John the Baptist sometimes is painted as an uncompromising and uncompassionate, fire-spitting preacher who judged and publicized the sins of church and civil leaders. Maybe it comes off that way, because it was rare to hear anyone boldly address the sins of church and state leaders in similar fashion as the masses—and with good reason. It easily could have meant swift and sudden death.
Keep in mind, John was the son of a high priest. He was not unfamiliar with the upper crust of society. He likely knew their personal challenges and saw the fallout from their besetting temptations. But it was John’s calling and passionate love for God that made him fearlessly cry out truth to power and separate himself from the normal path of ministerial status. It is this kind of passion, along with his message, that sets him apart as the prophet who came in the spirit of Elijah.
To the multitudes (more likely to the Pharisees and Sadducees among the multitudes) that came to be baptized of him, John said, ”O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
To the publicans (tax collectors) who also wanted to know how to bring forth good fruit, worthy of repentance, John said, ”Exact no more than that which is appointed to you.” In other words, Stop robbing!
To the soldiers who wanted to know what the fruit of repentance looked like for them, John said that they should stop their violence toward humanity. Stop falsely accusing people. Learn to be content with their wages. Apparently, even then corrupt law enforcers commonly committed extortion. Still, people of this sort repented and were baptized by John.
But things took a deadly turn when it came to Herod Antipas and Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Both brothers (sons of Herod the Great with different mothers) were tetrarchs, or quarter regional rulers. Herod ruled Galilee. Philip ruled Iturea and Trachonitis (Luke 3:1).
What John the Baptist knew, but what many readers may not readily realize, is that Herod was not unfamiliar with the law of Moses. He and Herodias were Edomites, Idumaeans, descendants of Jacob’s older twin brother, Esau. They were not Romans. They were elite rulers who served Rome during the time of the Roman Empire.
Just like the Pharisees, Edomites were Abraham’s seed through Isaac. Once conquered by Judea, they had been forced to convert to Judaism and gradually integrated into the Judean nation. Like Herod, some reached high-ranking positions. Herod knew that John the Baptist was just and holy. Herod also very likely knew his heritage, his status: that John was the son of a high priest operating independent of normal Jewish standards. Of Herod’s response to John the Baptist, it is said, ”When he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” Gladly?
Herod actually revered John and even sometimes obeyed him. Now that is not an idea commonly associated with Herod. But it is a scriptural fact. It was only because of Herodias that he bound John in prison in the first place. Herodias held a deadly grudge against John, because John had said to Herod that it was morally unlawful to have his brother’s wife, while he still lived. (Study Mark 6:17-20). Herodias carefully noted Herod’s response to John. She committed herself to turn that tide. She must have watched for any and every opportunity to conclusively dissuade the influence John was having on her civil law husband. Nothing was to hinder her.
The word on the street is that power-hungry Herodias switched brothers for upward mobility. It is said that she had been with Philip, until she learned that he was gentler and less power hungry than his brother Herod. So she dumped Philip in preference to the power-hungry Herod, who could be king someday. When instead of being made king he was stripped of his title and exiled from the region, Herodias remained by his side. Some say it proved her love for him. However, it could as well have been her best bet to stay alive. She had been the one to lay the plan for Herod’s kingship. Her ambitious brother, however, overthrew those plans with one of his own. Her life may have been at risk had she stayed in the region.
It is said that at the age of eight, she was given as wife to her uncle Philip when his father, Herod the Great, killed Philip’s brother Aristopoulus, father of Herodias. Let it also be noted here that her grandfather and grandmother were siblings. Some could say that her environment never gave her real chance to see godly love in action—rather, only cruel and deadly ambition.
Based on JTB’s statements, it could be thought that the marriage of Herodias to her uncle Philip was approved by God. Could this really be the case? If so, would that suggest she was once a god-fearing child or woman? Could she have ever been receptive to the influence of the Holy Spirit? Was she always wicked? Even Lucifer wasn’t always wicked. His place was nearest the throne of God in Heaven, before he became Satan. So what’s her real story? I wonder.
Regardless, all things are not readily known or understood. That is certain. Case in point: Although King David committed adultery, impregnated his warrior’s wife, and had him killed in battle to cover it up, God made him and the object of his adulterous lust the progenitors of the world’s Messiah. That suggests that David and Bathsheba (rather than Mikal) were ordained to be the ancestors of Jesus, the Christ. David’s first wife, Mikal, was rejected from bearing any offspring because she outright and publicly objected to his worshipful public praise of the King of Kings. Of course, David first had to demonstrate a real change of heart. He fully repented to God of his sin. (Read Psalm 51.)
That certainly made a decisive difference for the future. Had Herod and Herodias (even Judas and the Pharaoah of Egypt, from whom the Israelites fled) made true heart changes under the influence of the Holy Spirit, how different might have been the narrative about them. The same goes for each of us.