(1. Joh_3:25-30. 2. Mat_9:14-17; Mar_2:18-22; Luk_5:33-39. 3. Mat_11:2-14; Lk 7:18-35. 4. Mat_14:1-12; Mar 6:14-29; Luk_9:7-9)
While the Apostles went forth by two and two on their first Mission, Jesus Himself taught and preached in the towns around Capernaum. This period of undisturbed activity seems, however, to have been of brief duration. That it was eminently successful, we infer not only from direct notices, but also from the circumstance that, for the first time, the attention of Herod Antipas was now called to the Person of Jesus. We suppose that, during the nine or ten months of Christ’s Galilean Ministry, the Tetrarch had resided in his Peraean dominions (east of the Jordan), either at Julias or at Machaerus, in which latter fortress the Baptist was beheaded. We infer, that the labours of the Apostles had also extended thus far, since they attracted the notice of Herod. In the popular excitement caused by the execution of the Baptist, the miraculous activity of the messengers of the Christ, Whom John had announced, would naturally attract wider interest, while Antipas would, under the influence of fear and superstition, give greater heed to them. We can scarcely be mistaken in supposing, that this accounts for the abrupt termination of the labours of the Apostles, and their return to Jesus. At any rate, the arrival of the disciples of John, with tidings of their master’s death, and the return of the Apostles, seem to have been contemporaneous. Finally, we conjecture, that it was among the motives which influenced the removal of Christ and His Apostles from Capernaum. Temporarily to withdraw Himself and His disciples from Herod, to give them a season of rest and further preparation after the excitement of the last few weeks, and to avoid being involved in the popular movements consequent on the murder of the Baptist – such we may venture to indicate as among the reasons of the departure of Jesus and His disciples, first into the dominions of the Tetrarch Philip, on the eastern side of the Lake, and after that ‘into the borders of Tyre and Sidon.’ Thus the fate of the Baptist was, as might have been expected, decisive in its influence on the History of the Christ and of His Kingdom. But we have yet to trace the incidents in the life of John, so far as recorded in the Gospels, from the time of His last contact with Jesus to his execution.
1. It was in the late spring, or rather early summer of the year 27 of our era, that John was baptizing in Aenon, near to Salim. In the neighbourhood, 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 favour 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 Judaean illustration, he was only ‘the friend of the Bridegroom’ (the ‘shosheḇeyna’), 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 (Joh_3:31-36) as formerly those of the conversation with Nicodemus.
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.
2. 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: Peraea, east of the Jordan. To realise 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, Peraea 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 Judaea, 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 Peraea 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 Peraea. 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 Judaean 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 Peraea. 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 neighbourhood 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 Peraea. 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 Peraea 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 Peraea represented the ancient beṯ haram in the tribe of Gad, a name for which Josephus givesbeṯaramp̱ṯa, and the Rabbis beṯ ramṯah. 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 Peraean Julias, he would have been in the closest proximity to the scene of the Baptist’s last recorded labours 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 similarly 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.
3. We suppose, then, that Herod Antipas was at Julias, in the immediate neighbourhood 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 kiriaṯaim (the modern Kurêiyât), the site of Chedorlaomer’s victory. Machaerus (the modern M’khaur) marked the extreme point south, as Pella that north, in Peraea. As the boundary fortress in the southeast (towards Arabia), its safety was of the greatest importance, and everything was done to make a place, exceedingly strong 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 defences 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 enclosure of the castle Herod had built a magnificent palace. A large number of cisterns, storehouses, and arsenals, containing every weapon of attack or defence 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 defences – 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 realising 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 Judaea, 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 labours, from the home of his childhood in the hill-country of Judaea, 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?
4. 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.
