"For Herod had arrested John, bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip; Because John had said to him, "It is not lawful for you to have her as your wife." And he desired to put him to death; but he feared the multitude because they held him to be a prophet.
"Now when they were celebrating Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them; and it pleased Herod. Therefore, he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Then, being urged by her mother, she said, "Give me, here on a platter, the head of John the Baptist." And the king was grieved; but because of the oaths and those who were sitting with him, he commanded that it be given. And he sent and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. Then his disciples came, and took the body, and buried it; and they went and told Jesus." (Matthew 14:1-12, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
It was in the late spring, or rather early summer that John was baptizing in Aenon, near to Salim. In the neighborhood, Jesus and His disciples were similarly engaged. The Presence and activity of Jesus in Jerusalem at the Passover had determined the Pharisaic party to take active measures against Him and His Forerunner, John.
As to the first outcome of this plan we notice the discussions on the question of 'purification,' and the attempt to separate between Christ and the Baptist by exciting the jealousy of the latter. But the result was far different. His disciples might have been influenced, but John himself was too true a man, and too deeply convinced of the reality of Christ's Mission, to yield even for a moment to such temptation. Nothing more noble can be conceived than the self-abnegation of the Baptist in circumstances which would not only have turned aside an impostor or an enthusiast, but must have severely tried the constancy of the truest man. At the end of a most trying career of constant self-denial its scanty fruits seemed, as it were, snatched from Him, and the multitude, which he had hitherto swayed, turned after Another, to Whom himself had first given testimony, but Who ever since had apparently neglected him. And now he had seemingly appropriated the one distinctive badge of his preaching! Not to rebel, nor to murmur, but even to rejoice in this as the right and proper thing, for which he had longed as the end of his own work - this implies a purity, simplicity, and grandeur of purpose, and a strength of conviction unsurpassed among men. The moral height of this testimony of John, and the evidential force of the introduction of this narrative - utterly unaccountable, nay, unintelligible on the hypothesis that it is not true - seem to us among the strongest evidences in favor of the Gospel-history.
It was not the greatness of the Christ, to his own seeming loss, which could cloud the noonday of the Baptist's convictions. In simple Judean illustration, he was only 'the friend of the Bridegroom', with all that popular association or higher Jewish allegory connected with that relationship. He claimed not the bride. His was another joy - that of hearing the Voice of her rightful Bridegroom, Whose 'groomsman' he was. In the sound of that Voice lay the fulfilment of his office. And John, looking back upon the relation between the Baptist and Jesus - on the reception of the testimony of the former and the unique position of 'the Bridegroom' - points out the lessons of the answer of the Baptist to his disciples as formerly those of the conversation with Nicodemus.
"He Who comes from above is above all. The one who is of the earth is earthy, and speaks of the earth. He Who comes from heaven is above all; And what He has seen and heard, this is what He testifies; but no one receives His testimony. The one who has received His testimony has set his seal that God is true; For He Whom God has sent speaks the words of God; and God gives not the Spirit by measure unto Him. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. The one who believes in the Son has everlasting life; but the one who does not obey the Son shall not see life, for the wrath of God remains on him." (John 3:31-36, Holy Bible in Its Original Order - A Faithful Version (HBFV))
This hour of the seeming abasement of the Baptist was, in truth, that of the highest exaltation, as marking the fulfilment of his office, and, therefore, of his joy. Hours of cloud and darkness were to follow.
The scene has changed, and the Baptist has become the prisoner of Herod Antipas. The dominions of the latter embraced, in the north: Galilee, west of the Jordan and of the Lake of Galilee; and in the south: Perea, east of the Jordan. To realize events we must bear in mind that, crossing the Lake eastwards, we should pass from the possessions of Herod to those of the Tetrarch Philip, or else come upon the territory of the 'Ten Cities,' or Decapolis, a kind of confederation of townships, with constitution and liberties, such as those of the Grecian cities.
By a narrow strip northwards, Perea just slipped in between the Decapolis and Samaria. It is impossible with certainty to localise the aenon, near Salim, where John baptized. Ancient tradition placed the latter a few miles south of Scythopolis or Bethshean, on the borders of Galilee, or rather, the Decapolis, and Samaria. But as the eastern part of Samaria towards the Jordan was very narrow, one may well believe that the place was close to, perhaps actually in, the north-eastern angle of the province of Judea, where it borders on Samaria. We are now on the western bank of Jordan. The other, or eastern, bank of the river would be that narrow northern strip of Perea which formed part of the territory of Antipas. Thus a few miles, or the mere crossing of the river, would have brought the Baptist into Perea. There can be no doubt but that the Baptist must either have crossed into, or else that aenon, near Salim, was actually within the dominions of Herod. It was on that occasion that Herod seized on his person, and that Jesus, Who was still within Judean territory, withdrew from the intrigues of the Pharisees and the proximity of Herod, through Samaria, into Galilee.
For, although Galilee belonged to Herod Antipas, it was sufficiently far from the present residence of the Tetrarch in Perea. Tiberias, his Galilean residence, with its splendid royal palace, had only been built a year or two before; and it is impossible to suppose, that Herod would not have sooner heard of the fame of Jesus, if his court had been in Tiberias, in the immediate neighborhood of Capernaum. We are, therefore, shut up to the conclusion, that during the nine or ten months of Christ's Ministry in Galilee, the Tetrarch resided in Perea. Here he had two palaces, one at Julias, or Livias, the other at Machaerus. The latter will be immediately described as the place of the Baptist's imprisonment and martyrdom. The Julias, or Livias, of Perea must be distinguished from another city of that name (also called Bethsaida) in the North (east of the Jordan), and within the dominions of the Tetrarch Philip. The Julias of Perea represented the ancient Beth Haram in the tribe of Gad, a name for which Josephus gives Betharamphtha, and the Rabbis Beth Ramthah. It still survives in the modern Beit-harân. But of the fortress and palace which Herod had built, and named after the Empress, 'all that remains' are 'a few traces of walls and foundations.'
