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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod

By James Stalker


      Pilate had tried Jesus and found Him innocent; and so he frankly told the members of the Sanhedrim, thereby reversing their sentence. What ought to have followed? Of course Jesus ought to have been released and, if necessary, protected from the feeling of the Jews.

      Why was this not what happened? An incident in the life of Pilate, narrated by a secular historian, may best explain. Some years before the trial of Jesus, Pilate, newly settled in the position of governor of Judaea, resolved to remove the headquarters of the Roman army from Caesarea to Jerusalem; and the soldiers entered the Holy City with their standards, each of which bore the image of the emperor. To the Jewish mind these images were idolatrous, and their presence in Jerusalem was looked upon as a gross insult and desecration. The foremost men of the city poured down to Caesarea, where Pilate was staying, and besought him to remove them. He refused, and for five days the discussion went on. At length he was so irritated that he ordered them to be surrounded by soldiers, and threatened to have them put to death unless they became silent and dispersed. They, however, in no way dismayed, threw themselves on the ground and laid bare their necks, crying that they would rather die than have their city defiled. And the upshot was that Pilate had to yield, and the army was withdrawn from Jerusalem.[1]

      Such was the governor, and such were the people with whom he had to deal. He was no match for them, when their hearts were set on anything and their religious prejudices roused. In the present case they did with him exactly as they had done on that early occasion. He declared Jesus innocent, and thereupon the trial ought to have been at an end. But they raised an angry clamour--"they were the more fierce," says St. Luke--and began to pour out new accusations against the Prisoner.

      Pilate had not nerve enough to resist. He weakly turned to Jesus Himself, asking, "Hearest Thou not what these witness against Thee?" But Jesus "answered to him never a word." He would not, by a single syllable, give sanction to any prolongation of the proceedings: "insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly." Flustered and irresolute himself, he could not comprehend this majestic composure. The stake of Jesus in the proceedings was nothing less than His life; yet He was the only calm person in the whole assemblage.

      Suddenly, however, amidst the confusion a way of escape from his embarrassing situation seemed to open to Pilate. They were crying, "He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place." The mention of Galilee was intended to excite prejudice against Jesus, because Galilee was noted as a hotbed of insurrection. But it set agoing a different train of thought in the mind of Pilate, who asked anxiously if He was a Galilean. It had flashed upon him that Herod, the ruler of Galilee, was in the city at the time, having come for the Passover celebration; and, as it was not an unusual procedure in Roman law to transfer a prisoner from the territory where he had been arrested to his place of origin or of domicile, it seemed to him a happy inspiration to send Jesus to be tried by the ruler of the province to which He belonged, and so get rid altogether of the case.[2] He acted at once on this idea; and, under the escort of Pilate's soldiers, Jesus and His accusers were sent away to the ancient palace of the Maccabees, in which Herod used to reside on his visits to the Holy City.

      Thus was Jesus, on this day of shame, tossed, like a ball, from hand to hand--from Annas to Caiaphas, from Caiaphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, with more to follow; and these weary marches[3] in chains and in the custody of the officers of justice, with His persecutors about Him, are not to be forgotten in the catalogue of His sufferings.

      I.

      There are several Herods mentioned in the New Testament, and it must be made clear which of them this was.

      The first of them was he who slew the babes of Bethlehem, when the infant Saviour was carried away to Egypt. He was called Herod the Great, and reigned over the whole country, though only by permission of the Romans. At his death his dominions were divided among his sons by the foreigner, who thus more effectually brought the country under control; for the smaller the size of subject states the more absolute is the power of the suzerain. Judaea was given to Archelaus; but it was soon taken from him, to be administered by the Romans themselves through their procurators, of whom Pilate was one. Galilee and Peraea were given to another son, Antipas; and a region more to the north to a third, Philip. Our present Herod is Antipas.

