"Hush my soul, and vain regrets be stilled;
The Genesis of a Great Crime -- The Strength of Evil Influences -- An Accomplice of Satan -- The Triumph of Hate -- The Baptist Beheaded -- A Place of Repentance
The evangelist Mark tells us, in the twenty-first verse of this chapter, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, and the high captains, and the chief men of Galilee. Now, of course, Galilee, over which Herod had jurisdiction, and where, for the most part, he dwelt, in the beautiful city of Tiberias, the ruins of which are still washed by the blue waters of the lake, was a considerable distance from the Castle of Machaerus, which, as we have seen, was situated in the desolate region on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. There would probably, therefore, have been a martial and noble procession from Galilee, which followed the course of the Jordan to the oasis of Jericho, and then branched off to the old, grim fortress, which, like one of those ruined castles on the Rhine, had been for many years the scene of brigandage, pillage, and bloodshed.
It is not difficult to imagine that sumptuous and splendid retinue. Roman soldiers and officials in all the splendour of their accoutrements and mounting; carriages conveying the royal consort, Herodias, Salome, and their ladies; large numbers of native soldiers; swarthy Bedouin and Greek traders; priests and levites, who lived on the smile of the Court; court officials, camp-bearers, a motley following of servants and slaves. In the front of the cavalcade, Herod, on a magnificent steed. The line of march, enlivened by the sound of martial music, and the flaunting of innumerable banners. Slowly they made their way through those desert solitudes, across the pasture-lands, and finally swept up through the little village that lay at the foot of the hill to the castellated fortress which covered the summit, edging its mighty walls to the brink of the steep cliffs. Soon the last straggler would be lost to view, the heavy portcullis fall, and the massive iron gate swing to, and the first step would be taken towards the tragedy, which lay right before Herod's path. One sometimes wonders whether the whole of these circumstances had not been planned by the cunning device of Herodias. In any case, nothing could have been arranged more exactly to suit her murderous schemes.
The days that preceded the celebration of Herod's birthday were probably filled with merry-making and carouse. Groups of nobles, knights, and ladies, would gather on the terraces, looking out over the Dead Sea, and away to Jerusalem, and in the far distance to the gleaming waters of the Mediterranean. Picnics and excursions would be arranged into the neighbouring country. Archery, jousts, and other sports would beguile the slowly-moving hours. Jests, light laughter, and buffoonery would fill the air. And all the while, in the dungeons beneath the castle, lay that mighty preacher, the confessor, forerunner, herald, and soon to be the martyr.
But this contrast was more than ever accentuated on the evening of Herod's birthday, when the great banqueting-chamber was specially illuminated; the tables decked with flowers and gold and silver plate; laughter and mirth echoing through the vaulted roof from the splendid company that lay, after the Eastern mode, on sumptuous couches, strewing the floor from one end to the other of the spacious hall. Servants, in costly liveries, passed to and fro, bearing the rich dainties on massive salvers, one of which was to be presently besprinkled with the martyr's blood.
In such a scene, I would have you study the genesis of a great crime, because you must remember that in respect to sin, there is very little to choose between the twentieth century and the first; between the sin of that civilization and of ours. This is why the Bible must always command the profound interest of mankind -- because it does not concern itself with the outward circumstances and setting of the scenes and characters it describes, but with those great common facts of temptation, sin, and redemption, which have a meaning for us all.
This chapter is therefore written under more than usual solemnity, because one is so sure that, in dealing with that scene and the passions that met there in a foaming vortex, words may be penned that will help souls which are caught in the drift of the same black current, and are being swept down. Perhaps this page shall utter a warning voice to arrest them, ere it be too late, and be a life-buoy, or rope, or brother's hand reached out to save them as they rush past on the boiling waters. For there is help and grace in God by which a Herod and a Judas, a Jezebel and a Lady Macbeth, a royal criminal or an ordinary one, may be arrested, redeemed, and saved.
In this, as in every sin, there were three forces at work: -- First, the predisposition of the soul, which the Bible calls "lust," and "the desire of the mind." "Among whom," says the apostle, "we also all once lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath." Second, the suggestion of evil from without. Finally, the act of the will by which the suggestion was accepted and finally adopted.
It is, in this latter phase, that sin especially comes in. There may be sin in being able and disposed to sin. The possession of a sinful nature needs the atonement and propitiation of the precious blood. There may be sin, also, in dallying with temptation, in not anticipating its advent at a further distance. But, after all, that which is of the essence of sin is in the act of the will, which allows itself to admit and entertain some foul suggestion, and ultimately sends its executioner below to carry its sentence into effect.