Supposing Antipas to have been at the Perean Julias, he would have been in the closest proximity to the scene of the Baptist's last recorded labors at Aenon. We can now understand, not only how John was imprisoned by Antipas, but also the threefold motives which influenced it. According to Josephus, the Tetrarch was afraid that his absolute influence over the people, who seemed disposed to carry out whatever he advised, might lead to a rebellion. This circumstance is also indicated in the remark of Matthew, that Herod was afraid to put the Baptist to death on account of the people's opinion of him. On the other hand, the Evangelic statement, that Herod had imprisoned John on account of his declaring his marriage with Herodias unlawful, is in no way inconsistent with the reason assigned by Josephus. Not only might both motives have influenced Herod, but there is an obvious connection between them. For, John's open declaration of the unlawfulness of Herod's marriage, as unlike incestuous and adulterous, might, in view of the influence which the Baptist exercised, have easily led to a rebellion.
In our view, the sacred text gives indication of yet a third cause which led to John's imprisonment, and which indeed, may have given final weight to the other two grounds of enmity against him. It has been suggested, that Herod must have been attached to the Sadducees, if to any religious party, because such a man would not have connected himself with the Pharisees. The reasoning is singularly inconclusive.
On political grounds, a Herod would scarcely have lent his weight to the Sadducean or aristocratic priest-party in Jerusalem; while, religiously, only too many instances are on record of what the Talmud itself calls 'painted ones, who are like the Pharisees, and who act like Zimri, but expect the reward of Phinehas.' Besides, the Pharisees may have used Antipas as their tool, and worked upon his wretched superstition to effect their own purposes. And this is what we suppose to have been the case. The reference to the Pharisaic spying and to their comparisons between the influence of Jesus and John, which led to the withdrawal of Christ into Galilee, seems to imply that the Pharisees had something to do with the imprisonment of John. Their connection with Herod appears even more clearly in the attempt to induce Christ's departure from Galilee, on pretext of Herod's machinations. It will be remembered that the Lord unmasked their hypocrisy by bidding them go back to Herod, showing that He fully knew that real danger threatened Him, not from the Tetrarch, but from the leaders of the party in Jerusalem. Our inference therefore is, that Pharisaic intrigue had a very large share in giving effect to Herod's fear of the Baptist and of his reproofs.
We suppose, then, that Herod Antipas was at Julias, in the immediate neighborhood of aenon, at the time of John's imprisonment. But, according to Josephus, whose testimony there is no reason to question, the Baptist was committed to the strong fortress of Machaerus. If Julias lay where the Wady of the Heshban debouches into the Jordan, east of that river, and a little north of the Dead Sea, Machaerus is straight south of it, about two and a half hours north-west of the ancient Kiriathaim, the site of Chedorlaomer's victory. Machaerus marked the extreme point south, as Pella that north, in Perea. As the boundary fortress in the south-east (towards Arabia), its safety was of the greatest importance, and everything was done to make a place, exceedingly strongly by nature, impregnable. It had been built by Alexander Jannaeus, but destroyed by Gabinius in the wars of Pompey. It was not only restored, but greatly enlarged, by Herod the Great, who surrounded it with the best defenses known at that time. In fact, Herod the Great built a town along the shoulder of the hill, and surrounded it by walls, fortified by towers. From this town a farther height had to be climbed, on which the castle stood, surrounded by walls, and flanked by towers one hundred and sixty cubits high.
Within the inclosure of the castle Herod had built a magnificent palace. A large number of cisterns, storehouses, and arsenals, containing every weapon of attack or defense, had been provided to enable the garrison to stand a prolonged siege. Josephus describes even its natural position as unassailable. The highest point of the fort was on the west, where it looked sheer down into a valley. North and south the fort was equally cut off by valleys, which could not be filled up for siege purposes. On the east there was, indeed, a valley one hundred cubits deep, but it terminated in a mountain opposite to Machaerus. This was evidently the weak point of the situation.
A late and very trustworthy traveller has pronounced the description of Josephus as sufficiently accurate, although exaggerated, and as probably not derived from personal observation. He has also furnished such pictorial details, that we can transport ourselves to that rocky keep of the Baptist, perhaps the more vividly that, as we wander over the vast field of stones, upturned foundations, and broken walls around, we seem to view the scene in the lurid sunset of judgment. 'A rugged line of upturned squared stones' shows the old Roman paved road to Machaerus. Ruins covering quite a square mile, on a group of undulating hills, mark the site of the ancient town of Machaerus. Although surrounded by a wall and towers, its position is supposed not to have been strategically defensible. Only a mass of ruins here, with traces of a temple to the Syrian Sun-God, broken cisterns, and desolateness all around. Crossing a narrow deep valley, about a mile wide, we climb up to the ancient fortress on a conical hill. Altogether it covered a ridge of more than a mile. The key of the position was a citadel to the extreme east of the fortress. It occupied the summit of the cone, was isolated, and almost impregnable, but very small. We shall return to examine it.
Meanwhile, descending a steep slope about 150 yards towards the west, we reach the oblong flat plateau that formed the fortress, containing Herod's magnificent palace. Here, carefully collected, are piled up the stones of which the citadel was built. These immense heaps look like a terrible monument of judgment.
We pass on among the ruins. No traces of the royal palace are left, save foundations and enormous stones upturned. Quite at the end of this long fortress in the west, and looking southwards, is a square fort. We return, through what we regard as the ruins of the magnificent castle-palace of Herod, to the highest and strongest part of the defenses - the eastern keep or the citadel, on the steep slope 150 yards up. The foundations of the walls all around, to the height of a yard or two above the ground, are still standing. As we clamber over them to examine the interior, we notice how small this keep is: exactly 100 yards in diameter. There are scarcely any remains of it left. A well of great depth, and a deep cemented cistern with the vaulting of the roof still complete, and - of most terrible interest to us - two dungeons, one of them deep down, its sides scarcely broken in, 'with small holes still visible in the masonry where staples of wood and iron had once been fixed!' As we look down into its hot darkness, we shudder in Realizing that this terrible keep had for nigh ten months been the prison of that son of the free 'wilderness,' the bold herald of the coming Kingdom, the humble, earnest, self-denying John the Baptist. Is this the man whose testimony about the Christ may be treated as a falsehood?
