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LECTURE XIV.

MATTHEW xiv.

We are now,

in the course of these Lectures, arrived at the fourteenth chapter of St. Matthew, which begins in the following manner:

“ At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, this is John the Baptist ; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him ; for Herod had laid hold on John, and

l bound him, and put him in prison, for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife ; for John said unto him, it is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod's birth-day was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod; whereupon he promised with an oath, that he would give her whatsoever she would ask ; and she, being before instructed of her mother, said, give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. And the king was sorry ; nevertheless, for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her, and he sent and beheaded John in the prison ; and his head was brought in a charger, and given to the danisel ; and she brought it to her mother; and his disciples came and took up the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.”

Before we enter upon this remarkable and affecting narra. tive of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod, it will be proper to take notice of the two first verses of this chapter, which gave occasion to the introduction of that transaction in this place, although it had happened some time before.

“ At that time,” says the evangelist, * Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, this is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore .mighty works do show forth themselves in him.”

It is not easy to meet with a more striking instance than this of the force of conscience over a guilty mind, or a stronger proof how perpetually it goads the sinner, not only with wellgrounded fears and apprehensions of impending punishment

and vengeance, but with imaginary terrors and visionary dangers.

No sooner did the fame of Jesus reach the ears of the tyrant Herod, than it immediately occurred to his mind that he had himself, not long before, most cruelly and wantonly put to death an innocent, virtuous, and holy man, whose reputation for wisdom, integrity, and sanctity of manners, stood almost as high in the estimation of the world as that of Jesus; and who had even declared himself the herald and the forerunner of that extraordinary person. This instantly suggested to him an idea the most extravagant that could be imagined, that this very person who assumed the name of Jesus, was in fact no other than John the Baptist himself, whom he had beheaded, and who was now risen from the dead, and was endowed with the power of working miracles, though he never performed any when living. It is evident that nothing could be more improbable and absurd than these suppositions, nothing more contrary even to his own principles ; for there is reason to believe that Herod, like most other people of high rank at that time, was of the sect called the Sadducees, a sect which rejected the immortality of the soul, and the doctrine of a resurrection, and must therefore be perfectly adverse to the strange imagination of John the Baptist being risen from the dead. Yet the fears of Herod overruled all the prejudices of his-sect, and raised up before his eyes the semblance of the murdered Baptist armed with the power of miracles, for the very purpose (he perhaps imagined) of inflicting exemplary vengeance upon him for that atrocious deed, as well as for his adultery, his incest, and all his other crimes ; which now probably presented themselves in their most hideous forms to his terrified imagination, pursued him into his most secret retirements, and tortured his breast with unceasing agonies.

The evangelist having thus introduced the mention of John the Baptist, goes back a little in his narrative, to make the reader acquainted with that part of the Baptist's history which brought down upon him the indignation of Herod, and was the occasion of his death.

This flagitious prince had, it seems, in the face of day, and in defiance of all laws, human and divine, committed the complicated crime of adultery and incest, attended with every circumstance that could mark an abandoned and unpricipled mind.

He had been married a considerable time to the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia Petræa, but conceiving a violent passion for his brother Philip's wife, Herodias, he first seduced her affections from her husband, then dismissed his own wife, and married Herodias, during the life-time of his brother. It was impossible that such portentous wickedness as this could escape the observation or the reproof of the holy Baptist. He had the honesty and the courage to reproach the tyrant with the enormity of his guilt, although he could not be ignorant of the danger he incurred by such a measure ; but he determined to do his duty, and to take the consequences. The consequences were, " that Herod laid hold of John, and bound him, and threw him into prison.”* And undoubtedly his wish was to have put him immediately to death, but he was restrained by two considerations. The first was, because John was held in such high esteem and veneration by all the people, that had any violence been offered to him by Herod, he was apprehensive that it might have occasioned a general insurrection against his government; for we are informed by St. Matthew that “ he feared the multitude, because they counted John as a prophet."

The other reason was, that although he felt the utmost indignation and resentment against John for the freedom he had used in reproaching him for his licentious conduct, yet at the same time the character of that excellent man, his piety, his sanctity, his integrity, his disinterestedness, nay, even the courage which had so much offended and proved him, commanded his respect and veneration, and excited his fears ; for we are told expressly that Herod feared John, knowing he was a just man and a holy. I–Nor is this all, he not only feared John, but in some degree paid court to him. He frequently sent for him out of prison, and conversed with him, and, as the evangelist expresses it, observed him ; that is, listened to him with attention and with pleasure ; nay, he went farther still, he did many things, many things which John exhorted and enjoined him to do. He perhaps showed more attention to many of his public duties, more gentleness to his subjects, more compassion to the poor, more equity in his judicial determinations, more regard to public worship ; and vainly hoped perhaps, like many other audacious sinners, that this partial reformation, this half-way amendment, would avert the judgments with which John probably threatened him. But the main point, the great object of John's reprehension, the incestuous adultery in which he lived, that he could not part with ;

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* Matth. xiv. 3. # Mark, vi. 20.

