Scripture Characters

MARK vi. 14-19. "And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her." MARK vi. 26.

THERE is a very remarkable quality to be observed in the evangelical histories; it is the tone of calm simplicity and candour which uniformly pervades them. Among many singular and admirable characteristics of their style and manner of composition, this is not the least. There is everywhere a mild and passionless equanimity, a quiet dignity, which marks the guidance and superintendence of a spirit truly divine. Not a trace, not a vestige or feature, anywhere occurs of wrath, or bitterness, or envy, or railing accusation, or evil speaking, or malice, or resentment, or any of those seeds and symptoms of human passion, which are so apt to disfigure the writings of uninspired men on subjects which interest and excite their feelings. With entire self-possession, or rather with an entire oblivion and forgetfulness of self, they write as the disciples of the meek and lowly Jesus, who, when reviled, reviled not again, when buffeted, threatened not.

Nor is theirs the calmness of affected philosophic impartiality, the indifference or insensibility which some think it the height of wisdom to assume when they write, as if in carelessness or in scorn of all the high and spirit-stirring recollections, and the deep, heart-moving associations, which their subject should suggest. The writers of the New Testament are not thus destitute of interest and sympathy in what they write. They write with feeling. They write from the heart. None, indeed, could write narratives so simply and profoundly cordial and hearty, without being hearty and cordial themselves. But yet what is remarkable in them is that they are never betrayed or hurried into the slightest excess. There is not a word, not a hint, of extravagance or exaggeration, or unbecoming heat and intemperance: all is fervour, indeed; but it is the chastened and subdued fervour of heavenly meekness. They never lose their temper. They are never hastily provoked to utter unadvisedly one single sentence. They never wonder, though they have wonderful things to tell of. They never fret or rage, though they have intolerable wrongs to set forth. They show no studied enthusiasm to recommend their cause, no impatient resentment against its adversaries; although theirs was a cause to rouse from their depths all the soul's emotions of admiration, exultation, triumph, and revenge. Still there is no violence of feeling in what they write, but a plain and temperate record of facts.

And is not this especially singular? Is it not a proof of divine influence restraining all human pride and human wrath, and leaving nothing but the forbearance and single-minded devotion to the majesty of sacred truth, becoming the historians of Heaven's own acts and counsels? Even when they are most tempted to launch forth into declamation, or to indulge in invective, still all the narrative is calm. Here, for instance, what an occasion had they for impassioned oratory! What a handle for stirring men's minds might they have seized in the tale of cruel wrong which they had to relate! No colours could be too dark to paint the atrocity of the transaction; no language strong enough to denounce and stigmatize the perpetrators of so foul an enormity. There is the mean and dastard tyrant, who would fain have been a villain had he dared, but whose coward spirit made him a mere tool. There are the monsters in female form, whom unhallowed lust and passion converted into blood-hounds. And the deed itself! unparalleled in the annals of cold-blooded crime, a match for the blackest cruelties of the blackest pages of Roman story, casting quite into the shade that savage inhumanity which could make its jest of slaughter, and find a fit accompaniment for its strains of levity in the carnage and conflagration of a devoted city! Here was an occasion that seemed to justify, nay, to call for indignation, here was a theme on which the friends of the murdered and martyred saint might well be expected to grow warm.

But no. They forget not their character as historians of heavenly truth. They condescend to no vivid painting, no passionate upbraiding. They simply discharge their office, and tell their story. Nay, it appears almost as if, instead of exposing the full and aggravated enormity of the crime, they were willing rather to say what could be said in the way of extenuation and excuse. Instead of enlarging on its horrors, they hint rather at what might be received as some palliation, or at least some explanation of the affair. "The king was exceeding sorry:" he was not willing to do this cruelty, he shrunk from it; it was, in a manner, forced upon him after much reluctance and regret.

