King Herod and the Pitfalls of Power and Riches


Scripture Text: James 5:1-7a

Reader: Paul Palmer

We have been preaching through the Letter of James. It has nothing to do with Christmas other than that the section from chapter 5 we will be reading from today applies to a ruler who was important at the time of the birth of Jesus. First, though, we will read from Luke’s Gospel:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So, Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:1-7)

Joseph’s family had moved to Nazareth with his betrothed Mary, but his hometown was Bethlehem, and how Joseph was compelled by an edict from the Roman Emperor to return to his hometown. The purpose of the census was to see how many people were in the Roman Empire, and where they were from. Certain secular historians who don’t want to believe the Bible often claim that the report of this census was a fabrication by Luke. They claim that the census mentioned by Luke never happened and they state as their proof that Quirinius was the governor of Syria starting in 6 A.D., which would have been much too late for the birth of Jesus, which most scholars agree happened about 4 B.C. (On an aside, that Jesus was born before 1 A.D. is due to a later mistake in 525 A.D. by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus who proposed to the pope at that time, who agreed with him, that the counting of time should begin with the birth of Jesus, and that time should be split in half: the years B.C. (Before Christ) and the years after his birth, A.D. (Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord). The problem was that later calculations determined Dionysius had been out by 4 years, so now Jesus is thought to have been born actually in 4 B.C., which sounds somewhat awkward). In any case, Quirinius was the Governor of Syria 10 years after the birth of Jesus, but archaeology, as it always done, has proven that Quirinius ruled over Syria during two different time periods, with the first one being from 12 – 2 BC, a time period which fits perfectly with the birth of Jesus. Besides which, Luke also says that the census taken at the time of Jesus’ birth was the “first census taken”, so the later census of 6 A.D. would have been a second census, much like our Canadian government takes a census every 10 years.

So, as Luke describes it, Matthew and Mary, his 9-months pregnant betrothed, travelled the 200 kilometers from Nazareth in northern Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, which was located about 9 kilometers south-east of Jerusalem. Mary gave birth to Jesus there in Bethlehem, which the later Christian apologist Justin Martyr notes would have been recorded in the census. Wouldn’t that census be a fantastic archeological find? In any case, as today we focus on a particular ruler at the time of Jesus, it was neither Quirinius as the Governor of Syria, or Caesar Augustus as the Emperor of the Roman Empire. Reading from Matthew now:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this, he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:1-3)

So, King Herod is the ruler we are focusing on this morning. He was not a Jew by blood, but his grandparents had converted to Judaism. Herod’s bloodline was from his Edomite father and his Nabatean princess mother. In other words, Herod was an Arab. Edomites traced their heritage back to Esau, not to Jacob, the chosen son of the line of Abraham and Isaac. Edomites lived in the land of Idumea south of the Dead Sea, and historically, they were the rotten cousins of the Jews, who always gave them grief. Herod’s specific family were part of the Hasmonean dynasty that had arisen in Idumea and then taken control of the lands north of it, including Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in 140 B.C. They ruled until 37 A.D. Herod’s father Antipater had been good friends with the Roman leader Julius Caesar but when Caesar was murdered his successor Mark Antony asked for help in having a secure border in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and Idumea. Antipater’s son Herod offered to help Mark Antony in exchange for being named King of the Jews, a thing the grateful Mark Antony arranged through the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. True Jews never liked Herod or trusted him. He was a murderous man who came to power by murdering his first wife, her mother, his brothers, and several of his sons, all of whom were seen as a threat to his rule. He was vain, self-centred, egotistical, and hedonistic and he ruled with an iron fist, becoming extremely powerful and rich as the years went on. Turning to the Letter of James now…

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. (James 5:1-3)

Surely those words applied to Herod. The only good thing that could be said about King Herod the Great is that he was a master builder, but he taxed the Jewish people heavily to pay for all of his building projects, and they hated him for that. We will now look at his building projects, projects that were meant to give him glory and high standing.

The Second Temple built by Herod the Great: https://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/Second_Temple#/media/File:Second_Temple.jpg

The model in this photo is located in present-day Jerusalem. The beauty and majesty of Herod’s Temple, the so-called Second Temple, can perhaps be imagined in this recreation. Certainly, it is easy to understand why country folk from Galilee who made up the 12 apostles of Jesus gushed over its magnificence. There was nothing like it where they came from! Unfortunately, to placate the Romans to whom he owed his position as King of the Jews, after he had rebuilt the Jewish Temple, Herod then put up a huge, gold-plated eagle – the symbol of the Roman Empire – in front of the doors leading into the Temple itself. You can imagine how well that went over with devout Jews. As well, in Samaria, he then built another temple, the Augusteum, named after and dedicated to Augustus Caesar, the Roman Emperor. To also honour Caesar, Herod then built a city on the shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea, a city called Caesarea Maritima:

Caesarea Maritima -

In addition to the Second Temple, the gold-plated huge eagle in front of it, Augusteum, and Caesarea Maritima, King Herod also built two fortresses. The first was near the southern edge of the Dead Sea, at a place from which he could view his native Idumea. That fortress was called Masada and still stands as an Israeli place of resistance today:

Masada – (the fourth picture, the computer mock-up….)

