Matthew 2:19-20 – The Death of Herod the Great

By Wayne Jackson

Herod, popularly known as “the great,” is given considerable space in the New Testament (see Matthew 2). He was an Idumean (a descendant of Esau) by ancestry. After the death of Julius Caesar, Herod was appointed “king of the Jews,” though his administration was not formally secured until after a series of military victories consummated by the capture of Jerusalem in 37 B.C. One of his chief accomplishments was the remodeling of the dilapidated Jewish temple (John 2:20), a project which was not completed until A.D. 62/64, only a few years before that temple was destroyed by the providence of God (see Matthew 22:7).

Herod will always stand as one of the most deplorable characters of New Testament literature. He was a vicious ruler who neither feared God, nor regarded his fellows. He was the man who issued the bloody order that all male babies, two years old and under, in the environs of Bethlehem be slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). This was his attempt to eliminate the Christ child —a plan which was destined to fail, of course, for “God was with Him” (Acts 10:38).

Matthew records the following interesting words regarding Herod’s death.

“But when Herod was dead, behold an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead that sought the young child’s life” (2:19-20).

There are several important points tucked away in this divine narrative. Consider the following.

(1) The text very simply says: “But when Herod was dead …” The inspired apostle gives absolutely no details regarding the manner of the king’s demise. This is a very curious fact, and for two reasons.

First, Herod had died in a most dramatic fashion. Josephus states that a loathsome disease descended upon the ruler as a judgment from God on account of his sins. He describes the horrible details —burning fever, ulcerated entrails, foul discharges, convulsions, stench, etc. (Antiquities 17.6.5).

Second, this man was the first, bitter enemy of the Messiah. Surely one would expect, from a purely human vantage point, that the followers of Christ might enjoy some sense of victory in his death; hence, a delineation of details regarding that matter would have been of particular interest.

Never mind. The New Testament simply has it: “And when Herod was dead.” The restraint of the biblical writers, contrary to urges of human inclination, is one of the subtle but amazing evidences of the Scripture’s inspiration. Surely Matthew, left to his own literary devices, would have expanded his account of Herod’s death. Obviously, a superior Force was at work!

(2) It is of further interest in this account to note that the angel does not say to Joseph, “Take your son and wife and return to the land of Israel.” No, the carefully worded charge is this: “Take the young child and his mother …” This guarded statement acknowledges the fact that whereas Mary is the “mother” of the child, it is not the case that Joseph is the father.

There are only a few occasions in the New Testament where Jesus is denominated as the “son” of Joseph. (a) He was so styled by Philip, a new convert of less than twenty-four hours, who spoke more than he knew (John 1:45). (b) He was referred to as Joseph’s son twice by unbelieving Jews (Luke 4:22; John 6:42) who rejected the evidence of His deity. © The reference to Joseph and Mary as Jesus’ “parents” in Luke 2:27 employs the term in a popular sense. Joseph had assumed the role of the Lord’s foster-father, and he was so viewed by his contemporaries.

On the other hand, the angel’s phraseology in Matthew 2:20 is very consistent with inspired records concerning the virginal conception of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:16-24; Luke 1:26-38; cf. Isaiah 7:14).

(3) It is of special interest that Matthew says, “They are dead that sought the young child’s life” (2:20). Why the plural “they,” since only Herod’s death is mentioned in the previous verse?

Several ingenious grammatical theories have been suggested by commentators. The simplest explanation, however, may be in a curious historical oddity. Herod had a son whose name was Antipater. Antipater was of the same cruel disposition as his father. He would doubtless have been every bit as much of a threat to the Lord as his evil sire, had he succeeded his wicked father to the throne. In fact, Antipater was a rival to the throne. As Herod’s oldest son, he had complained that his father’s life was dragging on so long that he would be an old man by the time he became king.

When he mistakenly thought that Herod had died, he evidenced great joy. When word of that rejoicing reached the ailing king, he had his son killed immediately. This was only five days before Herod himself expired (Josephus, Wars 1.23.7).

Hence, it might be very accurately said: “They are dead that sought the young child’s life.”

In these two verses of Matthew’s gospel record we thus see three remarkable details:

(a) the restrained calmness of the inspired writer;
(b) the harmony of the scriptural accounts in the smallest of matters;
© the minute accuracy of the divine narrative in the most subtle of grammatical forms.

In your Bible, underline “when Herod was dead,” in 2:19, and in the margin write: Note the restraint. Then underline “his mother” in verse 20 and make this notation: Hint of the virgin birth. Finally, underline “they” in verse 20 and note: Possible reference to Antipater. Comments like these can add luster to your Bible classes.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.