We have here the story of John’s martyrdom. Observe,
I. The occasion of relating this story here, Matt. 14:1, 2. Here is,
1. The account brought to Herod of the miracles which Christ wrought. Herod the tetrarch or chief governor of Galilee heard of the fame of Jesus. At that time, when his countrymen slighted him, upon the account of his meanness and obscurity, he began to be famous at court. Note, God will honour those that are despised for his sake. And the gospel, like the sea, gets in one place what it loses in another. Christ had now been preaching and working miracles above two years; yet, it should seem, Herod had not heard of him till now, and now only heard the fame of him. Note, It is the unhappiness of the great ones of the world, that they are most out of the way of hearing the best things (1 Cor. 2:8). Which none of the princes of this world knew, 1 Cor. 1:26. Christ’s disciples were now sent abroad to preach, and to work miracles in his name, and this spread the fame of him more than ever; which was an indication of the spreading of the gospel by their means after his ascension.
2. The construction he puts upon this (Matt. 14:2); He said to his servants that told him of the fame of Jesus, as sure as we are here, this is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead. Either the leaven of Herod was not Sadducism, for the Sadducees say, There is no resurrection (Acts 23:8); or else Herod’s guilty conscience (as is usual with atheists) did at this time get the mastery of his opinion, and now he concludes, whether there be a general resurrection or no, that John Baptist is certainly risen, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. John, while he lived, did no miracle (John 10:41); but Herod concludes, that, being risen from the dead, he is clothed with a greater power than he had while he was living. And he very well calls the miracles he supposed him to work, not his mighty works, but mighty works showing forth themselves in him. Observe here concerning Herod,
(1.) How he was disappointed in what he intended by beheading John. He thought if he could get that troublesome fellow out of the way, he might go on in his sins, undisturbed and uncontrolled; yet no sooner is that effected, than he hears of Jesus and his disciples preaching the same pure doctrine that John preached; and, which is more, even the disciples confirming it by miracles in their Master’s name. Note, Ministers may be silenced, and imprisoned, and banished, and slain, but the word of God cannot be run down. The prophets live not for ever, but the word takes hold, Zech. 1:5, 6. See 2 Tim. 2:9. Sometimes God raises up many faithful ministers out of the ashes of one. This hope there is of God’s trees, though they be cut down, Job 14:7-9.
(2.) How he was filled with causeless fears, merely from the guilt of his own conscience. Thus blood cries, not only from the earth on which it was shed, but from the heart of him that shed it, and makes him Magor-missabib—A terror round about, a terror to himself. A guilty conscience suggests every thing that is frightful, and, like a whirlpool, gathers all to itself that comes near it. Thus the wicked flee when none pursue (Prov. 28:1); are in great fear, where no fear is, Ps. 14:5. Herod, by a little enquiry, might have found out that this Jesus was in being long before John Baptist’s death, and therefore could not be Johannes redivivus—John restored to life; and so he might have undeceived himself; but God justly left him to this infatuation.
(3.) How, notwithstanding this, he was hardened in his wickedness; for though he was convinced that John was a prophet, and one owned of God, yet he does not express the least remorse or sorrow for his sin in putting him to death. The devils believe and tremble, but they never believe and repent. Note, There may be the terror of strong convictions, where there is not the truth of a saving conversion.
II. The story itself of the imprisonment and martyrdom of John. These extraordinary sufferings of him who was the first preacher of the gospel, plainly show that bonds and afflictions will abide the professors of it. As the first Old-Testament saint, so the first New-Testament minister, died a martyr. And if Christ’s forerunner was thus treated, let not his followers expect to be caressed by the world. Observe here,
1. John’s faithfulness in reproving Herod, Matt. 14:3, 4. Herod was one of John’s hearers (Mark 6:20), and therefore John might be the more bold with him. Note, Ministers, who are reprovers by office, are especially obliged to reprove those that are under their charge, and not to suffer sin upon them; they have the fairest opportunity of dealing with them, and with them may expect the most favourable acceptance.
