Here is, I. The wild notions that the people had concerning our Lord Jesus, Mark 6:15. His own countrymen could believe nothing great concerning him, because they knew his poor kindred; but others that were not under the power of that prejudice against him, were yet willing to believe any thing rather than the truth—that he was the Son of God, and the true Messias: they said, He is Elias, whom they expected; or, He is a prophet, one of the Old-Testament prophets raised to life, and returned to this world; or as one of the prophets, a prophet now newly raised up, equal to those under the Old Testament.
II. The opinion of Herod concerning him. He heard of his name and fame, of what he said and what he did; and he said, “It is certainly John Baptist, Mark 6:14. As sure as we are here, It is John, whom I beheaded, Mark 6:16. He is risen from the dead; and though while he was with us he did no miracle, yet, having removed for awhile to another world, he is come again with greater power, and now mighty works do show forth themselves in him.”
Note, 1. Where there is an idle faith, there is commonly a working fancy. The people said, It is a prophet risen from the dead; Herod said, It is John Baptist risen from the dead. It seems by this, that the rising of a prophet from the dead, to do mighty works, was a thing expected, and was thought neither impossible nor improbable, and it was now readily suspected when it was not true; but afterward, when it was true concerning Christ, and a truth undeniably evidenced, yet then it was obstinately gainsaid and denied. Those who most wilfully disbelieve the truth, are commonly most credulous of errors and fancies.
2. They who fight against the cause of God, will find themselves baffled, even when they think themselves conquerors; they cannot gain their point, for the word of the Lord endures for ever. They who rejoiced when the witnesses were slain, fretted as much, when in three or four days they rose again in their successors, Rev. 11:10, 11. The impenitent unreformed sinner, that escapeth the sword of Jehu, shall Elisha slay.
3. A guilty conscience needs no accuser or tormentor but itself. Herod charges himself with the murder of John, which perhaps no one else dare charge him with; I beheaded him; and the terror of it made him imagine that Christ was John risen. He feared John while he lived, and now, when he thought he had got clear of him, fears him ten times worse when he is dead. One might as well be haunted with ghosts and furies, as with the horrors of an accusing conscience; those therefore who would keep an undisturbed peace, must keep an undefiled conscience, Acts 24:16.
4. There may be the terrors of strong conviction, where there is not the truth of a saving conversion. This Herod, who had this notion concerning Christ, afterward sought to kill him (Luke 13:31), and did set him at nought (Luke 23:11); so that he will not be persuaded, though it be by one risen from the dead; no, not by a John the Baptist risen from the dead.
III. A narrative of Herod’s putting John Baptist to death, which is brought in upon this occasion, as it was in Matthew. And here we may observe,
1. The great value and veneration which Herod had some time had for John Baptist, which is related only by this evangelist, Mark 6:20. Here we see what a great way a man may go toward grace and glory, and yet come short of both, and perish eternally.
(1.) He feared John, knowing that he was a just man, and a holy. It is possible that a man may have a great reverence for good men, and especially for good ministers, yea, and for that in them that is good, and yet himself be a bad man. Observe, [1.] John was a just man, and a holy; to make a complete good man, both justice and holiness are necessary; holiness toward God, and justice toward men. John was mortified to this world, and so was a good friend both to justice and holiness. [2.] Herod knew this, not only by common fame, but by personal acquaintance with him. Those that have but little justice and holiness themselves, may yet discern it with respect in others. And, [3.] He therefore feared him, he honoured him. Holiness and justice command veneration, and many that are not good themselves, have respect for those that are.
(2.) He observed him; he sheltered him from the malice of his enemies (so some understand it); or, rather, he had a regard to his exemplary conversation, and took notice of that in him that was praiseworthy, and commended it in the hearing of those about him; he made it appear that he observed what John said and did.
(3.) He heard him preach; which was great condescension, considering how mean John’s appearance was. To hear Christ himself preach in our streets will be but a poor plea in the great day, Luke 13:26.
(4.) He did many of those things which John in his preaching taught him. He was not only a hearer of the word, but in part a doer of the work. Some sins which John in his preaching reproved, he forsook, and some duties he bound himself to; but it will not suffice to do many things, unless we have respect to all the commandments.
(5.) He heard him gladly. He did not hear him with terror as Felix heard Paul, but heard him with pleasure. There is a flashy joy, which a hypocrite may have in hearing the word; Ezekiel was to his hearers as a lovely song (Ezek. 33:32); and the stony ground received the word with joy, Luke 8:13.
