Sermon preached on Matthew 14:1-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/17/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Herodias and her Daughter: “Prompted by Her Mother”
We continue today our sermon miniseries through key women of the Bible, and we come again to some of the infamous women. Today, we will consider Herodias and her daughter, whom according to extra-biblical sources was named Salome. Both infamous women as we have just read, responsible for the death of John the Baptist. And of course that reminds us of where we are at in the bigger story of the Scriptures. Last week we studied Mary and Elizabeth, which was just before the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus. Now, in our passage for today, we see that the story of Herodias and her daughter is really a part of the same larger story of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Well, digging into this passage then for today, we note that it’s largely telling us about how John the Baptist was killed. So then, let’s begin by observing the background to the events that led up to John’s murder. That’s what verses 3-5 tell us; they give us the background to John’s murder. Verse 3 tells us of both Herod and his wife Herodias. By the way, in the biblical New Testament history, there were a few Herods and it can become confusing very quickly. This is not the Herod that earlier in Matthew tried to kill baby Jesus — that was this Herod’s father, Herod the Great. Nor is this the Herod mentioned in Acts who was struck by God and eaten by worms. That was this Herod’s political successor and nephew, known as Herod Agrippa. So, the Herod in our passage for today is known in the history books as Herod Antipas, and is the same one who later Jesus goes on trial before, just before his death on the cross. And so this Herod Antipas was the Roman governor over the provinces of Galilee and Perea. Well, all the Herods in general were known for various acts of wickedness, and this Herod fit the bill. His wife here Herodias was not originally his wife. She was his brother’s wife. In fact he was married too already, according to the history books, and both he and Herodias left their spouses to marry each other.
And so verses 3-5 tell us that this is the background to their conflict with John the Baptist. You see, we said it last week, that John was being called by God as a prophet to Israel to proclaim a message of repentance. John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. And so we are not surprised then to see that John’s preaching ministry came to this governor in the area of Israel. We read here that when Herod took his brother’s wife as his own, that John had told him that was unlawful to do. John surely wasn’t talking about Roman law. He was talking about the law of God. Leviticus 18:16 specifically forbid the taking of your brother’s wife, and that is what Herod had done. This is of course what we see so much of the prophets doing in the Old Testament. They were covenant lawyers. They proclaimed to the people and especially the kings where they were in violation to God’s law. John the Baptist carries on that prophetic ministry of proclaiming God’s law and calling for repentance. His ministry takes on an even greater import given that he’s saying this all in the context of the imminent arrival of the Messiah.
Well, the background here with Herod, Herodias, and John the Baptist also includes the fact that Herod then imprisoned John. Not only did Herod not repent of his sin at the preaching of John, he actually imprisons John. Interestingly, this was actually a degree of restraint by Herod. You see, we learn in Mark’s gospel that at the preaching of John, Herod and Herodias were in disagreement over what to do with him. In Mark 6:19, we are told that Herodias had a grudge against John, and wanted to put him to death. But Mark 6:20 said Herod did not put him to death, because Herod feared John, because he knew John was a righteous and holy man, and it says that Herod enjoyed listening to John’s words. So Herod’s arrest was a way to somewhat appease his wife per verse 3 of our passage. It says he did it for her sake. Yet, it also was a way to preserve John’s life, since Herodias wanted him dead. Now Mark’s account must also be filled out with what we see here in Matthew. There was a sense in which Herod too wanted John to be put to death, look at verse 5. But here it says he did not, because he feared the crowds. In other words, the crowds rightly believed John was a prophet, so he must have been afraid that a riot could break out if he put John to death. Herod’s primary responsibility as the governor would have been to keep the peace and keep the taxes rolling in, so that would not have been good for him.
