Herod, Herodias, and Salome



A Sermon by James P. Cooper

Mitchellville, July 27, 2003

And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” (Mark 6:22)

During the Lord’s time on earth, Israel was a Roman province, ruled from Rome through a locally appointed governor. There is some confusion about this, because there were two different governors of the same name during the Lord’s life, and both of them, although of Jewish stock, were hated by the people because they represented the rule of Rome. There is also some confusion because, while they were governors appointed by Rome, they were still called “kings.”

The king who ruled at the time of the Lord’s birth was “Herod the great.” He was born of Arab parents in Judea, educated in Rome, and a became personal friend of the Caesars. The Romans expected that because Herod was native to the region that he would be accepted in Jerusalem, that he would soften the grip of Roman domination. When Herod arrived in Israel he began a program of building and development unlike any seen before. It was Herod who rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, developed the seaport of Caesarea, and built the fortress Masada. Under Herod’s leadership, Israel experienced a kind of golden age.

Unfortunately, it was purely external. The Jews hated Herod because he wasn’t really one of them. He instead represented the hated foreign rule because he collected taxes which were sent back to Rome. He is not called “Herod the Great” because of his wisdom as a ruler but because of his attempts to build and restore Israel to its former glory. He is best remembered, however, for his attempt to trick the Wise Men into revealing where the Christ Child was so that He could be destroyed, and for murdering all the male children in Bethlehem less than 2 years old.

When Herod the Great died, an angel told Joseph in a dream that it would be safe for him to take Mary and Jesus back to their family home in Nazareth.

When Herod the Great died, the rulers in Rome were unable to find anyone of his stature to rule their most difficult province, so the country was broken up into four smaller magisterial districts to be ruled by Herod’s sons.

Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son by a Samarian woman, was made the ruler of Samaria and Galilee, and as these were the most important parts of the country at that time, he became the most powerful of the four rulers. His brother Philip ruled a neighboring region, known as the Tetrarchy of Philip, and he was married to a scheming woman named Herodias – who also happened to be the niece of both Herod and Philip!

Herod coveted both his brother Philip’s wife and his kingdom, and he plotted together with Herodias to get both. Together, they arranged for Philip’s murder, and they then shared the kingdom he had ruled just as they shared the guilt for his murder. But, because they were royalty, they had no fear of punishment under the law, for they were the law. It must have seemed to them that they were above reproach, that the thing was done and behind them.

But John the Baptist had been called by the Lord to preach the doctrine of repentance throughout the land, and so he traveled throughout Israel seeking out the sins of the nation and pointing them out to the sinners, calling them to repent in time for the coming of the Lord. Those who heard his message and repented, he baptized with water as a sign of their desire to be cleansed of their sins, and the need to hear what Jesus Christ was teaching.

John was afraid of no one. His call was from God. He began to preach the sins of Herod and Herodias throughout the land. He called on them to repent. He demanded that they bring their lives into order for the sake of the coming Messiah. He brought them up for public judgment and ridicule by exposing their sins to all.

It seems that Herod was accustomed to public outcry concerning his behavior, and he seemed unaffected by the preaching of John. But Herodias was stung by the public reproach, and could not forget it. It became her consuming passion to destroy John the Baptist. But, in spite of his other faults, Herod was not willing to murder a popular public figure and prophet in cold blood without a major provocation. He seemed to think that John was nothing more than a temporary annoyance. However, under terrific pressure from his wife, he did put John in prison to keep him quiet for a while.

After arresting John the Baptist, Herod hosted a feast in his palace. From what we know about the royal customs of those days, it is not unlikely that the feast was extravagant, that many fancy and rich foods were served along with copious quantities of wine. It is not difficult to imagine that Herod soon found himself feeling expansive, stimulated, and just a bit muddled. He was primarily interested in having a great time with his friends, and, surrounded by his friends, safe within his own palace, looking forward to all manner of sensual delights and exciting entertainments, his natural cautiousness was put aside. He was in a position where he could be easily fooled – and he was with dangerous company.

Herodias was a woman who knew how to get her way. She knew how Herod acted at feasts. She knew his weaknesses. She knew what would delight him more than any other thing. She arranged for her daughter to dance at the feast after Herod had had plenty to drink.