It may well have been, that it was on one of these weekly fasts that the feast of Levi-Matthew had taken place, and that this explains the expression: ‘And John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting.’ This would give point to their complaint, ‘Thy disciples fast not.’ 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 Judaising Christians the, in itself indifferent, practice of circumcision. But it was not so easy to explain this at the time to 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 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.’ As explained in a previous chapter, 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 on 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’ (בני חופה), 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 Judaea, but not in Galilee, this marked distinction of the ‘friends of the bridegroom,’ in the month of the Judaean John, and ‘sons of the bride-chamber’ in that of the Galilean Jesus, is itself evidential of historic accuracy, as well as of the Judaean authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
But let it not be thought that it was to be a time of unbroken joy to the disciples of Jesus. Nay, the ideas of the disciples of John concerning the Messianic Kingdom, as one of resistless outward victory and assertion of power, were altogether wrong. The Bridegroom would be violently taken from them, and then would be the time for mourning and fasting. Not that this necessarily implies literal fasting, any more than it excludes it, provided the great principles, more fully indicated immediately afterwards, are kept in view. Painfully minute, Judaistic self-introspection is contrary to the spirit of the joyous liberty of the children of God. It is only a sense of sin, and the felt absence of the Christ, which should lead to mourning and fasting, though not in order thereby to avert either the anger of God or outward calamity. Besides the evidential force of this highly spiritual, and thoroughly un-Jewish view of fasting, we notice some other points in confirmation of this, and of the Gospel-history generally. On the hypothesis of a Jewish invention of the Gospel-history, or of its Jewish embellishment, the introduction of this narrative would be incomprehensible. Again, on the theory of a fundamental difference in the Apostolic teaching, Matthew and Mark representing the original Judaic, Luke the freer Pauline development, the existence of this narrative in the first two Gospels would seem unaccountable. Or, to take another view – on the hypothesis of the much later and non-Judaean (Ephesian) authorship of the Fourth Gospel, the minute archaeological touches, and the general fitting of the words of the Baptist into the present narrative would be inexplicable. Lastly, as against all deniers and detractors of the Divine Mission of Jesus, this early anticipation of His violent removal by death, and of the consequent mourning of the Church, proves that it came not to Him from without, as by the accident of events, but that from the beginning He anticipated the end, and pursued it of set, steadfast purpose.
Yet another point in evidence comes to us from the eternal and un-Jewish principles implied in the two illustrations, of which Christ here made use. In truth, the Lord’s teaching is now carried down to its ultimate principles. The slight variations which here occur in the Gospel of Luke, as, indeed, such exist in so many of the narratives of the same events by different Evangelists, should not be ‘explained away.’ For, the sound critic should never devise an explanation for the sake of a supposed difficulty, but truthfully study the text – as an interpreter, not an apologist. Such variations of detail present no difficulty. As against a merely mechanical, unspiritual accord, they afford evidence of truthful, independent witness, and irrefragable proof that, contrary to modern negative criticism, the three narratives are not merely different recensions of one and the same original document.
In general, the two illustrations employed – that of the piece of undressed cloth (or, according to Luke, a piece torn from a new garment) sewed upon the rent of an old garment, and that of the new wine put into the old wine-skins – must not be too closely pressed in regard to their language. They seem chiefly to imply this: You ask, why do we fast often, but Thy disciples fast not? You are mistaken in supposing that the old garment can be retained, and merely its rents made good by patching it with a piece of new cloth. Not to speak of the incongruity, the effect would only be to make the rent ultimately worse. The old garment will not bear mending with the ‘undressed cloth.’ Christ’s was not merely a reformation: all things must become new. Or, again, take the other view of it – as the old garment cannot be patched from the new, so, on the other hand, can the new wine of the Kingdom not be confined in the old forms. It would burst those wine-skins. The spirit must, indeed, have its corresponding form of expression; but that form must be adapted, and correspond to it. Not the old with a little of the new to hold it together where it is rent; but the new, and that not in the old wineskins, but in a form corresponding to the substance. Such are the two final principles – the one primarily addressed to the Pharisees, the other to the disciples of John, by which the illustrative teaching concerning the marriage-feast, with its bridal garment and wine of banquet, is carried far beyond the original question of the disciples of John, and receives an application to all time.
5. We are in spirit by the mount of God, and about to witness the breaking of a terrible storm. It is one that uproots the great trees and rends the rocks; and we shall watch it solemnly, earnestly, as with bared head – or, like Elijah, with face wrapt in mantle. Weeks had passed, and the disciples of John had come back and showed their Master of all these things. He still lay 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 judgment 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 attempted to lift himself the axe which seemed to have slipt 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 honoured 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 was so with the Baptist. The state of mind and experience 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. Their very affection for him, and their zeal for his credit (as shown in the almost coarse language of their inquiry: ‘John the Baptist hath sent us unto Thee, saying, Art Thou He that cometh, or look we for another?’), as well as their tenacity of unprogressiveness – were all, so to speak, marks of his failure. And, if he had failed with them, had he succeeded in anything?
