Acts 12: 19 – 24 Herod’s death
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarrelling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
On the appointed day, Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’ Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
* * *
This is one of the rare passages of the bible that is directly supported by an account of the same event by a historian of the time. Josephus records this story in his “Antiquities of the Jews”, giving even more detail. According to Josephus, Herod was wearing a robe made entirely of silver, which reflected the morning sun in a way that struck awe and terror into the hearts of the spectators.
In the manner of the period, the crowd responded by hailing Herod, flattering him as someone supernatural, someone beyond them.
They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’
Now, to a Jew this was a most horrible blasphemy. Herod, who was a Jew and had previously shown some zeal in defending Judaism, should have immediately disclaimed the flattery and given the glory to God – but he didn’t. Then, according to both Josephus and St Luke, Herod collapsed and subsequently died in agony.
Many commentators view Herod’s death as God’s punishment for his blasphemy, making him a public example. I wonder if that’s actually the case? Do all blasphemers get struck down promptly? Is every one of the millions of people who die agonisingly from cancer every year being punished for their sin? I don’t think so. I don’t feel at all convinced that God ‘takes vengeance’ on human beings; he simply doesn’t need to.
Which is not to say that God didn’t end Herod’s life, and in a way that furthered his plan. Herod was persecuting the Christian church; he’d killed James and tried to kill Peter. He’d shown his determination to continue when he executed the guards for Peter’s escape. If he’d remained alive and in power, he might have done untold damage to the church. Herod was obsessed with power; his whole life had been spent gaining it, and the only way he would relinquish it was by dying.
I wonder, too, whether God allows us to misinterpret his motives? For example, Abraham thought that he was proving his faith to God, when he was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In fact, he was proving his faith in God to himself, and to countless succeeding generations, by his actions. Is it not the case that God lets us believe things that are appropriate to the level of understanding that we have?
Perhaps Herod’s death was brought about by God, who allowed the believers to understand it as a punishment for blasphemy? Did some members of the early church need reminding that they needed to give the glory to God? With the Holy Spirit working miracles through them, there was a risk that they would have been tempted to take the credit for them. That would certainly be a reason for Luke to include the story in this book of Acts.
Whatever the reason for Herod’s death, it was certainly good news for the church. As Luke concludes, “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”
Thank you that you are a compassionate God, who cares tenderly for his creation. Help us to see your compassion more and more clearly, so that we may start to understand better the reality of life in heaven with you.
In Jesus’ name, Amen