Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
Herod persecutes the Christians, Act 12:1. Kills James, Act 12:2. And casts Peter into prison, Act 12:3, Act 12:4. The Church makes incessant prayer for his deliverance, Act 12:5. An angel of God opens the prison doors and leads him out, Act 12:6-10. Peter rejoices, and comes to the house of Mary, where many were praying, and declares how he was delivered, Act 12:11-17. The soldiers who kept the prison are examined by Herod, and he commands them to be put to death, Act 12:18, Act 12:19. Herod is enraged against the people of Tyre, but is appeased by their submission, Act 12:20. He makes an oration to the people, receives idolatrous praises, and an angel of the Lord smites him, and he dies a miserable death, Act 12:21-23. The word of God increases, Act 12:24. Barnabas and Saul, having fulfilled their ministry, return from Jerusalem accompanied by John Mark, Act 12:25.
Herod the king - This was Herod Agrippa, the son of Aristobulus, and grandson of Herod the Great; he was nephew to Herod Antipas, who beheaded John they Baptist, and brother to Herodias. He was made king by the Emperor Caligula, and was put in possession of all the territories formerly held by his uncle Philip and by Lysanias; viz. Iturea, Trachonitis, Abilene, with Gaulonitis, Batanaea, and Penias. To these the Emperor Claudius afterwards added Judea and Samaria; which were nearly all the dominions possessed by his grandfather, Herod the Great. See Luk 3:1; see also an account of the Herod family, in the note on Mat 2:1 (note).
To vex certain of the Church - That is, to destroy its chief ornaments and supports.
He killed James the brother of John with the sword - This was James the greater, son of Zebedee, and must be distinguished from James the less, son of Alpheus. This latter was put to death by Ananias the high priest, during the reign of Nero. This James with his brother John were those who requested to sit on the right and left hand of our Lord, see Mat 20:23; and our Lord's prediction was now fulfilled in one of them, who by his martyrdom drank of our Lord's cup, and was baptized with his baptism. By the death of James, the number of the apostles was reduced to eleven; and we do not find that ever it was filled up. The apostles never had any successors: God has continued their doctrine, but not their order.
By killing with the sword we are to understand beheading. Among the Jews there were four kinds of deaths:
3. killing with the sword, or beheading; and,
The third was a Roman as well as a Jewish mode of punishment. Killing with the sword was the punishment which, according to the Talmud, was inflicted on those who drew away the people to any strange worship, Sanhedr. fol. iii. James was probably accused of this, and hence the punishment mentioned in the text.
He proceeded - to take Peter also - He supposed that these two were pillars on which the infant cause rested; and that, if these were removed, the building must necessarily come down.
The days of unleavened bread - About the latter end of March or beginning of April; but whether in the third or fourth year of the Emperor Claudius, or earlier or later, cannot be determined.
Four quaternions of soldiers - That is, sixteen, or four companies of four men each, who had the care of the prison, each company taking in turn one of the four watches of the night.
Intending after Easter to bring him forth - Μετα το πασχα, After the passover. Perhaps there never was a more unhappy, not to say absurd, translation than that in our text. But, before I come to explain the word, it is necessary to observe that our term called Easter is not exactly the same with the Jewish passover. This festival is always held on the fourteenth day of the first vernal full moon; but the Easter of the Christians, never till the next Sabbath after said full moon; and, to avoid all conformity with the Jews in this matter, if the fourteenth day of the first vernal full moon happen on a Sabbath, then the festival of Easter is deferred till the Sabbath following. The first vernal moon is that whose fourteenth day is either on the day of the vernal equinox, or the next fourteenth day after it. The vernal equinox, according to a decree of the council of Nice, is fixed to the 21st day of March; and therefore the first vernal moon is that whose fourteenth day falls upon the 21st of March, or the first fourteenth day after. Hence it appears that the next Sabbath after the fourteenth day of the vernal moon, which is called the Paschal term, is always Easter day. And, therefore, the earliest Paschal term being the 21st of March, the 22d of March is the earliest Easter possible; and the 18th of April being the latest Paschal term, the seventh day after, that is the 25th of April, is the latest Easter possible.
