“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” — Matthew 2:16 (NIV)
Christmas, it seems, ought to be such a beautiful time. We celebrate the birth of a darling baby to wholly admirable parents. A bright star shone. The angels sang. The shepherds left their flocks to see the baby. Magi came from a great distance to offer gifts fit for a king. All is calm and beautiful. Except for Herod.
Why would God allow such an atrocity to cloud this season of wonder and hope? What is the point of it?
Back in the Garden of Eden, God made Adam the lord of everything he could see. Adam, assisted by Eve, was supposed to tend the garden, take care of the beasts, and rule the earth. Only one thing was off limits–the fruit of one tree. Having given his instructions and the one small prohibition, God left the two alone.
Satan came immediately to take the word of God away from them. They chose to obey Satan’s dishonest suggestion instead of God righteous commandment. In so doing, they turned their authority and rulership over to Satan. He became the god of this world.
God gave Herod–and all the rest of us–free will for the same reason he gave it to Adam: to demonstrate to the rebellious Satan that he, God, could indeed create a being who could freely choose to love and obey him. He could do that only by creating a being who could freely choose to hate and reject him.
Either way, God had a plan that the fall of mankind could complicate, but not thwart. Satan had not won a lasting victory. God immediately decreed that the seed of the woman (hence, a man born of a virgin) would defeat Satan. Satan has bullied mankind by deception and fear ever since.
Why did Herod kill all of those children? Because he feared anyone who could conceivably occupy his throne. Caesar Augustus once commented that he would be better off as Herod’s dog than his son. His murderous fear of a baby makes no sense, but then neither do a lot of the decisions we see and hear about every day–including, we must all admit, decisions by the person who stares back at us from the mirror.
But remember, Satan is the god of this world. The Old Testament records the lives of many people who freely chose to obey God, although none did so perfectly. Satan has managed to corrupt everyone, some by causing them to stumble in their walk with God (Moses or David, for example) and some by controlling them completely (Herod, for example).
Satan has always feared children and sought to kill them. Every dead baby is one who cannot grow up to choose God over Satan. And Satan knew that one baby, born of a virgin, was destined to defeat him.
Children suffer the most in times of war, in times of famine, in times of epidemics. The ancient Canaanites practiced child sacrifice as an important part of their religion. In modern affluent societies, largely safe from such plagues, abortion has become Satan’s primary means of destroying children. Herod’s rampage fits this pattern perfectly, all the more because the baby he feared was precisely the child of the virgin Satan feared.
At Easter, we sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” the implied answer being, yes, we were all there. We were the indifferent majority who didn’t care what happened to this country preacher. We were the priests and synagogue leaders so opposed to this new move of God that they stooped to an illegal trial to put an end to it. We were the howling mob shouting for the crucifixion. We were the followers of Jesus so scared for their own skin that they ran away and hid rather than stand up for him.
What is the point of the slaughter of the innocents at Christmas? We were there, too. Thank God for his great mercy. God still had the same plan in Bethlehem as he had in Eden. He has the same plan today. Except now, the child born of a virgin has already dealt Satan a crushing defeat. In Jesus, we can truly see the character of God, and it has become easier than it was before to turn to him, to chose to love and obey him.