2. John’s faithfulness to Herod, in telling him of his faults. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Mark 6:17. All the country, no doubt, cried shame on him for it, and reproached him for it; but John reproved him, told him plainly, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. This was Herod’s own iniquity, which he could not leave, when he did many things that John taught him; and therefore John tells him of this particularly. Though he were a king, he would not spare him, any more than Elijah did Ahab, when he said, Hast thou killed and also taken possession? Though John had an interest in him, and he might fear this plain-dealing would destroy his interest, yet he reproved him; for faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov. 27:6); and though there are some swine that will turn again, and rend those that cast pearls before them, yet, ordinarily, he that rebuketh a man (if the person reproved has any thing of the understanding of a man), afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with his tongue, Prov. 28:23. Though it was dangerous to offend Herod, and much more to offend Herodias, yet John would run the hazard rather than be wanting in his duty. Note, Those ministers that would be found faithful in the work of God, must not be afraid of the face of man. If we seek to please men, further than is for their spiritual good, we are not the servants of Christ.
3. The malice which Herodias bore to John for this (Mark 6:19); She had a quarrel with him, and would have killed him; but when she could not obtain that, she got him committed to prison, Mark 6:17. Herod respected him, till he touched him in his Herodias. Many that pretend to honour prophesying, are for smooth things only, and love good preaching, if it keep far enough from their beloved sin; but if that be touched, they cannot bear it. No marvel if the world hate those who testify of it that its works are evil. But it is better that sinners persecute ministers now for their faithfulness, than curse them eternally for their unfaithfulness.
4. The plot laid to take off John’s head. I am apt to think that Herod was himself in the plot, notwithstanding his pretences to be displeased and surprised, and that the thing was concerted between him and Herodias; for it is said to be when a convenient day was come (Mark 6:21), fit for such a purpose. (1.) There must be a ball at court, upon the king’s birth-day, and a supper prepared for his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee. (2.) To grace the solemnity, the daughter of Herodias must dance publicly, and Herod must take on him to be wonderfully charmed with her dancing; and if he be, they that sit with him cannot but, in compliment to him, be so too. (3.) The king hereupon must make her an extravagant promise, to give her whatever she would ask, even to the half of the kingdom; and yet, that, if rightly understood, would not have reached the end designed, for John Baptist’s head was worth more than his whole kingdom. This promise is bound with an oath, that no room might be left to fly off from it; He sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask, I will give. I can scarcely think he would have made such an unlimited promise, but that he knew what she would ask. (4.) She, being instructed by Herodias her mother, asked the head of John Baptist; and she must have it brought her in a charger, as a pretty thing for her to play with (Mark 6:24, 25); and there must be no delay, no time lost, she must have it by and by. (5.) Herod granted it, and the execution was done immediately while the company were together, which we can scarcely think the king would have done, if he had not determined the matter before. But he takes on him, [1.] To be very backward to it, and that he would not for all the world have done it, if he had not been surprised into such a promise; The king was exceeding sorry, that is, he seemed to be so, he said he was so, he looked as if he had been so; but it was all sham and grimace, he was really pleased that he had found a pretence to get John out of the way. Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare—The man who cannot dissemble, knows not how to reign. And yet he was not without sorrow for it; he could not do it but with great regret and reluctancy; natural conscience will not suffer men to sin easily; the very commission of it is vexatious; what then will the reflection upon it be? [2.] He takes on him to be very sensible of the obligation of his oath; whereas if the damsel had asked but a fourth part of his kingdom, I doubt not but he would have found out a way to evade his oath. The promise was rashly made, and could not bind him to do an unrighteous thing. Sinful oaths must be repented of, and therefore not performed; for repentance is the undoing of what we have done amiss, as far as is in our power. When Theodosius the emperor was urged by a suitor with a promise, he answered, I said it, but did not promise it if it be unjust. If we may suppose that Herod knew nothing of the design when he made that rash promise, it is probable that he was hurried into the doing of it by those about him, only to carry on the humour; for he did it for their sakes who sat with him, whose company he was proud of, and therefore would do any thing to gratify them. Thus do princes make themselves slave to those whose respect they covet, and both value and secure themselves by. None of Herod’s subjects stood in more awe of him than he did of his lords, high captains, and chief estates. The king sent an executioner, a soldier of his guard. Bloody tyrants have executioners ready to obey their most cruel and unrighteous decrees. Thus Saul has a Doeg at hand, to fall upon the priests of the Lord, when his own footmen declined it.
5. The effect of this is, (1.) That Herod’s wicked court is all in triumph, because this prophet tormented them; the head is made a present of to the damsel, and by her to her mother, Mark 6:28. (2.) That John Baptist’s sacred college is all in tears; the disciples of John little thought of this; but, when they heard of it, they came, and took up the neglected corpse, and laid it in a tomb; where Herod, if he had pleased, might have found it, when he frightened himself with the fancy that John Baptist was risen from the dead.