Herod the Great, the villain of the Christmas story, was a master of political survival. His long reign under the Caesars came at the cost of constant paranoia, even having numerous family members killed whom he saw suspiciously. When he heard the news of a baby “born King of the Jews,” it’s unsurprising that he perceived a direct threat to his throne. Were he alive today, here is what the king might have said in his defense.
Listen, you can boo all you want. But it doesn’t change the fact that my last name is vastly superior to yours. Your name is Joe Smith or whatever. My name is Herod the Great, okay? Just so we’re clear.
I doubt that you’ve ever been on first name basis with the leaders of the Roman Empire. I was—with Julius Caesar, Cassius, Mark Antony, Caesar Augustus. I doubt that you’ve ever built anything bigger than a barn or maybe a house. I was one of the greatest builders in history. I built amphitheaters, hippodromes, fortresses. I built the temple in Jerusalem into something magnificent—even though most of the Jews weren’t grateful.
The fact remains, I really was great. And I know, I know. I’m the villain of the Christmas story. I’m the guy that killed the male babies and toddlers in that little dinky village. What was it called—Bethlingham, or something? I mean, it was like a town of less than 1000 people, okay? And it was maybe a dozen baby and toddler boys?
And, I know that in the Christmas story, that’s like a really big scary part of the plot. But you’ve got to understand: For me, it was nothing big. I slept great that night.
I didn’t really care about the story of “Christmas.” I cared about the story of…me. The Bethlehem baby thing was like a footnote in a far greater story: my story.
Would you like to hear this far better story? I knew you would.
It all starts back when a group of Jews decided to fight to win their country back. The Jews had been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. And then the Persian Empire. And then the Greek Empire. And finally, a group of Jews rose up and fought for their independence. And they won!
After being conquered by Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks, a group of Jews rose up and won their independence.
And it was all because of a Jewish family of warriors called the Maccabees. In fact, you all still have a holiday celebrating when the Maccabees took back the temple from the Greeks, a holiday called Hanukkah.
So the Jews were back in power. The Maccabee family was charge. But then eventually, this Maccabee brother was fighting another Maccabee brother, both wanting to be king.
It was at this point that my dad, an Edomite with a Jewish wife, offered to help one of the brothers. He had climbed the ranks in the Maccabee dynasty and assured the brother that he could make his kingly ambitions happen. The brother said sure, and even though Dad wasn’t a Jew, this got Dad’s foot in the door, to where now he was part of Jewish politics.
Both brothers kept fighting, and eventually both brothers asked Rome to intervene. And so, what’s Rome going to do? Of course, Rome wants to help.
So the Roman General Pompey rode into Jerusalem and took over. Now, the Jews were under Rome, as part of the Roman Empire.
The Jews hated it, but the arrangement was perfect for Dad. Rome installed Dad as the administrator of Judea in the South. Then Dad appointed me as governor of Galilee in the North.
Rome installed Herod’s father as administrator in the South and Herod as governor of Galilee in the North. When his father died, Herod the Great was made king of the entire country.
Eventually, I too was able to climb the ranks. Long story short: Dad died, and Rome made me not just governor, and not just administrator. Rome made me king. And it wasn’t just in the North or the South. Rome made me king over the whole country of the Jews.
I was literally King of the Jews.
Herod the Great, “King of the Jews.” Which is kind of funny because I’m not even a Jew. But you think I’m going to let that stop me?
And you really think that I’m going to let some baby messiah boy get in the way of that? So, these magi, these stargazers from the East, show up in my city. They start asking around to see the King of the Jews. Why, that’s me, of course.
Ah, but listen to how they said it. They said they had come to see the one who had been born king of the Jews.
Not appointed King of the Jews. Not fighting his way up the ranks to where he became King of the Jews. But born king of the Jews. That’s not me.
The magi came to find the one who had been born King of the Jews. Herod the Great had only been appointed king.
So, who is this baby? Could this baby really be the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies? Could this really be the coming Messiah? The Christ? Or is the star just a coincidence? Are the magi just crazy?
I don’t know. I don’t care. All I know is that I am the King of the Jews. And this baby, by being born, was threatening that. And you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
You know, I’ve often thought about writing down my memoirs and publishing it as a book. The book would guide kings on how they should rule. And if I ever were to write that book, you know what I’d call Chapter 1? “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” That’s really been a helpful principle for me. I mean, that’s how kings become king. That’s how kings stay king. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
I mean, I started out friends with the Maccabees, right? But this General Pompey of Rome shows up, rides into town, and conquers Jerusalem. So Dad and I become friends with the general. And then this general gets conquered by Julius Caesar. So, guess whom I become friends with then? And, of course, you know how Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus and Cassius. So, guess whom I become loyal to then? Cassius. But then Mark Antony defeats Cassius, and I suddenly become very loyal to Mark Antony. When Mark Antony gets defeated by Octavius, and Octavius becomes Caesar Augustus, guess whom I become friends with then? Caesar Augustus rides through my country, and I go out to meet him with a gift of gobs of gold.
Herod the Great was a master of political survival.
You do what you’ve got to do. You don’t become king or stay king without doing what you’ve got to do. And sure, sometimes it has to get a little ugly. To make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs. It gets ugly. I admit it.