What more could a professed apologist of Herod, what more could the prince's warmest friend and admirer, have suggested? What more could he have desired to see put on record, in extenuation of Herod's conduct? The deed was not properly his own, he was compelled to it against his will, "he was exceeding sorry;" but there was a necessity; he could not help it. How different is all this from the spirit that appears in the ordinary historians of the Church's wrongs, and the biographers of her injured servants! In them there is still too much of man's corrupt spirit of retaliation, and the infirmity of vain-glorious boasting. Nor is it wonderful. They are but men, men of like passions with their fellows, and not under any special or super- natural guidance of the good Spirit of God. We blame them not; nay, we praise them rather; greatly preferring their honest warmth to the affected coldness that is too wise to wonder, and too refined to be ruffled or discomposed. But the difference we have adverted to is worthy of notice, as affording no mean proof of the inspiration of the Scriptures.

Thus, in the instance before us, this manner of relation on the part of the sacred writers serves to introduce Herod to the best advantage for himself, while it gives us also a key to the solution of his character: "And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her." "The king was exceeding sorry." Some interpreters have shrewdly suspected that this sorrow was feigned, that the whole scene of this banquet was a pre-concerted scheme, to which not only Herodias and her daughter, but Herod himself was privy, in order to get rid of the Baptist, who had become alike obnoxious to them all. Herod dared not openly do him wrong, for fear of the people, who counted John a prophet. He fell, therefore, upon the expedient of throwing the guilt of the original suggestion on his accomplices. The feast; the dance; the sudden admiration the rash promise the late repentance all seemingly natural and incidental, were artfully got up, that Herod, to the public eye, might be represented as a reluctant victim rather than a willing actor. He is, to save appearances, to be entrapped and surprised into an enforced consent.

But this view of the matter, though not at all very improbable at first sight, is, upon the whole, rather too ingenious and refined. And there are circumstances in the history, and features in the character of Herod, which would incline us to the belief that he was not concerned in any previous arrangement, that the plot, if there was a plot, was formed between the mother and daughter, without his knowledge, that the atrocious proposal did come upon him abruptly and unexpectedly, and that he really was "exceeding sorry." This appears likely from the respect and attachment which we know that Herod previously felt towards the Baptist, as well as from the remorse of which, it is said, he afterwards gave proof.

The truth, is, this man was not by nature blood-thirsty. Weakness, rather than violence, was very much the characteristic of his mind. He was not prepared to adopt extreme measures; on the contrary, he was prone to try temporizing expedients, and to seek the accomplishment of his ends by craft and compromise, rather than by force. Other historians give him this character. They do not charge him with a deliberate and systematic love of cruelty, but rather with being sly and subtle, cool, crafty, and designing. He was ambitious, but he had not learned to lay aside all restraints. He was not one of those who could deliberately "wade through slaughter to a throne;" on the contrary, he contrived to maintain a decent character for just clemency and moderation. Violence, cruelty, and bloodshed, were therefore, on the whole, against his natural temper; and hence we may well suppose, that, when he was betrayed into the temptation of committing crime, he might show much indecision and reluctance. We may give him credit for a struggle in his own mind, and for pain and sorrow in yielding. Such is the representation given of this prince in the uninspired histories of the times.

And such he appears in the Bible. There is not much told of him there, but the little that is told agrees with the view of his character elsewhere given, and exhibits him as a man in some respects well disposed, yet too selfish and too timid to be consistent; with some good principles, yet too much the slave of passion and the world, to give them fair play and scope; not firm enough to do right, yet not bold and bad enough unscrupulously to do wrong; neither decidedly good nor decidedly wicked; neither resolutely honest nor a reckless ruffian; but hampered and entangled between good feelings, desires, and resolutions, on the one hand, and evil inclinations and evil counsellors on the other. If he could have got rid of the last, he might have been a better man. If he could even have got rid of the first, he would have been a happier, or at least an easier, man. As it was, he was perpetually miserable; tossed and bandied to and fro between his sins and his scruples, doing things by halves, and settling the controversy of conscience with temptation by a sort of evasive, underhand compromise, which left as much room as ever for a new struggle, a new assault, and a new defeat. Ever as he was disposed to do right, some supposed necessity of doing wrong interfered; and yet, ever when the wrong was done, there was reluctance at the time, and regret and remorse afterwards. He was always stopping short too soon either way, having not enough of principle to keep him steady in duty, and yet too much to let him go on contentedly in crime.

