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. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat on the platform, and delivered a public address to them. The people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!’ And 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. But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents. Then after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.
The author of today’s devotion has changed the NRSV ‘to Jerusalem’ to ‘from Jerusalem’ in v25. Reading ‘to’ is illogical. These men had been sent to Jerusalem (11:30) and were already there. The RSV and NIV agree with this reading, as does quite a lot of the ancient textual tradition.
Death of a god?
About a dozen members of the Herod family appear in the New Testament. This unhappy character is Hero Agrippa I, who ruled various parts of the Holy Land from 37 to 44AD, under the umbrella authority of the Roman Empire. The incident is noted by the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote at the end of the first century, as well as here in Acts by Luke. Some of the detail below comes from Josephus.
The setting is Caesarea, smartest of Jewish towns, built in grand Roman style. Herod was in command of the occasion. This was his capital. His enemies were pleading for mercy. He wore his most impressive royal attire, and the crowds on the steep banking of the big outdoor theatre were working up a swell of excitement. Hailing kings as gods was a coming fashion in the Empire. Their king was surely as good as any, especially when civic rivalry was at stake. Shout on, friends. And perhaps for a moment Herod rather liked the title. An important chap like me…
Until he collapsed, with a fierce pain in the gut. Food poisoning? Gallstones? Burst appendix? Might the ‘worms’ imply some sort of parasitic illness? Ruptured pride was part of it too. They took him back to the palace, where his life slipped away, and the royal succession in Judea petered out, ready for a new Roman governor to sail into town.
Meanwhile, Luke reminds us, a story of steady church growth is under way. People are coming to faith, churches are maintaining contact and care with one another, and new leaders are emerging. Princes and persecutors come and go. The gospel is here to last.
God of the ages and generations, our times are in your hand. Jesus, child of our flesh and dust, you lead as servant king. Spirit, breathing among us, you quicken faith.
We pray for a world where power can be humble, where leaders know their limits, where vanity shrinks, and the gospel will grow.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Rev’d John Proctor is a member of Emmanuel Church, Cambridge and the General Secretary of the URC.