Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, who ruled over Galilee and Perea, stayed with his half-brother Philip, on a visit to Rome. While there, he coveted his brother’s wife, Herodias, who was also the brothers’ niece. She also coveted him. She agreed to divorce her husband. He agreed to divorce his wife, Phasaelis, the daughter of Aretas IV, the king of Nabatea. The two were married (Mark 6:17-18).
John, the baptizer, spoke against this. John told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). This tells us that it is possible to have a civil marriage, and it not be lawful in God’s law. What was unlawful about it? (1) It is possible that their divorces were not for reasons of “some uncleanness” (cf. Deuteronomy 24). (2) This was an incestuous relationship. It was unlawful under the Law of Moses for a man to have: (a) His father’s wife; (b) His sister, even a half-sister; (c) His grand-daughter; (d) His aunt, on either side; (e) His daughter-in-law; (f) His brother’s wife, unless he is dead and has had no sons according to Levirate Law (Herod was guilty of this); (g) A woman and her daughter; (h) A woman and her sister, while the first is alive (see: Leviticus 18; Leviticus 20; Deuteronomy 27).
John’s words demanded that the relationship cease. He did not say, “It is not lawful for you to have taken her,” but “it is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:5 cf. Mark 6:18). The Greek present tense could be rendered, “It is not lawful for you to continue having her.”
Herod had John arrested and imprisoned for the sake of his wife (Matthew 14:3; Mark 6:17; Luke 3:19-20). He did not kill him because he feared the people (Matthew 14:5). Herod also feared John, and considered him a just and holy man (Mark 6:19-20). He had opportunity to hear him, and he heard him gladly (Mark 6:20). Herodias eventually found a way to get Herod to have John beheaded (Matthew 14:6-12; Mark 6:21-29). What a prideful and spineless man! He thought John just and holy … yet his lust, his rash words, his desired reputation before men, and his unwillingness to say no to his wife and her daughter cost John his life. His conscience seems to have bothered him for killing John (Matthew 14:1-2; Mark 6:14-16).
Josephus informs us of what happened after this. “Herod himself now quarreled with Aretas, King of Petra, whose daughter he had married. But Herod had since fallen in love with Herodias, wife of his half-brother… and he promised to marry her and dismiss Aretas’ daughter… This and a boundary dispute led Aretas to attack Herod, whose whole army was destroyed. Herod wrote about this to Tiberius, who was furious, and ordered Vitellius, governor of Syria, to declare war on Aretas. But to some of the Jews, Herod’s disaster seemed to be divine vengeance for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. Although John was a good man exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives and practice justice toward their colleagues and piety to God, Herod had put him to death… Although John was brought in chains to Machaerus and put to death in that stronghold, the Jews decided that the destruction of Herod’s army was God’s vindication of John” (Josephus: The Essential Writings, pp. 266-267, from Antiquities 18).
John was a man of courage. He did not hold back even from one in authority. He boldly proclaimed the truth, and rebuked. Such men are rare. Such men are needed today.