Following in the wake of the joy and splendor of the Christmas story is the recounting of an act of unspeakable evil - the slaughter of innocent children by a monstrous and maniacal king (Matthew 2:13-23).
True, that act of butchery happened more than two millennia ago, but it still takes our breath away. However, that was then; what about now? Such evils happen in our own day as well. Far too many Christians are hiding from the wickedness that is devouring our nation before our very eyes.
Even Christians can fall into the trap of being fearful of the power of evil. We might not like to think of it in those terms - no self-respecting follower of Christ would ever admit to such a thing - but how else should we view it?
We fear evil when we are intimidated by it or faint before it. When we cower in the face of it, fear often causes the Christian to quit, surrender, or become passive.
So, why do Christians sometimes fall into the temptation of being intimidated by and fearful of evil? The answer is probably that we see what appears to be its triumph everywhere we look.
Especially when we examine our disintegrating culture, we see our foundations being broken up and institutions crumbling, unable to either restrain evil or rebuild themselves as society slides toward oblivion. We slowly close the door and the shutters of the windows and turn away from the horror.
The backdrop to the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of what appears to be the unconquerable power of wickedness in the world. There is the Roman Empire, a brutal, pagan power, which would subjugate an estimated 25% of the world’s population but also Israel and God’s people.
Herod the Great ruled Israel on behalf of Rome; he was a malevolent ruler who was so wicked he wanted to kill the Messiah to preserve his own reign. In order to accomplish his evil ends, Herod ordered the murder of every male infant and toddler in Bethlehem and surrounding areas.
What can God’s people do in the face of an evil that flexes its muscles to that extent?
Of course, God is not silent about sin. For students of the Bible, we know He has said plenty about the issue of wickedness. He has made His views explicit, telling us clearly what constitutes evil, how He feels about it, what He has done about it in the past, and what He intends to do about it in the future.
An inactive God?
But what about now? In this passage, innocent children are slaughtered by Herod. How many Jews cried out, “Lord, what are you going to do about this?”
After all, God didn't kill Herod in order to stop this wicked thing from occurring. He didn't kill Herod right afterward either. God didn't remove Herod from his throne and make an example of him.
God didn't even appear to do much in defense of Jesus. There are no angelic battalions, no pillar of fire, and no lightning bolt out of the heavens.
In fact, God almost acted as if He was avoiding a confrontation with Herod. God warned Joseph in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt in order to foil Herod’s designs to kill the Messiah.
As we read that, we might ask God: “Run? That’s your answer?”
The fact is, the way God works is often foreign and incomprehensible to us. We want God to remove our painful circumstances, but God is accomplishing an almost limitless number of things simultaneously.
As much as we might hate to admit this, it’s not all about us - or our circumstances.
A date with destruction
We tend to want God to right every wrong now, but Jesus taught that the wheat and the tares grow together in this age. Evil does have a date with destruction, but the time and manner are in God’s keeping.
After reading about the murder of those precious children, it is strange to note the understated, matter-of-fact way in which Herod’s demise is mentioned in Matthew 2:19-20:
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, “Get up, take the child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”
It seems as if little thought was given to describing Herod’s death because, evidently, God gave little thought to Herod. However, history provides us with a few more, um, details about Herod’s death. Says one source:
“In 4 BC when he was 69, Herod the Great finally succumbed to a horrible affliction that came to be known as ‘Herod’s Evil.’ The disease was so painful that Herod tried to commit suicide to escape the pain. The king’s flesh was reputedly riddled with worms and an intense itching, painful bowels and convulsions plagued him. Gangrene also infested the King’s genitals. It was a horrible way to die.”
I think we can all agree that - even in this life – God eventually judged Herod. He deserved every worm that turned.
Whom shall I fear?
As we let these sorts of details sink in, we begin to see the larger picture. Matthew 2:13-23 is not a passage that focuses our attention on the power of evil but on the love, wisdom, and power of God.
God did protect Jesus, but He did so in such a way that the fullness of His purposes were also accomplished. For one thing, as Matthew tells us, the manner of God’s protection actually fulfilled Scripture (vs. 15).
Moreover, we should understand that a stunning and miraculous intervention by God – you know, by angelic battalions or lightning bolts – would have surely drawn the attention of Rome and everyone else, including those in Israel. That would have prevented Jesus from growing up in obscurity as God evidently intended.
Yes, Herod’s malevolent minions murdered those precious babies, who then were brought into their heavenly dwellings. But this satanic counterattack against the birth of the Messiah could not stop the coming of the Holy One – a coming that doubtlessly saved future children in numbers known only to the Almighty.
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus commands His followers, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
The same word for fear – rooted in the Greek word, phobeo – is used both times in this verse. It means to terrify or cause to be afraid, but also to revere. If a person bows his head in the face of something, he is in awe of it. He fears it.
Jesus is saying do not fear evil men or what they can do to you; but absolutely fear God, who can do whatever men can do – and worse.
So, what is our task when devastating circumstances flood our lives? What should we do when evil seems everywhere triumphant?
First, we should cry out to God that His will be done and that we might see His power manifested on earth. We should pray that He would be glorified. We should ask for the heavenly grace to triumph or, if necessary, endure the thorn in our flesh.
Second, we must obey when God says, as He did to Joseph in Matthew 2, “Get up and do exactly as I say.”
With the eyes of faith, the Christian knows God wins in all circumstances by causing all things to work together for our good, although it might take time for us to see that with our own eyes.
But we win – we triumph and overcome – when we trust Him in difficulty and obey Him regardless of our own feelings.
Let us win today – and leave tomorrow to God.