The term Easter, inserted here by our translators, they borrowed from the ancient Anglo-Saxon service-books, or from the version of the Gospels, which always translates the το πασχα of the Greek by this term; e.g. Mat 26:2 : Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover. Wite ye that aefter twam dagum beoth Eastro. Mat 16:19 : And they made ready the passover. And hig gegearwodon hym Easter thenunga (i.e. the paschal supper.) Prefixed to Mat 28:1, are these words: This part to be read on Easter even. And, before Mat 28:8, these words: Mar 14:12 : And the first day of unleavened bread when they killed the passover. And tham forman daegeazimorum, tha hi Eastron offrodon. Other examples occur in this version. Wiclif used the word paske, i.e. passover; but Tindal, Coverdale, Becke, and Cardmarden, following the old Saxon mode of translation, insert Easter: the Geneva Bible very properly renders it the passover. The Saxon Earten, Eartne, Eartno, Eartna, and Eartnon are different modes of spelling the name of the goddess Easter, whose festival was celebrated by our pagan forefathers on the month of April; hence that month, in the Saxon calendar, is called Easter month. Every view we can take of this subject shows the gross impropriety of retaining a name every way exceptionable, and palpably absurd.
Prayer was made without ceasing - The Greek word εκτενης signifies both fervor and earnestness, as well as perseverance. These prayers of the Church produced that miraculous interference mentioned below, and without which Peter could not have thus escaped from the hands of this ruthless king.
Sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains - Two soldiers guarded his person; his right hand being bound to the left hand of one, and his left hand bound to the right hand of the other. This was the Roman method of guarding their prisoners, and appears to be what is intimated in the text.
Smote Peter on the side - He struck him in such a way as was just sufficient to awake him from his sleep.
His chains fell off from his hands - The chains mentioned above, by which he was bound to the two soldiers.
Gird thyself - It seems Peter had put off the principal part of his clothes, that he might sleep with more comfort. His resuming all that he had thrown off was a proof that every thing had been done leisurely. There was no evidence of any hurry; nor of any design to elude justice, or even to avoid meeting his accusers in any legal way. It appears that the two soldiers were overwhelmed by a deep sleep, which fell upon them from God.
He - wist not - He knew not; from the Anglo-Saxon, to know. He supposed himself to be in a dream.
The first and - second ward - It is supposed that ancient Jerusalem was surrounded by three walls: if so, then passing through the gates of these three walls successively is possibly what is meant by the expression in the text. The prison in which he was confined might have been that which was at the outer wall.
Iron gate - This was in the innermost wall of the three, and was strongly plated over with iron, for the greater security. In the east, the gates are often thus secured to the present day. Pitts says so of the gates of Algiers; and Pocock, of some near Antioch. Perhaps this is all that is meant by the iron gate. One of the quaternions of soldiers was placed at each gate.
Which opened - of his own accord - Influenced by the unseen power of the angel.
The angel departed from him - Having brought him into a place in which he no longer needed his assistance. What is proper to God he always does: what is proper to man he requires him to perform.
When Peter was come to himself - Every thing he saw astonished him; he could scarcely credit his eyes; he was in a sort of ecstasy; and it was only when the angel left him that he was fully convinced that all was real.
Now I know - that the Lord hath sent his angel - The poor German divine is worthy of pity, who endeavored to persuade himself and his countrymen that all this talk about the angel was mere illusion; that Peter was delivered in a way which he could not comprehend, and therefore was led to attribute to a particular providence of God what probably was done by the prefect of the prison, who favored him! But it is the study of this writer to banish from the word of God all supernatural influence; and to reduce even the miracles of Christ to simple operations of nature, or to the workings of imagination and the prejudices of a weak and credulous people. Such men should at once cast off the mask which so thinly covers their infidelity, and honestly avow themselves to be, what they are, the enemies of revelation in general, and of the Christian religion in particular. Peter could say, Now I know of a certainty that the Lord hath sent his angel, and delivered me, etc. No such thing, says Mr. E., Peter was deceived; it was not the Lord, it was the prefect or some other person. Now we know that Peter spoke by the Holy Ghost; but we have no much testimony of Mr. E. nor of any of his associates.
And all the expectation of the - Jews - It seems they had built much on the prospect of having him sacrificed, as they already had James.
And when he had considered - When he had weighed every thing, and was fully satisfied of the Divine interposition, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, the author of the Gospel, where it appears many were gathered together making prayer and supplication, and probably for Peter's release.
As Peter knocked - The door was probably shut for fear of the Jews; and, as most of the houses in the east have an area before the door, it might have been at this outer gate that Peter stood knocking.
A damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda - She came to inquire who was there. Rhoda signifies a rose; and it appears to have been customary with the Jews, as Grotius and others remark, to give the names of flowers and trees to their daughters: thus Susannah signifies a lily, Hadassah, a myrtle, Tamar, a palm tree, etc., etc.
It is his angel - It was a common opinion among the Jews that every man has a guardian angel, and in the popish Church it is an article of faith. The Jews also believed that angels often assumed the likeness of particular persons. They have many stories of the appearance of Elijah in the likeness of different rabbins. As αγγελος signifies in general a messenger, whether Divine or human, some have thought that the angel or messenger here means a servant or person which the disciples supposed was sent from Peter to announce something of importance to the brethren: it was also an opinion among the Jews, even in the time of the apostles, as appears from Philo, that the departed souls of good men officiated as ministering angels; and it is possible that the disciples at Mary's house might suppose that Peter had been murdered in the prison; and that his spirit was now come to announce this event, or give some particular warning to the Church.
Declared - how the Lord had brought him out of the prison - He still persisted in the belief that his deliverance was purely supernatural. It seems that some modern critics could have informed him of his mistake. See Act 12:11.
Show these things unto James, and to the brethren - That is, in one word, show them to the Church, at the head of which James undoubtedly was; as we may clearly understand by the part he took in the famous council held at Jerusalem, relative to certain differences between the believing Jews and Gentiles. See Act 15:13-21. There is still no supremacy for Peter. He who was bishop or overseer of the Church at Jerusalem was certainly at the head of the whole Church of God at this time; but James was then bishop or inspector of the Church at Jerusalem, and, consequently, was the only visible head then upon earth.
He departed - into another place - Some popish writers say that he went to Rome, and founded a Christian Church there. Those who can believe any thing may believe this. Where he went we know not; but it is probable that he withdrew for the present into a place of privacy, till the heat of the inquiry was over relative to his escape from the prison; for he saw that Herod was intent on his death.
Commanded that they should be put to death - He believed, or pretended to believe, that the escape of Peter was owing to the negligence of the keepers: jailers, watchmen, etc., ordinarily suffered the same kind of punishment which should have been inflicted on the prisoner whose escape they were supposed to have favored.
He went down from Judea to Caesarea - How soon he went down, and how long he stayed there, we know not.
Highly displeased with them of Tyre - On what account Herod was thus displeased is not related by any historian, as far as I have been able to ascertain. Josephus, who speaks of this journey of Herod to Caesarea, says nothing of it; and it is useless for us to conjecture.
Having made Blastus - their friend - Blastus was probably a eunuch, and had considerable influence over his master Herod; and, to reach the master, it is likely they bribed the chamberlain.
Desired peace - The Tyrians and Sidonians being equally subjects of the Roman government with the inhabitants of Galilee, Herod could not go to war with them; but, being irritated against them, he might prevent their supplies: they therefore endeavored to be on peaceable, i.e. friendly, terms with him.
Their country was nourished by the king's country - That is, they had all their supplies from Galilee; for Tyre and Sidon, being places of trade and commerce, with little territory, were obliged to have all their provisions from the countries under Herod's jurisdiction. This had been the case even from the days of Solomon, as we learn from Kg1 5:11; where it is said that Solomon gave Hiram twenty thousand measures of wheat, for food to his household; and twenty measures of pure oil: thus gave Solomon to Hiram year by year. See also Eze 27:17.
Upon a set day, etc. - A day on which games, etc., were exhibited in honor of the Roman emperor. What this refers to, we learn from Josephus. "Herod, having reigned three years over All Judea, (he had reigned over the tetrarchy of his brother Philip four years before this), went down to Caesarea, and there exhibited shows and games in honor of Claudius, and made vows for his health. On the second day of these shows, he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture most truly wonderful, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment, being illuminated by the first reflection of the sun's rays, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those who looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, 'He is 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.' Nor did the king rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But, looking up, he saw an owl on a certain rope over his head, and immediately conceived that this bird was to him a messenger of ill tidings; and he fell into the deepest sorrow; a severe pain also arose in his bowels, and he died after five days' severe illness." This is the sum of the account given by Josephus, Ant. lib. xix. cap. 8, sect. 2. (See Whiston's edition.) Notwithstanding the embellishments of the Jewish historian, it agrees in the main surprisingly with the account given here by St. Luke. Josephus, it is true, suppresses some circumstances which would have been dishonorable to this impious king; and, according to his manner, puts a speech in Herod's mouth, when he found himself struck with death, expressive of much humility and contrition. But this speech is of no authority. When Josephus takes up and pursues the thread of mere historical narration, he may be safely trusted; but whenever he begins to embellish, or put speeches in the mouths of his actors, he is no longer to be credited. He even here transforms an angel of the Lord into an owl, and introduces it most improbably into his narration; as if an owl, a bird of all others that can least bear the light, should come and perch on the pavilion of the king, when the sun was shining with the most resplendent rays!
