Acts 12:19b-24 (AD 44)
King Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great who killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem, was gaining popularity with the Jews by persecuting Christians (12:1-4). When Peter escaped prison, the humiliation it caused the king – especially because he assumed it was a conspiracy among the guards – provoked Herod to execute the guards.
That’s the backdrop to Heron Agrippa’s final, decisive act of blasphemy: taking the plaudits of a crowd chanting that he was a god after he delivered a speech. He was flushed with the success of a negotiated peace deal and happy for the people to think of him as a god. He and they were not monotheists – they thought that there were many gods, and the people believed (maybe) that Herod was one of them.
According to Jewish historian Josephus, the words, “Immediately…an angel of the Lord struck him down” (v.23) were followed by Herod suffering spontaneous and debilitating stomach or intestinal pains. They were so severe that he had to be carried back into the palace. Then, over a five-day period, “he was eaten by worms and died” (v.23). Was it appendicitis followed by peritonitis with roundworm? Or a tapeworm-provoked cyst? We don’t know and it doesn’t matter. What is relevant is the horror and finality of it.
If the sin was that serious for God to kill him, why make it agonising? Why not just end the guy right there? And why did God even do that? It is similar to the Ananias and Sapphira incident of Acts 5, when God killed them for their lies, except with them it was immediate and apparently painless.
Herod’s sin was dealt with by God with such public severity, because it was the worst thing you can do: take people away from God. By accepting the plaudits of the crowd chanting that he was a god, he accepted or affirmed their belief that God isn’t God. That there were many gods of varying value, and that Herod was one of them. Every aspect of that belief takes people away from relationship with God, from safety, and from forgiveness. For the sake of the people God showed them that no, there was only one God, and it was Him. Like the curse on the firstborn of Egypt, it was the unforgettable severity of God’s punishment that gave people the opportunity to understand the truth most crucial to their salvation.
Does God deal with people like that any more? Hardly ever. He hardly ever did it then, either – that’s why when he did, it was an event significant enough to be included in the Bible. But God’s view of the seriousness of sin generally, and of that sin specifically, hasn’t changed.
God knows your heart. He didn’t punish Herod for not jumping up quickly enough to say something, he punished him for a life of narcissism culminating in public self-idolatry. So you don’t need to worry about getting punished for not saying quite the right thing at quite the right time. Don’t be tempted into a false fear of a made-up god who loves to pettily and vengefully ‘smite’ people. That god isn’t real.
Understand, rather, that your relationship with God is the most important thing in your life. That everyone else’s relationship with God is the most important thing in THEIR life.
If you love someone, point them to God.
If you hate someone, point them to God, too.