Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29
3. For Herod had seized John, and bound him, and put him in prison, on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. 4. For John said to him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. 5. And though he wished to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they accounted him a prophet. 6. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and pleased Herod. 7. And therefore he promised with an oath, that he would give her whatever she would ask. 8. But she, after having been instructed by her mother, said Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. 9. And the king was sorry, yet on account of the oath, and of those who sat with him at table, he commanded that it should be given. 10. And he sent and beheaded John in the prison. 11. And his head was brought in a dish and given to the girl, and she carried it to her mother. 12. And his disciples came and carried away the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
17. For Herod himself had sent, and seized John, and bound him in prison, on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. 18. For John said to Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. 19. And Herodias lay in wait for him, and wished to kill him, and could not. 20. For Herod dreaded John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and observed him, and, having heard him, did many things, and heard him gladly. 21. And when a convenient day came, when Herod on his birthday made a supper to the nobles, and captains, and distinguished men of Galilee; 22. And when the daughter of Herodias entered, and danced, and pleased Herod, and those who sat at table with him, the king said to the girl, Ask any thing from me, 351 and I will give it to thee. 23. And he swore to her, Whatever thou shalt ask of me, I will give to thee, even to the half of my kingdom. 24. But she went out and said to her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. 25. And she went in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, I wish that thou wouldst give to me immediately in a dish the head of John the Baptist. 26. And the king being sorry on account of the oath, and of those who sat at table with him, would not refuse her. 352 27. And he immediately sent a spearman, 353 and commanded that his head should be brought: and he went, and beheaded him in the prison. 28. And he brought his head in a dish, and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29. And when his disciples heard of this, they carne and carried off his body, and laid it in a tomb.
This narrative is at present omitted by Luke, because he had explained it on a former occasion; and for my own part, as I am unwilling to annoy my readers by writing the same thing twice, I shall handle this passage with greater brevity 354 The Evangelists relate that John was seized, because he had openly condemned Herod for carrying off Herodias, and for his incestuous marriage with her. Josephus assigns a different reason, namely, that Herod, dreading on his own account a change of affairs, regarded John with suspicion, (Ant. 18. 5:2;) and it is possible that this may have been the pretext on which the tyrant excused his crime, or that such a report may have been in circulation; for it frequently happens that various motives are assigned for unjust violence and cruelty. The true state of the fact, however, is pointed out by the Evangelists: Herod was offended at the holy man, because he had been reproved by him.
Josephus is mistaken in supposing that Herodias was carried off, not from his brother Philip, but from Herod, King of Chalcis, his uncle, (Ant. 18:5:4.) For not only was the crime still recent when the Evangelists wrote, but it was committed before the eyes of all. What is elsewhere stated by Josephus, (Ant. 18:4:6,) that Philip was a person of amiable dispositions, emboldened Herod, I have no doubt, to expect that an outrage committed on a mild, gentle, and peaceable man, would pass with impunity. Another probable conjecture may be mentioned. There is greater reason to suppose that Herodias was married to her uncle Philip than to her grand-uncle, her grandfather’s brother, who must have been at that time in the decrepitude of old age. Now Herod Antipas (who is here mentioned) and Philip were not brothers by the same mother; for Herod was the son of Marthaca, third wife of Herod the Great, and Philip was the son of Cleopatra. 355
To return to the Evangelists, they tell us that John was thrown into prison, because he had reproved Herod’s crime with greater freedom than the ferocity of the tyrant would endure. The atrocious character of the deed was in itself sufficiently detestable and infamous; for not only did he keep in his own house another man’s wife, whom he had torn away from lawful wedlock, but the person on whom he had committed this outrage was his own brother. When, in addition to this, he is freely reproved by John, Herod has some reason to fear that sedition will suddenly break out. His lust did not allow him to correct his fault; but having imprisoned the prophet of God, he promises to himself repose and liberty. 356
Ignorance of history has led many persons into a fruitless debate; “Have I a right to marry the woman who was formerly married to my brother?” Though the modesty of nature recoils from such a marriage, 357 yet John condemns the rape still more than the incest; for it was by violence or by stratagem 358 that Herod had deprived his brother of his lawful wife: and otherwise it would have been less lawful for him to marry his niece than to marry his brother’s widow. There cannot be a doubt, that a crime so flagrant was universally blamed. But others loaded Herod with their curses in his absence. John alone comes into his presence, and reproves him boldly to his face, if by any means he may be brought to repentance. Hence we learn with what unshaken fortitude the servants of God ought to be armed when they have to do with princes; for in almost every court hypocrisy and servile flattery are prevalent; and the ears of princes, having been accustomed to this smooth language, do not tolerate any voice which reproves their vices with any severity. But as a prophet of God ought not to overlook so shocking a crime, John steps forward, though a disagreeable and unwelcome adviser, and, rather than fail in his duty, scruples not to incur the frown of the tyrant, even though he knew Herod to be so strongly held by the snares of the prostitute, that he could scarcely be moved from his purpose.