The angel of the Lord smote him - His death was most evidently a judgment from God.
Because he gave not God the glory - He did not rebuke his flatterers, but permitted them to give him that honor that was due to God alone. See on Act 12:21 (note).
And was eaten of worms - Whether this was the morbus pedicularis, or whether a violent inflammation of his bowels, terminating in putrefaction, did not actually produce worms, which, for several days, swarmed in his infected entrails, we cannot tell. It is most likely that this latter was the case; and this is at once more agreeable to the letter of the text, and to the circumstances of the case as related by Josephus.
And gave up the ghost - That is, he died of the disorder by which he was then seized, after having lingered, in excruciating torments, for five days, as Josephus has stated. Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod the Great died of the same kind of disease. See the observations at the end of Act 1:26 (note) relative to the death of Judas.
But the word of God - The Christian doctrine preached by the apostles grew and multiplied - became more evident, and had daily accessions; for the spirit of revelation rested on those men, and God was daily adding to that word as circumstances required, in order to complete that testimony of his which we now find contained in the New Testament. As there is in the original an allusion to the vegetation of grain, (ηυξανε, it grew, as corn grows, the stalk and the ear; και επληθυνετο, it was multiplied, as the corn is in the full ear), there is probably a reference to the parable of the Sower and his seed; for the seed is the word of God, and the doctrine of the kingdom. It was liberally sown; it grew vigorously, and became greatly multiplied. And why? Because it was the word, the doctrine of God - there was no corruption in it; and because God watered it with the dew of heaven from on high.
Returned from Jerusalem - That is, to Antioch, after the death of Herod.
When they had fulfilled their ministry - When they had carried the alms of the Christians at Antioch to the poor saints at Jerusalem, according to what is mentioned, Act 11:29, Act 11:30, to support them in the time of the coming famine.
And took with them John, whose surname was Mark - This was the son of Mary, mentioned Act 12:12. He accompanied the apostles to Cyprus, and afterwards in several of their voyages, till they came to Perga in Pamphylia. Finding them about to take a more extensive voyage, he departed from them. See the case, Act 13:13; Act 15:37-40.
1. When the nature, spirit, and tendency of Christianity are considered, we may well be astonished that it should ever find a persecutor among the souls it was designed to instruct and save! Devils can have no part in it, and therefore we may naturally expect them, through envy and malice, to oppose it; but that men, for whose use and salvation the wisdom and mercy of God made it, should reject its offers of mercy, and persecute to death those who proclaimed it, is the most unaccountable thing that can be conceived. What a proof is this of mere maliciousness, where the persecutor not only serves no self-interest by it, but destroys, as far as he can, all that could promote his own present and eternal happiness! This argues such blindness of understanding, hardness of heart, and derangement of mind, as can be accounted for only on the supposition of a nature totally fallen from God, righteousness, and truth. The Jews crucify Christ, and martyr Stephen; and Herod murders James; and both join together to persecute the followers of Christ and destroy his cause. Reader, consider the consequences: this bad people were permitted to remain till they had filled up the measure of their iniquity, and were then cut of by a most terrible judgment; and Herod was visited for his transgressions in such a most awful way as strongly marked the displeasure of God against persecutors. If a man contend with a man, the contest is in a certain way equal - the potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth; but when a man enters the lists against his Maker, as every persecutor does, wo unto that man! - he must be torn in pieces, when there is none to deliver.
2. How true is the saying, there is neither counsel nor might against the Lord! In the midst of all troubles and afflictions, that kingdom of heaven which is like a grain of mustard seed grew and increased, and became a mighty tree which is now filling the whole earth, and fowl of every wing are flying to lodge in its branches. Ride on, and be thou prosperous, O Christ! We wish thee good luck with thine honor.