“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men” (Mt. 2:16).
It is “In the days of Herod, King of Judea” that the the Gospel narrative begins (Lk. 1:5). It’s a historical footnote for the modern day reader, but for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, the I-don’t-know-maybe-three wise men, the shepherds and the sheep and the innkeeper, Herod’s kingship meant that Israel’s king had not yet come.
Herod was a king in the way Moses might have been king had he ignored that burning Voice that spoke his name the day his conscience caught fire. Moses was adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, the wealthiest man on earth, and possibly would have one day been put in charge of some region of grandpa’s empire, perhaps the region where all the Hebrew slaves were living. He looked like them, after all. In that case, he would have been a Hebrew “king” over Hebrew slaves under the king of Egypt.
Herod was something like that, except the Pharaoh was now Caesar and Egypt was now Rome. Herod was a puppet king for Rome—with a Jewish tan. But let’s just say he was one chopstick short of being a fully functional human. So he had a favorite wife, Mariamne I. Then he murdered her. When he was made king over Judea, he made the brother he most respected high priest in Jerusalem. Makes sense. Then he had him drowned at a dinner party. When the two sons he had with Mariamne I grew up he promoted them to a track of royal succession. A nice gesture. Then he had them executed. He made his son Antipater the first heir in his will. Then, while lying in his deathbed, he decided, “Ah, what the heck…” and had him executed too. Then he died.
And of course there was that time the [not so] wise men inquired to him, the “king” of Judea, about the King of Israel being born in Bethlehem, so he had every male child under the age of two executed (Mt. 2:16-17)–a fallen apple not far from Pharaoh’s tree, it turns out (Exod. 1:22).
So it’s hard to say: did Israel need liberation from Caesar’s captivity or from Herod’s? Was it the ruler without or the ruler within that posed the more immanent threat of freedom? Is it Islamic radicalism or is it American consumerism? Or, for that matter, is it American consumerism or is it my compulsory shopping habit? Is it corporate greed or is it my impulsive spending habits? Is it civil strife or the kind that lives in my home, or the kind that lives in my heart? Is it sex trafficking in Thailand or is it the pornography industry, or is it the iPhone industry, or is it the iPhone in my pocket?
The severest form of human slavery on the planet always comes in the form of the human will. We all, deep down, have a Herod in our heart. We all want freedom from sin, except that part of us that wants the freedom to keep on sinning. We want to be healthy, but we don’t want to not feed our habits. We all want people to just love each other and stop firing missiles, except I don’t want to stop keeping a ‘record of wrongs’ on my wife (cf. 1 Cor. 13:5), except I’m going to make sure to fire a comment back right at the heart of her deepest insecurity. How else can I maintain control? Shame is the heaviest chain.
Come give us freedom, Lord Jesus, from death and hell, from hopelessness and fear, liberate us from our enemies and our obstacles. Amen, hallelujah! But don’t save us from our pride and from our selfishness. Don’t offer us liberation from our throne of independence. We all want to do God’s will, except we never want “Not my will…” (Lk. 22:42).
But liberation by means of a cross means the world needs liberated from me, and that I need liberated from me. I need to be raised from the dead, but I first need to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20-22). Most of us aren’t like Pharaoh, but all of us are a little like Herod. We all have a great capacity to love ourselves at least a little more than our fellow man, at times even our own family. We also tend to have this habit of holding people captive to our expectations of them; everyone is constantly evaluated according to how they treat me, notice me, benefit me, affirm me, congratulate me, like my facebook posts, heart my instagram pics, tell me that I’m right, or at least never point out why I’m wrong, even if I’m wrong in a way that is inhibiting me or someone else from freedom.
But humans do not typically want freedom. We want control. Control feels like freedom to the one who has it, but true freedom does not enslave others. Control does. Control is freedom that comes by listening to your inner Herod. Pharaoh had freedom like that. And God had to rescue His people precisely from Pharaoh’s freedom.
Paul calls the inner Herod “the lusts of the flesh.” He also says the Spirit lusts within us (Gal. 5). You might think of the Spirit as the inner Christ. The inner Christ and the inner Herod are at war for your freedom, for everyone’s freedom. Paul begins the conversation by saying “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). The yoke of slavery, or the lusts of the flesh, inhibits anyone from living in freedom (“sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these”), while the yoke of freedom, or the lusts of the Spirit, enables everyone to live in freedom (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”) . The Spirit lusts to give. The flesh lusts to take. The Spirit lusts to make us like Christ, because Christ loves for the sake of others. The flesh lusts to make us like Herod, because Herod loves himself at the expense of others. The Spirit lusts to free us from our captivity to self-service, the flesh lusts to liberate us from the captivity of self-control, the defining fruit of spiritual freedom. Self-control is only freedom because the self has an inner tyrant. You can call him Herod. Your inner Herod needs to be “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
So perhaps today we could dare to be honest with ourselves, like really honest, like put ourselves on trial in the way Rome put Jesus on trial, and ask: Who is living under the burden of my control? Do people feel free around me or do people feel the need to live up to my expectations? Am I a tyrant or a liberator?
Does it feel like “the days of Herod” around me—or does it feel like Christmas?
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!
His power and glory ever more proclaim!