Hence that appearance of cunning which procured for him from our Lord the name of "fox" (Luke xiii. 32); and hence, too, that wavering and vacillating inconsistency which marked his treatment both of the Baptist and of the Saviour. Thus, on the one hand, it is quite plain that he had a high opinion of both. For, as to the Baptist, we read that Herod much esteemed him, admitted him to his court, made him almost a favourite and personal friend; listened to him respectfully, treated him with all honour, and even in many things gladly followed his counsel (Mark vi. 20). Again, as to our Lord, we are told that, when Herod heard of his fame and his wonderful works, he desired to see him; out of curiosity, perhaps, or to atone for the violence done to the Baptist by some attention to his successor and representative (Luke ix. 9). Nor did this desire pass away: for, when Jesus was brought before Herod for trial, we are told (Luke xxiii. 8) that the prince rejoiced; having now for a long time been anxious to see this wonderful prophet, in the hope of seeing some miracle done by him.

It is quite evident, therefore, that, to a certain extent, Herod had a regard for religion and its ministers. Nay, it seems as if at times, under the Baptist's ministry, on which he waited, he had been really under the influence of religious impressions, both sincere and deep. He "feared John, knowing him to be a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly" (Mark vi. 20). He esteemed the man, and reverenced the prophet; hearing him gladly, and complying with his instructions, so long as these did not interfere too painfully with his worldly inclinations. At first, accordingly, when there was nothing to stir up an opposition between his religious principles and his ruling passion the fire within being smothered, the storm lulled into a calm, Heaven seeming to smile propitious and approving the attentive convert and docile pupil bade fair to turn out an exemplary saint. The prince seemed to be living in peace and friend- ship with the prophet, and even with the prophet's Lord. But touch his secret sore too boldly, and the peace is broken, the friendship gone. Let temptation kindle again his favourite lust - his cherished desire; let the world make its demand openly, and religion as openly interpose her authority; let the controversy be brought to a single point, and the call be made upon him in a single definite particular to deny himself and mortify the flesh; then comes the struggle; and then is seen the weakness of merely natural impressions of religion. The prince, who appeared to have started so well, in an unlucky hour, is tempted to sin. The Baptist fearlessly remonstrates and reproves: "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife" (Mark vi. 18). Then is the king distracted between the flatteries of the world's easy morals on the one hand, and the unaccommodating and uncompromising claims of rigid religion on the other.

Need we say which prevailed? The king yielded to his unlawful passion; but not without many apologies to himself, and many prudent resolutions. He was sorry, "exceeding sorry; "not perhaps, as one says, "for his sin against God's law, but yet for the severity of God's law against his sin." He was sorry that the temptation was so strong, and his friend so strict; but then he felt as if he could not resist the temptation, as if indeed he could scarcely be fairly expected or required to resist it. And though, in this one instance, he could not go along with those high and stern principles, which might suit an austere and solitary recluse, but could not well be acted upon in the world, and amid the trials of a court, still this single, almost unavoidable deviation from such counsels, would not hinder him from paying all respect in general to the teaching of his friend. So he might reason. Alas! He little thought how soon this one instance of opposition to good advice would lead on even to the murder of the adviser! if he could but have foreseen that this one indulgence, in the world's eye so venial, would issue, by an almost necessary and inevitable sequence, in falsehood, treachery, and blood!

But once do wrong, and who shall dare to say where the wrong will end? Doubtless Herod felt that, though he might occasionally transgress the too strict rule of his religious counsellor, he never could be prevailed upon to disavow religion itself, or its minister. He little knew how instantly and irresistibly the consciousness of guilt would work a change in his sentiments towards the reprover of that guilt. Even at the time, in the very act of sin, the thought of the holy man's disapprobation, and still more the conviction of conscience that the holy man spoke truth, must have poisoned the pleasure of his unhallowed and incestuous passion. And afterwards how must he have felt? Dissatisfied, restless, impatient, he could scarcely tell why or with whom, angry with himself and with all around, he could no longer gladly listen to the voice of him whose presence was a reproof, whose very smile of kindness and benignity could not but cut him to the heart.

