Herodium is not on everyone’s list of tourist stops in Israel, but it probably should be. It’s a high point in the Judaean desert, in today’s West Bank. Herod the Great built it as a southern fortress and palace between 23 and 15 BC, and, according to many experts, it also became his tomb. If you sit on the edge of the mountainous terrain of southern Jerusalem, you can see Herodium in the distance as it hovers over the particular lowly city of Bethlehem, just three miles away.
Herod the Great and his family were converts to Judaism. He served as the Roman client king for 37 years, until his death in 4 B.C. Taking over close after the years of Jewish autonomy known as the Hasmonean dynasty, Herod was in a precarious position, trying to please a Jewish population and governing well for Rome. As you know, the Maccabees were the beginning point to the Hasmonean line in 164 BC. After hearing word that under the rule of Antiochus (of the Seleucid Empire), the Jewish Temple was being used to sacrifice pigs to Greek gods, the Maccabees brothers came in with an army and defeated the Greeks. They reestablished the priesthood, the sacrifices to Yahweh, and rekindled the candles. (Hanukkah is the remembrance of this time.)
That said, zealous Judaism and domination of any foreign power did not blend well, especially after this taste of freedom not seen since Hezekiah several hundred years earlier. It seems that Herod used infrastructure as a way to secure his power and legacy. He was a master builder. During his reign, he never stopped building. Even today, everywhere you go throughout Israel his influence is tangibly present. His handiwork represents marvelous human accomplishment. Caesarea Maritime, where Peter meets Cornelius, Masada, where the Romans besieged and almost 1,000 Jewish zealots committed suicide to avoid capture, and, most notably, the Second Temple additions were all his projects. Herod’s Temple was the one Jesus knew. He built onto the footprint of the Temple completed in 516 by Zerubbabel (through the benevolence of the Persian king Cyrus the Great), the same one where the Maccabees restored the sacrifices. It took more than 80 years to fully complete the Temple enhancements, though much of the primary work was done in Herod’s lifetime.
Herod’s many projects brought a heavy tax burden on the province, and with it, bitter enemies. We can see the strife played out at Herodium, as it was sacked by Jewish zealots after his death. Built on the site of a great battle Herod won against the Parthians, he named the place after himself. It’s a testimony to Herod’s constant self-aggrandizing. Josephus says Herod was, “A man of great barbarity towards all men equally, and a slave to his passion; but above the consideration of what was right; yet was he favored by fortune as much as any man ever was, for from a private man he became a king; and though he were encompassed with ten thousand dangers, he got clear of them all, and continued his life till a very old age.”
Toward the end of his life, he became very sick and tremendously paranoid about keeping his power. He suffered from chronic kidney failure among other ailments. During these last years of Herod’s life, Matthew records that Herod was greatly disturbed when the Magi came through Jerusalem in search of the King of the Jews. The Gospel says, “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matthew 2:7-8). We know what happens next. Herod becomes angry when the Magi don’t return and orders the death of every Jewish boy, two years and younger, murdered.
Even though Herod was racked with pain and old in years, he was determined to outdo anyone who might lay claim to his kingdom, even if it were a baby boy. Herod is the reason Joseph received instructions to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, just in case his anger and paranoia flared up again. After Herod’s death, Joseph and his family return to Nazareth.
It’s a great testimony to our God that in the shadow of Herodium, where Herod was buried as a mighty, self-made man, is Bethlehem, where God came down and was born of a common Jewish woman, in a messy stable. Herod fashioned many palaces throughout Judea, including Herodium, and the Maker of Heaven and Earth could not find a room in the crowded village.
Legacy matters. “Though the Lord is exalted,” Psalm 138:6 says, he looks kindly on the lowly.” Jesus says, “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). And Paul says, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (I Corinthians 1:27-29).
What are we fashioning for God? Is it on the premise of Herod in the precepts of God? Are we working to win the favor of men with the motivation to be noticed and gain approval? If so, we are veering into the lonely paranoia of Herod. We can either die with Jesus on a lowly cross (and maybe like him) or seek after the legacy that we so often put our confidence in. Josephus describes Herod’s orchestrated funeral procession this way:
“Archelaus [Herod’s son] brought out all his ornaments to adorn the pomp of the funeral. The body was carried upon a golden bier, embroidered with very precious stones of great variety, and it was covered over with purple, as well as the body itself; he had a diadem upon his head, and above it a crown of gold: he also had a scepter in his right hand. About the bier were his sons and his numerous relations; next to these was the soldiery, distinguished according to their several countries and denominations; and they were put into the following order: First of all went his guards, then the band of Thracians, and after them the Germans; and next the band of Galatians, every one in their habiliments of war; and behind these marched the whole army in the same manner as they used to go out to war, and as they used to be put in array by their muster-masters and centurions; these were followed by five hundred of his domestics carrying spices. So they went eight furlongs to Herodium; for there by his own command he was to be buried. And thus did Herod end his life.”
It’s a testimony to temporal greatness. Perhaps some of the neighborhood kids of Jerusalem who would later follow Jesus saw this spectacle. Maybe they compared it to the incoming King of the Jews when they put down their cloaks and cut down palm branches. But look again. “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!” Zechariah 9:9 says, “Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Even then, with all the acclaim as wind in the sails of Jesus, he came in on a donkey and died on the cross like a criminal. In our life, leadership, and planning, let’s follow suit.