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 – oh, 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. At the end of one’s life, and that of such self-denial and suffering, and with a conscience so alive to God, which had – when a youth – driven him burning with holy zeal into the wilderness, to have such a question meeting him as: Art Thou He, or do we wait for another? Am I right, or in error and leading others into error? must have been truly awful. Not Paul, when forsaken of all he lay in the dungeon, the aged prisoner of Christ; not Huss, when alone at Constance he encountered the whole Catholic Council and the flames; only He, the God-Man, over Whose soul crept the death – coldness of great agony when, one by one, all light of God and man seemed to fade out, and only that one remained burning – His own faith in the Father, could have experienced bitterness like this. Let no one dare to say that the faith of John failed, at least till the dark waters have rolled up to his own soul. For mostly all and each of us must pass through some like experience; and only our own hearts and God know, how death-bitter are the doubts, whether of head or of heart, when question after question raises, as with devilish hissing its head, and earth and heaven seem alike silent to us.
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 impostor, 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’ (haba), 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, as the Aṯid laḇo or coming future (literally, the prepared for to come), and the Olam haba, the coming world or Aeon. 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 evangelised.’ To this, as the inmost characteristic of the Messianic Kingdom, He only added, not by way of reproof nor even of warning, but as a fresh ‘Beatitude:’ ‘Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be scandalised in Me.’ 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 honour 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.
But, even so, let there be no mistake. As afterwards Paul argued with the Jews, that their boast in the Law only increased their guilt as breakers of the Law, so here our Lord. The popular concourse to, and esteem of, the Baptist, did not imply that spiritual reception which was due to his Mission. It only brought out, in more marked contrast, the wide inward difference between the expectancy of the people as a whole, and the spiritual reality presented to them in the Forerunner of the Messiah and in the Messiah Himself. Let them not be deceived by the crowds that had submitted to the Baptism of John. From the time that John began to preach the Kingdom, hindrances of every kind had been raised. To overcome them and enter the Kingdom, it required, as it were, violence like that to enter a city which was surrounded by a hostile army. Even by Jewish admission, the Law ‘and all the prophets prophesied only of the days of Messiah.’ John, then, was the last link; and, if they would but have received it, he would have been to them the Elijah, the Restorer of all things. Selah – ‘he that hath ears, let him hear.’
Nay, but it was not so. The children of that generation expected quite another Elijah and quite another Christ, and disbelieved and complained, because the real Elijah and Christ did not meet their foolish thoughts. They were like children in a market-place, who expected their fellows to adapt themselves to the tunes they played. It was as if they said: We have expected great Messianic glory and national exaltation, and ye have not responded (‘we have piped unto you, and ye have not danced’); we have looked for deliverance from our national sufferings, and they stirred not your sympathies nor brought your help (‘we have mourned to you, and ye have not lamented’). But you thought of the Messianic time as children, and of us, as if we were your fellows, and shared your thoughts and purposes! And so when John came with his stern asceticism, you felt he was not one of you. He was in, one direction outside your boundary-line, and I, as the Friend of sinners, in the other direction. The axe which he wielded you would have laid to the tree of the Gentile world, not to that of Israel and of sin; the welcome and fellowship which I extended, you would have had to ‘the wise’ and ‘the righteous,’ not to sinners. Such was Israel as a whole. And yet there was an election according to grace: the violent, who had to fight their way through all this, and who took the Kingdom by violence – and so Heaven’s Wisdom (in opposition to the children’s folly) is vindicated by all her children. If anything were needed to show the internal harmony between the Synoptists and the Fourth Gospel, it would be this final appeal, which recalls those other words: ‘He came unto His own (things or property), and his own (people, they who were His own) received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power (right, authority) to become children of God, which were born (begotten,) not… of the will of man, but of God.’
6. 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 Petrarchy. 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 (I.), she had been married to her half-uncle, Herod Philip, the son of Herod the Great and of Mariamme (II.), the daughter of the High-Priest (Boëthos). 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 favours 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 the king: ‘I would that thou forthwith give me on a charger, 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? ‘The king was exceeding sorry.’ 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. ‘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 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. In that dark night of betrayal, he, who at the bidding of the child of an adulteress, had murdered the Forerunner, might, with the approbation of a Pilate, have rescued Him whose faithful witness John had been. But night was to merge into yet darker night. For it was the time and the power of the Evil One. And yet: ‘Jehovah reigneth.’