The particular sin he reproved him for was, marrying his brother Philip’s wife, not his widow (that had not been so criminal), but his wife. Philip was now living, and Herod inveigled his wife from him, and kept here for his own. Here was a complication of wickedness, adultery, incest, besides the wrong done to Philip, who had had a child by this woman; and it was an aggravation of the wrong, that he was his brother, his half-brother, by the father, but not by the mother. See Ps. 50:20. For this sin John reproved him; not by tacit and oblique allusions, but in plain terms, It is not lawful for thee to have her. He charges it upon him as a sin; not, It is not honourable, or, It is not safe, but, It is not lawful; the sinfulness of sin, as it is the transgression of the law, is the worst thing in it. This was Herod’s own iniquity, his beloved sin, and therefore John Baptist tells him of this particularly. Note, (1.) That which by the law of God is unlawful to other people, is by the same law unlawful to princes and the greatest of men. They who rule over men must not forget that they are themselves but men, and subject to God. “It is not lawful for thee, any more than for the meanest subject thou hast, to debauch another man’s wife.” There is no prerogative, no, not for the greatest and most arbitrary kings, to break the laws of God. (2.) If princes and great men break the law of God, it is very fit they should be told of it by proper persons, and in a proper manner. As they are not above the commands of God’s word, so they are not above the reproofs of his ministers. It is not fit indeed, to say to a king, Thou art Belial (Job 34:18), any more than to call a brother Raca, or, Thou fool: it is not fit, while they keep within the sphere of their own authority, to arraign them. But it is fit that, by those whose office it is, they should be told what is unlawful, and told with application, Thou art the man; for it follows there (Matt. 14:19), that God (whose agents and ambassadors faithful ministers are) accepteth not the persons of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor.
2. The imprisonment of John for his faithfulness, Matt. 14:3. Herod laid hold on John when he was going on to preach and baptize, put an end to his work, bound him, and put him in prison; partly to gratify his own revenge, and partly to please Herodias, who of the two seemed to be most incensed against him; it was for her sake that he did it. Note, (1.) Faithful reproofs, if they do not profit, usually provoke; if they do not do good, they are resented as affronts, and they that will not bow to the reproof, will fly in the face of the reprover and hate him, as Ahab hated Micaiah, 1 Kgs. 22:8. See Prov. 9:8; 15:10, 12. Veritas odium parit—Truth produces hatred. (2.) It is no new thing for God’s ministers to suffer ill for doing well. Troubles abide those most that are most diligent and faithful in doing their duty, Acts 20:20. Perhaps some of John’s friends would blame him as indiscreet in reproving Herod, and tell him he had better be silent than provoke Herod, whose character he knew very well, thus to deprive him of his liberty; but away with that discretion that would hinder men from doing their duty as magistrates, ministers, or Christian friends; I believe John’s own heart did not reproach him for it, but this testimony of his conscience for him made his bonds easy, that he suffered for well-doing, and not as a busy-body in other men’s matters, 1 Pet. 4:15.
3. The restraint that Herod lay under from further venting of his rage against John, Matt. 14:5.
(1.) He would have put him to death. Perhaps that was not intended at first when he imprisoned him, but his revenge by degrees boiled up to that height. Note, The way of sin, especially the sin of persecution, is down-hill; and when once a respect to Christ’s ministers is cast off and broken through in one instance, that is at length done, which the man would sooner have thought himself a dog than to have been guilty of, 2 Kgs. 8:13.
(2.) That which hindered him was his fear of the multitude, because they counted John as a prophet. It was not because he feared God (if the fear of God had been before his eyes he would not have imprisoned him), nor because he feared John, though formerly he had had a reverence for him (his lusts had overcome that), but because he feared the people; he was afraid for himself, his own safety, and the safety of his government, his abuse of which he knew had already rendered him odious to the people, whose resentments being so far heated already would be apt, upon such a provocation as the putting of a prophet to death, to break out into a flame. Note, [1.] Tyrants have their fears. Those who are, and affect to be, the terror of the mighty, are many times the greatest terror of all to themselves; and when they are most ambitious to be feared by the people, are most afraid of them. [2.] Wicked men are restrained from the most wicked practices, merely by their secular interest, and not by any regard to God. A concern for their ease, credit, wealth, and safety, being their reigning principle, as it keeps them from many duties, so it keeps them from many sins, which otherwise they would not be restrained from; and this is one means by which sinners are kept from being overmuch wicked, Eccl. 7:17. The danger of sin that appears to sense, or to fancy only, influences men more than that which appears to faith. Herod feared that the putting of John to death might raise a mutiny among the people, which it did not; but he never feared it might raise a mutiny in his own conscience, which it did, Matt. 14:2. Men fear being hanged for that which they do not fear being damned for.
