When I read the story of Herod’s death I think of a similar one in the Old Testament, the story of Nebuchadnezzar. The fourth chapter of Daniel tells of the time Nebuchadnezzar stood on the roof of his great palace in Babylon, looked out over the famous hanging gardens and said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). It was a classical statement of what we call secular humanism, the persuasion that everything in life is of man, by man and for man’s glory.
While Nebuchadnezzar was still speaking a voice came from heaven saying that because he had not given glory to God but had taken God’s glory to himself, he would become insane, and become like an animal, living in the fields for seven years, until he should acknowledge that the Most High God was the true God and sovereign over human kingdoms. That is what happened. Nebuchadnezzar became insane, was driven from the palace, and he lived like an animal for seven years. At the end of that time, as he himself said, his “sanity was restored” (v. 34), and he praised God. This was not just a matter of intellectual sanity, of course, but rather of spiritual sanity. It means that Nebuchadnezzar came to his senses spiritually, acknowledging that Jehovah really was the true God.
It is easy to see the parallel between this and the story of the death of King Herod. But there is also a great contrast. Nebuchadnezzar was judged in a way that allowed him, by the grace of God, eventually to regain his right spiritual mind and acknowledge that God is the true God. Herod had no opportunity to do that.
Most of us will never be in a position where we have an opportunity to do anything like that, of course, and I trust that no such judgment is ever going to come upon us. Nevertheless, we do have a tendency to take praise to ourselves when it should go to God. People will say, “What you have done is so wonderful” or “Aren’t you wonderful!” When that happens there is always a tendency to smile in a half-prideful, half-humble way, thinking, “Well, yes I am; thank you for noticing it.”
We are on dangerous ground when we do this. What we must learn to do is to give glory to God. We have no talent that God has not given. We have achieved no success that God has not made possible. We can do no good of which God is not the source. We need to acknowledge that, as the Bible teaches we should.
Having said that, however, I need to indicate that the reason Luke includes the story of Herod’s death, in my judgment, is not primarily to show that it is wrong to take the glory of God to ourselves, though that is obviously true and is part of the story. Rather, it is to provide a contrast with the two verses with which this second section of Acts ends. Verse 24 says, “But the Word of God continued to increase and spread.” Herod dies, but the Gospel lives.
Verse 25 adds, “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” These verses lay the ground for the missionary expansion of the church introduced in the very next verse, at the start of chapter 13 and following.
Up to this point Herod had been the individual who was most effective in opposing the progress of the Gospel. At the beginning of the story the persecutions of the church were not really very intense. The Sanhedrin did not like it when the apostles went around saying that Jesus had been raised from the dead. They liked it even less when the apostles accused them of Jesus’ murder. But there was still a certain tolerance among these religious leaders, and they were not terribly hostile so long as the traditions of their fathers were respected and upheld.
It was quite different with King Herod. Herod arrested James and had him executed. Then, as we saw in last week’s study, he also arrested Peter and was going to have him executed, too. He would have succeeded if God had not sent His angel to deliver Peter from prison. Herod was opposed to the expansion of the Gospel. But now, as this section of the story ends, it is he who is struck down by the Lord’s angel, and the Gospel prospers. Verse 24 makes this contrast when it says, “But the Word of God continued to increase and spread.”
John Stott writes, “At the beginning of the chapter Herod is on the rampage—arresting and persecuting church leaders; at the end he is himself struck down and dies. The chapter opens with James dead, Peter in prison, and Herod triumphing; it closes with Herod dead, Peter free, and the Word of God triumphing.”1
It is always that way. The enemies of the cross have always opposed the Gospel. But in spite of them, the Good News spreads. Why is it that the Gospel continues to spread when so many other messages flounder and become relics of the past? In tomorrow’s study I will suggest a few reasons.
1John R. W Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990), 213.