There was great consternation in the prison the next morning, when it was found that Peter was absent. It would seem as if the guard had been thrown into a deep sleep, seeing that they had not been awakened by any of the circumstances that occurred; for had they been cognizant of them, but passive through terror, they would not have been so much surprised “as soon as it was day.” Herod was in much wrath when he heard that, notwithstanding the precautions he had directed to be taken, the apostle had disappeared. He caused a diligent search to be made for him; and when no trace of him could be found, he examined the soldiers; and finding that they could not, or, as he perhaps supposed, would not, throw any light on the matter, he ordered that they should be put to death. It was in ancient times very generally regarded as a capital offence for those to whose charge a prisoner was entrusted to suffer him to escape; and it must have seemed clear that in this case the guards had either slept upon their post, or had been consenting parties to the escape. Herod was probably the more induced to enforce this penalty, for the purpose of conveying the impression that the soldiers had aided in the escape of Peter.
Herod then proceeded to Caesarea, which had become the political metropolis of the country since the great works and public buildings which his grandfather had founded there. Soon after his arrival, a grand commemoration was held in honor of the emperor. The precise occasion we do not know. Some suppose it was in honor of his birth-day; others that it was to celebrate his return from Britain. There was, on this occasion, a large concourse of the great and noble to Caesarea; and the theater, built by the elder Herod, must have presented a splendid appearance when the stone seats, rising tier above tier in the open air, were lined with persons arrayed in the gorgeous vestures of the East. Here the usual games were celebrated, such as gladiatorial combats and the like. Herod Agrippa had contracted at Rome a taste for these savage sports, and had introduced them into Judea. Josephus mentions, that on one occasion he had, at Berytus, given no fewer than seven hundred pairs of men to fight in these mortal combats; thus, as the historian approvingly remarks, using up his malefactors in such a manner that, by the very act of getting rid of them, he made them subservient to the pleasure of the people. The stricter Jews, however, had a creditable dislike to these sports. But there were many more accommodating in this respect; and in such places as Caesarea, where a very large proportion, if not a majority, of the inhabitants were Greeks, there never was want of spectators to fill the theater.
On the second day Herod appeared in the theater, attired with extraordinary splendor, as it was his intention, before the games of the day commenced, to give audience to ambassadors from Tyre and Sidon. These anciently renowned and still thriving cities were not in the king’s own territory, but enjoyed some share of independence under the Romans. As their domains were small, and all their attention was given to manufactures and commerce, they depended almost entirely upon Herod’s territory for the requisite supplies of corn and other agricultural produce, their country being in fact, as the sacred historian remarks, “nourished by the king’s country.” It was therefore of the utmost importance to them that they should be on good terms with him. But they had, from some cause or other, incurred his deep displeasure; and to put an end to the evils thus threatened or incurred, they repaired to Caesarea, where having first of all made Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, their friend, doubtless by means of a handsome douceur, for that has always been the way of the East, they succeeded in obtaining a public audience, and of composing their difference with him.
Josephus informs us that the king’s dress on this day was of silver tissue, which shone most effulgently in the morning sun. This effulgence was probably heightened by numerous splendid jewels. At this day, as in ancient days, the kings of Persia appoint, for the reception of ambassadors, such an hour as, according to the season or the situation of the intended room of audience, will best enable them to display in full sunshine the dazzling brilliancy of their jeweled dresses; and it is on record, that the title, “He was of resplendent raiment,” was added to the name of one monarch, because, on some high festival, his regal ornaments, glittering in the sun’s rays, so dazzled the eyes of the beholders, that they could scarcely endure the refulgence, and some courtiers professed their inability to distinguish between the person of the monarch and the great luminary of the day.
Arrayed in such “royal attire,” Herod took his place upon his high seat in the theater. He proceeded to make a speech, probably in the matter of the Tyrian embassy; and just as he concluded, the rays of the morning sun played upon his dress, and gave to his person a most dazzling appearance. Upon this, the heathen courtiers, of whom there were many present, and probable the Tyrian ambassadors prominently, raised a shout, hailing him as a god! This idea was not unfamiliar to the heathen mind. In the Greek mythology we read of many mortals raised to divinities after their death. Among the Greek kingdoms of the East it was also not unusual for a sovereign to cause divine honors to be rendered to his predecessor; and among the Romans nearly all the emperors were thus deified, as well as many of their wives and female relatives. There are medals extant commemorating the names of sixty persons who received the honors of deification between the times of Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, when the custom ceased. There are also sculptures symbolizing the fact of deification, or representing its ceremonies. In the British Museum there is a curious sculptured tablet, representing the apotheosis of Homer. For persons to receive divine honors during life was less common, but not absolutely rare. Very lately we saw Caligula claiming worship as a god; formerly Mark Antony had assumed in Egypt the character of Osiris. Alexander the Great had also affected to be a god; and the Scripture history records the fact, that Darius was prevailed upon to be a god for a month (Dan_6:7). Indeed, the manner in which Herod Agrippa accepted this profane adulation, reminds one of the poet’s description of Alexander under the like circumstances—
A present deity!’ they shout around:
“‘A present deity!’ the vaulted roofs rebound.
With ravished ears
The monarch hears,
Assumes the god,
Affects the nod,
And seems to shake the spheres.”
In like manner the King of Judea accepted this homage, or at least did not repel it, though, as a Jew, he ought to have repelled it with horror and indignation. Of all who ever accepted such adulation, none was so guilty as Herod; for he knew the truth—that there was but one God, the creator of heaven and earth; and that he was a very jealous God, and would not give his glory to another. Of this he was instantly reminded, for “immediately the angel of God smote him, because he gave not God the glory.” It may be that the rays of the sun, which by shining upon his raiment, did, in conjunction with the eloquent beneficence of his speech, call forth this blasphemous adulation, were, in the shape of a sun-stroke, made the appropriate instrument of his punishment. He was seized with horrid torments in the intestines; and he who had just been greeted as a god, was borne forth, in all his splendid raiment, amid groans, and cries, and tears, declaring that he had received the death-stroke, and acknowledging the hand of God in his punishment. He survived five days in extreme torture, being “eaten of worms,” and then died of that horrid and loathsome death, which, as we formerly showed, Note: Evening Series: Thirty-First Week—Sunday. has so peculiarly been the doom of tyrannous persecutors and blasphemers, as if to show what weapons the Lord had reserved with which to bring down into the very dust the loftiness of the most proud.
We have combined, in this account of Herod’s death, the statements of St. Luke and of Josephus. There is a remarkable agreement between them, although Luke, in his more concise statement, omits some circumstances which Josephus, in his more full account, supplies, and which fit very well into the shorter narrative. Thus both agree that his disease was of the intestines; but Josephus says nothing of the worms, while Luke, as a physician, naturally notices the cause as well as the fact of the tortures Herod endured. Both also agree that the real cause of his death was his acceptance of divine honors; for although Josephus was tender of the memory of this king, and gives a more favorable character of him than is warranted by the facts he records, he was too good a Jew to suppress or disguise this circumstance, which, indeed was acknowledged by Herod’s own conscience, and was known to all the people.
Still Herod was not, as times went, a bad ruler; and in the apprehension that a worse condition of affairs might ensue, his demise was deeply lamented by his subjects. The Christians, however, had no cause to deplore his death; and it must not escape remark, that the sacred historian, after recording that Herod “gave up the ghost,” emphatically adds, “But the word of God grew and multiplied.”