The Way of Herod: a reflection on the death of the holy innocents

Choosing a way is sometimes an exercise in seeing contrasts.

It is not light alone that helps us to see the world around us best. It is through high contrast that vision improves. For example, it can be difficult to distinguish one thing from another thing in the dark. However, it is not light alone that helps to improve our ability to see. 

It is the contrast in our vision that differentiates between blue skies and rocky brown mountains, between green leaves and red apples in a tree, between rich dark soil and Springtime flowers emerging from it. Likewise, it is easiest to see the right way when it is contrasted with another way. So I want us explore the way of Herod the Great, who plays a significant role in Jesus’ early years, first appearing in Matthew 2 in the episode with the magi. 

While there are several “Herod” figures in the Bible – this was a big and multi-generational family – the “Herod” in Matthew 2 is Herod the Great. Herod was born in 72 BC, and ruled in one way or another in the Holy Land from 47 BC until his death in 4 BC. He was not Jewish, but Idumean, and became King of Jews in 37 BC based on his family’s allegiance to the Roman authorities since the time of Marc Antony. While viewed as Jewish by the Romans, the Jewish people never fully recognized Herod as their king. 

Herod instituted many significant building projects, including a massive remodeling of the Jerusalem Temple, but became increasingly paranoid and violent near the end of his life.

When the Magi follow the star in search of the newborn king, their journey leads them to King Herod.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:1-3)

Here we see something about Herod’s way. He wields power in a way that is disturbing to people. This became increasingly true in his later years. Herod sought after power, marrying Mariamne, the daughter of one of his opponents, but later in life, he executed her when it seemed she threatened his power. Herod had ten wives and each of their children vied for power against one another. Herod executed more than one of his children when they sought at times to come against him. When the Scripture tells us in Matthew 2:3 Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him, it is no joke. The way that Herod the Great used his power during this time was disturbing to people. 

A little later in the same episode we something else about Herod’s way. He uses knowledge for his own ends and to mix it with deception. When the chief priests and teachers of the law tell him that the Messiah will arise from Bethlehem, Herod does not use that knowledge to soften his heart but to harden his heart against this possible prophesied king. Then he asks the magi to report back to him where this new king is after they find him so, he says, “that I too may go and worship him” (2:8). This is a leader bent on consolidating his own power at any cost. Truth is meaningless and he bends it to his own will. This is the way of Herod the Great. 

But it doesn’t end there. It continues with violence. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go another way. And this leads to another revelation about Herod’s way.

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Along with wielding power in disturbing ways and bending truth toward his own ends with deception, Herod controls the situation through violence. While there are no extrabiblical accounts confirming what happened here, it is entirely consistent with Herod’s activities at the time.

With the population of Bethlehem at this time being roughly 1000 people, and given typical rates of birth and infant mortality, there were probably around 20 children who were killed in this episode. Such a terrible but small-scale event might not have been more than one more in a series of Herod’s terrifying deeds. 

This is the way of Herod the Great:

  • wielding power in disturbing ways 
  • using knowledge for selfish ends and bending truth with deception
  • controlling situations through violence

May we choose a different way in our approach to living. May we turn from the way of Herod and turn to the way of Jesus.

The Weekend Wanderer: 18 December 2021

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.


Warren - angels“The Cosmos Is More Crowded Than You Think” – Tish Harrison Warren in Christianity Today: “For close to 15 years, I forgot about the existence of angels. I didn’t exactly decide I no longer believed in them. I simply didn’t think about them, and if I ever did, it was a passing thought about how corny the depiction of angels usually is. I rediscovered angels by putting a baby to sleep at night. When my first child was a newborn, I realized one night, to my surprise, that without really noticing I had developed a habit of asking God to send his angels to protect her. Back then I worked at Vanderbilt University and became a regular at a Greek Orthodox cafe and bookstore near campus. I loved its quiet beauty, its ancient books, and its veggie chili. I got to know Father Parthenios, an Antiochian priest, and his wife (known to all as simply ‘Presbytera,’ or ‘priest’s wife’), who ran the place together. One afternoon, late in my pregnancy, Presbytera handed me an icon of an angel and told me it was for the new baby. I appreciated her kindness but wasn’t particularly spiritually moved. I’m a Protestant, after all. At the time I felt no particular skepticism toward icons or angels, but I didn’t feel a deep connection either. Still, I hung the tiny wooden icon on my daughter’s wall.”


