Why did King Herod try to kill Jesus shortly after His birth? After all, what difference could a tiny baby have made to someone as powerful as he was?
Historians tells us that King Herod (or Herod the Great, as he liked to be called) was a cruel, power-hungry ruler who destroyed anyone he feared was trying to topple him from his throne. He even killed several members of his own family because he thought they were plotting against him.
When a group of wise men (or scholars) came to Jerusalem shortly after Jesus was born they asked one question: Where could they find the newly-born king of the Jews? They added, “We have seen His star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2, NKJV). When word of this reached King Herod, he sent for them and urged them to find the child, so he could worship him, too.
But Herod was lying. His real goal was to destroy the child, fearing (illogically) that in time Jesus would take over his throne. God warned the wise men of Herod’s plot in a dream, and after Herod realized they had evaded him, he ordered the death of every child in Bethlehem below the age of two.
Herod wasn’t the last to try to destroy Christ and His people; even in our own day evil men and women rise up against God’s work. But God’s Word is true: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18, KJV). And some day Christ will come again to judge all evil, and Satan’s defeat will be complete. On whose side are you?
How Herod Got His Power
Herod “the Great” ruled as king of the Jews under Roman authority for thirty-three years, from 37–4 BC. It is this Herod who appears in the account of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:1–19; Luke 1:5).
From the start, Herod proved to be an extraordinary political survivor. When civil war broke out in Rome between Mark Antony and Octavian, Herod first sided with Antony and his ally Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt.
Then, when Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, Herod immediately switched sides, convincing Octavian of his loyalty.
Following his victory, Octavian returned to Rome, where the Roman senate made him imperator, or supreme military leader, and gave him the honorary title “Augustus” (“exalted one”).
Historians mark this event as the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire, the transfer from rule by the senate to rule by a supreme emperor.
Under the patronage of Octavian—now Caesar Augustus—Herod’s position as king of the Jews was secure. For his Roman soldier part, Herod would prove to be a loyal subject to his Roman overlords, maintaining order in Israel and protecting the western flank of the Roman Empire.
What Herod Was Like
Herod was a strange mix of a clever and efficient ruler and a cruel tyrant.
On the one hand, he was distrustful, jealous, and brutal, ruthlessly crushing any potential opposition. The Jews never accepted him as their legitimate king, and this infuriated him.
He constantly feared conspiracy. He executed his wife when he suspected she was plotting against him. Three of his sons, another wife, and his mother-in-law met the same fate when they too were suspected of conspiracy.
Herod, trying to be a legitimate Jew, would not eat pork, but he freely murdered his sons! Matthew’s account of Herod’s slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem fits well with what we know of the king’s ambition, paranoia, and cruelty (Matt. 2:1–18).
Was there a good side to Herod?
Herod wasn’t all bad. He presented himself as the protector of Judaism and sought to gain the favor of the Jews.
He encouraged the development of the synagogue communities and in time of calamity remitted taxes and supplied the people with free grain.
He was also a great builder, a role which earned him the title “the Great.” His greatest project was the rebuilding and beautification of the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to even greater splendor than in the time of Solomon.
Judea prospered economically during Herod’s reign. He extended Israel’s territory through conquest and built fortifications to defend the Roman frontiers.