In these circumstances, he would fain have silenced this too faithful witness against his sin, at once and effectually, and for ever. But he feared John. The prophet had still too great a hold on his mind, and he had too many religious feelings and scruples, to venture on so bold an act of violence; and so he hesitated between his dislike of the reproof and his reverence for the reprover. And this perplexing indecision in his own mind was increased by opposing applications from without. His offended and indignant partner instigated him to direct outrage. His people, again, acknowledged John to be a prophet. Weak, therefore, and irresolute, he had recourse to the usual expedient of weakness, he adopted a middle course. He did John no personal violence, but kept him in prison (Mark vi. 17). He put religion and its strenuous assertor quietly, and, as he might think, quite allowably, out of the way. Thus he so contrived the matter, that he shall neither be vainly tormented by officious remonstrances on the one hand, nor yet, on the other hand, incur the guilt and odium of avowed and actual hostility to the word and prophet of the Lord. Such, in the first instance, is his treatment of the Baptist.

Precisely similar is the temper displayed in his treatment of our Lord, and that on two different occasions. The first of these is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, where we read that once, in Galilee, there came certain of the Pharisees, saying to Jesus, "Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected" (Luke xiii. 31, 32). It is plain, from our Lord's answer being addressed to Herod, that he suspected that prince to be at the bottom of the message; and the case seems to have been this: The Pharisees, in their usual enmity against Christ, had applied to Herod to procure his interference against him. Herod, on the other hand, had scruples. He was willing enough to oblige the Pharisees, so as to be on good terms with these convenient apologists and absolvers of his worldly frailties. He would gladly have rid himself and them of another troublesome and officious reprover, who had come to take the place of the beheaded John. But then he felt too much about his former violence to the Baptist. The memory of that crime lay heavy on his conscience; so heavy as to make him dread, in the Lord Jesus, his injured friend risen to reproach him. What a striking instance this, as we may note in passing, of the power of conscience! The guilty man has rid himself of one accuser, only to be startled by the rising up of another! Herod, then, would not again be so rash; and, besides, he still feared the people, who honoured Jesus even more than they had honoured John. So once more he is in a dilemma, and once more he tried a middle course, authorizing the Pharisees to convey to this new teacher of righteousness an indirect hint, which may have the effect, of banishing him from his territories. This seems to have been his cunning device and stratagem, in allusion to which Jesus denounces him as "that fox." And thus sinners still think slyly to get the better of their God. Without committing themselves by open hostility, they would contrive, by a sort of by-play or side-wind, to put away his word of warning and re proof.

The second occasion of Herod's having to deal with Jesus, was when Pilate sent Jesus to him to be tried. And now Herod hopes, at last, to gratify his vain curiosity, and see some specimen of the miracles of which he has heard so much: "And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him. Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing" (Luke xxiii. 8, 9). Herod is provoked by the Saviour's silence, and feels it as a reproof of his former crime. The Jewish authorities, meanwhile, loudly and clamorously reiterate their accusations: "The chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him" (Luke xxiii. 10). What is now the judge's course? Plainly either to condemn or to acquit the prisoner; to declare him guilty, and worthy of death; or innocent, and therefore free. But mark the weakness of the man! Either of these measures would be too decided for him. He does not venture to condemn, neither will he at once absolve. So he gratifies the Pharisees and vents his own impotent resentment, by an act of wanton, gratuitous, and unjustifiable barbarity, he exposes his victim, still uncondemned, to the insults of the soldiery, and then sends him again to Pilate; thus losing all the calm uprightness of the judge in the petty and jealous insolence of the tyrant: "And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate" (Luke xxiii. 11).