We withdraw our gaze from trying to pierce this gloom and to call up in it the figure of the camel-hair-clad and leather-girt preacher, and look over the ruins at the scene around. We are standing on a height not less than 3,800 feet above the Dead Sea. In a straight line it seems not more than four or five miles; and the road down to it leads, as it were, by a series of ledges and steps. We can see the whole extent of this Sea of Judgment, and its western shores from north to south. We can almost imagine the Baptist, as he stands surveying this noble prospect.
Far to the south stretches the rugged wilderness of Judea, bounded by the hills of Hebron. Here nestles Bethlehem, there is Jerusalem. Or, turning another way, and looking into the deep cleft of the Jordan valley: this oasis of beauty is Jericho; beyond it, like a silver thread, Jordan winds through a burnt, desolate-looking country, till it is lost to view in the haze which lies upon the edge of the horizon. As the eye of the Baptist travelled over it, he could follow all the scenes of His life and labors, from the home of his childhood in the hill-country of Judea, to those many years of solitude and communing with God in the wilderness, and then to the first place of his preaching and Baptism, and onwards to that where he had last spoken of the Christ, just before his own captivity. And now the deep dungeon in the citadel on the one side, and, on the other, down that slope, the luxurious palace of Herod and his adulterous, murderous wife, while the shouts of wild revelry and drunken merriment rise around! Was this the Kingdom he had come to announce as near at hand; for which he had longed, prayed, toiled, suffered, utterly denied himself and all that made life pleasant, and the rosy morning of which he had hailed with hymns of praise? Where was the Christ? Was He the Christ? What was He doing? Was he eating and drinking all this while with publicans and sinners, when he, the Baptist, was suffering for Him? Was He in His Person and Work so quite different from himself? and why was He so? And did the hot haze and mist gather also over this silver thread in the deep cleft of Israel's barren burnt-up desolateness?
In these circumstances we scarcely wonder at the feelings of John's disciples, as months of this weary captivity passed. Uncertain what to expect, they seem to have oscillated between Machaerus and Capernaum. Any hope in their Master's vindication and deliverance lay in the possibilities involved in the announcement he had made of Jesus as the Christ. And it was to Him that their Master's finger had pointed them. Indeed, some of Jesus' earliest and most intimate disciples had come from their ranks; and, as themselves had remarked, the multitude had turned to Jesus even before the Baptist's imprisonment. And yet, could He be the Christ? How many things about Him that were strange and seemed inexplicable! In their view, there must have been a terrible contrast between him who lay in the dungeon of Machaerus, and Him Who sat down to eat and drink at a feast of the publicans.
His reception of publicans and sinners they could understand; their own Master had not rejected them. But why eat and drink with them? Why feasting, and this in a time when fasting and prayer would have seemed specially appropriate? And, indeed, was not fasting always appropriate? And yet this new Messiah had not taught his disciples either to fast or what to pray! The Pharisees, in their anxiety to separate between Jesus and His Forerunner, must have told them all this again and again, and pointed to the contrast.
At any rate, it was at the instigation of the Pharisees, and in company with them, that the disciples of John propounded to Jesus this question about fasting and prayer, immediately after the feast in the house of the converted Levi-Matthew. We must bear in mind that fasting and prayer, or else fasting and alms, or all the three, were always combined. Fasting represented the negative, prayer and alms the positive element, in the forgiveness of sins. Fasting, as self-punishment and mortification, would avert the anger of God and calamities. Most extraordinary instances of the purposes in view in fasting, and of the results obtained are told in Jewish legend, which (as will be remembered) went so far as to relate how a Jewish saint was thereby rendered proof against the fire of Gehenna, of which a realistic demonstration was given when his body was rendered proof against ordinary fire.
Even apart from such extravagances, Rabbinism gave an altogether external aspect to fasting. In this it only developed to its utmost consequences a theology against which the Prophets of old had already protested. Perhaps, however, the Jews are not solitary in their misconception and perversion of fasting. In their view, it was the readiest means of turning aside any threatening calamity, such as drought, pestilence, or national danger. This, ex opere operato: because fasting was self-punishment and mortification, not because a fast meant mourning (for sin, not for its punishment), and hence indicated humiliation, acknowledgment of sin, and repentance. The second and fifth days of the week (Monday and Thursday) were those appointed for public fasts, because Moses was supposed to have gone up the Mount for the second Tables of the Law on a Thursday, and to have returned on a Monday. The self-introspection of Pharisaism led many to fast on these two days all the year round, just as in Temple-times not a few would offer daily trespass-offering for sins of which they were ignorant. Then there were such painful minutiae of externalism, as those which ruled how, on a less strict fast, a person might wash and anoint; while on the strictest fast, it was prohibited even to salute one another.
Looking back upon the standpoint from which they viewed fasting, it is easy to perceive why Jesus could not have sanctioned, not even tolerated, the practice among His disciples, as little as Paul could tolerate among Judaizing Christians the, in itself indifferent, practice of circumcision. But it was not so easy to explain this at the time of the disciples of John. For, to understand it, implied already entire transformation from the old to the new spirit. Still more difficult must it have been to do it in in such manner, as at the same time to lay down principles that would rule all similar questions to all ages. But our Lord did both, and even thus proved His Divine Mission.
The last recorded testimony of the Baptist had pointed to Christ as the 'Bridegroom.' John applied this in a manner which appealed to popular custom. As he had pointed out, the Presence of Jesus marked the marriage-week. By universal consent and according to Rabbinic law, this was to be a time of unmixed festivity. Even in the Day of Atonement a bride was allowed to relax one of the ordinances of that strictest fast. During the marriage-week all mourning was to be suspended - even the obligation of the prescribed daily prayers ceased. It was regarded as a religious duty to gladden the bride and bridegroom. Was it not, then, inconsistent on the part of John's disciples to expect ' the sons of the bride-chamber ' to fast, so long as the Bridegroom was with them?
