By J.R. Miller
We have here at the very beginning a serious case of conscience. One would say that Herod was past having such fits of remorse, as his life was so wholly bad. But in even the worst men, conscience is not apt to be entirely dead. At least Herod's conscience was only asleep, and when He heard of Jesus gong about the country, working miracles, it seemed to him that it must be John the Baptist, whom he had so tragically beheaded, and who had been raised from the dead. Herod's friends tried to quiet him, assuring him that it was not John returned--but a new prophet, who was doing these wonderful things. However, Herod's fear could not be quieted, his remorse was so great. "No, it is John, whom I beheaded; he has risen!"
Conscience is our best friend--so long as we live right. But if we sin, it becomes a torturing fire. We may think we can easily forget our sin--but conscience refuses to forget. Lady Macbeth, in Shakespeare's play, said that all the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten her murderous little hand. Visitors traveling in Scotland are shown a stone with a spot of blood on it which, it is said, will not wash off. If we would be surely saved from the terrors of the accusing conscience, we must live so as to have the approval of conscience in all our acts.
John the Baptist was a wonderful man. The story of his death is most tragic. It seems utterly inappropriate that a man so noble, so worthy, who had done such a good work--should be brutally killed to gratify the resentment of a wicked woman. For it was Herodias who really caused the death of the Baptist. As wicked as Herod was, he would not have killed John if it had not been for the evil woman--who never could forgive the preacher for reproving her sin. The part that Herodias played in this crime--shows her in a most pitiful light. She was a disgrace to her gender. From the time John spoke so plainly against her sin--she was determined that he should die for it! Herod protected him from her plots, but she bided her time.
A "convenient day" came, by and by, and Herodias set herself to accomplish her purpose. It was Herod's birthday. A great banquet was in progress--Herod and the principal men of his kingdom were feasting together. Wine flowed freely, and when the king and his guests were well under its influence, Herodias sent her daughter into the banqueting party of drunken men. A true mother shields her child away from all that would dishonor her. Now, in order to bring about John's death, this mother was ready to degrade her own daughter.
The record says that Herod was pleased by what he saw. He called the girl to him, and in his drunken mood gave her a promise. "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you." She was shrewd enough to demand an oath of him, lest when he was out of his wine he might refuse to do what he had promised. "And he promised her with an oath: Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom." A man under the influence of strong drink will pledge anything. Many men in such moments have made promises which it has cost them dearly to keep.
The child did not know how to answer Herod, what request to make of him; so she ran to her mother in a dutiful fashion and asked her, "What shall I ask for?" Perhaps the child was thinking of a palace that the king might give her, or of some wonderful gems that she would like to wear. But she could not herself decide what to ask. The words in which the mother answered her child's question showed the terrible wickedness of the heart of Herodias. "The head of John the Baptist!" she said. At last the moment had come for the full revenge of Herodias. But think of a mother asking her own child to do such a terrible thing!
The story moves on swiftly, and at length the closing in the tragedy is enacted. The girl herself must have had a cruel heart to go so gleefully to Herod with the request which Herodias had put into her mouth. "What have you decided to ask of me?" inquired Herod. "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter!" was the girl's answer. The king was shocked and grieved at receiving such a request. How could he grant the girl's request? He shrank from the crime--but in his cowardice he dared not show his hesitation. His courtiers would laugh at him if he did. He must be brave, whatever the cost might be. Anything that belonged to him he was under obligation to give to the child--he had said he would; he had sworn it. But John's head was certainly not Herod's to give to anybody.
The king trembled at the request. He was about to say to the girl that he could not give her what she asked; but here was his oath--he could not break that, so he said to himself. His princes and courtiers would laugh at him if he showed tenderness of heart in such a matter of sentiment as this. So he sent for an executioner and had the great preacher killed in his dungeon, and his head brought on a platter and given to the girl. Herod had kept his promise; but there was murder on his soul.
"How could Herod have refused," asks one, "when he had taken such an oath?" It was a sin to make such a rash promise, and still a greater sin to seal it by an oath. We should never pledge ourselves to do anything which another may ask of us until we know what it is. To keep a promise made thus--may require us to sin even more grievously. But if in a moment of foolish rashness we pledge ourselves to do something sinful, we are still not required to do it. We should break our promise--rather than do a wicked thing. In this case Herod ought to have broken his oath. He knew this--but he was afraid of the laughter of his guests, and committed a horrible crime rather than be a man and refuse to do the thing which he knew to be wrong.
Amid all the dark crime and shame of this story--one figure stands out noble and heroic, splendid in character, unspotted in whiteness, strong in faithfulness. We are inclined to pity John, as the victim of such a crime. But our pity should be rather for those who robbed John of his life, while for him we have only admiration. John seemed to die prematurely. He was only about thirty-three years of age. He had preached but a year or so, and was then cast into prison, where he lay a long time. It seemed that he was but only beginning his life work. We can think of his disciples and friends lamenting over his early death, and saying, "If only he had lived to a ripe old age, preaching his wonderful sermons, touching people's lives, advancing the kingdom of God, giving blessing and comfort to people--what a blessing he would have been to this world!" But here we see his splendid life quenched probably before he turned thirty-three.
Was it not a mistake? No! God makes no mistakes. "Every man is immortal--until his work is done!" One thing we know at least--John's mission was accomplished. He was sent from God to introduce the Messiah to the people. He did this, and did it grandly. The best life need not be the longest--it must be one that fulfills God's purpose for it. If we do God's will for us--we have lived well, whether it be for eighty years or for only a few years.
John died in a very sad and tragic way, died in a prison, at the hands of a common executioner; yet there was no stain upon his name. He had kept his manhood unspotted through all the years. Men would call his work a failure; it certainly was not a worldly success. Yet it was a fine spiritual success. Jesus said that among all men born of woman, none was greater than John. Earth's failures, may be heaven's truest successes.
The life of John the Baptist is rich in its lessons. For example, he hid himself away--and pointed the people always to Christ. He was willing to decrease--that Christ might increase. When his popularity waned and he was left almost alone, with scarcely any friends or followers, he kept as sweet and worked as faithfully as when he was everybody's favorite. He was heroic in reproving sin, even in a king. His whole life was noble. Forgetting himself, he lived for God in the truest and most complete way, unto the end.