Jesus_Christmas“Christmas Celebrates a Historical Event, Americans Say” – Aaron Earles at LIfeway Research: “Christmas is a celebration of a real event, according to most Americans. Just don’t expect them to know exactly why Jesus was born and came to earth. A new study from Lifeway Research finds close to 3 in 4 Americans believe Jesus was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. Even more say Jesus is the son of God the Father, but less than half believe Jesus existed prior to being born on that first Christmas. ‘Most Americans consider Jesus’ birth a historical fact,’ said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. ‘It can be easy to only evaluate Jesus like you would any other historical figure—thinking about when He lived and what He did. However, the Bible also describes Jesus in a way that one must evaluate who you believe He was. Most Americans believe His origin was from God the Father, but half as many believe He existed before His birth.'”


CT Book Awards 2022“Christianity Today’s 2022 Book Awards” – Compiled by Matt Reynolds at Christianity Today: “As a books editor for a Christian magazine, I think I’m contractually obligated, every so often, to mention that verse from Ecclesiastes about there being no end to the making of books (12:12). (Though I can’t help wondering whether an updated version might instead remark on the relentless production of podcasts, that contemporary magnet for ‘everyone and their cousin’ barbs.) The ‘making of books’ verse carries the same world-weary tone that pervades much of Ecclesiastes. And we have to admit some truth here. Consider the investment of mind, body, and soul involved in writing books few may read or remember, and ask yourself: Why do so many people, across so many eras and cultures, willingly empty themselves in this way? Even so, you’ll never catch Christianity Today pronouncing ‘Vanity of vanities’ upon the whole book-making enterprise. Recall that God himself speaks to us through a book—as does the author of Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, you can’t tell the truth about the world with anything less.”


dietrich-bonhoeffer“Bonhoeffer on Holy Weakness and the Victory of the Suffering God” – Chris E. W. Green in The Intersection Journal: “One Sunday evening in the late Spring or early Summer of 1934 Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a sermon to St John’s German Evangelical Reformed Church in London, one of two small Lutheran congregations he pastored at the time. He spoke in English because many of his younger parishioners were not fluent in German, and he took as his text one of the most familiar passages in the New Testament: ‘But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me’ (2 Cor. 12:9). Bonhoeffer’s sermon began with what could easily have been taken as an unnecessarily philosophical question: ‘What is the meaning of weakness in this world?’ But if anyone considered the question too academic, Bonhoeffer quickly broke the illusion, insisting that ‘our whole attitude toward life, toward humanity and God depends on the answer to this problem.'”


30williamsembed“The Hidden Costs of Prenatal Screening” – Sarah C. Williams in Plough: “The ultrasound technician put her hand on my arm and said the words every expectant mother hopes she will never hear: ‘I’m afraid there is something wrong with the baby.’ Within an hour it was clear that a skeletal dysplasia would claim my daughter’s life either at birth or shortly after. It was also clear that everyone expected me to have a termination. Hardly anyone in Western culture disputes the wisdom of prenatal screening. It is a practice that most of us take for granted. But what are the long-term effects? As a social practice, prenatal screening is framed as morally neutral. Scans are voluntary. It is the informed and consenting parents who decide how to act on the basis of the information they receive. At twenty weeks there were only two things I knew about my daughter, both of them scientifically derived facts: her physical abnormality and her biological sex. These facts were discovered simultaneously in a routine scan in which only two questions were asked as if they were of primary importance: Does this child have a healthy body, and is this child male or female?”


wildfire“A World Ablaze, Caught by AP Photographers in 2021″ – The Associated Press: “‘Some say the world will end in fire,’ wrote the poet Robert Frost — and for much of 2021, Associated Press photographers captured scenes of a world ablaze, amid rumblings of ruin. In New Delhi, a man sprints amid the funeral pyres of COVID-19 victims — too many fires, too much heat, too many victims. On a beach near the village of Limni, Greece, the horizon is lit by the flames of wildfires raging across the eastern Mediterranean. And at La Palma in the Canary Islands, the inferno is in the Cumbre Vieja volcano. But more than 10,000 million cubic meters of ash turn the world into a negative, with black ash taking the place of white snow. Not all of the combustion is so literal.”


Kentucky church tornado“In tornado’s wake, a church and pastor turn to God, service” – Holly Meyer in The Associate Press: “After riding out the violent tornado that devastated their town in a tunnel under their church, the Rev. Wes Fowler and his family emerged to devastation stretching for blocks: Crackling power lines, piles of rubble and calls for help they couldn’t pinpoint in the darkness. Later, safe back at home, his daughter had a question that left him stumped: ‘My little girl asked me, “Why would God let this happen?”‘ said Fowler, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Mayfield. While he believes God did allow the tornado to happen, he had no answer as to why the western Kentucky community where he was baptized, grew up and chose to raise his family wasn’t spared from the Friday night storms that left dozens dead and communities reeling across at least five states. But he felt he knew what to do next: glorify God amid the suffering, and serve those in need.”