Although her name is not given anywhere in the Word, secular history tells us that the daughter of Herodias was named Salome. From the context, it appears that Herod was not her father, but more likely her uncle. In any case, it is apparent from the letter of the Word that the combination of her beauty and dancing skills combined with Herod’s festive and drunken mood in just the way that Herodias planned. The temptress did her work well. Herod rashly promised Salome anything she wanted, and made this promise in front of all his friends who were guests at the feast. There was no way for him to retreat from his rashness without losing face. Herodias knew how he would act when faced with such a choice.

Salome, prompted by her mother, asked for John’s head on a platter. And Herod, knowing it was wrong, knowing that it was politically stupid, and knowing that he had been tricked, nevertheless gave the order for John to be murdered, and his head cruelly displayed according to Salome’s demand. It appears from the letter that that the only one who enjoyed the sight was Herodias.

In the internal sense, this story is telling us many things about the relationship between the rational degree of the mind, the corrupt native will, and the delights that come from doing evils, and specifically how in temptation the rational can be overcome and the mind closed to teachings of the Word.

First, let us look at the main characters and what they represent: John the Baptist is a prophet, and everywhere in the Word prophets represent the Word of the Lord because they spoke to men for the Lord. John particularly stands for those parts of the Word which speak to our conscience, which set forth the standards that we must judge ourselves against, that cause us to stop for a moment to look inward and reflect on the true nature of our lives.

Herod and Herodias together represent our mind. Herod, as the husband, stands for the intellectual part, the understanding. Herodias, as the wife, represents the will, but we must note that this marriage is adulterous, not a true marriage of good and truth, so we can see that Herodias represents the corrupt, evil will, the old will which must be shunned.

That John called Herod and Herodias to repentance represents what happens when we read the Word, and realize that what we read there applies to an active state of evil in our own lives, that our understanding needs to be separated from our old will.

At first, Herod, the rational, remains as it were aloof, weighing, reasoning, thinking about what the proper response to these new ideas might be. But Herodias, the will, begins to work in unspoken ways to turn the understanding away from the Word, or to at least silence it. When we read that Herod put John into prison, the Word is telling us in the internal sense that the old will can convince the rational mind to ignore truth from the Word.

So far, this story has taught us that there is a balance between the old will and the understanding. Herod is willing to put John in prison because he can see many reasons why it will do him no harm, and he is also interested in having some peace from the preachings of the troublesome prophet. There has been no real harm done to anyone, but the evil will does not rest.

It may seem to us that we have our lives under good control, that things are going pretty well even without spending too much time paying attention to such matters as self-examination, repentance, and reformation. Indeed, the hells want us to believe that everything is fine, so that they can set us up, and when we are weak and susceptible, our bellies full of self-regard and drunk with self-intelligence, bring us under their power.

We learn about this hellish trap from the events depicted in the feast. At the time of the feast, Herod seems unconcerned about John. Herod is interested only in having the good time that he planned for himself without regard for anyone else. In the same way, we can convince ourselves that everything is going just as it should, that we are in complete control of our lives.

The rational mind will look hard to find evidence to support this view, for if it were to admit another view, then it would have to work to change itself, which is a lot of unpleasant and painful work. In this state, the conscience has been quieted, and the external restraints seem to have been removed. This is the state where we rationalize our behavior by telling ourselves that we have been working very hard recently and we deserve a little break, we deserve to loosen up a bit. So perhaps we allow ourselves to eat more than usual, or eat forbidden foods. Perhaps we stay up too late, or buy ourselves something expensive and unnecessary.

There are all manner of things that we often daydream about, thinking how we might have some of these things if we were released from our current obligations. They are things that we would very much like to do, but know that we shouldn’t, and are restrained from doing them by our fear of the loss of our reputation, honor and gain. The danger comes when we allow ourselves to sample such a forbidden delight. Salome dances, Herod is filled with lascivious delight, and the trap is sprung.

When an evil is done by accident, it does not abide. When an evil is done by accident from a good intention, again, it does not remain with the person. But when an evil is known to be an evil, and it is done for the sake of the pleasure that is derived, then it does remain and serves as the means for an influx from hell into the mind. Salome, as the daughter of Herodias, represents the affections and delights that come from doing evil (See AC 6203, 6204).