I. THE PREDETERMINATION TOWARDS THIS SIN. -- The word "lust" is now universally employed and understood in one direction only. It is a pity and a mistake; because we fail to appreciate many of the warning signals which the Spirit of God stations along our path. Any inordinate desire for sensual and pleasurable excitement, whether fixed on a right object, or directed towards a wrong one, comes under the denomination of "lust." Strong and ill-regulated desire or passion, in whatever direction it expresses itself, will work our ruin, and not that alone of impurity, to which this old word is now specially confined.
In dealing with temptation and sin, we must always take into account the presence in the human heart of that sad relic of the Fall, which biases men towards evil. Every one that has handled bowls on the green is familiar with the effect of the bias. The bowls are not perfect spheres, and are weighted on one side in such a way that, as they leave the hand, they will inevitably turn off from a straight course; and on this account the greater skill is required from the hands that manipulate and impel them. Such a bias has come to us all: first, from our ancestor Adam; and, secondly, by that law of heredity which has been accumulating its malign and sinister force through all the ages. God alone can compute the respective strength of these forces; but He can, and He will, as each separate soul stands before his judgment bar.
Herod was the son of the great Herod, a voluptuous, murderous tyrant; and, from some source or other, he had inherited a very weak nature. Perhaps, if he had come under strong, wholesome influences, he would have lived a passably good life; but it was his misfortune to fall under the influence of a beautiful fiend, who became his Lady Macbeth, his Jezebel, and wrought the ruin of his soul. It is a remarkable thing, how strong an influence a beautiful and unscrupulous woman may have over a weak man. And for this reason, amongst others, weakness becomes wickedness. The man who allows himself to drift weakly before the strongest influence is almost certain to discover that, in this world, the strongest influences are those which make for sin; these touch him most closely, and operate most continuously, and find in his nature the best nidus, or nest, in which to breed.
The influences that suggest and make for sin in this world are so persistent -- at every street corner, in every daily newspaper, among every gathering of well-dressed people, or ill -- that if my readers have no other failing than that they are weak, I am bound to warn them, in God's name, that unless they succeed in some way, directly or indirectly, in linking themselves to the strength of the Son of. God, they will inevitably become wicked. Remember that the men, and especially the women, who are filling our gaols as criminals, were, in most cases, only weak, but they therefore drifted before the strong, black current which flows through the world, and have become objects against whom all parents warn their children. With all my soul -- and I have had no small experience of myself and of others -- I implore that if you are conscious of your weakness, you shall do what the sea-anemone and the limpet do, which cling to the rock when the storms darken the sky. "Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might."
Herod was reluctant to take the course to which his evil genius urged him. He made a slight show of resistance, as we have seen -- but he did not break with her; and so she finally had her way, and dragged him to her lowest level. Here was the cause of his ruin, as it may be of yours. You, too, have become allied with one who is possessed by a more imperious will, and dominated by a stronger passion, than yours. You suppose, however, that you can act as a make-weight, a drag on the chariot-wheel; that you will be able to keep and steady the pace; and that, when you like, you may arrest the onward progress. Ah, it is not so! Herodias will have her way with you. You may be reluctant, will falter and hesitate, will remonstrate, will resist, but ultimately you will drift into doing the very sins, the mention of which in your presence brings the red blood to your face.
Beware, then, of yourself. If you are so impressible to John the Baptist, remember that you may be equally so to evil suggestion: take heed, therefore, to guard against anything in your life that may open the gates of your sensitive nature to a temptation, which you may not be able to withstand. If you are weak in physical health, you guard against draught and fatigue, against impure atmosphere and contagion -- how much more should you guard against the scenes and company which may act prejudicially on the health of your soul? Of all our hours, none are so fraught with danger as those of recreation. In these we cast ourselves, with the majority of Gideon's men, on the bank of the stream, with relaxed girdles, drinking at our ease, without a thought of the proximity of the foe; and, therefore, in these we are more likely to fall. The Christian soldier is never off duty, never out of the enemy's reach, never at liberty to relax his watch. The sentries must always be posted, and the pickets kept well out on the veldt.
