In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. – Matthew 2:1-12 [NRSV]
I really enjoyed the musical Camelot. There are so many memorable songs, including “Ce Moi!” where Arthur proclaims, “If I’d been in the garden with Eve, we’d be in Eden still!” Not true by the way. But this little ditty is delightful:
I wonder what the king is doing tonight?
What merriment is the king pursuing tonight?
The candles at the court, they never burned as bright
I wonder what the king is upto tonight?
Then comes the answer:
Well, I’ll tell you what the king is feeling tonight
He’s numb, he shakes, he quails, he quakes
And that’s what the king is doing tonight.
Arthur was quaking and shaking because it was the night before his wedding. He had poured so much hope into this event, and now that it was upon him, he realized how momentous it really was. It terrified him.
Herod, too, was scared when he learned of the birth of “the king of the Jews.” Some might argue that Herod was not afraid, but deeply disturbed and troubled. The NRSV has “frightened” but the Greek word here is not normally used for afraid. Angels strike fear. But the birth of the “king of the Jews” causes trouble and deep disturbance in the heart of Herod.
Look behind being “troubled” or “deeply disturbed” and you’ll find fear. I’m sure Kings never wish to be seen as fearful. But they’re likely Ok with being seen as troubled, or deeply distressed. But don’t let the kingly demeanor fool you. Herod is scared. And rightly so.
Jesus will challenge Herod without ever saying a word to him. His presence in the world is the beginning of the end of rule by power and threat. Herod will rule for a time, but within these few verses of Matthew’s gospel he will die and another will take his place. Jesus is ushering in an eternal kingdom. His rule and reign touches hearts and engenders love and faith. Herod can only cause others to fear him. Never will people add love and trust to their relationship with him.
So do you wonder what King Herod is doing tonight? He’s looking over his shoulder. He’s checking his troops and servants for loyalty. He’s ordering his beefeaters to be doubly cautious and careful. He’s wondering what he’ll need to do to retain his power. But his head is not resting easily on his pillow at night. That’s a blessing that only those who fear, love, and trust in God alone will enjoy.