Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)Herod was the king over Israel. No one else could claim the title. Anyone who tried would receive no mercy. Herod had come too close to death— too close to losing his throne to rivals— to ignore even a single potential rival.
At one point in his career, Herod had lost his throne to a rival. Yet Herod was a master politician. According to Josephus (a first century Jewish historian) Herod fled to Rome where he formed an alliance (The Wars Of The Jews 1.14.3-4) Eventually, he mounted a force large enough to retake Jerusalem (1.18).
Herod trusted no one. Like many politicians, he did what he did to advance his name and power. He was above the common law, and he lived for his own glory. When he faced cruelties in life— such as the times when his father and siblings died in enemy hands— he did not respond by looking to the God of Israel. Instead, he responded with greater cruelty.
By the end of his life, Herod was a bitter, angry tyrant. It was in those final years that the wise men visited Herod. If Herod had expected lavish gifts and praise from them, he must have been disappointed; for they brought him news of yet another potential rival. Doubtless, this rival must have seemed somewhat different to Herod: this rival was still a child, and yet, He was already being referred to as the King of the Jews!
Whether or not Herod was aware of the prophecies concerning this King of the Jews is unknown. There is no doubt, however, that Herod saw Jesus as a rival to his throne. For even though Jesus was a child, wise men from the East were already seeking to worship Him!
Herod instructed the wise men to tell him where Jesus was. After all, he too wished to worship Jesus. Obviously, Herod was lying. For he wanted nothing more than to kill Jesus. And so, after the wise men departed on that troubling night, Herod waited.
And he waited.
And he waited some more. But the wise men did not come back.
Herod's murderous anger grew. It rose higher and higher. And just as a volcano's magma can rise only so high before spewing out, so too did Herod's anger. When he realized at last that he had been tricked, the final trigger was pulled. Herod's flaming anger erupted, and all the heat was poured out on the tiny town of Bethlehem.
Sadly, Herod's life was characterized by such eruptions of anger. Aside from his outburst recorded in the Scriptures, none other characterizes Herod as well as the atrocities he ordered to be carried out on his deathbed. Josephus writes of this incident:
He [Herod] then returned back and came to Jericho, in such a melancholy state of body as almost threatened him with present death, when he proceeded to attempt a horrid wickedness; for he got together the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation, out of every village, into a place called the Hippodrome, and there shut them in. He then called for his sister Salome, and her husband Alexas, and made this speech to them: "I know well enough that the Jews will keep a festival upon my death however, it is in my power to be mourned for on other accounts, and to have a splendid funeral, if you will but be subservient to my commands. Do you but take care to send soldiers to encompass these men that are now in custody, and slay them immediately upon my death, and then all Judea, and every family of them, will weep at it, whether they will or no." (1.33.6)Josephus also tells us that Herod was thrilled on his deathbed (five days before died) when he received permission from Rome to execute his son, a potential threat to his throne (1.33.7).
What a pitiful life Herod lived! And yet, this is what the end of life looks like for every unbeliever. There is no hope for the unbeliever after death. Thus the unbeliever desperately clings onto life, for he has nothing else to hope in but himself. But oh how different it is for the believer! For the believer, there is hope beyond death. Believers depart this life in peace, knowing that they will be ruled forever by the true King of Israel: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God!