John Beheaded

It was in the Spring of 29 A.D., shortly before the Passover, that the brief life of John the Baptist came to an end. Ever since his imprisonment at Herod’s Machaerus palace the previous year, the destiny of John had been very tenuous. Herod was severely conflicted over John. Herodias had a Jezebel-like hatred of him and an inveterate determination to have him killed. Herod was inclined to placate his wife, but he feared the people who revered the Forerunner as a prophet. Thus, Herod would often hear John preach which perplexed him though he enjoyed listening to him (Mark 6:20). Whereas Herodias had a grudge against him, “Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe” (Mark 6:20). There was a part of Herod that wanted to release John, but Herodias was passionate in her intentions for his death. Despite this palace intrigue, John remained unflinching in his rebuke of Herod: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). This triangular battle of wills was soon be decided in favor of Herodias as the spouse who was most determined to get her way. No doubt, she was constantly scheming of how to rid herself of this zealous reformer.

Such a strategic day arrived in the form of Herod’s birthday[1] party. This was the opportunity for which Herodias was longing. Edersheim describes the setting:

A fit time this for a Belshazzar-feast, when such an one as Herod would gather to a grand banquet ‘his lords,’ and the military authorities, and the chief men of Galilee. It is evening, and the castle-palace is brilliantly lit up. The noise of music and shouts of revelry come across the slope into the citadel, and fall into the deep-dungeon where waits the prisoner of Christ.[2]  

These ancient state banquets were celebrations to which only men were invited. It was unacceptable for women to recline at table with the men on such occasions. Herodias was well-aware of these mores and, thus, this banquet was just “the strategic day” (Mark 6:21) for which she had been eagerly waiting. All the men would drink until they were inebriated. Then, some woman or women would be summoned to provide entertainment for the king and his guests. In ancient Persia, Queen Vashti had refused King Ahasuerus when he summoned her to his banquet (Esther 1:10-12), but cunning Herodias, ever lurking in the background, was prepared for this very opportunity. Herodias had groomed Salome, her daughter through marriage to Herod Phillip, to perform a dance at these festivities. Salome was then about fourteen to sixteen years of age. The fact that she was the step-daughter of Herod Antipas did not give sanction to her performance or lessen its repulsiveness. Were the king and his guests “even sober as they watched Salome go through her rhythmic movements, dancing bewitchingly and seductively?”[3] Edersheim elaborates on the feelings that must have overcome Herod during this performance:

She has come, and she has danced, this princely maiden, out of whom all maidenhood and all princeliness have been brazed by a degenerate mother, wretched offspring of the once noble Maccabees. And she has done her best in that wretched exhibition, and pleased Herod and them that sat at meat with him. And now, amidst the general plaudits, she shall have her reward—and the king swears to it to her with loud voice, that all around hear it—even to the half of his kingdom.[4]     

Salome had been “prostituted by her mother to the low level of a scenic dancer. . . and ‘executed a pas seul[5] in the midst of these dissolute and half-intoxicated revelers.’”[6] While the many guests lounging on the divans all enjoyed her lewd, licentious movements, her dance was aimed at pleasing only one person—Herod. She danced, at the behest of her mother, to seduce this vain king who was easily enticed by voluptuous pleasures. In the beautiful seven thousand square foot courtyard where Herod sat on his throne, with music playing and large numbers of drunken guests cheering, Salome went through all the gyrations of her well-choreographed dance with the singular aim of enticing Herod’s heart. She performed her part well, though she apparently did not understand the end-game. Like a poisoned arrow aimed at his heart, Salome’s dance accomplished its purpose. Herod’s resistance was broken and he hastily blurted out his ill-considered promise to his attractive and seductive step-daughter. He promised her whatever she wanted and then swore with an oath to give her up to half his kingdom. All the dinner guests heard the king’s rash oath. There could be no retraction of his promise at that point. Salome, immediately rushed to her mother, who counseled her to reply, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist” (Matthew 14:8). Caught off guard, Herod then realized he had fallen into the trap set by Herodias which grieved him. Yet, because of his oaths and dinner guests “he sent and had John beheaded in prison. And the head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother” (Matthew 14:10, 11). Edersheim describes what happened when Salome made her request:

It has been but the contest of a moment. ‘Straightway’ the king gives the order to one of the body-guard. The maiden hath withdrawn to await the result with her mother. The guardsman has left the banqueting-hall. Out into the cold night, up that slope, and into the deep dungeon. As its door opens, the noise of the revelry comes with the light of the torch which the man bears. No time for preparation is given, nor needed. A few minutes more, and the gory head of the Baptist is brought to the maiden in a charger, and she gives the ghastly dish to her mother.[7]   

Too late, Herod realized what had happened. For months he had refused to kill John, but now here was his head on a platter. “Antipas, half-drunk, was caught in the snare of Herodias. What she had failed to get by entreaty she secured by craftiness. . . At last Herodias had triumphed, and now in fiendish delight receives the head of the prophet, whose words had made many hearts quail because of their sins.”[8] It was a sobering and horrifying moment for Herod, though. His heart was shaken by this event and the gruesome view of John’s head would haunt this Tetrarch for the rest of his days. John had lost his head, but he never lost his composure; he never lost his courage; he never lost his boldness; he never lost his reputation; and, he never lost his Savior. He died as he had lived. 

Matthew 14:12 says, “His disciples came and took away the body of John and buried it, and they went and reported to Jesus.” Whether true or not, “tradition says that Herodias ordered the headless trunk to be flung over the battlements of the castle-dungeon to be devoured by dogs and vultures in the ravines below.”[9] Before the swirling vultures and ravenous dogs could destroy the body of John, though, his disciples were able to find it and give it the burial[10] that great man deserved. John’s death had a powerful impact on Jesus and His ministry from that time forward. This was a turning point in bringing Jesus’ Galilean ministry to a conclusion just as John’s arrest by Herod had ended His Judean ministry. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about John’s beheading called Under the Walls of Machaerus. Some of those lines are as follows:

The Prophet of God is dead! 

At a drunken monarch’s call,

At a dancing-woman’s beck,

They have severed that stubborn neck,

And into the banquet-hall

Are bearing the ghastly head!

A torch of lurid red

Lights the window with its glow;

And a white mass as of snow

Is hurled into the abyss

Of the black precipice,

That yawns for it below!

O hand of the Most High,

O hand of Adonai!

Bury it, hide it away

From the birds and beasts of prey,

And the eyes of the homicide,

More pitiless than they,

As thou didst bury of yore

The body of him that died

On the mountain of Peor!

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL 

Please mail contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

[1] Edersheim suggests that the Greek word, genesia, can mean either birthday or accession. If it is the latter, it would refer to Herod’s ascension to the Tetrarchy at the death of his father, Herod the Great. That took place in early April of 4 B.C. Cf. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), 461, footnote 38. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] William Hendriksen, Matthew (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 588-9. 

[4] Edersheim, Ibid., 462. 

[5] Pas seul is a dance for one person. 

[6] J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospesl (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 257. 

[7] Edersheim, Ibid., 463. 

[8] Shepard, Ibid. 258. 

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jerome and others believed that the body of John was interred at Sebastia, near Nablus and the scene of Jesus’ ministry to the woman at the well. 

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