It was the most perilous thing that Herod could do, to have that banquet. Lying back on his divan, lolling on his cushions, eating his rich food, quaffing the sparkling wine, exchanging repartee with his obsequious followers, it was as though the petals and calyx of his soul were all open to receive the first insidious spore of evil that might float past on the sultry air. That is why some of us dare not enter the theatre, or encourage others to enter. This is not the place to enter into a full discussion of the subject; but, even when a play may be deemed inoffensive and harmless, the sensuous attractions of the place, the glitter, the music, the slightly-dressed figures of the actors and actresses, the entire atmosphere and environment, which appeal so strongly to the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, break down some of the fortifications, which would otherwise resist the first incidence and assault of evil. The air of the theatre, the ball-room, the race-course, seem so impregnated with the nocuous germs and microbes of evil, that it is perilous for the soul to expose itself to them, conscious as it is of predisposing bias and weakness. It is this consciousness, also, which prompts the daily prayer, "Lead us not into temptation."
II. TEMPTATION. In the genesis of a sin we must give due weight to the power of the Tempter, whether by his direct suggestion to the soul or by the instrumentality of men and women whom he uses for his fell purpose. In this case Satan's accomplice was the beautiful Herodias -- beautiful as a snake, but as deadly. She knew the influence that John the Baptist wielded over her weak paramour, that he was accustomed to attach unmeasured importance to his words, and do "many things." She realized that his conscience was uneasy, and therefore the more liable to be affected by his words when he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. She feared for the consequences if the Baptist and Herod's conscience should make common cause against her. What if her power over the capricious tyrant were to begin to wane, and the Baptist gain more and more influence, to her discredit and undoing? She was not safe so long as John the Baptist breathed. Herod feared him, and perhaps she feared him with more abject terror, and was bent on delivering her life of his presence.
She watched her opportunity, and it came on the occasion we have described. The ungodly revel was at its height. Such a banquet as Herod had often witnessed in the shameless court of Tiberius, and in which luxury and appetite reached their climax, was in mid-current. The strong wines of Messina and Cyprus had already done their work. The hall resounded with ribald joke and merriment. Towards the end of such a feast it was the custom for immodest women to be introduced, who, by their gestures, imitated scenes in certain well-known mythologies, and still further inflamed the passions of the banqueters. But instead of the usual troupe, which Herod probably kept for such an occasion, Salome herself came in and danced a wild nautch-dance. What shall we think of a mother who could expose her daughter to such a scene, and suggest her taking a part in the half-drunken orgy? To what depths will not mad jealousy and passion urge us, apart from the restraining grace of God! The girl, alas, was as shameless as her mother.
She pleased Herod, who was excited with the meeting of the two strong passions, which have destroyed more victims than have fallen on all the battlefields of the world; and in his frenzy, he promised to give her whatever she might ask, though it were to cost half his kingdom. She rushed back to her mother with the story of her success. "What shall I ask?" she cried. The mother had, perhaps, anticipated such a moment as this, and had her answer ready. "Ask," she replied instantly, "for John the Baptist's head." Back from her mother she tripped into the banqueting-hall, her black eyes flashing with cruel hate, lighted from her mother's fierceness. A dead silence fell on the buzz of conversation, and every ear strained for her reply. "And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou forthwith give me in a charger the head of John the Baptist."
Mark that word, "forthwith." Her mother and she were probably fearful that the king's mood would change. What was to be done must be done at once, or it might not be done at all. "Quick, quick," the girl seemed to say, "the moments seem like hours; now, in this instant, give me what I demand. I want my banquet, too; let it be served up on one of these golden chargers." The imperious demand of the girl showed how keenly she had entered into her mother's scheme.
It is thus that suggestions come to us; and, so far as I can understand, we may expect them to come so long as we are in this world. There seems to be a precise analogy between temptation and the microbes of disease. These are always in the air; but when we are in good health they are absolutely innocuous, our nature offers no hold or resting place for them. The grouse disease only makes headway when there has been a wet season, and the young birds are too weakened by the damp to resist its attack. The potato blight is always lying in wait, till the potato plants are deteriorated by a long spell of rain and damp; it is only then that it can effect its fell purpose. The microbes of consumption and cancer are probably never far away from us, but are powerless to hurt us, till our system has become weakened by other causes. So temptation would have no power over us, if we were in full vigour of soul. It is only when the vitality of the inward man is impaired, that we are unable to withstand the fiery darts of the wicked one.
This shows how greatly we need to be filled with the life of the Son of God. In his life and death, our Lord, in our human nature, met and vanquished the power of sin and death; He bore that nature into the heavenly places, whence He waits to impart it, by the Holy Spirit, to those who are united with Him by a living faith. Is not this what the apostle John meant, when he said that his converts -- his little children -- could overcome, because greater was He that was in them than he that was in the world? He who has the greatest and strongest nature within him must overcome an inferior nature; and if you have the victorious nature of the living Christ in you, you must be stronger than the nature which He bruised beneath his feet.
