth, waiting to grind it to splinters. Oh that there might come to you the voice that spoke with such power to Augustine, and that like him you might now and here yield yourself to it; so that when the temptress, whatever form she may assume, approaches you with the whisper: "I am she, Augustine," you may answer: "But I am not he!"
So John was left in prison. Month after month he languished in the dark and stifling dungeon, wondering a little, now and again, why the Master, if He were the Son of God, did not interpose to work his deliverance. But of that anon.
III. HEROD'S INEVITABLE DETERIORATION. -- Again and again John was remanded to his cell. Probably twelve months passed thus. But each time the king failed to act on the preacher's remonstrances; he became more impervious to his appeals, more liable to the sway of passion. Thus, when a supreme moment came, in which he was under the influence of drink and unholy appetite, and the reign of such moral nature as remained was greatly enfeebled, it is not to be wondered at that Herodias had her way, and before her murderous request the last thin fence of resistance broke down, and he gave orders that it should be as she desired.
The story does not end here. He not only murdered John the Baptist, but he inflicted a deadly wound on his own moral nature, from which it never recovered, as we shall see. Ultimately he had no thought in the presence of Christ other than to see Him work a miracle; and when his desire was refused, set him at nought with his mighty men, mocked his claims to be the King of Israel, did not scruple to treat Him with indignity and violence, and so dismissed Him.
Is it wonderful that our Lord was speechless before such a man? What else could He be? The deterioration had been so awful and complete. For the love of God can say nothing to us, though it be prepared to die on our behalf, so long as we refuse to repent of, and put away, our sin. We remember some solemn words, which may be applied in all their fearful significance to that scene: "There is a sin unto death; not concerning this do I say that he should make request."