Music: J.S. Bach, “Schwingt freudig euch empor,” Cantata BWV 36 / Part 1,  John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir

What Kind of Ruler Do We Really Want?

“And he will be called…Mighty God.” (Isaiah 9:6b)

Many of us have heard the old proverb about power and might coined by Lord Acton in the 19th century:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[1]

We know that power and might can be dangerous. In some ways, we all want to be mighty or powerful, whether it’s in our social group or in our schools or on social media platforms or at our workplaces. We are drawn to power.

But at the same time we know power changes people, including us. We have seen certain people we love and respect become people we don’t like because of their power or influence. We are scared for some people to have too much power because we are terrified of what they might do with that power.

Because of this, we look for right and good people to wield might or power. But still, we often experience the disappointment that even people we thought were good or right sometimes lose their way in might and power, becoming overwhelmed, disoriented, or deformed by the weight of power and might.

Power is both attractive and scary.

When we look at the words about the Messiah in Isaiah 9:6-7, we see that the Messiah will be a Mighty God who rules with power in a very specific way:

“He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:7)

The Messiah will rule with might, but that might will be wielded with justice and righteousness. In contrast to the kings of Israel and the surrounding nations of Isaiah’s time, the Messiah will be a different sort of king who wields might in a different sort of way.

The different way is what we see in Philippians 2:5-11. The Messiah will turn away from the alluring influence of false, earthly power by letting go of glory and choosing humility. The Messiah will fully enter into the reality of human life, specifically by taking on human form, even as a servant. The Messiah will make a way through the morass of sin, evil, and death that saturates human nature and experience, opening up a salvation highway through His surprisingly powerful death on the Cross.

And it is because of this different way of wielding power that the Messiah is the Only One worthy to rule and reign with might. Listen to how Paul describes this in Philippians 2:9-11:

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

This King is worthy to rule and reign. This Messiah is mighty…mighty enough to handle power and rule righteously and justly forever. This Messiah is mighty and is exactly the sort of King we would want to have rule and reign over us. Jesus is the only one who is not absolutely corrupted by absolute power, instead being the absolute King with absolute power who absolutely reigns in absolute goodness and absolute holiness.

This is what this season is all about…receiving and celebrating the Mighty God who is worthy to reign over all.


[1] “Lord Acton Quote Archive,” Acton Institute, https://www.acton.org/research/lord-acton-quote-archive.

The Way of Jesus and the Way of Herod

This past weekend we began a new series “Power in Preparation” at Eastbrook Church. This begins the second part of our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew. This message is a study in contrasts drawn from Matthew 1:18-25 and Matthew 2:1-18.

You can view the message video and outline below. You can follow along with the entire series here and the devotional that accompanies the series here. You could always join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” (Matthew 2:16)

A Conversation about Ways

  • What it means to choose a “way”
  • The consequences of certain ways (Proverbs 14:12)
  • Jesus: “I am the way…” (John 14:6)

The Way of Herod

  • disturbing power (2:1-8)
  • knowledge and deception (2:4-8)
  • controlling through violence (2:16-18)

The Way of Jesus

  • incarnate power (1:18, 20)
  • grace and truth (John 1:14)
  • saving through humility (1:21)

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into the contrast between Jesus and Herod in one or more of the following ways:

The Crucifixion of Strength and Wisdom

Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

The crucified Messiah is a scandal to Jews and a form of idiocy to Gentiles. By all human viewpoints, such a Savior seems weak and foolish. Yet it is by this very weakness and foolishness that God reveals His strength and wisdom. Indeed, God’s strength and wisdom unveil the weakness and foolishness of supposed human strength and wisdom. The upside-down ways of God in the Messiah apocalyptically show what is truly happening in this world.

Do we turn again to other forms of strength and wisdom than that of God? Having come to God through the One Mediator, Jesus Christ, do we then set aside His apparent weakness for human strength or His apparent foolishness for human wisdom? Do we turn somewhere else and thereby say that Christ is not sufficient? Do we empty the Messiah of His true power by grasping for other types of power—power of influence, power to dominate, power of money, power of achievement, power of sensuality, power of position? By doing so we forsake Christ and our faith! Paul continues:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

So let us know where true strength and wisdom come from and not turn again to what is foolishness.. Let us not boast in ourselves—our power, strength, or wisdom—but let us boast in the Lord and His power. Let us follower where He leads us and not turn aside to that which He has unveiled as empty of strength and empty of wisdom.