This appeal of Christ is still further illustrated by the Talmudic ordinance which absolved 'the friends of the bridegroom,' and all 'the sons of the bride-chamber,' even from the duty of dwelling in booths (at the Feast of Tabernacles). The expression, 'sons of the bride-chamber', which means all invited guests, has the more significance, when we remember that the Covenant-union between God and Israel was not only compared to a marriage, but the Tabernacle and Temple designated as 'the bridal chambers.' And, as the institution of 'friends of the bridegroom' prevailed in Judea, but not in Galilee, this marked distinction of the 'friends of the bridegroom,' in the mouth of the Judean John and 'sons of the bride-chamber' in that of the Galilean Jesus, is itself evidential of historic accuracy, as well as of the Judean authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
John still lays in the dungeon of Machaerus; his circumstances unchanged - perhaps, more hopeless than before. For, Herod was in that spiritually most desperate state: he had heard the Baptist, and was much perplexed. And still he heard - but only heard - him gladly. It was a case by no means singular, and of which Felix, often sending for Paul, at whose preaching of righteousness, temperance, and the judgement to come, he had trembled, offers only one of many parallels. That, when hearing him, Herod was 'much perplexed,' we can understand, since he ' feared him, knowing that he was a righteous man and holy, ' and thus fearing 'heard him.' But that being 'much perplexed,' he still 'heard him gladly,' constituted the hopelessness of his case. But was the Baptist right? Did it constitute part of his Divine calling to have not only denounced, but apparently directly confronted Herod on his adulterous marriage? Had he not attempt to lift himself the axe which seemed to have slip from the grasp of Him, of Whom the Baptist had hoped and said that He would lay it to the root of the tree?
Such thoughts may have been with him, as he passed from his dungeon to the audience of Herod, and from such bootless interviews back to his deep keep. Strange as it may seem, it was, perhaps, better for the Baptist when he was alone. Much as his disciples honored and loved him, and truly zealous and jealous for him as they were, it was best when they were absent. There are times when affection only pains, by forcing on our notice inability to understand, and adding to our sorrow that of feeling our inmost being a stranger to those nearest, and who love us must. Then, indeed, is a man alone. It is so with the Baptist. The state of mind and experience of his disciples had already appeared, even in the slight notices of his disciples has already appeared, even in the slight notices concerning them. Indeed, had they fully understood him, and not ended where he began - which, truly, is the characteristic of all sects, in their crystallisation, or, rather, ossification of truth - they would not have remained his disciples; and this consciousness must also have brought exquisite pain.
And yet further and more terrible questions rose in that dark dungeon. Like serpents that crept out of its walls, they would uncoil and raise their heads with horrible hissing. What if, after all, there had been some terrible mistake on his part? At any rate the logic of events was against him. He was now the fast prisoner of that Herod, to whom he had spoken with authority; in the power of that bold adulteress, Herodias. If he were Elijah, the great Tishbite had never been in the hands of Ahab and Jezebel. And the Messiah, Whose Elijah he was, moved not; could not, or would not, move, but feasted with publicans and sinners! Was it all a reality? or thought too horrible for utterance - could it have been a dream, bright but fleeting, uncaused by any reality, only the reflection of his own imagination? It must have been a terrible hour, and the power of darkness.
But here we must for a moment pause to ask ourselves this, which touches the question of all questions: Surely, such a man as this Baptist, so thoroughly disillusioned in that hour, could not have been an imposter, and his testimony to Christ a falsehood? Nor yet could the record, which gives us this insight into the weakness of the strong man and the doubts of the great Testimony-bearer, be a cunningly-invented fable. We cannot imagine the record of such a failure, if the narrative were an invention. And if this record be true, it is not only of present failure, but also of the previous testimony of John. To us, at least, the evidential force of this narrative seems irresistible. The testimony of the Baptist to Jesus offers the same kind of evidence as does that of the human soul to God: in both cases the one points to the other, and cannot be understood without it.
In that terrible conflict John overcame, as we all must overcome. His very despair opened the door of hope. The helpless doubt, which none could solve but One, he brought to Him around Whom it had gathered. Even in this there is evidence for Christ, as the unalterably True One. When John asked the question: Do we wait for another? light was already struggling through darkness. It was incipient victory even in defeat. When he sent his disciples with this question straight to Christ, he had already conquered; for such a question addressed to a possibly false Messiah has no meaning. And so must it ever be with us. Doubt is the offspring of our disease, diseased as is its paternity. And yet it cannot be cast aside. It may be the outcome of the worst, or the problems of the best souls. The twilight may fade into outer night, or it may usher in the day. The answer lies in this: whether doubt will lead us to Christ, or from Christ.
Thus viewed, the question: 'Art Thou the Coming One, or do we wait for another? ' indicated faith both in the great promise and in Him to Whom it was addressed. The designation 'The Coming One', though a most truthful expression of Jewish expectancy, was not one ordinarily used of the Messiah. But it was invariably used in reference to the Messianic age. But then it implied the setting right of all things by the Messiah, the assumption and vindication of His Power. In the mouth of John it might therefore mean chiefly this: Art Thou He that is to establish the Messianic Kingdom in its outward power, or have we to wait for another? In that case, the manner in which the Lord answered it would be all the more significant.
The messengers came just as He was engaged in healing body and soul. Without interrupting His work, or otherwise noticing their inquiry, He bade them tell John for answer what they had seen and heard, and that 'the poor, are evangelized.' To faith, but only to faith, this was the most satisfactory and complete answer to John's inquiry. And such a sight of Christ's distinctive Work and Word, with believing submission to the humbleness of the Gospel, is the only true answer to our questions, whether of head or heart.
But a harder saying than this did the Lord speak amidst the forthpouring of His testimony to John, when his messengers had left. It pointed the hearers beyond their present horizon. Several facts here stand out prominently. First, He to Whom John had formerly borne testimony, now bore testimony to him; and that, not in the hour when John had testified for Him, but when his testimony had wavered and almost failed. This is the opposite of what one would have expected, if the narrative had been a fiction, while it is exactly what we might expect if the narrative be true.