So, you have two very different reactions to John the Baptist here. Herod and Herodias both were the object of John’s preaching. They both were being told they had sinned and needed to repent. But Herodias’ reaction was to hate John and his message; to reject it and him completely and want to silence such words permanently. Herod’s reaction was quite a bit different, almost puzzling. Herod had a bit of intrigue and interest in John’s ministry. He recognized something about the man that was positive. He tries to protect him even, but only to a degree. All the while, there was a part of Herod that did want him dead. Maybe there was some superstitious quality to Herod in all of this. That’s certainly suggestive by how the chapter starts out, when his guilt seems to make him think that John has somehow been raised back to life now that he hears these reports about Jesus and his miracles. He thinks Jesus is John come back to life with miraculous powers; that sure sounds like some guilt-induced superstition. But this kind of response is not that out of the ordinary. Too often you can find people that in some superstitious way seem to acknowledge various religious books or leaders of various religious groups in some special way; seeming to honor them in some way, but never really embracing any of it wholeheartedly. As a pastor, I too often get that — people who don’t follow Christ or believe in Christianity, but still think that I as a pastor have some special connection with God. I appreciate the sentiment, but I always wonder why they think that, if they don’t even believe in the Christian faith.
At any rate, realize that both Herod and Herodias’ responses, though different, were wrong. The right response to this prophet of God would have been repentance. Remember, that’s what John was doing for all the people who came out into the wilderness to hear his preaching. He was baptizing people as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was then announcing the coming of the Messiah who was to be the one who would take away that sin. That’s the only right response Herod or Herodias could have made. But neither of them did. There is surely an ongoing application there, by the way. Whenever anyone is confronted by the law of God with some sin in their life, the right response is repentance. The right response is to be shepherdable; to reflect on the law, to see how it exposes some sin in your life, to confess it, and mourn over it. And then look by the power of God to turn from it. And to trust in Jesus that he paid the price of that sin; that you are forgiven even of it because of his blood which washes you clean.
Okay, so continuing on in our passage for today. We’ve established the background for our story. John had been imprisoned by Herod because of his wife Herodias’ desire. But Herodias still wants more than that. She still wants his death. And so the passage goes on to describe how Herodias leads her daughter and husband into this sin to have John the Baptist put to death. Look at verse 6. It’s Herod’s birthday, and he’s having a big party. He has Herodias’ daughter dance before the party. This would be his niece, by the way. Well, Herodias’ daughter pleases Herod by this dance, and so Herod makes a public oath at the party in front of all his guests, verse 7. Herod promises to give her whatever she wanted. In Mark’s account, we are told that he gave the customary restriction, “up to half my kingdom”. Well, what was her request? Verse 8, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” But don’t miss why she asked for this. It says in verse 8, because she was prompted by her mother. And so Herodias prompts her daughter to make this request. And the daughter obeys her mom’s request. In turn, Herod fulfilled the request. Notice that in verse 9, Herod is seen as not wanting to do this, not wanting to put John to death like this, but he did anyways. Why? It says because of his oath and because of the guests. In other words, it seems he did it to save face.
Now realize, Herod could have handled this differently. Yes, we need to normally keep our oaths, even to our own hurt, per Psalm 15:4. However, this was keeping an oath to John’s own hurt! We should never keep an oath that is an oath to do some sin. Herod’s oath here was a rash oath, likely motivated by excessive partying, that opened the door to this sinful request. But even then, it would have been appropriate for Herod to rebuke his niece and clarify that his offer did not include committing some crime against God and man. But of course, such evidently wasn’t in character for Herod. He seems more concerned about what others might think, than doing the right thing. And so he gives in to his niece’s request, which means he is ultimately giving in to his wife Herodias’ request.
