During the months leading up to our trip to Israel, my wife and I formed a number of expectations about the trip. We could not wait to see the historic sites where the Biblical stories took place. Primarily, we were excited to see the locations associated with David, Solomon, Abraham, and (most of all) Jesus Christ. After arriving in country, however, it became clear that any modern tour of Israel would go beyond seeing the sites of the heroes of the Old and New Testament. A comprehensive tour of the holy land would not be complete without seeing the building prowess of one particular man who lived in the years surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ – King Herod the Great.
Herod ruled Israel (under Roman authority) for 37 years according to the historian Josephus, and is mentioned only briefly in the New Testament as the paranoid King who ordered the murder of all males two years old and younger in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus at the time of His birth (see Matthew 2:16-18). To be clear, Herod was a murderous, egotistical madman who ruled his country (and his family) with fear and force. In spite of those terrible flaws, however, Herod was a great builder. The nation of Israel today is scattered with ruins of his rule. During his short time in leadership, Herod built the desert fortress of Masada, expanded greatly the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, built the premiere sea port in Caesarea Maritima, and many other smaller building projects around the country.
One of Herod’s most known building accomplishments was the fortress he named Herodion. Herodian was a manmade hill built just outside of the city of Jerusalem that rose to the highest point in the Judean wilderness. You might think that Herod built this fortress up so that he could see the city of Jerusalem from his patio. Most however believe that Herod built up Herodian NOT so that he could see Jerusalem, but so that Jerusalem could see HIM. It is believed that Herodian and all of its splendor (with parks, and theaters, and pools, and houses) was built to “show off” his greatness to the rest of the nation.
While visiting Herodian, we watched a short film about Herod’s death. Apparently, as Herod began to die, he planned out all the details surrounding his funeral and burial. Herod was to be buried at Herodian with all of his crown jewels. He did not want to pass along any of his fortune to his family . . . he wanted it to die with him.
Seeing the story of Herod was a vivid picture for me of human selfishness on steroids . . . and where that leads in life. Herod had the means and opportunity to make life all about himself. No doubt, he accomplished many things in life. However, the the ruins of Herodian remind us of the short-lived nature of human accomplishment . . . every stone in Herodian is a reminder of the failed attempts at immortality by the force of human machismo. It is a sad story indeed.
I contrast this “great” king with the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. Jesus came “not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Jesus did not “consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied Himself in the form of a servant . . . becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Instead of clinging to His heavenly riches, Jesus chose to give to us “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3) Herod is the best (and worst) of what humanity can do and be without God — a tragic collision of creative potential and destructive violence. Jesus on the other hand shows us the pattern of what true greatness looks like. Greatness that will last. Greatness that is eternal. Greatness that is generous.
Too many people today try to be the next Herod the Great; spending their lives in an incessant pursuit of more, bigger, better – always with a self-centered bent. Jesus offers us something more. He offers us true greatness. An opportunity to live our lives as they were intended: following His example, cleansed by His sacrifice, and empowered by His Spirit. Let us follow His great lead by taking on the mind of Christ: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5)