Next, we mark that the testimony of Christ is as from a higher standpoint. And it is a full vindication as well as unstinted praise, spoken, not as in his hearing, but after his messengers - who had met a seemingly cold reception - had left. The people were not coarsely to misunderstand the deep soul-agony, which had issued in John's inquiry. It was not the outcome of a fickleness which, like the reed shaken by every wind, was moved by popular opinion. Nor was it the result of fear of bodily consequences, such as one that pampered the flesh might entertain. Let them look back to the time when, in thousands, they had gone into the wilderness to hear his preaching. What had attracted them thither? Surely it was, that he was the opposite of one swayed by popular opinion, 'a reed shaken by the wind.' And when they had come to him, what had they witnessed? Surely, his dress and food betokened the opposite of pampering or care of the body, such as they saw in the courtiers of a Herod. But what they did expect, that they really did see: a prophet, and much more than a mere prophet, the very Herald of God and Preparer of Messiah's Way. And yet - and this truly was a hard saying and utterly un-Judaic - it was neither self-denial nor position, no, not even that of the New Testament Elijah, which constituted real greatness, as Jesus viewed it, just as nearest relationship constituted not true kinship to Him. To those who sought the honor which is not of man's bestowing, but of God, to be a little one in the Kingdom of God was greater greatness than even the Baptist's.
The scene once more changes, and we are again at Machaerus. Weeks have passed since the return of John's messengers. We cannot doubt that the sunlight of faith has again fallen into the dark dungeon, nor yet that the peace of restful conviction has filled the martyr of Christ. He must have known that his end was at hand, and been ready to be offered up. Those not unfrequent conversations, in which the weak, superstitious, wicked tyrant was 'perplexed' and yet 'heard him gladly,' could no longer have inspired even passing hopes of freedom. Nor would he any longer expect from the Messiah assertions of power on his behalf. He now understood 'that for which He had come;' he knew the better liberty, triumph, and victory which He brought. And what mattered it? His life-work had been done, and there was nothing further that fell to him or that he could do, and the weary servant of the Lord must have longed for his rest.
It was early spring, shortly before the Passover, the anniversary of the death of Herod the Great and of the accession of (his son) Herod Antipas to the Tetrarchy. 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 the shouts of revelry come across the slope into the citadel, and fall into the deep dungeon where waits the prisoner of Christ. And now the merriment in the great banqueting-hall has reached its utmost height. The king has nothing further to offer his satiated guests, no fresh excitement. So let it be the sensuous stimulus of dubious dances, and, to complete it, let the dancer be the fair young daughter of the king's wife, the very descendant of the Asmonaean priest-princes! To viler depth of coarse familiarity even a Herod could not have descended.
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 it to her with loud voice, that all around hear it - even to the half of his kingdom. The maiden steals out of the banquet-hall to ask her mother what it shall be. Can there be doubt or hesitation in the mind of Herodias? If there was one object she had at heart, which these ten months she had in vain sought to attain: it was the death of John the Baptist.
She remembered it all only too well - her stormy, reckless past. The daughter of Aristobulus, the ill-fated son of the ill-fated Asmonaean princess Mariamme, she had been married to her half-uncle, Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great and of Mariamme, the daughter of the High-Priest. At one time it seemed as if Herod Philip would have been sole heir of his father's dominions. But the old tyrant had changed his testament, and Philip was left with great wealth, but as a private person living in Jerusalem. This little suited the woman's ambition. It was when his half-brother, Herod Antipas, came on a visit to him at Jerusalem, that an intrigue began between the Tetrarch and his brother's wife. It was agreed that, after the return of Antipas from his impending journey to Rome, he would repudiate his wife, the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia, and wed Herodias. But Aretas' daughter heard of the plot, and having obtained her husband's consent to go to Machaerus, she fled thence to her father. This, of course, led to enmity between Antipas and Aretas. Nevertheless, the adulterous marriage with Herodias followed.
In a few sentences the story may be carried to its termination. The woman proved the curse and ruin of Antipas. First came the murder of the Baptist, which sent a thrill of horror through the people, and to which all the later misfortunes of Herod were attributed. Then followed a war with Aretas, in which the Tetrarch was worsted. And, last of all, his wife's ambition led him to Rome to solicit the title of King, lately given to Agrippa, the brother of Herodias. Antipas not only failed, but was deprived of his dominions, and banished to Lyons in Gaul. The pride of the woman in refusing favors from the Emperor, and her faithfulness to her husband in his fallen fortunes, are the only redeeming points in her history. As for Salome, she was first married to her uncle, Philip the Tetrarch. Legend has it, that her death was retributive, being in consequence of a fall on the ice.
Such was the woman who had these many months sought with the vengefulness and determination of a Jezebel, to rid herself of the hated person, who alone had dared publicly denounce her sin, and whose words held her weak husband in awe. The opportunity had now come for obtaining from the vacillating monarch what her entreaties could never have secured. As the Gospel puts it, 'instigated' by her mother, the damsel hesitated not.
We can readily fill in the outlined picture of what followed. It only needed the mother's whispered suggestion, and still flushed from her dance, Salome reentered the banqueting-hall. 'With haste,' as if no time were to be lost, she went up to king and requested the head of John the Baptist. Silence must have fallen on the assembly. Even into their hearts such a demand from the lips of little more than a child must have struck horror. They all knew John to be a righteous and holy man. Wicked as they were, in their superstition, if not religiousness, few, if any of them, would have willingly lent himself to such work. And they all knew, also, why Salome, or rather Herodias, had made this demand. What would Herod do? For months he had striven against this. His conscience, fear of the people, inward horror at the deed, all would have kept him from it. But he had sworn to the maiden, who now stood before him, claiming that the pledge be redeemed, and every eye in the assembly was now fixed upon him. Unfaithful to his God, to his conscience, to truth and righteousness; not ashamed of any crime or sin, he would yet be faithful to his half-drunken oath, and appear honorable and true before such companions!
It has been but the contest of a moment. Immediately 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 spring 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.
It is all over! As the pale morning light streams into the keep, the faithful disciples, who had been told of it, come reverently to bear the headless body to the burying. They go forth for ever from that accursed place, which is so soon to become a mass of shapeless ruins. They go to tell it to Jesus, and henceforth to remain with Him. We can imagine what welcome awaited them. But the people ever afterwards cursed the tyrant, and looked for those judgments of God to follow, which were so soon to descend on him. And he himself was ever afterwards restless, wretched, and full of apprehensions. He could scarcely believe that the Baptist was really dead, and when the fame of Jesus reached him, and those around suggested that this was Elijah, a prophet, or as one of them, Herod's mind, amidst its strange perplexities, still reverted to the man whom he had murdered. It was a new anxiety, perhaps, even so, a new hope; and as formerly he had often and gladly heard the Baptist, so now he would fain have seen Jesus. He would see Him; but not now.