Such was the character of this monarch. Now, with this character it is perfectly consistent that, on the occasion of the demand made for the Baptist's head, he should have been "exceeding sorry." No wonder, indeed, that by such a demand, at such a time, on such a day of festal joy, he should have been shocked, startled, horror-struck. The man whom but lately he had welcomed as his friend, admitted to his family, and entrusted with his confidence; to whom he had pledged his hand in fellowship, and his heart too, we may almost say, in respectful love; from whose lips he had heard words of wisdom, and tenderness, and kind reproof; this man of God he was now called upon to sacrifice in the light frivolity of a dance. No wonder he hesitated and scrupled, and was "exceeding sorry." But what did his sorrow, however sincere, avail him? Did it arrest him in his evil course? Did it prevent the crime? He looked about for some way of escape. Fain would he have found some compromise to satisfy his friends and soothe his conscience, that he might evade the necessity of a definite and decided step. But no ready expedient occurred. Still he hesitated, and was "exceeding sorry." But a supposed necessity of compliance prevailed: "For his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not," he thought he could not, "reject her."

Let us now endeavour, having some knowledge of Herod's character, and some sympathy and pity for his weakness, to measure the force of the strong compulsion which he pleads, and estimate the worth of his sorrow, "exceeding sorry" as he was. "For his oath's sake." Like the Jew of the poet, he pleads an oath in justification of his cruelty. He has an oath in heaven; would you have him lay perjury to his soul? True, he has been entrapped. In his light and playful mood of joy, he promised, and even swore, to grant the pleasing dancer's request; expecting, probably, that he .would have to give some costly bauble to gratify her gay and giddy vanity, of which her dancing so publicly, against all custom and the modesty of her sex, was a scandalous proof and instance. He little dreamed of so bloody a demand upon his faith. Still that faith must be kept; he has promised, and he must redeem his promise; he has sworn, and he must perform his vow. Alas, infatuated man! and is it possible he can really have believed that Heaven would register such an oath, or sanction, far less require, such a fulfilment of it? Did he not know that it is impossible for man to bind himself to sin, being previously bound by God against it? To keep a rash and unlawful vow is surely worse than to break it; for it cannot cancel the guilt of having made it at first, and it does but add to the sin of a hasty word the heavier guilt of a deliberate criminal deed. But, in fact, Herod could not think himself religiously obliged to crime. Rather, now that his eyes were opened, was he not religiously obliged to stop short and retrace his steps? The very sorrow which he felt, was it not a proof that it could not be the will of God that he should fulfil his engagement? It was a warning against it. It was as if the angel of the Lord stood in the way with drawn sword to oppose him, as he stood in the way to oppose Balaam of old. Balaam, too, was going to fulfil a promise, to curse Israel But when the angel stood aside and suffered him to go on was it in approval of his keeping such a promise? Was it not in displeasure and in wrath abandoning the covetous prophet to his own heart's lust? The truth is, it was not really God that the prince thought of as demanding the fulfilment of his vow, but man. He scrupled about breaking his sworn promise and plighted word to a mere mortal. Alas! His scruple was not about breaking any obligation under which he might lie to God! He had sworn to the lewd minion and minister of his pleasure, and he could not in honour, or in conscience, draw back. Innocent blood must be shed, the holy man must fall and was this, then, the poor punctilio, the paltry point of honour, to which a saint and servant of the Most High must be sacrificed? He was sorry he had committed himself, deeply and bitterly did he regret the pledge and promise he had given that he had never seen that day; never sat down at that fatal entertainment; never tasted the intoxicating cup of the siren's flattery and fondness! He had begun in sport; alas! Now it was too serious earnest. He had been seduced by a mask of painted smiles; alas! Now the mask falls off, and all the devil appears. He had been lulled into a soothing slumber by the soft blandishments of love and joy; he little dreamed of so terrible an awakening. It was pleasure he sought; he little reckoned on the black and bloody villainy that was to follow in her train. Would that he had resisted at first, that he had taken the prophet's advice! But now he is entangled, involved, committed too far it is too late: "For his oath's sake" "and for their sakes which sat with him." He had publicly sworn, and would be publicly taunted and upbraided, if he did not perform his oath. All his court would cry shame on him. It would be of no use to explain to them his reasons for hesitating. They could not understand his scruples. They would give him no credit for sincerity. After all he had sacrificed, they could not believe him in earnest in hesitating to sacrifice a little more; for in their estimation it was no great matter, after all, that was demanded, only the obscure and worthless life of a troublesome captive! What was this, that it should be suffered to disturb the festivity of the scene, or break the harmony that prevailed? The king had acted royally in the munificent pledge he gave; the festive hall rung with applause of his princely liberality; and was he now, from pretended delicacy of conscience, to fail in redeeming it?

