At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.
Understanding And Applying the Text
Matthew tells us little about Herod the tetrarch. A tetrarch was a ruler but lower than a king. A tetrarch ruled only with the approval of the Roman authorities. This was roughly equal to being governor of a region. Several times the New Testament call Herod tetrarch of Galilee a king. (Matthew 14:9; Mark 6:24-29) This was the popular usage rather than the official title.
Herod heard about Jesus. Christ was well known. This is an important point. Jesus was not off in a corner. So the Jews could not claim ignorance. Knowledge of Jesus was everywhere. News about Him had spread even to Herod’s court.
When Herod heard of Jesus, he claimed it was John raised from the dead. Herod was a Sadducee. Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees differed from the Pharisees in that regard. The way I remember that difference with a little memory aid. “The Sadducees denied the resurrection that is why they were ‘Sad You See’.” Why then did Herod think that Jesus was John resurrected? Guilt causes men to confront their unbelief.
Bad consciences tremble, hesitate, and turn with every wind. He was ready to believe what he feared. God often alarms wicked men. Repentance could ease the pain. But they harden themselves to withstand the anguish.
The genealogy of all the Herods is confusing, There were many marriages. There were marriages of close relatives. And of course the reuse of the name and similar names.
Herod the tetrarch was the son of Herod the Great. He married his brother’s wife, Herod Philip. Her name was Herodias. Herodias had a daughter by Herod Philip. According to Josephus, a Jewish historian, her name was Salome. She later married Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis.
Matthew tells us Herod seized John because he had condemned Herod. Herod had an incestuous relationship with Herodias. Josephus gives a different reason from Matthew. According to Josephus, Herod considered John a political threat. He regarded John with suspicion. (Ant. 18. 5:2;) It is possible this was a pretext to seize John. Or it could be both. Herod could have considered John’s condemnation as a political threat. It is not uncommon for men to have more than one motive for an act.
Philip was still alive. (v13; Mark 6:17) Herod’s marriage was a violation of Old Testament law. (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Plus both Herod Antipas and Herodias left another marriage in order to marry each other.
Herod wanted to kill John but did not. He did not kill John because he feared an uprising. Thing usually did not go well for Roman rulers who had to put down an uprising. The question is, why did he finally kill John?
Many commentators explain this by claiming Herod held John in reverence as a holy man. It was Herod’s recognition of John as a prophet that restrained him. And Herodias’ influence caused Herod to overcome his fear of God. But that is not what the text says. The text says “he feared the people.” It was the people who held John to be a prophet, not Herod.
Herod had to kill John because he had created a problem for himself. He made an oath in front of others. If he broke his oath. It showed he was untrustworthy. And it would undermine his rule. If he broke this oath why would anyone trust him to keep a promise he made to them. So he decided to address the immediate problem and kill John. Then he would address the uprising later. He had to address one problem at a time. His oath to Salome was the immediate problem. And the uprising may not even occur.
Here is how the problem unfolded. Herod threw a birthday party for himself. He had invited several guests. They were all having a good time drinking and partying. Herodias daughter was part of the entertainment. She danced for the group and it got Herod excited. He was so excited he made a rash oath. He promised her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. (Mark 6:21-23) That must have been some dance.
Most people at the time felt free to dance. But for a marriageable young woman to dance before men was shameful. It was an act of a harlot. But Herodias had molded her daughter, Salome, so she felt no shame.
Salome requested John’s head on a platter. Herod had promised anything. Anything! He promised to give her up to half of his kingdom. This oath must have surprised Herod’s guests. The guests may have seen it as a simple request. John was already under arrest for insurrection. In their mind, he was going to dies anyway. She was only asking to speed up the timeline. It was not a big deal. Particularly when compared to half the kingdom. If he reneged, that would show a problem. Why not behead him now. All Salome asked for was justice. At least, so it appeared.
Herod commanded they bring John’s head to Salome. And she gave it to her mother. Imagine the evil in the heart of both women. Imagine a bloody head on a platter handed to you. You carry it to your mother, And you hand this bloody head to her.
John disciples took his headless body and buried it. They then told Jesus what had happened. When Jesus heard the news, he went off to a desolate place.
The Gospel of John does not mention the reason Jesus crossed over to the opposite bank. (John 6:1) Mark and Luke differ a little from Matthew. They say Jesus took John’s disciples away to recover from their loss. But there is no contradiction. It is possible that Jesus intended to withdraw his disciples to an isolated place. Both Jesus’ and John’s disciples were terrified. The disciples were both mourning and afraid. So Christ’s cared for them by withdrawing to a desert place.