5. And though he wished to put him to death. There is some appearance of contradiction between the words of Matthew and Mark: for the former says that Herod was desirous to commit this shocking murder, but was restrained by the fear of the people; while the latter charges Herodias alone with this cruelty. But the difficulty is soon removed. At first Herod would have been unwilling, if a stronger necessity had not compelled him reluctantly to do so, to put to death the holy man; because he regarded him with reverence, and, indeed, was prevented by religious scruples from practising such atrocious cruelty against a prophet of God; and that he afterwards shook off this fear of God, in consequence of the incessant urgency of Herodias; but that afterwards, when infuriated by that demon he longed for the death of the holy man, he was withheld by a new restraint, because he dreaded on his own account a popular commotion. And here we must attend to the words of Mark, Herodias lay in wait for him; 359 which imply, that as Herod was not of himself sufficiently disposed to commit the murder, she either attempted to gain him over by indirect wiles, or labored to find some secret method of putting the holy man to death. I am more disposed to adopt the former view, that she employed stratagems for influencing the mind of her husband, but did not succeed, so long as Herod was prevented by remorse of conscience from pronouncing sentence of death on the holy man. Next followed another fear that the business of his death should excite the people to some insurrection. But Mark glances only at what prevented Herod from yielding immediately to the entreaties of the prostitute; for Herodias would have wished that, as soon as John was thrown into prison, he should be privately executed. Herod, on the contrary, reverenced the holy man, so far as even to comply willingly with his advises: Herod feared John Now the fear which is here mentioned, was not a dread arising from a mistaken opinion, as we dread those who have obtained some authority over us, though we reckon them to be unworthy of the honor. But this fear was a voluntary respect; for Herod was convinced that he was a holy man and a faithful servant of God, and therefore did not dare to despise him. 360 And this deserves our attention; for though John knew by experience that it was, in many respects, advantageous for him to have some share in the good wishes of the tetrarch, 361 yet he was not afraid to offend him, when he could find no other way of securing that favor, than by wickedly conniving at a known and disgraceful crime. He might indeed have protested that he did not at all consult his private interests, and that he had no other object in view than the public advantage; for it is certain that he requested nothing from motives of ambition 362 but that Herod yielded to his holy counsels, which had a reference to the lawful administration of the kingdom. But as he perceives that he has no right to accept this kind of compensation, 363 which would procure for him some kind offices by betraying the truth, he chooses rather to turn a friend into an enemy than to encourage, by flattery or silence, an evil which he is laid under the necessity of reproving with severity.
John has thus, by his example, furnished an undoubted rule for pious teachers, not to wink at the faults of princes, so as to purchase their favor at this price, how advantageous soever that favor might appear to be to the public interests. 364 In Herod, on the other hand, the Spirit of God exhibits, as in a mirror, how frequently it happens that those who do not sincerely worship God are nevertheless willing, in some measure, to obey His commands, provided that He will grant them some indulgence or abatement. But whenever they are hard pressed, they throw off the yoke, and break out not only into obstinacy, but into rage. There is no reason, therefore, why they who comply with many sound advises should be well satisfied with themselves, till they have learned to yield and surrender themselves unreservedly to God.
6. And when Herod’s birthday was kept. The Evangelists now begin to relate the stratagem by which Herodias at length succeeded in a design which she had long meditated, the taking away of John’s life. The opportunity was afforded to her by an annual festival, when Herod was celebrating his birthday. It is scarcely possible that such magnificent preparations should not draw luxury, pride, unbridled merriment, and other crimes, and likewise many other evils, along with them. Not that there is any thing wrong in the mere act of preparing an expensive banquet; but such is the tendency of the human mind to licentiousness, that when the reins are loosened, they quickly go astray. The ancient custom of observing a birthday every year as an occasion of joy cannot in itself be disapproved; for that day, as often as it returns, reminds each of us to give thanks to God, who brought us into this world, and has permitted us, in his kindness, to spend many years in it; next, to bring to our recollection how improperly and uselessly the time which God granted to us has been permitted to pass away; and, lastly, that we ought to commit ourselves to the protection of the same God for the remainder of our life.