      He was a man of some ability and at the outset of his career gave promise of ruling well. Like his father, he had a passion for architecture, and among his achievements in this line was the building of the city of Tiberias, well known in connection with modern missions. But he took a step which proved fatal when he entered into an intrigue with Herodias, the wife of his own brother Philip. She left her husband to come to him, and he sent away his own wife, the daughter of Aretas, the king of Arabia Petraea. Herodias was a much stronger character than he; and she remained at his side through life as his evil genius. Better aspirations were not, however, wholly extinguished in him even by this fall. When the Baptist began to fire the country, he took an interest in his preaching, and invited him to the palace, where he heard him gladly, till John said, "It is not lawful for thee to have her." For this the great preacher was cast into prison; but even then Herod frequently sent for him. Manifestly he was under religious impression. He admired the character and the teaching of John. It is said "he did many things." Only he could not and would not do the one thing needful: Herodias still retained her place. Naturally she feared and hated the man of God, who was seeking to remove her; and she plotted against him with implacable malignity. She was only too successful, making use of her own daughter--not Antipas', but her first husband's--for her purpose. On the king's birthday Salome danced before Herod and so intoxicated him with her skill and beauty, that, heated and overcome, he promised--the promise showing the man--to give her whatever she might ask, even to the half of his kingdom; and when the young witch, well drilled by her mother in the craft of hell, asked the head of the man of God, she was not refused.

      This awful crime filled his subjects with horror, and when, soon afterwards, King Aretas, the father of his discarded wife, invaded the country, to revenge his daughter's wrong, and inflicted on him an ignominious defeat, this reverse was popularly regarded as a divine punishment for what he had done. His own mind was haunted by the spectres of remorse, as we learn from the fact that, when he heard of the preaching of Jesus, his first thought was that this was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Indeed, from this point he seems to have rapidly deteriorated. Feeling the aversion of the minds of his subjects, he turned more and more to foreign customs. His court became distinguished for Roman imitations and affectations. The purveyors of pleasure, who in that age hawked their wares from one petty court to another--singers, dancers, jugglers and the like--were welcome at Tiberias. The fibre of his character was more and more relaxed, till it became a mere mass of pulp, ready to receive every impression but able to retain none. His annual visits to Jerusalem even, at Passover time, were inspired less by devotion than by the hope of amusement. In so large a concourse there would at any rate be acquaintances to see and news to hear; and who could tell what excitement might turn up?

      II.

      His reception of Jesus was thoroughly characteristic. Had he had the conscience even of a bad man, he might have been abashed to see the Baptist's Friend. Once he had been moved with terror at the mere rumour of Jesus; but that was all past; these emotions had been wiped out by newer ones and forgotten. He was "exceeding glad" to see Him. First, it was an excitement; and this was something for such a man. Then, it was a compliment from the Roman; indeed, we are told that Pilate and he had aforetime been at enmity, but by this attention were made friends again. His delight, however, arose chiefly from the hope that he might see Jesus working a miracle. For two or three years his own dominions had been ringing with the fame of the Miracle-worker, but Herod had never seen Him. Now was his chance; and no doubt entered his mind that Jesus would gratify his curiosity, or could count it anything but an honour to get the opportunity of displaying His skill.

      Such was Herod's estimate of Christ. He put Him on the level of a new dancer or singer; he looked on His miracles as a species of conjuring or magic; and he expected from Him the same entertainment as he might have obtained from any wandering professor of magical arts.

      At once he addressed Him in the friendliest manner and questioned Him in many words. Apparently he quite forgot the purpose for which Pilate had sent Him. He did not even wait for any replies, but went rambling on. He had thought much about religion, and he wished Jesus to know it. He had theories to ventilate, puzzles to propound, remarks to make. A man who has no religion may yet have a great deal to say about religion; and there are people who like far better to hear themselves talking than to listen to any speaker, however wise. No mouth is more voluble than that of a characterless man of feeling.

      III.

      Herod at last exhausted himself, and then he waited for Christ to speak. But Jesus uttered not a word. The silence lasted till the pause grew awkward and painful, and till Herod grew red and angry; but Jesus would not break it with a single syllable.

      For one thing, the entire proceedings were irrelevant. Jesus had been sent to Herod to be tried; but this had never been touched upon. Had Jesus, indeed, desired to deliver Himself at all hazards, this was a rare opportunity; because, if He had yielded to Herod's wishes and wrought a miracle for his gratification, no doubt He would have been acquitted and sent back loaded with gifts. But we cannot believe that such an expedient was even a temptation to Him. Never had He wrought a miracle for His own behoof, and it is inconceivable that He should have stooped to offer any justification of the estimate of Himself which this man had formed. Jesus was Herod's subject; but it was impossible for Him to look upon him with respect. How could He help feeling disdain for one who thought of Himself so basely and treated this great crisis so frivolously? To one who knew Herod's history, how loathsome must it have been to hear religious talk from his lips! There was no manliness or earnestness in the man. Religion was a mere diversion to him.