Jesus feeds Five Thousand
"After these things, Jesus crossed over the Sea of Galilee (or Sea of Tiberias); And a great multitude followed Him, because they had seen the miracles that He worked upon those who were sick. Then Jesus went up into a mountain and sat there with His disciples. Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near. And when Jesus lifted up His eyes and saw a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, "How shall we buy enough loaves to feed all these?" But He said this to test him, because He knew what He was about to do. Philip answered Him, "Two hundred silver coins would not be sufficient to buy enough loaves for each of them to receive a little." Then one of His disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to Him, "Here is a little boy who has five barley loaves and two small fish; but what are these for so many people?" Then Jesus said, "Have the men sit down." Now there was much grass in the place; therefore the men sat down, about five thousand in number.
"And Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those who were sitting; and in like manner the small fish, as much as they desired. And when they were filled, He said to His disciples, "Gather together the fragments that are left over, so that nothing may be lost." Then they gathered them together, filling twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten." (John 6:1-13, HBFV)
In the circumstances described in the previous chapter, Jesus resolved at once to leave Capernaum; and this probably alike for the sake of His disciples, who needed rest; for that of the people, who might have attempted a rising after the murder of the Baptist; and temporarily to withdraw Himself and His followers from the power of Herod. For this purpose He chose the place outside the dominions of Antipas, nearest to Capernaum. This was Bethsaida, on the eastern border of Galilee, just within the territory of the Tetrarch Philip. Originally a small village, Philip had converted it into a town, and named it Julias, after Caesar's daughter. It lay on the eastern bank of Jordan, just before that stream enters the Lake of Galilee. It must, however, not be confounded with the other 'Fisher-town,' or Bethsaida, on the western shore of the Lake, which the Fourth Gospel, evidencing by this local knowledge its Judean, or rather Galilean, authorship, distinguishes from the eastern as 'Bethsaida of Galilee.'
This miracle, and what follows, mark the climax in our Lord's doing, as the healing of the Syro-Phoenician maiden the utmost sweep of His activity, and the Transfiguration the highest point in regard to the miraculous about His Person. The only reason which can be assigned for the miracle of His feeding the five thousand was that of all His working: Man's need, and, in view of it, the stirring of the Pity and Power that were King Herod, and the banquet that ended with the murder of the Baptist, and King Jesus, and the banquet that ended with His lonely prayer on the mountain-side, the calming of the storm on the lake, and the deliverance from death of His disciples.
Only a few hours' sail from Capernaum, and even a shorter distance by land (round the head of the Lake) lay the district of the Bethsaida-Julias. It was natural that Christ, wishing to avoid public attention, should have gone 'by ship,' and equally so that the many 'seeing them departing, and knowing' what direction the boat was taking, should have followed on foot, and been joined by others from the neighboring villages, as those from Capernaum passed through them, perhaps, also, as they recognized on the Lake the now well-known sail, speeding towards the other shore. Some of those who 'ran there on foot' had reached the place before Jesus and His Apostles. Only some, as we judge. The largest proportion arrived later, and soon swelled to the immense number of about 5,000 men, besides women and children. The circumstances that the Passover was nigh at hand, so that many must have been starting on their journey to Jerusalem, round the Lake and through Perea, partly accounts for the concourse of such multitudes. And this, perhaps in conjunction with the effect on the people of John's murder, may also explain their ready and eager gathering to Christ, thus affording yet another confirmation of the narrative.
It was a well-known spot where Jesus and His Apostles touched the shore. Not many miles south of it was the Gerasa or Gergesa, where the great miracle of healing the demonished had been wrought. Just beyond Gerasa the mountains and hills recede, and the plain along the shore enlarges, till it attains wide proportions on the northern bank of the Lake. The few ruins which mark the site of Bethsaida-Julias - most of the basalt-stones having been removed for building purposes - lie on the edge of a hill, three or four miles north of the Lake. The ford, by which those who came from Capernaum crossed the Jordan, was, no doubt, that still used, about two miles from where the river enters the Lake. About a mile further, on that wide expanse of grass, would be the scene of the great miracle. In short, the locality throughly accords with the requirements of the Gospel-narrative.
As we picture it to ourselves, our Lord with His disciples, and perhaps followed by those who had outrun the rest, first retired to the top of a height, and there rested in teaching converse with them. Presently, as He saw the great multitudes gathering, He was moved with compassion towards them. There could be no question of retirement or rest in view of this. Every such opportunity was unspeakably precious to Him, Who longed to gather the lost under His wings. It might be, that even now they would learn what belonged to their peace.
And what a sight to meet His gaze - these thousands of strong men, besides women and children; and what thoughts of the past, the present, and the future, would be called up by the scene! These Passover-pilgrims and God's guests, now streaming out into this desert after Him; with a murdered John just buried, and no earthly teacher, guide, or help left! Truly they were 'as sheep having no shepherd.'
Yet, as He so moved and thought of it all, from the first, ' He Himself knew what He was about to do. ' And now the sun had passed its meridian, and the shadows fell longer on the surging crowd. Full of the thoughts of the great Supper, which was symbolically to link the Passover of the past with that of the future, and its Sacramental continuation to all time, He turned to Philip with this question: 'Whence are we to buy bread, that these may eat?' It was to 'try him,'and show how he would view and meet what, alike spiritually and temporally, has so often been the great problem. Perhaps there was something in Philip which made it specially desirable, that the question should be put to him. At any rate, the answer of Philip showed that there had been a 'need be' for it. This - 'two hundred denarii (between six and seven pounds) worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one may take a little,' is the course realism, not of unbelief, but of an absence of faith which, entirely ignoring any higher possibility, has not even its hope left.
