The death of Herod Agrippa is the tragic tale of a king who will not listen. It takes place at a scary time in old Israel’s history, roughly 17 years after Jesus first appeared in public as the king whom God had sent. Jesus showed himself to be the Messiah with his words, miracles and resurrection, and called people to respond with repentance and faith to gain a place in his kingdom. But he also warned those who rejected him that they were facing the loss of everything (Lk 8:18). In Acts 11 and 12 that destiny is becoming visible in: (a) Gentiles outside of Israel coming to faith in the Lord and forming their own church (Ac 11:26); (b) Prophets predicting a famine in the land (Ac 11:28,29); (c) Israel’s king suffering a supernatural defeat (Ac 12:11); and (d) Jesus’ apostles being removed (Ac 12:17). These all point to a coming crisis for rebellious Israel.
At times the Lord will humble societies for abusing him; Israel here is a prime example. Her resistance, folly, godlessness and disaster are all indications of God’s judgement. But Paul says in Romans that we’ll see similar signs in other places too (Ro 1:18-32), and Christians in those societies may well have to cope with all kinds of difficulties, including a hardening of our fellow citizens to the gospel. Such periods, however, should not surprise us nor cause us to fear, since we know that the Lord controls them and we can live securely if we keep trusting in him.
However, though beginning to punish, God is not yet silent in the Israel of Acts 12. So Herod still has the opportunity to hear His voice. Firstly, there’s been the apostolic witness over, maybe, 12 years in Jerusalem. Secondly, there’s all the miracles including Peter’s remarkable escape from prison (v18)! Thirdly, Herod lives in Caesaria which has seen a remarkable conversion in recent times (v19; Ac 10). Fourthly, there is the testimony of the prophets like Agabus (Ac 11:28). And then, fifthly, there is OT prophecy. Herod has dealings with the people of Tyre and Sidon (v20). These cities were once highly successful trading places, but are now dependent on his generosity. How did this happen? In 332BC Alexander the Great famously built a causeway to the off-shore island where Tyre was based and conquered the city (today the gap has silted up and Tyre is part of the main land.) But who predicted this fall from success? Ezekiel, the OT prophet! He warned Tyre that her arrogant abuse of Israel in a bad time, would lead to God judging her (Ez 26). He warned Tyre’s king that his arrogant claim to heavenly superiority, would be his ruin (Ez 28). And so it was. Which is a very apt lesson for Herod to learn, if only he’d listen to God’s words.
God still speaks in similar ways. Today, we have the testimony of the apostles to Jesus in the New Testament. We still see the Holy Spirit’s converting power in the world. We have the pain of our lives and in human history to shake us up and raise questions. And we have the story of Israel in the Bible, fulfilling all that Jesus and the prophets said about her, to teach us (Ro 15:4; 1Co 10:11-12). So we must wrestle, with the help of the Spirit, to hear God’s words. In them is our key to life; ignoring them brings only regret and ruin – as Herod found out.
Herod does not listen to God. The miracle of the escape, is silenced by Herod’s cruel butchery of his guards (v19). When the people of Tyre come to flatter Herod with the help of his advisor, he’s only too pleased to hear their words (v20). His own royal words are a delight to his ears (v21) and when they bring the adulation he longs for, he cannot get enough of it (v22) for he enjoys winning public opinion (Ac 12:3). Herod loves to hear what makes Herod feel good, and that doesn’t include the voice of God. So God turns against this vain, self-glorifying, selfish little fool and dispatches an angel to take his life (v23). In the end, Herod’s words prove empty whilst God’s word is living and powerful (v24). That’s such an important lesson for us to learn, if we want to grow and develop in life. And alongside it we must be careful in how we listen to others or, indeed, our own voices. Sin has twisted human speech; God’s voice along is fully to be trusted. So we must root out the pride in our hearts, put God first and seek to love others not look down on them and simply use them like Herod. Such a life is truly the best way to live (1Co 13).