It was too late for him, after all that had passed, to plead religious or conscientious reasons, these had long ago been overborne. The courtiers well knew that if he had acted from such reasons, he never would have gone so far as he had already gone in his persecution of the Baptist; they could not therefore suppose that these were the reasons which prevented him now from going just a little farther. His refusal would be placed to the account, not of principle, none would give him credit for that, but of falsehood, meanness, or cowardice; and he dared not incur such an imputation. He "was exceeding sorry; but for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her." And these were the arguments which satisfied this man, who had once been almost persuaded to be John's disciple! He consented with reluctance, yet he felt himself compelled to consent. And what compelled him? a fanciful point of honour; a false feeling of shame. Alas! What a spectacle is here! A man always sinning with regret, yet still always sinning; "exceeding sorry" to do wrong, yet in spite of his sorrow still always obliged to do it. What a specimen of the deceitfulness of sin! How plausibly it argues, so that the heart of man, ay, even of a seemingly religious man, shall be persuaded to acquiesce in its arguments! How skilfully and cunningly does it contrive to spread the toils and meshes of its net around him, so that he can see no possible way of escape! And the marvel is, it is but a cobweb net after all.

A single vigorous effort of honest resolution would burst it and break it in ten thousand pieces. But the victim entangled is a weak, and half a willing captive. The heart involved in the deceitfulness of sin, is itself deceitful. Still unregenerate, unrenewed, and unsanctified, untouched by the mercy, and unchanged by the Spirit of God, it has not taken part decidedly with the Lord and his Anointed. Some religion it may have, a religion of scruples, and fears, and regrets, but not a religion of faith, something of sorrow for sin, but not the godly sorrow that worketh true repentance.

Let none be deceived by such experience, or rest contented with such a religion as Herod's, a religion of continual alternation between sin and sorrow. We know not what ultimately became of him. History tells us, that shortly after this period he lost his kingdom, and spent the latter years of his life in disgrace and solitude in the remote province of Spain. It is possible that the leisure of exile may have been blessed by God to work a salutary effect; and, amid the reflections of adversity, the long controversy carried on in his soul may have terminated in the decided victory of a spiritual faith over sense and sin. But certain it is, his religion, such as it was at this time, could never save him. It was but leading him on to ruin, and that by no flowery path, but over thorns and painful briers.

Oh! It is a sorrow most unprofitable and vain that men feel under the influence of mere natural regrets and relentings. It is but losing the present world without gaining anything of the next. It is but inflicting upon themselves needless, unprofitable pain; it is doing penance in vain. Better far would it be to get rid of the sorrow altogether, and then go on to sin. But as this they cannot do, would it not be better still to get rid of the sorrow by getting rid of the sin? And how is this to be done? Not by a system of half measures, or any delusive compromise with the enemy, not by a religion of impulse, or of alarm, or of mere instinctive sensibility; but by being "born again, born of the Spirit" and then "working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, since it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." For "by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God."

Let us, then, come over wholly to the Lord's side. All on his part is full and free. There is no hesitation; there are no half measures with him; but full and free forgiveness, full and free reconciliation, full and free expiation of guilt, and the full and free gift of the sanctifying Spirit. On our part, too, let there be the like fullness and freeness. Let God be all and in all. So shall we be preserved from those fluctuations between God and the world, those vicissitudes of compliance and compunction, which embitter the life, and must torture the death, of him who, in the vain attempt to serve two masters, sins and is sorry; is "exceeding sorry" and yet goes on to sin.

Go To Scripture Characters No.8


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