III. THE CONSENT OF THE WILL. -- "The king was exceeding sorry." The girl's request sobered him. His face turned pale, and he clutched convulsively at the cushion on which he reclined. On the one hand, his conscience revolted from the deed, and he was more than fearful of the consequences; on the other, he said to himself, "I am bound by my oath. I have sworn; and my words were spoken in the audience of so many of my chief men, I dare not go back, lest they lose faith in me." "And straightway the king sent forth a soldier of his guard and commanded to bring the Baptist's head."
Is it not marvellous that a man who did not refrain from doing deeds of incest and murder, should be so scrupulous about violating an oath that ought never to have been sworn? You have thought that you were bound to go through with your engagement, because you had pledged yourself, although you know that it would condemn you to lifelong misery and disobedience to the law of Christ. But stay for a moment, and tell me! What was your state of mind when you pledged your word? Were you not under the influence of passion? Did you not form your plan in the twilight of misinformation, or beneath the spell of some malign and unholy influence, that exerted a mesmeric power over you? Looking back on it, can you not see that you ought never to have bound yourself, and do you not feel that if you had your time again you would not bind yourself? Then be sure that you are not bound by that "dead hand." You must act in the clearer, better light, which God has communicated. Even though you called on the sacred name of God, God cannot sanction that which you now count mistaken, and wrong. You had no right to pledge half the kingdom of your nature. It is not yours to give, it is God's. And if you have pledged it, through mistake, prejudice, or passion, dare to believe that you are absolved from your vow, through repentance and faith, and that the breach is better than the observance.
"And he went and beheaded John in prison." Had the Baptist heard aught of the unseemly revelry? Had any strain of music been waited down to him? Perhaps so. Those old castles are full of strange echoes. His cell was perfectly dark. He might be lying bound on the bare ground, or some poor bed of straw. Was his mind glancing back on those never-to-be-forgotten days, when the heaven was opened above him, and he saw the descending Dove? Was he wondering why he was allowed to lie there month after month, silenced and suffering? Ah, he did not know how near he was to liberty!
There was a tread along the corridor. It stopped outside his cell. The light gleamed under the door; the heavy wards of the lock were turned: in a moment more he saw the gleam of the naked sword, and guessed the soldier's errand. There was no time to spare; the royal message was urgent. Perhaps one last message was sent to his disciples; then he bowed his head before the stroke; the body fell helpless here, the head there, and the spirit was free, with the freedom of the sons of God, in a world where such as he stand among their peers. Forerunner of the Bridegroom here, he was his forerunner there also; and the Bridegroom's friend passed homeward to await the Bridegroom's coming, where he ever hears the voice he loves.
"And the soldier brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel; and the damsel gave it to her mother." There would not be so much talking while the tragedy was being consummated. The king and courtiers must have been troubled under the spell of that horror, as Belshazzar when the hand wrote in characters of mystery over against the sacred candlestick. And when the soldier entered, carrying in the charger that ghastly burden, they beheld a sight which was to haunt some of them to their dying day. Often Herod would see it in his dreams, and amid the light of setting suns. It would haunt him, and fill his days and nights with anguish that all the witchery of Herodias could not dispel.
Months afterwards, when he heard of Jesus, the conscience-stricken monarch said: "It is John the Baptist, whom I beheaded; he is risen from the dead." And still afterwards, when Jesus Himself stood before him, and refused to speak one word, he must have associated that silence and his deed together, as having a fatal and necessary connection.
So the will, which had long paltered with the temptress, at last took the fatal step, and perpetrated the crime which could never be undone. There is always a space given, during which a tempted soul is allowed time to withdraw from the meshes of the net of temptation. Sudden falls have always been preceded by long dallying with Delilah. The crashing of the tree to the earth has been prepared for by the ravages of the borer-worm, which has eaten out its heart.
If you have taken the fatal step, and marred your life by some sad and disastrous sin, dare to believe that there is forgiveness for you with God. Men may not forgive, but God will. As far as the east is from the west, so far will He remove our transgressions from us. Perhaps we can never again take up public Christian work; but we may walk humbly and prayerfully with God, sure that we are accepted of Him, and forgiven, though we can hardly forgive ourselves.
But if we have not yet come to this, let us devoutly thank God, and be on the watch against any influences that may drift us thither. We may yet retreat. We may yet disentangle ourselves. We may yet receive into our natures the living power of the Lord Jesus. We may yet cut off the right hand and right foot, and pluck out the right eye, which is causing us to offend. Better this, and go into life maimed, than be cast, as Herod was, to the fire and worm of unquenchable remorse.