4. The contrivance of bringing John to his death. Long he lay in prison; and, against the liberty of the subject (which, blessed be God, is secured to us of this nation by law), might neither be tried nor bailed. It is computed that he lay a year and a half a close prisoner, which was about as much time as he had spent in his public ministry, from his first entrance into it. Now here we have an account of his release, not by any other discharge than death, the period of all a good man’s troubles, that brings the prisoners to rest together, so that they hear not the voice of the oppressor, Job 3:18.
Herodias laid the plot; her implacable revenge thirsted after John’s blood, and would be satisfied with nothing less. Cross the carnal appetites, and they turn into the most barbarous passions; it was a woman, a whore, and the mother of harlots, that was drunk with the blood of the saints, Rev. 17:5, 6. Herodias contrived how to bring about the murder of John so artificially as to save Herod’s credit, and so to pacify the people. A sorry excuse is better than none. But I am apt to think, that if the truth were known, Herod was himself in the plot; and with all his pretences of surprise and sorrow, was privy to the contrivance, and knew before what would be asked. And his pretending his oath, and respect to his guests, was all but sham and grimace. But if he were trepanned into it ere he was aware, yet because it was the thing he might have prevented, and would not, he is justly found guilty of the whole contrivance. Though Jezebel bring Naboth to his end, yet if Ahab take possession, he hath killed. So, though Herodias contrive the beheading of John, yet if Herod consent to it, and take pleasure in it, he is not only an accessary, but a principal murderer. Well, the scene being laid behind the curtain, let us see how it was acted upon the stage, and in what method. Here we have,
(1.) The humouring of Herod by the damsel’s dancing upon a birth-day. It seems, Herod’s birth-day was kept with some solemnity; in honour of the day, there must needs be, as usual, a ball at court; and, to grace the solemnity, the daughter of Herodias danced before them; who being the queen’s daughter, it was more than she ordinarily condescended to do. Note, Times of carnal mirth and jollity are convenient times for carrying on bad designs against God’s people. When the king was made sick with bottles of wine, he stretched out his hand with scorners (Hos. 7:5), for it is part of the sport of a fool to do mischief, Prov. 10:23. The Philistines, when their heart was merry, called for Samson to abuse him. The Parisian massacre was at a wedding. This young lady’s dancing pleased Herod. We are not told who danced with her, but none pleased Herod like her dancing. Note, A vain and graceless heart is apt to be greatly in love with the lusts of the flesh and of the eye, and when it is so, it is entering into further temptation; for by that Satan gets and keeps possession. See Prov. 23:31-33. Herod was now in a mirthful mood, and nothing was more agreeable to him than that which fed his vanity.
(2.) The rash and foolish promise which Herod made to this wanton girl, to give her whatsoever she would ask: and this promise confirmed with an oath, Matt. 14:7. It was a very extravagant obligation which Herod here entered into, and no way becoming a prudent man that is afraid of being snared in the words of his mouth (Prov. 6:2), much less a good man that fears an oath, Eccl. 9:2. To put this blank into her hand, and enable her to draw upon him at pleasure, was too great a recompense for such a sorry piece of merit; and, I am apt to think, Herod would not have been guilty of such an absurdity, if he had not been instructed of Herodias, as well as the damsel. Note, Promissory oaths are ensnaring things, and, when made rashly, are the products of inward corruption, and the occasion of many temptations. Therefore, swear not so at all, lest thou have occasion to say, It was an error, Eccl. 5:6.
(3.) The bloody demand the young lady made of John the Baptist’s head, Matt. 14:8. She was before instructed of her mother. Note, The case of those children is very sad, whose parents are their counsellors to do wickedly, as Ahaziah’s (2 Chron. 22:3); who instruct them and encourage them in sin, and set them bad examples; for the corrupt nature will sooner be quickened by bad instructions than restrained and mortified by good ones. Children ought not to obey their parents against the Lord, but if they command them to sin, must say, as Levi did to father and mother, they have not seen them.
