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and what an exalted idea at the same time does it give us of the dignity of a truly religious character, like that of John, which compels even its bitterest enemies to reverence and to fear it; and forces even the most profligate and most powerful of men to pay an unwilling homage to excellence, at the very moment, perhaps, when they are meditating its destruction !
In this state of irresolution Herod might probably have continued, and the fate of John have remained undecided for a considerable time, had not an incident taken place, which determined both much sooner perhaps than was intended. Herod, on his birth-day, gave an entertainment to the principal officers of his army and of his court; and as a peculiar and very uncommon compliment on the occasion, Salome, the daughter of his wife Herodias by her former husband, came in and danced before the company in a manner so pleasing to Herod and to all his guests, that the king, in a sudden transport of delight, cried out to the damsel, as St.
Mark relates it, “ Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.” And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, even unto the half of my kingdom *.” The folly, the rashness, and the madness of such an oath as this, on so foolish an occasion, could be exceeded by nothing but the horrible purpose
to which it was perverted by the young creature to whom it was made, or rather by her profligate instructor and adviser, her mother Herodias. Astonished and overwhelmed probably with the magnitude of such an unexpected offer, which laid at her feet half the wealth, the power, and the splendour of a kingdom, she found herself unable to decide between the various dazzling objects that would present themselves to her imagination, and therefore very naturally applies to her mother for advice and direction. Most mothers, on such an occasion, would have asked for a daughter a magnificent establishment, a situation of high rank
* Mark vi. 22,23.
and power! But Herodias had a passion to gratify, stronger perhaps than any other, when it takes full possession of the human heart, and that was revenge. She had been mortally injured, as she conceived, by the Baptist, who had attempted to dissolve her present infamous connexion with Herod. And she not only felt the highest indignation at this insult, but was afraid that his repeated remonstrances might at length prevail. She therefore did not hesitate one moment what to ask ; she gave way to all the fury of her resentment; and without the least regard to the character or the delicate situation of her inexperienced daughter, she immediately ordered her to demand the head of her detested enemy, John the Baptist! The wretched
young woman unfortunately obeyed this dreadful command ; and, as we are told by the evangelist, “ came in straightway with haste unto the king *.” She came with speed in her steps, and eagerness in her eye, and said, “ Give me here John the Baptist's head in'a charger.” This savage request appalled even the unfeeling heart of Herod himself. He did not expect it, and was not prepared for it; and although he was highly disgusted with John, yet, for the reasons above mentioned, he did not choose to go to extremities with him. : He was therefore exceeding sorry, as the sacred historian informs us, to be thus forced upon so violent and hazardous a measure; " nevertheless for his oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given to her.” Conceiving himself, most absurdly, bound by his oath, to comply even with this inhuman demand, and afraid lest he should be reproached by those that were around him with having broken his promise, he preferred the real guilt of murder to the false imputation of perjury, and “sent and beheaded John in prison; and his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother.” It is well known that it was a custom in the East,
here * Mark vi. 25. Matt. xiv. 8.
and is so still in the Turkish Court, to produce the heads of those that are ordered to be put to death, as a proof that they have been really executed. But how this wretched damsel could so far subdue the common feelings of human nature, and still more the natural tenderness and delicacy of her sex, as not only to endure so disgusting and shocking a spectacle, but even to carry the bleeding trophy in triumph to her mother, it is not easy to imagine; and it would scarce be crédited, did we not know that in times and in countries much nearer to our own, sights of still greater horror than this haye been contemplated, even by women and children, with complacency and with delight.
Such was the conclusion of this singular transaction; and every part of it is so pregnant with useful instruction and admonition, that I shall stand excused, I hope, if I take up a little more of your time than is usual in discourses of this nature, in commenting somewhat at large