Herod and the Christmas Story
In a little book by Richard Wilke entitled Christmas: The Good, Bad & the Ugly we read, “Across the centuries, Herod the king has become a symbol of evil. We may rather want to forget that he is part of the Christmas story. But let’s keep Herod in Christmas to remind us how desperately we need a Savior in this evil world.” (p. 10, 11) I agree 100%. I don’t like Herod any more than anyone and he seems so out of place in the Christmas story, but he is what Christmas is all about. He is a reminder to us of what is the true reason for the season. Absolutely nothing makes sense about Christmas if we forget that Jesus came expressly to save sinners and Herod, perhaps more than any of the other characters in the Christmas story, exemplifies that need. The shepherds and wise men needed a Savior just as much as Herod, but Herod magnifies the reality of that need.
The Christmas story centers around those special individuals who loved God and were anxiously awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah. The story includes a virgin willing to have a baby in spite of the shame that being pregnant out of wedlock would bring and boldly declaring that it should be done unto her as God said. Joseph discovered the woman to whom he was engaged was pregnant. He normally would have broken off the marriage plans and subjected her to community discipline. But God sent him a message and he determined to follow through on the marriage even though he knew this would impact his reputation in the community.
The Christmas story is about shepherds in their fields keeping watch over their sheep at night. They represent the outcasts of society. They were the down and out and were despised almost as much as Gentiles since they had to attend to the sheep and could not worship like “good” Jews did. But God loves those whom the world ignores or even despises, and God sent angels to announce the birth of Jesus to them. They then went and worshipped this child. What would the Christmas scene be like without the shepherds kneeling at the manger?
Then we have the wise men. We really have no idea when they actually arrived and can be fairly certain it was not at the manger. None-the-less none of us really wants a manger scene without them. They are always there. They came, they brought interesting gifts and they too worshipped Jesus.
That is what Christmas is all about for most of us. When we think of Christmas, we think of those who were obedient and came to the manger to worship the newborn child. That is the way it is supposed to be and the way we want it to be at Christmas.
Then Herod enters the story. and we really wish he did not. But it is in the story. and it is a vital part of it. In fact, it may be one of the central truths of the story. It should help us put the whole account into the perspective that God wants us to have at Christmas.
Perhaps it would be good to give a little background on Herod since the more we know about him the uglier he becomes. That makes him a more significant picture of what Christmas is all about.
Herod was born in what we know today as the Sinai desert. Technically he was a descendant of Abraham, but he was so through Esau and therefore an Edomite, or as they had come to be known by the time of the New Testament an Idumaean. The Edomites had always been a problem to the Jewish people. About 100 years before Jesus was born the Jewish people conquered them and forced them to become Jews, although they generally did not practice Judaism seriously.
The story of Herod’s rise to power and his ability to remain in power is the sort of thing soap operas are made of. His father, also named Herod, was the first of the family to rule in Israel. When Herod #1 was poisoned. our Herod was named as his successor. He married the daughter of the High Priest and that initially helped to solidify his power. Later he married a slew of other wives all designed to ensure him greater power. Herod appointed his first wife’s brother to an important position but later arranged to have him killed. Then Herod’s sister told him this wife was sleeping with an uncle so, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod had that wife put to death.
It went from bad to worse and in time to ugly. Herod, while being paranoid, was determined to be sure he had absolute control over everything. Any important individual who might challenge him was put to death. He instituted several heavy taxes that enabled him to send significant contributions to Rome which kept him in good with them, but that made him even more unpopular with the Jews. Any rebellion was quashed.
Perhaps to appease the Jews but more likely to build himself up, he re-built the temple making it a magnificent place of worship. It was that temple that Jesus worshipped in when He lived among us. Then to appease the Romans Herod had a golden eagle built that he put in front of the temple. That of course offended the Jews. A group tore down the eagle and Herod had some young men seized and dragged to the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” near Jericho and burned alive there.
The list of his activities that offended the Jews and pleased the Romans goes on and on. He built a seaport to encourage Roman trade and named it after Caesar. He built an amphitheater to encourage Roman games that offended Jews. His life was characterized by insecurity, fear, brutality, and defiance of the Jewish people. The older he got the more paranoid he became. As he approached his death, he ordered the arrest of hundreds of leading men from every community and gave the order that they were all to be put to death the moment word was received of his death. His reason? He believed that then Israel would be in tears at his death, even if those tears where not for him. His sister repealed that order when he died.
It is against that background that Wilke says, “Across the centuries, Herod the king has become a symbol of evil. We may rather want to forget that he is part of the Christmas story. But let’s keep Herod in Christmas to remind us how desperately we need a Savior in this evil world.”
When we think of the ugliness of Herod, we think of others in history who probably rivaled him in pure evil. Herod ranks with the Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of the world. The truth, however, is that Herod represents not only those associated with the gross evil, but he represents all of mankind for God declared that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. God also declared that when we have committed one sin we are as guilty as Herod or Hitler. It is difficult for us to imagine that the sin problem is either/or, we either have it all or we have none of it. Jesus makes all the difference there.
The whole problem goes back to the garden when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and sin entered the world. The rest of the Old Testament proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that mankind lives in sin. If the Old Testament proves anything it is that if man is ever going to get beyond the sin issue something radical had to happen. And something radically different happened that day when God became a man. It was because of the sin that allowed a Herod to be as evil as he was that Jesus came. His very name means Savior and that is the reason He came.
Herod belongs in our Christmas story if for no other reason than to remind us that Christmas, in the final analysis, is not about good people but about bad people, which we all are. Christmas is all about God becoming one of us so He could take our ugly sins upon Himself and pay the penalty for them. Keep Herod in Christmas if only to remind us that without Jesus all of us are really sinners just like Herod, and that because of that Jesus came to be our Savior.