Herod having given her her commission, and Herodias her instructions, she requires John the Baptist’s head in a charger. Perhaps Herodias feared lest Herod should grow weary of her (as lust useth to nauseate and be cloyed), and then would make John Baptist’s reproof a pretence to dismiss her; to prevent which she contrives to harden Herod in it by engaging him in the murder of John. John must be beheaded then; that is the death by which he must glorify God; and because it was his who died first after the beginning of the gospel, though the martyrs died various kinds of deaths, and not so easy and honourable as this, yet this is put for all the rest, Rev. 20:4; where we read of the souls of those that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus. Yet this is not enough, the thing must be humoured too, and not only a revenge, but a fancy must be gratified; it must be given her here in a charger, served up in blood, as a dish of meat at the feast, or sauce to all the other dishes; it is reserved for the third course, to come up with the rarities. He must have no trial, no public hearing, no forms of law or justice must add solemnity to his death; but he is tried, condemned, and executed, in a breath. It was well for him he was so mortified to the world that death could be no surprise to him, though ever so sudden. It must be given her, and she will reckon it a recompence for her dancing, and desire no more.
(4.) Herod’s grant of this demand (Matt. 14:9); The king was sorry, at least took on him to be so, but, for the oath’s sake, he commanded it to be given her. Here is,
[1.] A pretended concern for John. The king was sorry. Note, Many a man sins with regret, that never has any true regret for his sin; is sorry to sin, yet is utterly a stranger to godly sorrow; sins with reluctancy, and yet goes on to sin. Dr. Hammond suggests, that one reason of Herod’s sorrow was, because it was his birth-day festival, and it would be an ill omen to shed blood on that day, which, as other days of joy, used to be graced with acts of clemency; Natalem colimus, tacete lites—We are celebrating the birth-day, let there be no contentions.
[2.] Here is a pretended conscience of his oath, with a specious show of honour and honesty; he must needs do something, for the oath’s sake. Note, It is a great mistake to think that a wicked oath will justify a wicked action. It was implied so necessarily, that it needed not be expressed, that he would do any thing for her that was lawful and honest; and when she demanded what was otherwise, he ought to have declared, and he might have done it honourably, that the oath was null and void, and the obligation of it ceased. No man can lay himself under an obligation to sin, because God has already so strongly obliged every man against sin.
[3.] Here is a real baseness in compliance with wicked companions. Herod yielded, not so much for the sake of the oath, but because it was public, and in compliment to them that sat at meat with him; he granted the demand that he might not seem, before them, to have broken his engagement. Note, A point of honour goes much further with many than a point of conscience. Those who sat at meat with him, probably, were as well pleased with the damsel’s dancing as he, and therefore would have her by all means to be gratified in a frolic, and perhaps were as willing as she to see John the Baptist’s head off. However, none of them had the honesty to interpose, as they ought to have done, for the preventing of it, as Jehoiakim’s princes did, Jer. 36:25. If some of the common people had been here, they would have rescued this Jonathan, as 1 Sam. 14:45.
[4.] Here is a real malice to John at the bottom of this concession, or else he might have found out evasions enough to have got clear of his promise. Note, Though a wicked mind never wants an excuse, yet the truth of the matter is, that every man is tempted when he is drawn aside of his own lust, and enticed, Jas. 1:14. Perhaps Herod presently reflecting upon the extravagance of his promise, on which she might ground a demand of some vast sum of money, which he loved a great deal better than John the Baptist, was glad to get clear of it so easily; and therefore immediately issues out a warrant for the beheading of John the Baptist, it should seem not in writing, but only by word of mouth; so little account is made of that precious life; he commanded it to be given her.
(5.) The execution of John, pursuant to this grant (Matt. 14:10); He sent and beheaded John in the prison. It is probable the prison was very near, at the gate of the palace; and thither an officer was sent to cut off the head of this great man. He must be beheaded with expedition, to gratify Herodias, who was in a longing condition till it was done. It was done in the night, for it was at supper-time, after supper, it is likely. It was done in the prison, not at the usual place of execution, for fear of an uproar. A great deal of innocent blood, of martyr’s blood, has thus been huddled up in corners, which, when God comes to make inquisition for blood, the earth shall disclose, and shall no more cover, Isa. 26:21; Ps. 9:12.
