What kind of man could order the death of innocent children?
The same man who could order the death of his very own sons.
Herod The Great
Herod the Great was a complex man. In some ways he was a great ruler who was able to keep a very unstable region together. But the man could be cruel, especially when it came to keeping his throne. Early in his reign Herod ordered the death of his own brother-in-law because the younger man was extremely popular with the people, and therefore a potential threat.
Following the example of other kings before him, Herod the Great married numerous women and had numerous children. These many sons caused Herod numerous problems, especially when it came time to appoint an heir. The sons morally were no better than their father and played the game well. Herod’s eldest son repeatedly tried to turn his father against the next 2 half brothers and eventually succeeded. In 7 BCE, just a few years before his own death, Herod had 2 of his sons beheaded for plotting against him. However, the troublesome firstborn son fared no better and he also was put to death, mere days before Herod the Great finally died in 4 BCE.
From 7 BCE to 4 BCE Herod changed his will numerous times as one son after another was accused of conspiring against him. At this point in his life, Herod the Great was a bitter, distrustful, angry old man who knew death was near and was desperately trying to hold onto his life and his kingdom. Not only his sons, countless others were put to death for plotting (or being suspected of plotting) against him. Let this king smell a whiff of treason and your life and those connected with you were in danger.
Herod the Great and Herod alone would be the ONLY King of the Jews.
Background to Matthew 2
Intrigue, suspicion, fear, death, danger, this is the background of Matthew 2. (vs 1-2) “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the East and have come to worship Him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed and all Jerusalem with him.”
At this point Herod has already put 2 of his own sons to death and soon a 3rd will be for trying to be the next “king of the Jews,” so imagine his response when men from another country come to him and ask for another/different king of the Jews. Matthew’s words here are almost a laughable understatement, “disturbed.” Somehow, I think Herod was a lot more than just “disturbed.” And the reaction of the city is no surprise. The people of Jerusalem were well aware of Herod’s murderous zeal for his throne and his cruelty that knew no bounds when he felt threatened.
When Herod was angry, the city trembled.
The Magi were warned in a dream so they did not return to tell Herod who the next threat was. Joseph and Mary received a similar warning and also left Jerusalem and escaped to Egypt.
When Herod was unable to find this new threat to the throne his anger exploded and many suffered for it. “When Herod realized … he was furious and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were 2 years old and under…” (vs 16) Removal of his rival at all costs.
Innocent life was nothing when compared to his throne. In Herod’s eyes even his own family was nothing when compared to his throne.
Herod the Great was a complex man whose life was full of intrigue, suspicion, death and fear. He was a man who would do anything to keep his throne, including command the death of the innocent.