In fact, that’d be chapter 2: “It gets ugly sometimes.”
Look, I had 10 wives, alright? You got to keep up alliances. And 10 wives—I don’t even remember how many kids that makes. And with a bunch of kids, what kid of mine doesn’t want to be me?
And usually that’s an okay thing. Dad’s a firefighter; kid wants to be a firefighter. No problem. But when Dad’s the king, how does the kid become king?
So I’m always watching my back. Yes, I have had three sons of mine executed. I even had my favorite wife executed. It gets ugly, okay? But when you’re king, that’s what you do to stay king.
Caesar Augustus once said something hilarious about me. Should have been a comedian, that guy. He said something like, “I’d rather be Herod’s hys than Herod’s huios.” Hys means pig, and huios means son. He says he’d rather be my pig than my son. Because apparently the pigs tended to stay alive longer. That’s hilarious.
Caesar Augustus once said he would rather be Herod the Great’s pig than his son.
But again, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Sometimes it gets ugly, and I have zero apologies. It’s just the price that comes with being king. So what if it costs the lives of a few babies?
So, anyway, the magi, the stargazers, they come to my city. To Jerusalem. “We are here to see the King of the Jews.” Well, that’d be me, right? No, where’s he who has been born king of the Jews? That’s not me.
So, I call them to my palace. And I don’t have to pretend to be interested. I’m very interested. This sounds like a threat. But because it’s a threat, I do have to pretend to be excited.
“Oh, well I would love to meet this baby, did you say?…Let’s see, when did the star appear?…Two years ago or so?…Okay, so he could be a toddler….Great, well why don’t you find the boy and go worship him. Give him your gifts. I think that’s great. But when you’re done, you come back through Jerusalem, and you let me know where he is. Because I too am excited to go and worship this new king.”
I send them on their way. I wait. I wait. A couple days go by. A couple more.
And…why on earth did I trust them to come back? Stupid of me! But that’s okay. “You, you—take your soldiers and go to Bethlehem. Kill all the boys two years and under.”
And then I’m the villain.
King Herod’s execution of the little boys of Bethlehem was in keeping with his political paranoia and instinct for survival.
I’m the villain of the Christmas story. But again, that’s not the story that I care about. In the story that I care about, I’m the hero. Because I’m still king.
And you’re all like, “Well, we still think you’re the villain.” Well, big deal.
And another thing. Look, I know I said earlier that none of you are as great as me. You’ve never been friends with the emperor. You’ve never led armies. You’ve never built grand stadiums or fortresses. And all that’s true.
But make no mistake about it. You’re judging me, but you also have the opportunity to be kings and queens. King of your life. Queen of your life. You can create your own kingdom where you can rule your own life.
But listen carefully. You cannot be king and let this Jesus near your kingdom. You let Jesus near that kingdom of yours, and he’ll seize it for himself. Your kingdom is not safe as long as Jesus is around. So, hear me again: You cannot be king and let this Jesus near your kingdom.
Herod the Great understood that you cannot be king and let this Jesus near your kingdom.
That’s a lesson I learned. That’s also a lesson my son learned. You’ve heard of my son Herod Antipas? (One of the sons I didn’t kill.) Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, is the son of mine who killed John the Baptist. Beheaded him in prison. I would have done the same thing. The guy was totally a threat. And then, guess who shows up in his realm? Jesus as an adult!
This Jesus, the same one I had tried to kill when he was an infant, was put on trial before Pontius Pilate, governor in Judea in the South. My son Herod Antipas was in town, even though he was the tetrarch in the North. Pilate sent Jesus to my son, who then sent Jesus back to Pontius Pilate, and then Pilate had Jesus crucified.
Again: this Jesus is dangerous. You cannot be king and let this Jesus live. And he’s not just dangerous to a guy like me by taking my title of “King of the Jews.” He’s also incredibly dangerous to people like you. Because you open the gates of your kingdom to him? You let him in? You let him into the life of which you’ve been ruler?
He’ll start calling the shots. He’ll start demanding the keys. Pretty soon, he’ll be the one wearing the crown.
And you won’t be the hero of your story anymore. He’ll be hero of your story. And your story will get inserted as just one part of his story.
And is that what you want?
Of all the people in the Christmas narrative, Herod the Great understood the threat Jesus poses to our kingly pretensions.
Pretty soon, he’ll have you praying things like, “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.”
You know, I had a really stupid royal advisor. One of the guys who’s supposed to give the king advice. And I’ll never forget, he gave me the worst advice I’d ever heard. I was giving the orders to go to Bethlehem and kill the baby boys. To get rid of this baby born king of the Jews, you know?
And this advisor of mine, you know what he said? He said—and he was really emotional about it—he said, “But your majesty, it’s only a baby.”
Only a baby!
Only a baby who would grow up to be a man who would be proclaimed king. And I don’t know if you’ve read any of these prophecies about the coming Messiah, but they’re wild. According to the prophecies, he will be a king whose kingdom expands over the entire world. By claiming to be king, this guy’s not messing around. If you let him, he will be king of everything.
Listen, listen, listen: If you don’t take care of the threat, he’ll knock you, kings and queens of your own life, you with your personal kingdoms you’re building, off your throne. This Jesus is not some cute baby that deserves your oohs and ahs. He’s a serious threat to your kingdom.