I awoke this morning in a rather bleak mood, thinking about the course of Western civilization and the relentless pull of the totalitarian state. We seem to want more and more to create, through democratic means, a government that takes your place, O God. In recent months this passage seems especially relevant:
You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…
If one substitutes “your government” for “the Lord your God,” one gets a sense of the political landscape today. There is a philosophy in the air that claims no one accomplishes anything on his own (true in a sense), but has government to thank for any success. This argument is used as justification for more government. People want more government because they want less of you, O Lord.
It is easy to become cynical over this situation. But you are a God of hope, not despair. Today you gave me this reading:
Then Herod went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. After securing the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king’s country for their food supply.
On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.” 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.
But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.
You teach me here, O Lord, that it is not Man’s place to accept your praise, which you do not intend to share:
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another.
Herod’s greatest moment, the pinnacle of his political success, comes here in his apotheosis among the coastal people of Tyre and Sidon. Worried about their provisions, they turn to the sort of sycophantic behavior that sometimes arises among oppressed people. They prostrate themselves before the authority figure, deifying him in the hopes that their smooth words will win his favor. Herod is no different from today’s politicians: He loves the limelight, loves to make speeches in front of great multitudes, loves the cameras and microphones. His ego is much larger than his greatness. His desire for self-aggrandizement overwhelms his beneficence toward the people under his leadership.
There is so much wrong with this picture: a once proud and prosperous people (Tyre was once a major trading hub on the Mediterranean) trading their dignity for abject begging; a great crowd of people deifying a corrupt politician, who lacks the humility and vision to see how his pride threatens his own life. You, O Lord, the great and generous Provider, are being bypassed, ignored, as these people instead turn to a mere man to provide their daily bread. They have forgotten your Word:
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in humans.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes.
Takeaway #1: Remember the Provider. The people had rejected you and turned to “princes” – men of influence – as their object of trust. You had warned the Israelites many times that they must not turn away from you. At the foot of Mt. Sinai they claimed that the golden calf (or the false deity it represented) was responsible for leading them up out of Egypt. Repeatedly they turned to the pagan gods, particularly Baal, who was said to increase crop yields, and thus wealth. Any time that man falsely attributes your bounty to another – whether their own efforts (see Deuteronomy 8:17, cited above), or false gods, or other human beings, he embraces a fundamental lie, and invites disaster.
Takeaway #2: Beware the worms. The worms are coming for the prideful person.
Strangely, the history of Tyre and Sidon – the very cities calling to Herod for help in this story – should have served as a warning to the proud king Herod:
Son of man, say to the ruler of Tyre, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“‘In the pride of your heart
you say, “I am a god;
I sit on the throne of a god
in the heart of the seas.”
But you are a mere mortal and not a god,
though you think you are as wise as a god.
(I encourage the reader to check out all of Ezekiel’s prophecy against Tyre and Sidon in chapter 28 of his book.)
You teach here that there is no god but you, O Lord. And how you chose to humble and destroy Herod is telling: You used the instrumentality of the worm, the most humble of creatures. Nothing is lower than a worm. David used the word this way:
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. Psalm 22:6
David used this figure of speech because he was prefiguring your humiliation, Lord Jesus. During your time on earth you likewise provided food for the people, and in doing so brought glory to God. Yet at the end of your life you had lost all popularity and suffered the abuse of the majority. You became a “worm” because you would not glorify yourself.
The worm is the lowest form of animal life. You cause it, O Lord, to appear at this point in Herod’s life to destroy him and his foolish ego. This too is consistent with your Word. As Paul wrote:
God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
1 Corinthians 1:28-29
Mortal man, beware the worm. The worm comes to destroy the proud. You use the lowest, most despised things to shame those who are vain and proud. You teach us to glorify you alone. May I never attempt to steal the glory that is rightfully yours.
Takeaway #3: Your Word thrives in poor soil. The story concludes with a non-sequitur: “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.” The disciples were unfazed by these distressing political events. Likewise, we should be unfazed. Instead of expending energy to fix a corrupt political system, we ought to remember our New Testament marching orders, in order that the Word of God may continue to spread and flourish in our times.
Today, in 2013, corruption is rampant. People increasingly turn to corrupt politicians to provide for them. They turn away from you and look instead to princes. Governments seem to be sliding inch by inch toward a form of totalitarianism that casts the people as mere supplicants, begging for favors from an all-powerful State apparatus. Powerful, forceful, evil men (mostly men, yes) take hold of the levers of civil society and shape it in ways that aggregate power and wealth and glory to themselves. In such dark times it is difficult to remember, O Lord, that you are sovereign and you are fully in command.
Even in this environment, O Lord, your Word is alive:
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Even in this environment, O Lord, your Word is free:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained.
2 Timothy 2:8-9
Therefore, we do not lose heart. We are your people, your Body, Lord Jesus. Whatever governments may choose to do, we will glorify you only, we will look to you only as our Provider. And we will be faithful to your Word, which flourishes even in the least promising soil.
And now, reader, for your listening pleasure, here is a cheerful song about totalitarianism:
“The bells explain what they’ve been lacking all along: They were disorganized and that was what was wrong. And now they know the way to go…”