Arundel, Christ before Pilate and Herod, c. 1310

Acts Devotional Commentary [Acts 12:20-24] Herod’s Death


Herod’s Death


Acts 12:20-24

Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. 20 He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.

21 On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. 22 They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 23 Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.


Observations


There are few questions that need to be answered concerning Herod’s relationship with Tyre and Sidon. Why were they feuding? Why were they dependent on Herod for food supply? Why did they shout that he was a god and not a man? Additionally, how many Herods are there?

Starting with the last query, the Bible mentions multiple Herods and since this passage requires some knowledge of the Herods, it’s a good time to view (or review for some) the family tree of the Herods. I’ve created a scaled down version of the Herod family tree and it can be viewed below. The Herod mentioned in this passage is Herod Agrippa I. His rulership over Judea was special because he was part of the royal Jewish lineage though the marriage of Herod the Great and Mariamne I. Mariamne I was part of the Jewish Hasmonean line. None of the other wives were of Jewish decent. Since Mariamne was part of the Hasmonean line her son Herod I was considered a legitimate Jewish ruler, even though it was through a rather stretched blood line.

Bare Bones Family Tree of the Herods

Bare Bones Family Tree of the Herods

Herod’s travel from Judea to Caesarea should point us towards the nature of the conflict between himself and the two cities. However, one must first figure out which Caesarea that Herod traveled to. There are two Caesareas in proximity to Tyre and Sidon. The closest one was Caesarea Philippi, named after Herod’s uncle. One would think that since there was a palace there dedicated to Herod that that would be the city in question, however, we have to remember that there were multiple Herods also. Caesarea Philippi was the home of Herod Philip II, son of Herod the great and uncle to Herod Agrippa. The Caesarea that Herod Agrippa (the Herod from today’s passage) was located along the northern cost, south of Tyre. The reason why two towns exist that are both called Caesarea is because the name honored the Caesar, Caesar Augustus. It is sometimes referred to as Caesarea Maritima to differentiate it from Caesarea Philippi. 

Tyre, Sidon, and Both Caesareas

But why was there a feud between Herod and the port cities of Tyre and Sidon? We are told in the passage that Tyre and Sidon were having food withheld, so that explains the nature of how the feud was playing out. But where did the feud start? Was there an initial cause? If one could speculate, it seems probably that there was a shortage of food through the empire which caused the cities to have their rations reduced. The famine was predicted and told about in Acts 11:28-29.

One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.
(Acts 11:28-29)

However,there is more to the story than a famine. Tyre and Sidon were not part of Herod’s Jurisdiction. They were part of the Roman empire but not part of Judea, which meant that the port city of Caesarea was actually in economic competition with Tyre and Sidon, but it was a one-sided battle because the majority of the grain supplied to these ports came from the Judean fields. The Phonetician towns were mostly coastal and lacked farm lands. Not only that but the non-coastal land they did have was difficult to farm. Additionally, their dependence on Judean agriculture goes back centuries as the prophet Ezekiel makes mention of it in his taunt delivered to the Phoenician city of Tyre.

12 “‘Tarshish did business with you because of your great wealth of goods; they exchanged silver, iron, tin and lead for your merchandise.
13 “‘Greece, Tubal and Meshek did business with you; they traded human beings and articles of bronze for your wares.
14 “‘Men of Beth Togarmah exchanged chariot horses, cavalry horses and mules for your merchandise.
15 “‘The men of Rhodes[c] traded with you, and many coast lands were your customers; they paid you with ivory tusks and ebony.
16 “‘Aram did business with you because of your many products; they exchanged turquoise, purple fabric, embroidered work, fine linen, coral and rubies for your merchandise.
17 “‘Judah and Israel traded with you; they exchanged wheat from Minnith and confections, honey, olive oil and balm for your wares.
(Ezekiel 27:12-17)

Thus, Herod could exact some economic force upon the Phonetician cities quite easily, thereby causing Caesarea to be elevated as well as Herod’s prestige. Luckily for Tyre and Sidon, Herod’s servant, Blastus, took up their cause and was able to get him to relent. The passage seems to indicate that this was the reason for his address in Caesarea.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. (Act 12:21)

While we have limited information from historians about the struggle between Phoenicia and Herod, Josephus does describe Herod’s public address to the people in Acts 12:21. Additionally, Suetonius provides from background to the special robe that was worn by Herod.

