The Impotent King
Mark [chapter 6] now provides us with a striking contrast between the disciples and Herod.
The disciples: in the eyes of the world, weak and powerless, yet through God’s enabling exercise great power;
Herod, in the eyes of the world the most powerful man in the region, yet who in fact is weak, terrified, and helpless.
Mark begins this section by showing that the news of the disciples’ ministry has reached even the royal palace:
14 ¶ King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” 17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:14-20 NASB)
There are four different Herods mentioned in the Bible, and it is challenging to keep them all straight. The first is Herod the Great, King at the time of Jesus’ birth. That Herod had several sons by different wives; the Herod we meet in Mark 6 is one of those sons, Herod Antipas. A second son, Philip, married his niece, Herod the Great’s granddaughter, Herodias. But then Herodias decided that she preferred a different uncle, Antipas; Antipas leaves his first wife to marry her, leading to war with his original father-in-law. In later years, Antipas will lose this war, and end up exiled to Rome.
So even this little bit of history reveals Herod Antipas to be a man enslaved to his passions, who at the behest of his niece takes actions that are not only morally wrong but also ultimately detrimental both to himself and to his kingdom.
Of course, Herod’s running off with his brother’s wife becomes the talk of the town; it’s hard to keep such matters private when they lead to war. John the Baptist pulls no punches in bravely denouncing this action. But Herodias is a woman who, clearly, is not used to being crossed. Verse 19 says she “nursed a grudge against John;” the Greek could be translated literally into an English idiom, “Herodias had it in for John.” She looked for a way to kill him.
Interestingly, Herod finds John intriguing. Both fearing him and puzzled by him, Herod visits John and listens to him speak, all the while protecting him from the wrath of Herodias.
In chapter 4, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let them hear.” Does Herod hear? The word goes out to him, like the seed falling on the path, but there is no germination. Herod listens, but neither hears nor acts. The birds come and consume the seed. Herod is about to be tested; he fails the test miserably:
21 Finally the opportune time [for Herodias] came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. 25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
Herodias’ daughter, Salome, dances for the men gathered to celebrate Herod’s birthday. This is very unusual. A high-ranking woman would never dance in front of men; normally that would be the task of a slave. Clearly, this is all part of the plan of Herodias to get Herod’s attention, anticipating that he will make a rash promise
Herod follows the script to the letter, making his rash promise; Salome requests John’s head. Herod knows that John is holy and righteous; he knows John speaks truth. Part of him wants to back away from this promise, to avoid killing John. But he has to make a choice: Will he do what he knows is right, at the cost of losing face before his guests and his wife?
The answer is no. Thus the greatest prophet since Old Testament days dies.
The result: As Mark indicates in verses 14 to 16, Herod is troubled by fears that John has come back to haunt him!
Do you see the contrast? These poor, uneducated disciples are powerfully proclaiming the truth, and verifying that truth by the miracles they perform while the man who should be the most powerful in the region is enslaved to his passions, enslaved to his wife, enslaved even to his dinner guests
This story presents us with a challenge: Who will you emulate? The disciples who, although having nothing, step out by God’s power to accomplish God’s purposes? Or Herod who, having all the world offers, becomes enslaved to his passions, and ends up impotent and pitiful, wanting to do what is right but unable to bring himself to lose face.