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Matthew 14:3-12 meaning

Matthew narrates the fate of John the Baptist. He tells why he was imprisoned and how he came to be gruesomely executed by Herod.

The parallel gospel account of Matthew 14:3-12 is found in Mark 6:17-29.

Matthew already informed his readers that John the Baptist was imprisoned (Matthew 11:2). But somewhere between that moment when John's disciples came to Jesus inquiring on behalf of their teacher whether or not Jesus was the Messiah and Jesus's confrontations with the Pharisees (Matthew 12), His teaching of parables and His trip to Nazareth (Matthew 13) John was executed.

After telling us about Herod the tetrarch's incorrect assumption that John had come back to life and was the one responsible for the miracles Jesus was performing, Matthew narrates the backstory of how John died.

The reason Herod had John arrested, bound, and put in prison was because of a woman—Herodias (v 3). Before continuing, it would be beneficial to untangle the intertwining branches of Herodian dynasty.

Herod the Great (72-4 BC) was the official half-Jewish King of the Roman province of Judea. He was ruthless and cruel. Not only did he order the slaughter of Bethlehem's male infants in an attempt to kill the newborn Messiah (Matthew 2:16), he also had two of his sons, Aristobulus IV and Alexander strangled to death in 7 B.C. on the suspicion that they were trying to claim his throne. Herod the Great had several wives and many children. When he died the Romans shrewdly divided his "kingdom" and reorganized it among his offspring. The more dispersed the local authority of their puppet rulers, the better for Rome.

Herod the Great's son, Archelaus (23 BC - 18 AD) inherited the district of Judea from his father  (Matthew 2:22). Archelaus was later deposed by Caesar Augustus in 6 AD and died in exile. At that time Judea and Samaria were placed under the direct supervision of Roman governors. Pontius Pilate, who governed these provinces during the time of Jesus's ministry, was the fourth Roman to hold this office, which he held from 26 AD - 36 AD.

Herod Antipas (the tetrarch) (20 BC - 39 AD) was the son of Herod the Great and the brother of Archelaus. Upon his father's death he was granted the provinces of Galilee and Perea at age sixteen. This is the Herod who had John the Baptist executed.

Philip (27 BC - 33 AD) was Herod Antipas's half-brother and was the son of Herod the Great. Initially he was his father's sole heir, but he was left out of the will in favor of Archelaus and Antipas and another half-brother, also named Philip the tetrarch (26 BC - 34 CE). Philip the tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis (Luke 3:1) is not mentioned in this chapter. But strangely enough Philip married his niece Salome who, in this passage, erotically danced and pleased Herod Antipas. The disinherited Philip (the Philip pertaining to these events) was the husband of his niece Herodias, the daughter of the executed Aristobulus IV.

Herodias (15 BC - 39 AD) was the wife of her uncle Philip and the granddaughter of Herod the Great through his son Aristobulus IV who was executed by his father in 7 B.C. Herodias' marriage with Philip produced a daughter, Salome. Later Herodias divorced her uncle Philip in order to marry her uncle Herod the tetrarch. Thus, Herodias was the niece, ex-sister-in-law, and wife of Herod the tetrarch.

Matthew and Mark tells us that Herod had John the Baptist arrested and put in prison because of Herodias (v 3) (Mark 6:17). The reason why Herodias hated John the Baptist was because John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have her as your wife" (v 4). Given John's bold rebukes to the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7), he was probably saying this to the public as well. Herod and Herodias's marriage was unlawful for two reasons. First, it was forbidden to marry a blood relative (Leviticus 18:6). Herodias was the daughter of Herod's brother Aristobulus IV. And second, it was unlawful to marry your brother's wife (Leviticus 18:16). Herodias had no concern for the law, but she did take offense at being called out and made a scandalous example by an eccentric prophet. She wanted him dead.

Her uncle, ex-brother-in-law, and now husband, Herod wanted to put him to death too (v 5). But initially he did not do so, because he feared the crowd who regarded John as a prophet (v 5). When we consider Mark's more detailed account of these events, it appears as if Herod was beginning to grow fond of John the Baptist and he would visit his prison and think about what he said.

"...for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he had been protecting him. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; and yet he used to enjoy listening to him."
(Mark 6:20)

Unable to have John executed herself, Herodias harbored her murderous grudge and bided her time waiting for an opportunity (Mark 6:19).

It came on Herod's birthday. Salome, the daughter of Herodias and Philip (Herod's niece two-times over and step-daughter) erotically danced before Herod and his guests (v 6). Mark says that these guests were Herod's lords, Roman military commanders, and "leading men of Galilee" (Mark 6:21). Her dancing pleased Herod and his dinner guests (v 6). Given the context, a more descriptive translation of the Greek word "Areskso" would be "aroused" rather than pleased. Herod was so much turned on by his step-daughter's performance, that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked (v 7). Mark adds that he pledged to give the girl "up to half of my kingdom" (Mark 6:23). Before answering Salome left the banquet and found her mother to see how she should answer (Mark 6:24).

Herodias saw her opportunity. The mother prompted her daughter to say Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist (v 8).

Herod was grieved (v 9). He no longer desired to have John killed (Mark 6:26), but neither could he go back on his oaths so publicly made in front of his dinner guests, however foolishly they were promised. And so, the king commanded the execution to be given (v 9).

Rather than create the mess in his palace, Herod sent and had John beheaded in prison (v 10). John's head was promptly brought on a platter and given to the girl who then brought it to her mother (v 11). Herodias got her gruesome wish.

John's disciples came and took away the body and buried it (v 12). And then they went and reported the awful news to Jesus (v 12).

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