Meet Herod the Great: Ruthless Ruler of the Jews

Interview of the Magi and King Herod the Great
Interview of the Magi and Herod the Great by J. James Tissot.

Public Domain 

Herod the Great was the villain in the Christmas story, a wicked king who saw the baby Jesus as a threat and wanted to murder him.

Herod the Great

  • Two Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Herod the Great: When King Herod ordered the murder of all babies two years and younger in Bethlehem, it fulfilled Jeremiah 31:15; Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt because of this threat. After Herod died, they returned, fulfilling Hosea 11:1.
  • God allowed Herod the Great to build a magnificent temple in Jerusalem. The Lord uses even evil people as instruments to accomplish his purposes.
  • Following in his father's footsteps, Herod Antipas murdered John the Baptist and allowed Jesus to be crucified because he did not want any threats to his throne.

Herod the Great's Story

Although he ruled over the Jews in Israel in the time before Christ, Herod the Great was not completely Jewish. He was born in Ashkelon, a southern Palestine seaport on the Mediterranean Sea in 73 BC to an Idumean man named Antipater and a woman named Cyprus, the daughter of an Arab sheik.

Herod was a schemer who took advantage of Roman political unrest to claw his way to the top. During a civil war in the Empire, Herod won the favor of Octavian, who later became the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar. Once he was king, Herod launched an ambitious building program, both in Jerusalem and the spectacular port city of Caesarea, named after the emperor. He restored the magnificent Jerusalem temple, which was later destroyed by the Romans following a rebellion in A.D. 70.

The biblical story of Herod the Great is told in Matthew 2:1-22; Luke 1:5.

In Matthew's Gospel, the Wise Men met Herod on their way to worship Jesus. He tried to trick them into revealing the child's location in Bethlehem on their way home, but they were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, so they returned to their countries by another route.

Jesus' stepfather, Joseph, was also warned in a dream by an angel, who told him to take Mary and their son and flee to Egypt, to escape Herod. When Herod learned he had been outwitted by the Magi, he became furious, ordering the slaughter of all the boys who were two years old and under in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16).

King Herod
King Herod is depicted (left) in Sano di Pietro's "Massacre of the Innocents," 1470. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Joseph did not return to Israel until Herod had died. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported that Herod the Great died of a painful and debilitating disease that caused breathing problems, convulsions, rotting of his body, and worms.

Herod reigned 37 years. His kingdom was divided by the Romans among his three sons. One of them, Herod Antipas, was one of the conspirators in the trial and execution of Jesus.

Herod the Great's tomb was discovered by Israeli archaeologists in 2007 at the site of the city of Herodium, 8 miles south of Jerusalem. There was a broken sarcophagus but no corpse.

Accomplishments

Herod strengthened Israel's position in the ancient world by increasing its commerce and turning it into a trading hub for Arabia and the East. His massive building program included theaters, amphitheaters, a port, markets, temples, housing, palaces, walls around Jerusalem, and aqueducts. He kept order in Israel but by using secret police and tyrannical rule.

Strengths

Herod worked well with Israel's Roman conquerors. As a skilled politician, he knew how to get things done.

King Herod the Great
Herod the Great. Kachelhoffer Clement / Contributor / Getty Images

Weaknesses

Herod the Great was a brutal man who killed his father-in-law, several of his ten wives, and two of his sons. He ignored the laws of God to suit himself and chose the favor of Rome over his own people. Herod's heavy taxes to pay for lavish projects forced an unfair burden on the Jewish citizens.

Life Lessons From Herod the Great

Uncontrolled ambition can turn a person into a monster. God helps us keep things in the proper perspective when we focus on him above all else.

Jealousy clouds our judgment. We should appreciate what God has given us instead of worrying about others.

Great accomplishments are meaningless if done in a way that dishonors God. Christ calls us to loving relationships rather than building monuments to ourselves.

Herod the Great's Family Tree

Father - Antipater
Mother - Cyprus
Wives - Doris, Mariamne I, Mariamne II, Malthace, Cleopatra (Jewish), Pallas, Phaedra, Elpis, others.
Sons - Herod Antipas, Philip, Archelaus, Aristobulus, Antipater, others.

Key Verses

Matthew 2:1-3
"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him" (NIV).

Matthew 2: 7-8
"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 make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him' " (NIV).