The Death of King Herod

Here is the Bible’s account of the death of King Herod:

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” (Acts 12:21-23)

It certainly can sound and be understood like a jealous God sending His angel to kill off a potential rival. But is that what is really happening? Would God really do that? He is certainly under no threat from a mere mortal pretending to be a god.

Life eternal is to know God (John 17:3). We want to correctly know what God is like and always have to ask of a questionable passage “is this like God?” Is this consistent with His character? We should not judge God by events but judge events by God and what He says about Himself. So let’s take a closer look.

It is always good to identify and then check any assumptions that we are making. For example, in the passage above:

  • Does “smote” mean what we think it does?
  • What was the actual cause of death?
  • What was the time interval between the act of the angel and Herod’s death?

Meaning of Smote

The meaning of “smote” is given in the glossary. It does not necessarily mean to kill. Also, see an examination of every use of the original Greek word (“patasso;” Strong’s G3960) for smote in the New Testament.

Cause of Death

“And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.” (Acts 12:21-23)

Following the smiting, Herod was “eaten of worms” and then he “gave up the ghost.” It seems Herod had some kind of parasitic infection of which he died. It does not say that the angel struck him with a blow that killed him and then his dead body was eaten by worms. Rather, first the angel smote him (whatever that meant) and then, sometime later, he died as a result of the action of the worms.

There is actually an extra-Biblical account giving more details of the events leading to the death of King Herod. Note that this King Herod’s full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa Herodes. He was the father of the king Agrippa of Acts chapter 15 whose full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa Herodes II.

Timing of Death

That account of  the death of the King Herod (Agrippa I) of Acts chapter 12 was written by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:

“Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea […] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor […] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out […] that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’

After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.” (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 19, Chapter 8, p343-350).

To what degree we can accept Herod’s stating what he saw is uncertain but in the account by Josephus the point at which Herod “immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings” would mark the point at which he (really, his conscience) was smitten.

If the smiting by the angel according to both history and the Bible was not the cause of Herod’s death, what was the reason for it – for the smiting by the angel?

Why Does God Smite?

Earlier in Acts chapter 12, the same angel smote Peter:

“And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.” (Acts 12:7)

Peter did not die but was only awakened and helped to escape from prison. So the angel smiting Peter was only to get his attention. Could it have been for the same purpose in the case of Herod? Consider this verse:

“… the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom 2:4)

This is commonly understood to mean that, as we understand and appreciate the goodness of God, it helps us to see our own sinfulness and to repent and turn to Him and that is certainly true. But could it also be understood in this way – that God, not wanting any to be lost, performs the good act (through the Holy Spirit or angels) of getting the attention of those heading the wrong way and warning them that they had better change from the destructive path they are on?

In that way, God could be leading a person to repentance, showing them their present danger and the better way to go. However, once the person becomes aware of their need of repentance, it is up to them to actually choose to repent. God does not force the will. God is good in that, if we are in grave spiritual danger, He will try to get our attention and offer us the opportunity to repent.

Even the Bible says that Herod died not from an angel’s blow but from an acute illness. Josephus records that he died several days later and there are even some clues that he may have repented (although the Bible does not record it). Wouldn’t that have been the object of any act on God’s part?

“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32, see also Hosea 6:6)

 The smiting of King Herod was certainly not an act of divine vengeance because God didn’t like Herod accepting worship as a god. The account by Josephus includes these words from Herod:

“‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God’ … Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them [the people beseeching God for his recovery] below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping.”

Man takes vengeance, in its most extreme form, by doing away with his enemies by killing them. God’s form of vengeance is to do away with His enemies by doing all He can to turn them into his friends.

Is it possible that this smiting was a call from the God of infinite love to Herod’s conscience to warn one that He loved to make a much needed change in course? The pain in his belly was part of His reaction and likely contributed to his death several days later.

Conclusion

The smiting of King Herod was certainly not an act of divine vengeance because God didn’t like Herod accepting worship as a god. It seems that is was more like a call from the God of infinite love to warn one that He loved to make a much needed change in course.

There is nothing in the passage itself which says directly that God or His angel smote Herod with the intent and result of killing him. Rather, that idea is contrary to the text; to the details of the timing, what is stated of the cause of death and to recorded history as well as being inconsistent with God’s actions and character. When reading scripture, especially any that seem to put God in a bad light, we need to carefully examine the assumptions we might be making.