When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

The Herald's Head

While the King did these works of wonder and spoke these words of wisdom, the King's herald lay in prison. You remember how sternly John the Baptist spoke to men who were living in sin, and how it made no difference to him whether the sinner was rich or poor. To the gentlemen who were proud of their good birth, he said that God, if he chose, could change the stones of the river-bank into descendants of Abraham, and that by their actions one would guess that their real father was that old serpent, the devil. Now Herod the Great, when he came to die, had divided his kingdom among his sons, and one of them, named Herod Antipas, thus became ruler in Galilee and beyond the Jordan. Of course, the Romans were the real rulers, but they appointed him as one of their governors. Herod Antipas was married to the princess of a little kingdom in Arabia, but about this time he went on a visit to Rome to see his half-brother, Herod Philip; and while he was there he fell in love with Herod Philip's wife, whose name was Herodias. Then Herodias left her husband for Antipas, and Antipas's wife fled home in great distress and anger to her father. All the country knew about these scandalous and wicked doings. But Herodias and her daughter Salome came and lived in Herod Antipas's splendid palace at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, and nobody said anything, except in whispers, for it is not easy to reprove kings and queens.

But John the Baptist did not speak in a whisper. He spoke up in a great loud voice, and said in his sermons to the people, and at last to the king himself, that it was all terribly bad; and that it was against all laws of man and of God, that he should have his brother's wife. And that is how he went to prison. Herod had a great, black stone fortress beyond the Jordan, the fortress of Machærus, and there he put John into a dungeon. Herodias would have put him to death, but she was afraid of the people, for the people reverenced John. Even Herod respected the brave man who was not afraid to speak the truth to the king's face.

So John lay in prison, though his disciples were allowed to come and visit him. It seemed very hard to the Baptist, after all his free life in the wilderness, to be shut up behind stone walls. He had not had even a roof over his head since he was a child. And one day, strong man as he was, he became very discouraged, and sent some of his disciples to Jesus, and said, "Are you truly the King? Are you he that should come, or must we look for another?" For John the Baptist, like the other people, was expecting a king like Herod—a better and mightier Herod. And when Jesus kept on living so quietly, and going about with a group of fishermen, and saying that his kingdom was not of this world, John knew not what to think. So John's disciples came with their master's question. And our Lord said, "Stay with me this day." So they stayed with him that day, and he did just what he was always doing: the blind received their sight, and the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, and the deaf heard, the dead were raised up, and the poor had the gospel preached to them. "Now," he said, "go back to John and show him what you have heard and seen." So they went back, but what John said we do not know.

Then Herod had a birthday, and he made a supper to his lords, high captains, and the chief people of Galilee. The tables were spread in a splendid room, with walls made beautiful with pictures, with dishes of silver and gold, music playing while the feast went on, and many servants bringing all sorts of pleasant things to eat. At last, when they had all had a great deal more to drink than was good for them, the king sent for Salome, the young daughter of Herodias, and she came in and danced, so that the king was delighted. And Herod, hardly knowing what he was saying, spoke up before all his nobles and said to the little daughter, "Ask of me whatsoever you will, and I will give it to you." And as she stopped to think, and all the guests were looking at him and at her, "Yes," he cried, "whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it to thee, unto the half of my kingdom."

There was the promise, then, and the child could have her wish. What should it be? Among all the beautiful things in the world, what shall the princess choose? One day, King Solomon had a chance to ask for what he wanted most, and he asked for wisdom. But the king cannot give wisdom; indeed, this king had no wisdom to spare. Well, lovely gowns, then, or jewels, or gardens, or money to buy them all. It was a hard matter to decide, and the girl went to ask her mother; a very good thing to do, if she had had a good mother.

But now Herodias saw her opportunity. All this time she had been longing to have her revenge for what John the Baptist had said about her. They were hard words, and the worst of it was, she had deserved them all: but so much the more she hated him. Already, as we have seen, she had tried to have him killed. Now was the time. So Salome went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?" And Herodias said, "The head of John the Baptist." And Salome came running back in great haste into the dining-room, and cried out in a high voice, so that everybody heard what she said, "I will that thou give me by and by in a charger [that is, on a great platter] the head of John the Baptist."

Then what did the king do? If he had been a good king, he would have told his daughter what a wicked thing that was to ask. But he did not do that. He was exceedingly sorry. But he had promised to give her anything she wished, and she had wished for John the Baptist's head, and he did not consider that we ought never to keep bad promises. The only thing to do if we make a wicked promise, is to break it. He was afraid that his nobles would laugh at him if he did not do what he said he would. For their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. So he sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought; and the executioner went and beheaded the herald of the King of Glory in the prison. So he died, whose birth the angel had promised at the altar, whose name had been given him amidst the rejoicings of his father and mother and their friends, who had lived for years in the wild woods, and then had come forth to welcome the King of kings. And his head was brought in by the executioner, on a great silver platter, and the executioner gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.