The head of John the Baptist
TS Elliot said “human kind cannot bear very much reality.” This story plumbs the violent depths of that truth.
John the Baptist was a shining light. He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus called him the greatest man born of woman (Matthew 11:11). As the summation of all the prophets who preceded him, his ministry was a preparation for Christ. With his whole being he testified “Behold the Lamb of God.”
John was the “voice” of Isaiah’s prophecy:
3The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)
In preparation for the LORD Jesus, John would challenge both power and perversity. The lofty will be brought low and the crooked will be made straight. This puts John on a collision course with sinful rulers.
In Mark 6 we witness this collision.
John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. (Mark 6:18)
Herod had taken up illegally with his sister-in-law. Presumably he thought kings could do as they pleased. John was there to remind him – the lofty will be brought low and the crooked shall be straightened. For this dose of truth, John was imprisoned. Mark tells us that it was “for Herodias’ sake” that Herod made the arrest (v17). Herod himself “feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy.” (v20). He protected John from his wife, Herodias, for she wanted him dead from the beginning.
Yet Herod’s own response was fascinating. He watched and learnt from John with great interest. Verse 20 says he “observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”
Herod actually allows his prisoner to continue preaching. More than this, he listens. Even more, he gladly returns again and again. We know that John preached repentance fiercely. We know he had been saying both publicly and privately that Herod should give up Herodias. John touched a red-raw nerve with Herod and yet he was compelled to listen.
John’s preaching put him into a spin. That’s the sense of Herod “doing may things” in verse 20. He is turning every which way. He is folding his hands, his stomach is knotting, he’s shuffling from foot to foot. It’s excruciating but he knows he is being addressed by Truth with a capital T. What will he do?
Well, that’s the problem. He doesn’t do anything. He listens. He gladly listens. But he never responds. He is paralyzed by indecision. But Herodias, his wife, is not. She takes advantage of “a convenient day” (v21) and pounces.
Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; 22And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. 23And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
At this party the wine was flowing, the socialites were chattering away and Herdoias’ teenage daughter was doing the ancient equivalent of a pole dance. This pleased Herod and the guests, and with a stupid, drunken oath Herod puts everything on the line. The girl doesn’t know how to answer, but her mother does. Instantly she tells her duaghter what to ask for:
The head of John the Baptist. 25And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
Here is the defining moment of Herod’s life. What will win? On the one hand there is the truth he has heard from God – truth which he cannot deny. On the other there is an illicit relationship, drunken revelry, his state of arousal and the fear of losing face.
Well this mighty ruler shows himself to be pathetically ruled by forces beyond him.
the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. 27And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, 28And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
John had loved Herod more than anyone else in Herod’s life. John told him the truth. Herod liked to listen. But he did nothing. Eventually he cut off the head of the man who warned him.
This is our natural response to truth. We are shocked, we are intrigued, we are thrown into a spin. But if we remain paralyzed by indecision we will find it psychologically impossible to tolerate both the truth and the falsehood of our lives. Something will have to give. Naturally, we all want to silence the truth. Jesus told people in His day that they were always killing prophets (verses). They didn’t chop off heads and put them on serving dishes, but they resisted the truth whenever it was offered. Human beings cannot handle too much reality.
When Herod finally met Jesus, Luke writes:
Herod was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see Jesus 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 23:8-9)
The Word of God gives Herod the silent treatment. This is the ultimate judgement of truth-haters. Flee from the Truth and at some point the Truth will let you go all the way to the outer darkness.
All of which makes us consider very seriously- how are we receiving the word? Perhaps, re-examine the parable of the four soils: Are we hardened to the word? Rootless and shallow? Choked by worry, wealth and wanting? Or do we welcome the word?