“Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’ Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.”
Acts 12:20-23 ESV
In Acts 12, we see both the folly and the resultant fruit of the sin of pride. When he was seemingly at one of the heights of his political tenure, God swiftly brings King Herod low, striking him with an angel, and publicly destroying him for not giving the proper honor to God. God sees all that we do, even perceiving to the depths of our thoughts, intentions, emotions, and hearts; if not for His grace, both in His common grace to mankind, and His specific, salvific grace towards those who believe in Christ through faith, God as the holy and impartial judge will pour out His righteous wrath on sinners both in this life and certainly in the next. It is through such texts as these that we are warned- by both history and the inspired word of God- that pride is a sinful snare and it is only through Christ Jesus that we escape it.
We are first introduced to the man known as King Herod at the beginning of Acts 12, where he makes great persecution against the church and against her leaders. As the chapter opens, we are told that King Herod “laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1). In particular, we learn that “he killed James the brother of John with the sword…[and] proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:2; 3 ESV). The text clues us in that Herod had arrested Peter because “he saw that [James’s death had] pleased the Jews” (12:3). Herod is ultimately a slave to the fear of man; his track record has proven that he was selfishly sadistic. He persecutes the church to ultimately please the Jews and bring glory and praise to himself. This appeasement of his subjects was short-lived, as Acts 12 provides the account of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison by the sovereignty of God through the working of His angel. Surely furious, King Herod retreats to Caesarea in Acts 12:19, but not after putting his guards to death after allowing Peter’s escape.
Now in Caesarea, King Herod finds himself before the Tyrians and Sidonians who “depended on the king’s country for food” (12:20). At this time in history, Tyre and Sidon were two ancient coastal settlements or cities some miles north of Herod’s location. They were originally Phoenician settlements, an empire that was heavily comprised of merchants and sailors, but had a longtime relationship with Israel and her kings. Judea and the regions below supplied many of the crops and goods that were exported in these Phoenician ports. Now at odds with Herod, the Tyrinans and Sidonians had come to Herod with the hopes of making peace. Matthew Henry writes that King Herod “was disposed to pick a quarrel” with Tyre and Sidon and being “highly displeased with this people, they must be made to know that his wrath was as the roaring of a lion, as messengers of death.” We do not know from the text what had been said or done to anger Herod. But instead of acting as “God’s servant for [his subjects’] good”, King Herod and Blastus elect to pursue self-serving diplomacy with Tyre and Sidon as “messengers of death” (Romans 13:4).
We should all be able to see how insincere and ridiculous Blastus and Herod’s plan is for reconciliation. One is the time frame of the gesture. After having come to Herod for peace, perhaps even desperately due to their lack of food, Herod responds without urgency: on a determined day that served to benefit and uplift his own self-image. Additionally, on this appointed day, Herod “put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them” (Acts 12:21 ESV). Herod’s address is pompous and grandiose. The use of the word “oration” in the text suggests that Herod’s speech was more eloquent and boastful than focused on addressing a real need. Matthew Henry writes that Herod’s valuing of his appearance and his royal gesture supposes to give himself the “privilege to trample upon all about him as his footstool.” Herod seems to get exactly what he wants: “And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’” (Acts 12:22 ESV).
This entire situation is ludicrous; Herod’s robes, his pomp, his oration, and the people glorifying him as a god. It is easy to remove ourselves from this context; Herod is a fool and pride is certainly foolishness. But how many of us on a daily basis succumb and give into pride and self-exaltation? We are a prideful people, often thinking entitled thoughts and living uncontented and ungrateful lives. If it were not for God’s grace and mercy in Christ, many of us would look just Herod. We too seek opportunities to pridefully and foolishly exalt ourselves and our reputations and we shamefully rejoice when others see us as gods and not the mere men we are. This is a cause for deep self-reflection, repentance, and glorying in Christ for his mercy to us.
And then, what happens next is both comical and incredibly sobering. It should be both, if we think long and hard about this text. In verse 23, we read: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:23). Herod’s death is particularly gruesome. His death is immediate. Without hesitation, at just the right moment, the Lord chooses to execute His righteous vengeance upon Herod. Why did this occur? The text clues us in, telling us that this occurred because “he did not give God the glory” (v. 23).
Herod and all that he owns and stands for is reduced to worm fodder in an instant- “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV). This should make us shudder. Brothers and sisters, do not place your trust in yourself, your health, your intelligence, your job, your status in life, or any earthly thing, causing you to believe that you yourself are the captain of your own fate. You only deceive yourself. You and I are not, in the ultimate sense, autonomous beings. God is the giver of everything, even down to our next breath or heartbeat. These gifts are meant to be enjoyed and when rightly enjoyed, we give proper glory to God for who He is- the owner and giver of all things, and the only wise and gracious God. But even so, we too are all only one breath or heartbeat away from becoming worm fodder like Herod. It is a fool’s errand to place your ultimate trust in such things; you only wage warfare against God with His gifts, and this is a battle that cannot be won.
We must repent of our pride and fear of man and turn to Christ that we may have life. God himself “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14 ESV). If you are not a Christian, maybe you are denying that you have any sin and therefore any culpability before God, or seeking to absolve yourself of your guilt in some other way other than Christ Jesus, know that God is holy and just and will destroy all lawbreakers. We all deserve a similar fate as Herod in this life, and infinitely in the next. But God sent Christ, His own Son, very God of very God, to fulfill all righteousness in our place, and to die as the substitute for sinners. It is through repentance, or turning from our sin, and placing our faith in Christ Jesus that we are saved. This does not mean that we are always perfectly humble, but God has promised to forgive our sin through Christ and commanded us to put to death what is earthly in us.
“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth…Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Colossians 3:5-8; 12-13 ESV