Herod’s Power

By James Cornwell

Reading from Acts, 12:18-25

18 When morning came, there was no small commotion among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19When Herod had searched for him and could not find him, he examined the guards and ordered them to be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there.

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. So they came to him in a body; and after winning over Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for a reconciliation, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. 21On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. 22The people kept shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!” 23And immediately, because he had not given the glory to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

24 But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. 25Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.


With the exception perhaps of wealth, the biblical narrative seems to heap warnings on no other human aspiration more than it does political power.

We witness first King Herod’s murder of the guards set over St. Peter — the apostle whom he had imprisoned to please his constituents. Then Herod travels from Judaea to Caesarea. Notice the symbolism: he travels away from the center of religious life toward the center of commerce and political administration. He moves from the symbolic solidity of the land to the shifting sands on the coast of the dangerous seas.

He has killed one apostle and imprisoned another to please his constituents, and now he goes where he has maximum opportunity for influence and flattery. The pinnacle of his own Tower of Babel is reached when he gives an oration to the people in royal raiment from his lofty throne. The people declare his voice to be that of a god, and — we assume — he believes them. Upon reaching this highest of places, he is stricken, killed by the lowest of low creatures — worms.

Thus the Scriptures dispose of a man binded by worldly commercial and political power. In the midst of an election season, we should be wary of hitching our fortunes to anyone who seeks power of this kind, on the right or on the left, or of leaving a grounded center of faith for the realm of influence and flattery — lest we, too, rise to the pinnacle of our own pretensions; lest we, too, be brought low.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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