But there is evidence, also, that the question of Christ worked deeper thinking and higher good. As we understand it, Philip told it to Andrew, and they to the others. While Jesus taught and healed, they must have spoken together of this strange question of the Master. They knew Him sufficiently to judge, that it implied some purpose on His part. Did He intend to provide for all that multitude? They counted them roughly - going along the edge and through the crowd - and reckoned them by thousands, besides women and children. They thought of all the means for feeding such a multitude. How much had they of their own?
As we judge by combining the various statements, there was a lad there who carried the scant, humble provisions of the party - perhaps a fisher-lad brought for the purpose from the boat. It would take quite what Philip had reckoned - about two hundred denarii - if the Master meant them to go and buy victuals for all that multitude. Probably the common stock - at any rate as computed by Judas, who carried the bag - did not contain that amount. In any case, the right and the wise thing was to dismiss the multitude, that they might go into the towns and villages and buy for themselves victuals, and find lodgment. For already the bright spring-day was declining, and what was called 'the first evening' had set in. For the Jews reckoned two evenings, although it is not easy to determine the exact hour when each began and ended. But, in general, the first evening may be said to have begun when the sun declined, and it was probably reckoned as lasting to about the ninth hour, or three o'clock of the afternoon. Then began the period known as 'between the evenings,' which would be longer or shorter according to the season of the year, and which terminated with 'the second evening' - the time from when the first star appeared to that when the third star was visible. With the night began the reckoning of the following day.
It was the first evening when the disciples, whose anxiety must have been growing with the progress of time, asked the Lord to dismiss the people. But it was as they had thought. He would have them give the people to eat! Were they, then, to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of loaves? No - they were not to buy, but to give of their own store! How many loaves had they! Let them go and see. And when Andrew went to see what store the fisher-lad carried for them, he brought back the tidings, that there were only five barley loaves and two small fish to which he added, 'but what are these for so many people?'
When we read that these five were barley loaves, we learn that, no doubt from voluntary choice, the fare of the Lord and of His followers was the poorest. Indeed, barley-bread was, almost proverbially, the meanest.
The Talmud, declares that of all kinds of meat, fish only becomes more savory by salting, and names certain kinds, specially designated as 'small fishes,' which might be eaten without being cooked. Small fishes were recommended for health; and a kind of pickle or savory was also made of them. Now the Lake of Galilee was particularly rich in these fishes, and we know that both the salting and pickling of them was a special industry among its fishermen. For this purpose a small kind of them were specially selected, which bear the name Terith.
There is one proof at least of the implicit faith or rather trust of the disciples in their Master. They had given Him account of their own scanty provision, and yet, as He bade them make the people sit down to the meal, they hesitated not to obey. We can picture it to ourselves, what is so exquisitely sketched: the expanse of grass, then the people in their companies of fifties and hundreds, reclining, and looking in their regular divisions, and with their bright many-colored dresses.
But One Figure must every eye have been bent. Around Him stood His Apostles. They had laid before Him the scant provision made for their own wants, and which was now to feed their great multitude. As was such at meals, on the part of the head of the household, Jesus took the bread and gave thanks to God. We can scarcely be mistaken as to the words which Jesus spake when 'He gave thanks.' The Jewish Law allows the grace at meat to be said, not only in Hebrew, but in any language, the Jerusalem Talmud aptly remarking, that it was proper a person should understand to Whom he was giving thanks. Similarly, we have very distinct information as regards a case like the present. We gather, that the use of 'savory' with bread was specially common around the Lake of Galilee, and the Mishnah lays down the principle, that if bread and 'savory' were eaten, it would depend which of the two was the main article of diet, to determine whether 'thanksgiving' should be said for one or the other. In any case only one benediction was to be used. In this case, of course, it would be spoken over the bread, the 'savory' being merely an addition. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the words which Jesus spake, whether in Aramaean, Greek, or Hebrew, were those so well known:
'Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the world, Who causes to come forth bread from the earth.'
He then distributed to the disciples the provision miraculously multiplied in His Hands. And still they bore it from His Hands from company to company, laying before each a certain amount. When they were all filled, He that had provided the meal told them gather up the fragments before each company. So doing, each of the twelve had his basket filled.
Jesus and Peter walk on water
"Now when the men saw the miracle that Jesus had done (the feeding of the five thousand), they said, "Of a truth, this is the Prophet Who was to come into the world." Because Jesus perceived that they were about to come and seize Him, so that they might make Him king, He withdrew again to a mountain by Himself alone. Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea; And they went into a ship and were crossing the sea to Capernaum; for it had already become dark, and Jesus had not come to them.
"But the sea was tossing because a strong wind was blowing. And after rowing about twenty-five or thirty furlongs, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and approaching the ship; and they were afraid. But He said to them, "I am He. Do not be afraid." Then they willingly received Him into the ship; and immediately the ship was at the land to which they were going." (John 6:14-21, HBFV)
"Then Peter answered Him and said, "Lord, if it is You, bid me to come to You upon the waters." And He said, "Come." And after climbing down from the ship, Peter walked upon the waters to go to Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was, he became afraid; and as he was beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, "Lord, save me!" And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" Now when they went into the ship, the wind ceased. And those in the ship came and worshiped Him, saying, "You are truly the Son of God." (Matthew 14:28-33, HBFV)
For whom and for what He prayed, alone on that mountain, we dare not, even in deepest reverence, inquire. And as He prayed, there on the Lake, on the ship that contained, a great wind rose up. And still He was 'alone on the land,' but looking out into the evening after them, as the ship was in the midst of the sea and rowing. The Lake is altogether about forty furlongs or stadia (about six miles) wide, and they had as yet reached little more than half the distance (twenty-five or thirty furlongs).
When Jesus had them cross the sea they must have thought that His purpose was to join them by land, since there was no other boat there, save that in which they crossed the Lake. And possibly such had been his intention, till He saw their difficulty, if not danger, from the contrary wind. This must have determined Him to come to their help. And so this miracle also was not a mere display of power, but, being caused by their need, had a moral object. And when it is asked, how from the mountain-height by the Lake He could have seen at night where the ship was laboring so far on the Lake.
