Elijah was sent to bring an adulterous nation back to their God and His Law. Centuries later, another Elijah came, the last and greatest of the OT prophets. And like the first Elijah, John the Baptist incurred the wrath of a heathen queen of God’s people. Both were faithful men and both took huge personal risks, but while Elijah was carried up into heaven in a chariot of fire, John departed this earth in a most inglorious fashion, his head served up on a dish.
Herod had a high opinion of the Baptist for he “feared” him “knowing that he was a just and holy man, and kept him safe; and having heard him, did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6: 20). Thus just like the Elijah of old, John had the great privilege of preaching before kings. However, unlike many a modern preacher he didn’t alter the message to suit his audience. He spoke about sin, and not just in general terms, but in a direct and personal manner that many now would regard as offensive. He “reproved” Herod (Luke 3: 19) telling the king that his union with his brother’s wife was a great sin in God’s sight: “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14: 4). Indeed, the sense is not that he just told the king, but that he kept telling him. Such faithfulness led ultimately to his death.
Scripture tells us that Herod had “married” Herodias (Mark 6: 17), but also continues to describe her as “the wife of Philip his brother”. The King attempted to give his new union legitimacy by providing a legal framework for it in the ritual of marriage, but in God’s eyes his new ‘wife’ was still married to Philip. That is why John is so dismissive of the new arrangement. To him, as the latter-day guardian of “the law of Moses … the statutes and ordinances” (Mal. 4: 4), it was all so profoundly simple: “It is not lawful for thee to have the wife of thy brother” (Mark 6: 18). Herod might call it ‘marriage’, God looked on it as adultery.
It would not have mattered if the Sanhedrin had conferred their blessing on Herod’s ‘marriage’, or even if Philip had intervened to say that he no longer considered Herodias his wife. Nor would the passage of time or the production of children legitimise the King’s relationship. The adulterous behaviour of Herodias certainly could not undo her union to Philip, and ‘marriage’ had no power to convert her sin (either now or in the future) into what was right and good. No, the Word of God was clear and unbending: “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14: 4). He may have loved her, and she him, but such things are of no consequence whatsoever when God’s commandments are at stake.
The attitude to God’s Word displayed by Herod is quite common. Thus there may be many parts of Scripture that are heard “gladly” (Mark 6: 20), while other passages are hastily passed over or improper attempts made to avoid their force. We do not need to leave the subject of marriage to see this. Marriage lasts as long as one’s spouse is alive (see Rom. 7: 1–4), and all other attempts to annul it are sinful (see Luke 16: 18). Why then do Christians have such difficulty in obeying what God has said? It is because personal happiness is put up above the Bible. It is deeply troubling in particular to see a false ‘grace’ brought in to excuse disobedience to Scripture. “Woe unto them who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (Is. 5: 20). True grace will be seen in activity in keeping marriage partners together and may, when all else fails, consent to separation (see 1 Cor. 7: 10–15)—but not to divorce and remarriage. Grace, even real grace, cannot undo the marriage bond.
In conclusion, let us return to John. He was not afraid to stick his neck out when the Word of God was at stake, and he paid for it (literally) with his neck. May you and I show the same fearless adherence to all of Scripture!