In a very infamous way, we see something again here that you’ve probably begun to notice in our sermon miniseries on the women of the Bible. This, in an infamous way, showcases again the power and influence of a woman. Too often radical feminists have criticized the Bible as being degrading to women and their role. But as we’ve seen in this sermon miniseries, you have some women doing some amazing things in service to God, and yet on the other hand, some women doing some things quite evil. And something that does come out is that women can have a power to influence men, particularly their husbands. As much as men are called to be leaders in their families, they don’t always do that as they should. And when they do lead, they don’t always lead in godly ways. On the other hand, we see like here that women can influence their husbands and can find ways to push for their desires. Often they can be very good at it. But just because you are skilled at some ability, like the ability to influence a man, doesn’t mean you will necessarily use that skill for good. Our strengths and abilities can either be used for good or for evil. They can either be in service to the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of darkness. I think of how Ruth deviated from Naomi’s suggestion, to humbly, and righteously, spur Boaz into stepping up and redeeming her. That was a commendable example of the power of a woman to influence a man to step up and lead in a good way. We saw Deborah trying to get Barach to step up and be the godly leader that God was calling him to be, she was somewhat successful in that effort too. Esther was used to influence a pagan king to be God’s means to save the Jews. But then you have Herodias and her sinful promptings. And you have
her daughter and her dance to secure Herod’s good pleasure, which she uses for an evil. Or remember Jezebel and how she incited Ahab into further evil.
You’ve surely heard the quote, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” This passage suggests to us that the opposite is probably true too: Behind every evil man, there’s an evil woman. My point is simply to remind us what we said at the start of this sermon series. God made man and woman complementary. Yes, we have different roles at times. We have different strengths in many ways. But men and women complement each other. That means that we will have a great influence on each other. Women have ways they can influence men. Men have ways they can influence women. There is a great power here, especially when it comes to husbands and wives. Don’t be blind to this. But power must be used responsibly. And so, seek by God’s grace to use this power for God’s glory.
Well, as we study this passage for today, I’d like to remind you of how it fits into the bigger story of the Scriptures. In many ways, this story is nothing new under the sun. Many of the same themes of Scripture are again revisited here. As mentioned, there are echoes of similar circumstances with Jezebel and Ahab, and also the book of Esther. In many ways, there is indeed nothing new under the sun. That is especially the case when you think about how in Israel a prophet of God is murdered for his prophecy. This is where this passage stands. It stands in a long line of Israel’s history where its prophets have been persecuted and/or killed. John the Baptist stands at the end of this long list. Earlier in Matthew, in chapter 11:13, Jesus said this: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Elijah was prophesied as to return before the Messiah came. And that is what John was. John the Baptist is recorded in the New Testament, but really he belongs to the Old Testament. He’s the last of the prophets. Prophets that foretold the coming of the Christ. He especially did the final paving of the way for Christ to come. And so we are not surprised in the least the, that he is put to death for his prophetic ministry.
For that is the same old story. Many references in the New Testament describe Israel as doing this. Matthew 5:12, Jesus said the people persecuted the prophets of old. Matthew 23:31, Jesus condemns the people as being the children of those who had murdered the prophets. A number of other references could be made. But that’s where this story connects with the larger story of the Bible. It’s about the last of the prophets who point to Christ being killed in religious persecution. In that sense, it really is the same old story. But is also segways into the next chapter of that story. It turns then to bring us to the final coming of the Messiah. That’s even how this whole chapter started out: the report of Jesus’ supernatural miracles that led Herod to think it might be John the Baptist raised from the dead. But of course, it wasn’t. It was something even greater than that!