We can almost picture to ourselves the weird scene. The Christ is on that hill-top in solitary converse with His Father - praying after that miraculous breaking of bread: fully Realizing all that it implied to Him of self-surrender, of suffering, and of giving Himself as the Food of the World, and all that it implied to us of blessing and nourishment; praying also - with that scene fresh on His mind, of their seeking to make Him, even by force, their King - that the carnal might become spiritual reality (as in symbol it would be with the Breaking of Bread). Then, as He rises from His knees, knowing that, alas, it could not and would not be so to the many, He looks out over the Lake after that little company, which embodied and represented all there yet was of His Church, all that would really feed on the Bread from Heaven, and own Him their true King. Without presumption, we may venture to say, that there must have been indescribable sorrow and longing in His Heart, as His gaze was bent across the track which the little boat would follow.
As we view it, it seems all symbolical: the night, the moonlight, the little boat, the contrary wind, and then also the lonely Savior after prayer looking across to where the boatmen vainly labor to gain the other shore. As in the clear moonlight just that piece of water stands out, almost like burnished silver, with all else in shadows around, the sail-less mast is now rocking to and fro, without moving forward. They are in difficulty, in danger: and the Savior cannot pursue His journey on foot by land; He must come to their help, though it be across the water. It is needful, and therefore it shall be upon the water; and so the storm and unsuccessful toil shall not prevent their reaching the shore, but shall also be to them for teaching concerning Him and His great power, and concerning His great deliverance; such teaching as, in another aspect of it, had been given them in symbol in the miraculous supply of food, with all that it implied (and not to them only, but to us also) of precious comfort and assurance, and as will for ever keep the Church from being overwhelmed by fear in the stormy night on the Lake of Galilee, when the labor of our oars cannot make way for us.
And they also who were in the boat must have been agitated by peculiar feelings. Against their will they had been 'constrained' by the Lord to embark and quit the scene; just as the multitude, under the influence of the great miracle, were surrounding their Master, with violent insistence to proclaim him the Messianic King of Israel. Not only a Judas Iscariot, but all of them, must have been under the strongest excitement: first of the great miracle, and then of the popular movement. It was the crisis in the history of the Messiah and of His Kingdom. Can we wonder, that, when the Lord in very mercy bade them quit a scene which could only have misled them, they were reluctant, nay, that it almost needed violence of His part? And yet - the more we consider it - was it not most truly needful for them, that they should leave? But, on the other hand, in this respect also, does there seem a 'need be' for His walking upon the sea, that they might learn not only His Almighty Power, and (symbolically) that He ruled the rising waves; but that, in their disappointment at His not being a King, they might learn that He was a King - only in a far higher, truer sense than the excited multitude would have proclaimed Him.
Thus we can imagine the feelings with which they had pushed the boat from the shore, and then eagerly looked back to descry what passed there. But soon the shadows of night were enwrapping all objects at a distance, and only the bright moon overhead shone on the track behind and before. And now the breeze from the other side of the Lake, of which they may have been unaware when they embarked on the eastern shore, had freshened into violent, contrary wind. All energies must have been engaged to keep the boat's head towards the shore. Even so it seemed as if they could make no progress, when all at once, in the track that lay behind them, a Figure appeared. As it passed onwards over the water, seemingly upborne by the waves as they rose, not disappearing as they fell, but carried on as they rolled, the silvery moon laid upon the trembling waters the shadows of that Form as it moved, long and dark, on their track.
We must remember their previous excitement, as also the presence, and, no doubt, the superstitious suggestions of the boatman, when we think how they cried out for fear, and deemed It an Apparition. And ' He would have passed by them, ' as He so often does in our case - bringing them, indeed, deliverance, pointing and smoothing their way, but not giving them His known Presence, if they had not cried out. But their fear, which made them almost hesitate to receive Him into the boat, even though the outcome of error and superstition, brought His ready sympathy and comfort, in language which has so often, and in all ages, converted foolish fears of misapprehension into gladsome, thankful assurance: ' It is I, be not afraid! '
And they were no longer afraid, though truly His walking upon the waters might seem more awesome than any 'apparition.' The storm in their hearts, like that on the Lake, was commanded by His Presence. We must still bear in mind their former excitement, now greatly intensified by what they had just witnessed, in order to understand the request of Peter: 'Lord, if it is You, bid me to come to You upon the waters.' They are the words of a man, whom the excitement of the moment has carried beyond all reflection. And yet this combination of doubt, with presumption, is peculiarly characteristic of Peter. He is the Apostle of Hope - and hope is a combination of doubt and presumption, but also their transformation. With reverence be it said, Christ could not have left the request ungranted, even though it was the outcome of yet unreconciled and untransformed doubt and presumption. He would not have done so, or doubt would have remained doubt untransformed; and He could not have done so, without also correcting it, or presumption would have remained presumption untransformed, which is only upward growth, without deeper rooting in inward spiritual experience. And so He bade him come upon the water, to transform his doubt, but left him, unassured from without, to his own feelings as he saw the wind, to transform his presumption; while by stretching out His Hand to save him from sinking, and by the words of correction which He spake, He did actually so point to their transformation in that hope, of which Peter is the special representative, and the preacher in the Church.
And presently, as they two came into the boat, the wind ceased, and immediately the ship was at the land. But 'they that were in the boat ' - apparently in contradistinction to the disciples, though the latter must have stood around in sympathetic reverence - 'worshiped Him, saying, "You are truly the Son of God." The first full public confession this of the fact, and made not by the disciples, but by others. With the disciples it would have meant something far deeper. But as from the lips of these men it seems, like the echo of what had passed between them on that memorable passage across the Lake. They also must have mingled in the conversation, as the boat had pushed off from the shore on the previous evening, when they spake of the miracle of the feeding, and then of the popular attempt to proclaim Him Messianic King, of which they knew not yet the final issue, since they had been 'constrained to get into the boat,' while the Master remained behind. They would speak of all that He was and had done, and how the very devils had proclaimed Him to be the 'Son of God,' on that other shore, close by where the miracle of feeding had taken place. Perhaps, having been somewhat driven out of their course, they may have passed close to the very spot, and, as they pointed to it recalled the incident.
And this designation of 'Son of God,' with the worship which followed, would come much more readily, because with much more superficial meaning, to the boatmen than to the disciples.