But nothing is so pure that the world shall not taint it with its own vices. A birthday, which ought to have been held sacred, is profaned by the greater part of men with disgraceful abuses; and there is scarcely a single entertainment at all costly that is free from wicked debauchery. First, men drink more freely; next, the door is opened to filthy and immodest conversation; and, lastly, no moderation is observed. This was the reason why the patriarch Job was in the habit of offering sacrifices, while his sons were feasting alternately in each other’s houses, (Job 1:5.) It was because he thought that, when the guests invite one another to mirth, they are far from maintaining due moderation, and sin in a variety of ways.
Thus it happened that Herod, intending to give a rich entertainment to his guests, permitted his wife’s daughter to dance. Hence, too, it appears what sort of discipline existed at his court; for, though most people at that time thought themselves at liberty to dance, yet for a marriageable young woman to dance was a shameful display of the impudence of the strumpet. But the unchaste Herodias had moulded her daughter Salome to her own manners in such a manner that she might not bring disgrace upon her. 365 And what was the consequence? The wicked murder of a holy prophet. The heat of wine had such an influence on Herod, that, forgetting gravity and prudence, he promised to a dancing girl, that he would give her even to the half of his kingdom. A shameful example truly, that a drunken king not only permits himself to behold with approbation a spectacle 366 which was disgraceful to his family, but holds out such a reward! Let us therefore learn to be careful in anticipating and resisting the devil, lest he entangle us in such snares.
Mark 6:24. And she went out, and said to her mother We need not wonder that Herodias attached so much importance to John’s death. 367 The conjecture thrown out by some—that she was actuated by revenge,—is not at all probable. It was rather the dread of being cast off that inflamed and tormented her; as it usually happens that, when adulterers are visited with feelings of uneasiness, they become ashamed of their own lust. But she hoped that this crime would bind Herod more closely to her than ever, if the disgrace of a pretended marriage were washed out by the blood of the prophet. That her power might be more secure for the future, she longed for the death of that man whom she imagined to be her only opponent; and this shows us the wretched anxiety by which a bad conscience is always tormented. John was detained in prison, and the haughty and cruel woman might have issued orders that no man should converse with or approach him; and yet she has no rest, but is oppressed with anxiety and alarm, till the prophet be removed out of the way. This likewise serves to show the power of the word of God, that the voice of the holy man, even when shut up in prison, wounds and tortures in the keenest manner the mind of the king’s wife. 368
26. And the king being sorry. His heart, as we have said, was no longer influenced by religious sentiments; but, foreseeing the detestation that will be excited by such a crime, he dreads both the loss of character and positive harm, and consequently repents of his levity. And yet he has not the courage to give a refusal to a dancing girl, lest he should incur the reproach of unsteadiness; as if it were more dishonorable to retract a rash and foolish promise than to persist in a heinous crime. With the wonted vanity of kings, he does not choose that what he has once uttered shall be recalled, and orders that the prophet shall be instantly slain. We infer that Herod was at that time supping in the castle of Macherus, where, Josephus tells us, John was imprisoned, (Ant. 18. 5:2.)
On account of the oath, and of those who sat at table with him. It deserves our attention that the Evangelists state this to be the reason of his grief; and hence we infer that, though he had sworn a hundred times, yet if there had been no witness, he would not have held by his oath. No inward feelings of religion constrained Herod to do this, but the mere love of power drove him headlong; for he reckoned that he would sink in the estimation of those who were present, if he did not fulfill his engagement. Thus it frequently happens that ungodly men fail to perform their duty, because they do not look to God, but are only intent on this object, that they may not incur the reproaches of men. 369 But though Herod had kept before his eyes the sacredness of an oath alone, and not the dread of the opinion of men, he committed a more heinous offense in fulfilling a foolish promise than if he had violated his oath. First, he was deeply in fault for such haste in swearing; for the design of an oath is to confirm a promise in a doubtful matter. Next, when it appeared that he could not be relieved from his engagement without involving himself in an aggravated crime, he had no right to implicate the sacred name of God in such wickedness; for what could be more at variance with the nature of God than to lend his countenance to a shocking murder? If a private loss is at stake, let him who has made a rash oath suffer the punishment of his folly; but, when a man has taken the name of God in vain, let him beware of doubling his guilt by employing this as a pretense for committing some enormous crime. Hence it follows, that monastic vows, which are attended by open impiety, do not bind the conscience any more than the enchantments of magicians; for it is not the will of God that his sacred name shall give support to what is sinful. But this passage teaches us, that we ought to beware of making promises without consideration; and next, that lightness must not be followed by obstinacy.