      To such Christ will always be silent. Herod is the representative of those for whom there is no seriousness in life, but who live only for pleasure. There are many such. Not only has religion, in any high and serious sense, no attraction for them, but they dislike everything like deep thought or earnest work in any sphere. As soon as they are released from the claims of business, they rush off to be excited and amused; and the one thing they dread is solitude, in which they might have to face themselves. In certain classes of society, where work is not necessary to obtain a livelihood, this spirit is the predominant one: life is all a scene of gaiety; one amusement follows another; and the utmost care is taken to avoid any intervals where reflection might come in.

      Religion itself may be dragged into this circle of dissipation. It is possible to go to church with substantially the same object with which one goes to a place of amusement--in the hope of being excited, of having the feelings stirred and the aesthetic sense gratified or, at the least, consuming an hour which might otherwise lie heavy on the hands. With shame be it said, there are churches enough and preachers enough ready to meet this state of mind half-way. With the fireworks of rhetoric or the witchery of music or the pomp of ritual the performance is seasoned up to the due pitch; and the audience depart with precisely the same kind of feeling with which they might leave a concert or a theatre. Very likely it is accounted a great success; but Christ has not spoken: He is resolutely mute to those who follow religion in this spirit.

      Sometimes the same spirit takes another direction; it becomes speculative and sceptical and, like Herod, "questions in many words." When I have heard some people propounding religious difficulties, the answer which has risen to my lips has been, Why should you be able to believe in Christ? what have you ever done to render yourselves worthy of such a privilege? you are thinking of faith as a compliment to be paid to Christ; in reality the power to believe in Him and His words is a great privilege and honour, that requires to be purchased with thought, humility and self-denial.

      We do not owe an answer to the religious objections of everyone. Religion is, indeed, a subject on which everyone takes the liberty of speaking; the most unholy and evil-living talk and write of it nothing doubting; but in reality it is a subject on which very few are entitled to be heard. We may know beforehand, from their lives, what the opinions of many must be about it; and we know what their opinions are worth.

      It may be thought that Jesus ought to have spoken to Herod--that He missed an opportunity. Ought He not to have appealed to his conscience and attempted to rouse him to a sense of his sin? To this I answer that His silence was itself this appeal. Had there been a spark of conscience left in Herod, those Eyes looking him through and through, and that divine dignity measuring and weighing him, would have caused his sins to rise up out of the grave and overwhelm him. Jesus was silent, that the voice of the dead Baptist might be heard.

      If we understood it, the silence of Christ is the most eloquent of all appeals. Can you remember when you used to hear Him--when the words of the Book and the preacher used to move you in church, when the singing awoke aspiration, when the Sabbath was holy ground, when the Spirit of God strove with you? And is that all passed of passing away? Does Christ speak no more? If a man is lying ill, and perceives day by day everything about him becoming silent--his wife avoiding speech, visitors sinking their voices to a whisper, footsteps falling and doors shutting noiselessly--he knows that his illness is becoming critical. When the traveller, battling with the snow-storm, sinks down at last to rest, he feels cold and painful and miserable; but, if there steals over him a soft, sweet sense of slumber and silence, then is the moment to rouse himself and fight off his peace, if he is ever to stir again. There is such a spiritual insensibility. It means that the Spirit is ceasing to strive, and Christ to call. If it is creeping over you, it is time to be anxious; for it is for your life.

      IV.

      How far Herod understood the silence of Jesus we cannot tell. It is too likely that he did not wish to understand. At all events he acted as if he did not; he treated it as if it were stupidity. He thought that the reason why Jesus would not work a miracle was because He could not: a pretender's powers generally forsake him when he falls into the hands of the police. Jesus, he thought, was discredited; His Messianic claims were exploded; even His followers must now be disillusioned.

      So he thought and so he said; and the satellites round his throne chimed in; for there is no place where a great man's word is echoed with more parrot-like precision than in a petty court. And no doubt they considered it a great stroke of wit, well worthy of applause, when Herod, before sending Him back to Pilate, cast over His shoulders a gorgeous robe--probably in imitation of the white robe worn at Rome by candidates for office. The suggestion was that Jesus was a candidate for the throne of the country, but one so ridiculous that it would be a mistake to treat Him with anything but contempt. Thus amidst peals of laughter was Jesus driven from the presence.

      [1] Josephus, "Ant.," XVIII., 3, 1.

      [2] It may be questioned whether it was for trial he sent Jesus to
      Herod or only for advice, as Festus caused St. Paul's case to be heard
      by Agrippa.

      [3] Called "die Gaenge des Dulders," in German devotional literature.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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