The danger should be obvious. When an evil desire in the will is coupled with the delights that come from actually committing the act, the effect on the rational mind is overpowering, opening a path of influx from the hells designed to hold a man in that evil, and to move out into ever increasing areas of expression – which lead to new hellish delights, which lead to new hells being opened up, and so on and so forth.

While on the one hand this should give everyone cause for sober reflection the course of their life, on the other hand this same story, in its opposite sense, gives us a glimpse of the tremendous power of the Lord to save us, for the same spiritual laws apply to influx from the heavens! Not only are the hells lurking about, waiting for us to commit some evil so that they can flow in with evil delights, but the heavens are also constantly with us, looking for every opportunity to flow in with heavenly delights.

All that is required is that we shun evil as sin against God and the heavens will flow in with the delight of the good which is opposite to the shunned evil. When we decide against something we know to be wrong, and instead choose to do what we know to be good from the Word, we have committed a good from intent, and a pathway for influx is opened up into the heaven that corresponds to that good. The sphere of delight in that heaven flows in, and that delight encourages us to go on shunning evils and doing good in ever increasing varieties of expression.

There are two things that need to be remembered from this text: First that everyone one of us is free to choose what we will be. If we are evil, it is because we choose to do evil and enjoy its delights. If we are good, it is because we learned what was true from the Word and conscientiously sought to do it. We are what we decide to be, and it is the use of the heavens and the hells to flow in with the kind of life and delights that we ourselves choose by our actions in this world.

Secondly, we need to beware the power of the hells to seduce us by little things. The understanding is able to keep the old will in check, for that is what spiritual freedom is, but when the understanding gives in, when it begins to think that something is justified or allowable under certain conditions that it knows is forbidden, and consents to it, then it becomes most difficult to remove, it becomes a foothold for the hells. And when the hells take hold, the first thing to be killed is the voice of the Lord within – John the Baptist – which makes further repentance all the more difficult.

Herod could have denied Salome’s request, but he did not. If he had, he would have experienced a much more satisfying delight than the delights he had while watching Salome dance. He would have had the delight that comes from doing the right thing for the right reason, a heavenly joy.

The old will and the understanding are in continual tension and conflict, each trying in its own unique way to control the course of our lives. They are evenly matched, so the result of their battle can only be decided by the intervention of an outside force – freedom of choice in spiritual things. We must decide for ourselves whether to kill John the Baptist to stop the annoying voice of conscience so that we can continue as we are, or listen to him and follow him to repentance, reformation, regeneration, and heaven. The choice is ours alone, and the nature and quality of our eternal life hangs in the balance. Amen.

First Lesson: MAR 6:14-29

Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, “John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” {15} Others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets.” {16} But when Herod heard, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!” {17} For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. {18} For John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” {19} Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; {20} for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. {21} Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. {22} And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” {23} He also swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” {24} So she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist!” {25} Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” {26} And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. {27} Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, {28} brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. {29} When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb. Amen.

Second Lesson: AC 6206

…It should be recognized that all evil flows in from hell and all good from the Lord by way of heaven. The reason however why evil becomes a person’s own is that he believes and convinces himself that he thinks and practices it all by himself. In this way he makes it his own. But if he believed what is really so, it would not be evil but good from the Lord that became his own. For if he believed what is really so he would think, the instant evil flowed in, that it came from the evil spirits present with him; and since that was what he thought the angels could ward that evil off and repel it. For influx from angels takes place into what a person knows and believes, not what he does not know or believe; there is nowhere else for it to become firmly established than in something the person knows or believes.

[2] When a person in that way makes some evil his own he acquires the sphere that is a product of that evil. This sphere is what the spirits from hell who have a sphere of like evil around them associate themselves with, for like is linked to like. The spiritual sphere existing with man or spirit is an emanation from the life which belongs to his loves, from which his character is recognized from afar. Their spheres are what determine the ways in which all are joined to one another in the next life, and the ways in which communities are joined too. They also determine the separations that take place, for contrary spheres conflict with and repel one another. Consequently the spheres produced by the loves of what is evil are all in hell, while the spheres produced by the loves of what is good are all in heaven, that is, those dwelling in such spheres are there. Amen.

Copyright © 1982 – 2005 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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