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Caesar [Augustus], upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons, and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.”  (Antiquities 19.8.2)

The robe described by Josephus was a tradition, indicated by Suetonius as means for Tiberius Claudius to honor his father, Drusus. Tiberius Claudius who was the grand-nephew of Caesar Augustus and eventually the 4th Roman Emperor. Thus there existed some ceremonial garment which is what Herod was wearing. The occasion for the garment and the speech was the gladiatorial games (mentioned by Suetonius) which were held every 5 years. Unfortunately, some decades after Herod’s dead and at the height of the Roman persecution by Titus, some 2,500 Jews were taken captive and slaughtered during the gladiatorial games.1

Herod’s address to the people would have been a joyous occasion as it not only kicked off a large festival filled with entertainment and games, but it also coincided with the grain harvest where there would be markets setup for buying and selling. Thus, it was a perfect time to make peace with the Tyrians and Sidonians.2 Certainly, Herod could have leveraged his new found peace accord with a few public displays of mercy and make himself out to be a merciful party in the whole matter. Perhaps this is part of why the people praised him so heavily… out of thanks but also recognizing that flattery goes a long way in appeasing a ruler like Herod. Nevertheless, it appears that such flattery went too far, as the people elevated him to the status of a god.

This is the voice of a god, not of a man. (Acts 12:22)

Both Luke and Josephus indicate that Herod’s immediate death was a result of his acceptance of deified flattery.

Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. (Acts 12:23)

Upon this the King did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl, sitting on a certain rope, over his head: (32) and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him: and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly; and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life: while providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me. And I who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what providence allots, as it pleases God. For we have by no means lived ill: but in a splendid and happy manner.” When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace: and the rumour went abroad every where that he would certainly die in a little time. (Antiquities 19.8.2)

It seems then, that the early Jews and the Christians agreed at least on one thing, which is that blasphemy is not to be tolerated. A number of modern attempts have been made to diagnose the cause of death for Herod and currently the most plausible seems to be complications gonorrhea. Jan Hirschmann, MD., a physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, believes he had a case of gangrene as a result of the STD.

An infection in Herod’s abdomen could have spread to his groin and rectal areas (Herod is said to have complained of abdominal pain).

He may have sexually contracted gonorrhea, which could have led to an infection of the urethra — the tube connecting the bladder to the outside world. This infection could have cause urine to leak inside the king’s body, spreading bacteria.

Finally, since reports indicate the king “had a terrible desire to scratch himself,” this scratching could have introduced gangrene directly into the area.

Records also indicate the swelling at the leader’s groin was further wracked by an infestation of worms. Hirschmann says what may have looked like “worms” could have actually been shredded pieces of skin, although, he says there is a possibility they were real.

“There could have been maggots feeding on the tissue,” said Philip Mackowiak, chief of the Medical Care Clinical Center at the Veterans Affairs Maryland Healthcare System, who oversees an annual conference at the center to diagnose historical figures. “It’s tough to know how long he was suffering but it was probably months, possibly a couple years.”3

It will probably never really be known the cause of death for Herod but I think the biblical lesson remains unchanged: there is only one God and only He is worthy of holding that title.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. (Luke18:19)


1. Kasher, Aryeh. Jews and Hellenistic Cities in Eretz-Israel: Relations of the Jews in Eretz-Israel with the Hellenistic Cities During the Second Temple Period (332 BCE-70CE), Mohr Siebeck, 1990, p 311.

2. Bock, Darrell L. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts, 2007, 446-447.

3. https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=98107&page=1

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