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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
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 unprincipled mind.
He had been married a considerable time to the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia
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 lifetime 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
Matt. xiv. 3.
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 provoked 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 an holy. 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 expressses it, observed him; that is, listened to him with attention and with pleasure; nay, he went further + Mark vi. 20.
* Matt. xiv. 5.
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; 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
* Mark vi. 20.