+ Matth. xiv. 5. | Mark, vi. 20.

it was too precious, too favourite a sin to give up; too great a sacrifice to make to conscience and to God.

What a picture does this hold out to us of that strange thing called human nature, of that inconsistence, that contradiction, that contrariety, which sometimes take place in the heart of man, unsanctified and unsubdued by the power of divine grace! and what an exalted idea at the same time does it give us of the dignity of a truly religious character, like that of John, which compels even its bitterest enemies to reverence and to fear it; and forces even the most profligate and most powerful of men to pay an unwilling homage to excellence, at the very moment, perhaps, when they are meditating its destruction ?

In this state of irresolution Herod might probably have continued, and the fate of John have remained undecided for a considerable time, had not an incident taken place, which determined both much sooner perhaps than was intended. Herod, on his birth-day, gave an entertainment to the principal officers of his army and of his court; and as a peculiar and very uncommon compliment on the occasion, Salome, the daughter of his wife Herodias by her former husband, came in and danced before the company in a manner so pleasing to Herod and to all his guests, that the king in a sudden transport of delight, cried out to the damsel, as St. Mark relates it, “ Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.” And he sware unto her, “whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom."* The folly, the rashness, and the madness of such an oath as this, on so foolish an occasion, could be exceeded by nothing but the horrible purpose to which it was perverted by the young creature to whoin it was made, or rather by her profligate instructor and adviser, her mother Herodias. Astonished and overwhelmed probably with the magnitude of such an unexpected offer, which laid at her feet half the wealth, the power,

and the splendour of a kingdom, she found herself unable to decide between the various dazzling objects that would present themselves to her imagination, and therefore very naturally applies to her mother for advice and direction. Most mothers, on such an occasion, would have asked for a daughter a magnificent establishment, a situation of high rank and power! But Herodias had a passion to gratify, stronger perhaps than any other, when it takes full possession of the human heart, and that was revenge. She had been mortally injured, as she conceived, by the Baptist, who had attempted to dissolve her present infamous connection with Herod. And she not only felt the highest indignation at this insult, but was afraid that his repeated remonstrances might at length prevail. She therefore did not hesitate one moment what to ask ; she gave way to all the fury of her resentment ; and without the least regard to the character or the delicate situation of her inexperienced daughter, she immediately ordered her to demand the head of her detested enemy, John the Baptist! The wretched young woman unfortunately obeyed this dreadful command ; and, as we are told by the evangelist, “ came in straightway with haste unto the king.”* She came with speed in her steps, and eagerness in her eye, “ Give me here John the Baptist's head in a charger.” This savage request appalled even the unfeeling heart of Herod himself. He did not expect it, and was not prepared for it; and although he was highly disgusted with John, yet for the reasons above mentioned, he did not choose to go to extremities with him. He was therefore exceeding sorry, as the sacred Historian informs us, to be thus forced upon so violent and hazardous a measure; nevertheless, for his oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given to her.” Conceiving himself, most absurdly, bound by his oath to comply even with this inhuman demand, and afraid lest he should be reproached by those that were around him with having broken his promise, he preferred the real guilt of murder to the false imputation of perjury, and “sent and beheaded John in prison ; and his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother.”—It is well known that it was a custom in the east, and is so still in the Turkish court, to produce the heads of those that are ordered to be put to death, as a proof that they have been really executed. But how this wretched damsel could so far subdue the common feelings of human nature, and still more the natural tenderness and delicacy of her sex, as not only to endure so disgusting and shocking a spectacle, but even to carry the bleeding trophy in triumph to her mother, it is not easy to imagine ; and it would scarce be credited, did we not know that in times and in countries much nearer to our own, sights, of still greater hor. ror than this have been contemplated, even by children, with complacency and with delight.

* Mark, vi. 22, 23.

Such was the conclusion of this singular transaction ; and every part of it is so pregnant with useful instruction and ad

women and

* Mark, vi, 25. Matth. xiv. 8.

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