28. And gave it to the girl. It was an additional aggravation of this detestable crime, that the head of the holy man was made, after his death, a matter of sport. But in this way the Lord sometimes gives up his people to the pride of wicked men, till he at length makes it evident that their blood is precious in his sight (Ps 116:15.) Herodias is delighted with the thought of having gained her wicked purpose, and cruelly triumphs over her reprover; but when afterwards, stripped of her wealth, and not only deprived of the title of queen, but driven from her native country, and destitute of all means of support, she dragged out a wretched life in poverty and banishment, she presented a spectacle gratifying to angels and to all good people. When we perceive that the guests are compelled to pollute their eyes by beholding this detestable exhibition, let us learn from it, that those who sit at the tables of kings are often involved in many crimes; for, granting that the table is not stained by murder, every thing partakes so largely of all sorts of wickedness, that they who approach to it must be at least given up to debauchery.
29. His disciples came. One thing only remained to complete the woman’s cruelty. It was, to leave the corpse of the holy man unburied; for there is reason to believe that, when his disciples performed this duty, the attendants of the tyrant had thrown out the corpse. Though the honor of burial is of no importance to the dead, yet it is the will of the Lord that we should observe this ceremony as a token of the last resurrection; and therefore God was pleased with the carefulness which was manifested by the disciples, when they came to commit to the tomb the body of their master. Moreover, it was an attestation of their piety; for in this way they declared that the doctrine of their master continued to have a firm hold of their hearts after his death. This confession was therefore worthy of praise, more especially as it was not without danger; for they could not do honor to a man who had been put to death by the executioner without exciting against themselves the rage of the tyrant.
“Demande-moy ce que tu voudras;” — “ask of me what thou wilt.”
“Le roy estant fort marri, ne la voulut point’ toutesfois’ esconduire ou reietter;” — “The king being very angry, did not wish, however, to deny or refuse her.”
“Ainsi envoy, incontinent le bourreau;” —”so he immediately sent the executioner.”
The allusion is to his exposition of Luke 3:19, 20, which will be found in Harmony, vol. 1. p. 222. — Ed.
“The apparent discrepancy between Josephus and the sacred historians is removed, as was formerly suggested, (Harmony, vol. 1. p. 223, n. 1,) by a hypothesis which appears to be generally admitted, that the name of the person in question was Herod-Philip. — Ed.
“Il se fait accroire qu’il sera en repos, et qu’il pourra continuer sa meschancete sans aucune crainte;” — “he makes himself believe that he will be at ease, and that he will have it in his power to continue his wickedness without any dread.”
“Combien que l’honneste naturelle condamne un tel marriage;” — “though natural decency condemns such a marriage.”
“Ou par force et violence, ou par quelque ruse et moyen subtil;” — “either by force and violence, or by some trick and cunning method.”
“Herodias cherchoit occasion;” — “Herodias sought an opportunity.”
“Estoit aucunement contreint en soy mesme de luv porter l’honneur, et ne l’osoit pas mespriser;” — “was somewhat constrained in himself to bear respect towards him, and did not dare to despise him.”
“Qu’il eust quelque entree en la Cour, et que le Roy l’eust aucunement agreable;” — “that he should have some access to the Court, and that the King should be somewhat favorable to him.”
“Qu’il n’a rien demande au Roy pour se faire valoir, ou pour monstrer son credit;” — “that he asked nothing from the King to put himself forward, or to display his influence.”
“Que ceste facon de compensation n’est point honneste, ne selon Dieu;” — “that this kind of compensation is not honorable, nor according to God.”
“Encore qu’ils ne la cherchent point pour leur regard particulier, mais seulement pour avoir occasion de profiter plus en d’autres endroits;” —”even though they do not seek it for their private interest, but solely in order to have an opportunity of doing more good in other respects.”
“Si elle eust mieux fallu que sa mere;” — “if she were more highly esteemed than her mother.”
“Non seulement prend plaisir a un fol passe-temps;” — “not only takes pleasure in a foolish pastime.”
“De ce qu’ Herodias a estime un grand avantage pour elle de faire mourir Iean;” — “that Herodias reckoned it a great advantage to her to put John to death.”
“Ne laisse pas d’espouvanter asprement, et navrer au vif le coeur de ceste femme;” — “fails not vehmently to alarm and cut to the quick the heart of the woman.”
“Et ne se soucient seulement que d’eviter le blasme et la moquerie des hommes;”— “and are only anxious to avoid the censure and ridicule of men.”