I think of the parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21. There, Jesus tells of a man who leased out his vineyard to some tenants who proved to be wicked. When the time came for the owner to collect his agreed upon share of the profits, he sent his servants to collect. But the wicked tenants beat one, killed another, and stoned another. The owner kept sending more and more servants, but the tenants did the same to them. But then the owner at last sent his own son, but they did the same to him. The point of the parable was clear. All those servants in the parable that the tenants beat or killed, were like all the prophets of old in which Israel has beaten or killed. John the Baptist was but the last of them. But then finally, God sent at last his own son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well, that is where we are at in the bigger story of the Bible, isn’t it? Herodias’ prompting to get John the Baptist killed segways into that chapter of the Bible where the Messiah finally comes and he himself is put to death. And yet the parable of the wicked tenants ends with a clear message that the wicked tenants would be judged. But the bigger story is more nuanced than just that parable. For, sure, all who persist in raging against the Lord’s prophets and his Messiah will find judgment in the end. But yet what is different for the Son, makes all the difference. John did not willingly go to his death. But Jesus did. He knew it would happen. He was in control the whole time. And you see, Herod was wrong here. The servant of God, John the Baptist, didn’t rise from the dead. But when Jesus, the Son of God is put to death, he would and did rise from the dead. When John was put to death, he stood in a long line of prophets who had died for their ministry. Their death confirmed that the people who killed them were guilty sinners. John’s death served to further condemn their sin. But Jesus went to the cross and died in order to offer people freedom from the condemnation of sin.
You see this is the difference. Jesus, the Son of God, came to people who were confirmed sinners. Not only had they came from a long line of prophet persecutors and killers, but they showed themselves just like them when they killed John, and ultimately Jesus. But that is why the Son of God came. Yes, he does bring a message of judgment against those who would not repent. But Jesus also brings an offer of forgiveness and grace for those who would repent. That is why John had to bring a message that called people to repent. Because that’s what the coming of Jesus was all about. The double-edged message — that he came to wicked people who were under judgment. The killing and persecution of the prophets represented that. But he came to such people, allowed himself the same fate as the prophets of old, but he did it to atone for our sins. That he could hold out that gospel offer of forgiveness and grace.
So, you see, this is where we are at in the story. It’s all coming together here. The plan of redemption which the prophets of old foretold, including John, was coming together. They had prophesied of the coming Messiah. Jesus had arrived. He had already begun to catch the world’s attention, as we see in the opening verses of this chapter. And now in his death and resurrection, nothing would ever be the same for us.
And yet, the irony is that in many ways, so much is the same. The same issue still exists today, having come to a focus and climax in Christ. Now, it’s not a question of if you will reject a prophet of God. Now, it’s how you will relate to Christ. If you receive Christ, then this is your source of blessing. If you reject Christ, then you are just like the hardened prophet killers of old, under condemnation. It’s like what Peter says in 1 Peter 2:7. Speaking of whether someone believes in Christ or not, Peter says, “Therefore, to you who believe, He [Christ] is precious; but to those who are disobedient, ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.'”
Believers in Christ, you have been freed from the condemnation of all your sins. In whatever ways you have been like Herodias, or her daughter, or Herod, or maybe even worse — if you turn from those sins and put your faith in Christ’s saving death and resurrection, then you are forgiven. You have new life. You are redeemed. And yet we know that the fullness of our salvation will not come until Christ returns. And so in the mean time, realize that you a prophet of the Lord. I don’t mean in the charismatic sense or that you will be medium for new revelation. I mean that all of us bear the Word of God and the gospel in our hearts. And we speak it to others as witnesses for Christ. Well, in this sense, the story is still so much the same. There are still so many that will persecute such prophets of the Lord. Do not be surprised when the Herodias or the Herods of the world will not hear you as you bring God’s Word to them. They may rage. They may even want to kill you. Or instead they might want to spend a lot of time listening with some kind of surface level intrigue, but never having the Word really penetrate the heart. However, they may treat you, our message for today calls for endurance. Revelation 13:10 talks of the reality of persecution that may come to believers at this time. It says this, “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”
Saints of God, endure! Endure by the grace of God when the Herodias and Herods afflict you. Endure as your brethren like John and the other prophets did in times past. Endure as you see your savior suffering even moreso than this in your behalf. Endure as witnesses to Christ. Endure because Christ gives you the strength to endure. Overcome and conquer because Christ has overcome and conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne. See the glory of the reward held out to us in Christ, and know that whatever sufferings that come here and now, they are but for a little while. Hope instead in the Lord, for that hope will not disappoint. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.