The other fortress he built, though, was his favourite building project, a fortress palace built in the Judean hills 3 kilometers from Bethlehem. This one, called Herodium, played a role in the birth story of Jesus and so we will look at it today. Now, in Jesus’ later teaching years, our Lord made reference to Herodium twice. First, in Matthew 17, at a time when Jesus was teaching his followers that a seemingly impossible thing could actually be possible. Hear his words:

Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

Herodium had been built through Herod literally having a mountain moved. He ordered slaves to, one bucketful at a time, take the top off of one mountain, thus lowering and flattening that mountain, and then moving those buckets of dirt to a nearby higher mountain, which made it go higher and higher. Herod wanted his new palace to be on a mountain high enough to see Jerusalem, and to be cooled in the hot summers by the breezes blowing from the Mediterranean Sea. The only way he could do that was by making that already tall mountain higher. Herod literally had a mountain moved “from here to there”, in the words of Jesus. Shortly after that teaching time in Galilee, Jesus and his followers then went to Jerusalem, from where they could see Herodium. Jesus, probably pointing to Herodium as he spoke, for it was visible in the distance, again referenced the moving of that mountain, but this time as a point of encouragement to his listeners that they could also move mountains. All that was needed was faith that the thing needing moving could be moved. To a question from them,

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. (Matthew 21:21)

Ok, here’s a first picture of Herodium:

Herodium –

For a better view of what had occurred in lowering and flattening one mountain and then moving a mountain to build Herod’s palace fortress on the mountain known as Herodium, let/s move on to the next photo:

Herodium –

Now, for a view of the palace side, thus on the back side, we will next look at what archaeologists have uncovered in this 21st century:

Photo of Herod’s palace at Herodium –

Fantastic projects, built to Herod’s glory! But, in his letter, James cautioned about such power and riches:

Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. (James 5:4-7a)

James was encouraging his readers – that includes us – to not be overwhelmed, discouraged, or fearful when viewing the power and riches of certain people. There are pitfalls that they have given in to, but God is just. Jesus is coming, and justice will come!

Now, the real point of this sermon comes in that Herodium, just 3 kilometres east of Bethlehem, is located in such a spot that its shadow obscures the sun over Bethlehem for the first half of each day.

Photo of Bethlehem in Herodium’s shadow –

We will see an even better picture of that shadow at the close of the sermon when we view a short video which powerfully shows it, but that shadow is a perfect reflection of Herod’s attempt to overshadow Jesus, even to wipe him out totally. You remember that he sought to murder Jesus when he heard that the true “King of the Jews” had been born. Herod had asked the Magi to come back and tell him where the true King of the Jews could be found, for he secretly had a plan to murder Jesus, just as he had done with everyone else who threatened his rule.

Now, we heard earlier read that the Magi, spiritual seekers from the east, probably Persia, had come looking for the King of the Jews for they had seen “his star in the east”. They asked where he was to be born and the bible teachers in Jerusalem informed them that the king was to be born in Bethlehem, so going to Bethlehem, they saw the star once again and they excitedly followed it until it stopped at a spot over the house in which Jesus and his family were then staying.

On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So, he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2:11-15a)

Herod was a false king. He tried to have the true king of the Jews, Jesus, murdered. But God was with Jesus and protected him. Compared to Herodium, Bethlehem was, as the hymn writer wrote, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” but Micah, the prophet, had written that “though you are small, Bethlehem, out of you will come a ruler over Israel, one whose origins are from of old, from ancient past.” No doubt, for Joseph and Mary, being in the presence of Herodium would have been nerve-wracking, even terrifying. Herod’s power was right there. The Town of David, the City of David, as Luke referred to it, was a small village. True, it had been the place where Ruth and Naomi settled and then the grandson David, who would become the king of Israel, was born and the town then named after, but It was a David in comparison to the Goliath-like giant beside it, Herodium. Herod’s elaborate palace-mountain mocked that little town in its shadow. Herod built that palace as an expression of his strength, power, capacity, and wealth and to proclaim his glory. But Herod died a painful, miserable death at age 69. Doctors and researchers have recently concluded from the clues left in ancient history books that Herod died with “intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, convulsions in every limb and with maggot-infested gangrene of the genitals” (The National Geographic magazine states). Herod had ordered a parade to be held in his honour upon his death. It wasn’t. Nobody wanted to honour him. He ordered his grave inside Herodium to be hidden and then his mountain palace destroyed. His descendants refused to comply with the demolition order, Herodium survived, and archaeologists, only in this century, in the year of our Lord 2007 A.D., discovered Herod’s ancient grave. Nothing worked out for Herod in the end, just as James wrote is the case for all who fall to the tempting pitfalls that surround having power and riches. The Lord is near. He is coming. Stay true to him, brothers and sisters, James encourages us.

King Herod the Great thought he was in control. He wasn’t. God was, and Jesus, the true King of the Jews, came to us, born in the shadow of Herodium, of evil, born in the town of Bethlehem. The result is everlasting joy, the theme of today’s third Advent candle. In closing, let’s turn it over to our favourite Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan, as he taught while sitting on the mount known as Herodium:

Ray Vander Laan – In the shadow of Herod, video 1, from start to 1:19 –

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