A tyrant loses moral authority

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Several steps of the palace of Herod the Great peak through the lawn immediately to the right of the lad jumping off the low wall. Herod’s palace, which rivaled the Temple itself, filled the entire area from these steps to the distant slender tower.

On the west side of Old Jerusalem, outside the city wall, lads from a Yeshiva school visit with their teacher and play. They gather among scant ruins of what probably was the western entrance to Herod the Great’s palace at the time Jesus was born.

Matthew reports that wise men from the East, presumably Gentiles, came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have come to pay him homage.” When Herod heard this, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3).

Tyrants fear competition, and people of Judea had reason to fear what an erratic ruler such as Herod would do next. The king summoned chief priests and scribes, who cited Micah 5 to confirm that scripture called for a messianic ruler to come from the nearby village: “O Bethlehem . . . one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.” He will “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” and “shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:1-5).

But peace was not on Herod’s mind when he heard about the birth of a new king. Lying to cover his murderous design, Herod fed deceit into the communication network. He told the wise men to “go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

Instead of joining in worship, Herod sent troops to slaughter all baby boys of Bethlehem in hopes of killing Jesus. Joseph and Mary with the newborn Christ already had fled to Egypt.

Herod was not the nurturing shepherd that Micah portrayed as the ideal ruler! But when angels came to fields near Bethlehem to announce news of Jesus’ birth, they came to real shepherds. The angels brought a healing message in contrast to Herod’s cruelty: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace” (Luke 2).

Shepherds in ancient Palestine were not the despised, untrustworthy persons some interpreters make them out to be. But they held a humble place in the social order, matching the lowly status of Jesus’ servant-girl mother. Shepherds came to the stable to worship the ruler who Micah said would feed his flock. The wise men, probably well-to-do astrologers, came from a distant culture to offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

There is no indication that shepherds and wise men visited at the same time. But, taken as a whole, the Gospels depict all of humanity bowing to the Christ child: rich and poor, marginal and elite, Jew and Gentile, domestic and foreign.

Herod seethed in his palace, a luxurious structure one thousand feet long that featured multiple baths, banquet halls, and gardens. The king had real estate and weapons, but also so many enemies that he had to build safe houses at various places in his realm where he could retreat if his people rebelled.

Tyrants eventually lose moral authority. Revolts that erupted in Galilee and Jerusalem before and immediately after Herod died failed. But his kingdom fragmented over the next generation, and the Herod dynasty was gone. Two millennia later, the kingdom that began with the child in a stable at Bethlehem counts citizens on every continent, wherever people call Jesus Lord and accept the angel’s message, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.”

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join!   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

Will a wall protect us?

Expecting imminent attack by the merciless army of Assyria in 701 BC, King Hezekiah of Jerusalem prepared for siege. He built a 1700-foot tunnel to supply the city with water. He set about “repairing all the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it.” He added “another wall” outside that one and reinforced supporting terraces (“the Millo”) of the City of David. He also “made weapons and shields in abundance” (2 Chronicles 32).

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Only a few feet of Hezekiah’s defensive wall rise above ground level today, but the 23-foot width is there. The vertical blue and white strip on a building to the left shows the estimated original height of the wall.

That second wall mentioned in Chronicles is what archaeologists believe they found while restoring Jerusalem after the 1967 war. Although today only lower portions remain, it once was a massive structure twenty-three feet wide and probably twenty-six feet high. A two hundred-foot length is visible among modern buildings today.

After Hezekiah fortified Jerusalem, he assembled people of the city and said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him, for there is a greater power with us than with him.”

Those faith-filled words did not convince everyone. Isaiah later asserted that people of Jerusalem built a reservoir in anticipation of siege, but “did not look to the One who made [the city], or have regard for the One who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:11). They trusted more in military defenses than in God.

King Sennacherib of Assyria indeed besieged Jerusalem, and gloated that he “shut Hezekiah up like a caged bird” in the royal city. But the siege failed, and Jerusalem was spared (2 Kings 19). Was that protection from the wall or from the Lord? Perhaps both.

But Isaiah was certain God governed history, and that filled him with hope even when political or military horizons were bleak. With expansive vision, the prophet said someday “all the nations shall stream” to Jerusalem, and peoples of the world will “beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2).

Isaiah could not have fathomed leaders of a distant nation 2700 years later hankering to build a massive wall to keep out impoverished or endangered foreigners who want to work in factories, start businesses, go to college, cook in restaurants, and otherwise contribute to society.

Perhaps Isaiah would quote from his prophetic scroll: “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (3:15). “Is this not the fast that I choose . . . to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them . . .?” (58:6, 7)

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

I invite you to enter your email address in the designated box at the edge of this webpage (if you have not already subscribed), and click Follow. You’ll get a notice every three or four weeks when I put up a new blog post. I will not spam you!

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. We will do all this with scripture in hand and prayer in our hearts. Interested? See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/