Thus was that voice silenced, that burning and shining light extinguished; thus did that prophet, that Elias, of the new Testament, fall a sacrifice to the resentments of an imperious, whorish woman. Thus did he, who was great in the sight of the Lord, die as a fool dieth, his hands were bound, and his feet put into fetters; and as a man falleth before wicked men, so he fell, a true martyr to all intents and purposes: dying, though not for the professions of his faith, yet for the performance of his duty. However, though his work was soon done, it was done and his testimony finished, for till then none of God’s witnesses are slain. And God brought this good out of it, that hereby his disciples, who while he lived, though in prison, kept close to him, now after his death heartily closed with Jesus Christ.
5. The disposal of the poor remains of this blessed saint and martyr. The head and body being separated,
(1.) The damsel brought the head in triumph to her mother, as a trophy of the victories of her malice and revenge, Matt. 14:11. Jerome ad Rufin, relates, that when Herodias had John the Baptist’s head brought her, she gave herself the barbarous diversion of pricking the tongue with a needle, as Fulvia did Tully’s. Note, Bloody minds are pleased with bloody sights, which those of tender spirits shrink and tremble at. Sometimes the insatiable rage of bloody persecutors has fallen upon the dead bodies of the saints, and made sport with them, Ps. 79:2. When the witnesses are slain, they that dwell on the earth rejoice over them, and make merry, Rev. 11:10; Ps. 14:4, 5.
(2.) The disciples buried the body, and brought the news in tears to our Lord Jesus. The disciples of John had fasted often whole their master was in prison, their bridegroom was taken away from them, and they prayed earnestly for his deliverance, as the church did for Peter’s, Acts 12:5. They had free access to him in prison, which was a comfort to them, but they wished to see him at liberty, that he might preach to others; but now on a sudden all their hopes are dashed. Disciples weep and lament, when the world rejoices. Let us see what they did.
[1.] They buried the body. Note, There is a respect owing to the servants of Christ, not only while they live, but in their bodies and memories when they are dead. Concerning the first two New-Testament martyrs, it is particularly taken notice of, that they were decently buried, John the Baptist by his disciples, and Stephen by devout men (Acts 8:2); yet there was no enshrining of their bones or other relics, a piece of superstition which sprung up long after, when the enemy had sowed tares. That over-doing, in respect to the bodies of the saints, is undoing; though they are not to be vilified, yet they are not to be deified.
[2.] They went and told Jesus; not so much that he might shift for his own safety (no doubt he heard it from others, the country rang of it), as they might receive comfort from him, and be taken in among his disciples. Note, First, When any thing ails us at any time, it is our duty and privilege to make Christ acquainted with it. It will be a relief to our burthened spirits to unbosom ourselves to a friend we may be free with. Such a relation dead or unkind, such a comfort lost or embittered, go and tell Jesus who knows already, but will know from us, the trouble of our souls in adversity. Secondly, We must take heed, lest our religion and the profession of it die with our ministers; when John was dead, they did not return every man to his own, but resolved to abide by it still. When the shepherds are smitten, the sheep need not be scattered while they have the great Shepherd of the sheep to go to, who is still the same, Heb. 13:8, 20. The removal of ministers should bring us nearer to Christ, into a more immediate communion with him. Thirdly, Comforts otherwise highly valuable, are sometimes therefore taken from us, because they come between us and Christ, and are apt to carry away that love and esteem which are due to him only: John had long since directed his disciples to Christ, and turned them over to him, but they could not leave their old master while he lived; therefore he is removed that they may go to Jesus, whom they had sometimes emulated and envied for John’s sake. It is better to be drawn to Christ by want and loss, than not to come to him at all. If our masters be taken from our head, this is our comfort, we have a Master in heaven, who himself is our Head.
Josephus mentions this story of the death of John the Baptist (Antiq. 18. 116-119), and adds, that a fatal destruction of Herod’s army in his war with Aretas, king of Petrea (whose daughter was Herod’s wife, whom he put away to make room for Herodias), was generally considered by the Jews to be a just judgment upon him, for putting John the Baptist to death. Herod having, at the instigation of Herodias, disobliged the emperor, was deprived of his government, and they were both banished to Lyons in France; which, says Josephus, was his just punishment for hearkening to her solicitations. And, lastly, it is storied of this daughter of Herodias, that going over the ice in winter, the ice broke, and she slipt in up to her neck, which was cut through by the sharpness of the ice. God requiring her head (says Dr. Whitby) for that of the Baptist; which, if true, was a remarkable providence.