The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished. … Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:5,18 (NLT)]
After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod Agrippa interrogated and executed the apostle’s guards. Luke tells us that the king then went to Caesarea where he died. While independent historical evidence of the Bible’s stories isn’t necessary, it’s always welcome. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) corroborates Luke’s account of the king’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews.
With his flowery language, direct quotes, and added details, Josephus’ account differs slightly from Luke’s but the two versions are complementary rather than contradictory. While in Caesarea, Agrippa attended a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Luke simply describes the king’s dress as his “royal robes” but Josephus adds that they were “made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.” When the sun shone on Herod, the garment “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god.” Luke tell us that when Agrippa spoke, the people gave him a standing ovation and said his voice was that of a god, not a man. Josephus adds that “the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.”
Both historians report that Herod Agrippa immediately fell ill and died. “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner,” reported Josephus, adding, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.” Although Josephus doesn’t specify the cause, Luke says the man was “consumed with worms” and Agrippa probably had roundworms or tapeworms. Feeding on the nutrients in the intestines, these parasites can block the intestines, bile and pancreatic ducts, and cause severe pain along with seizures, diarrhea, and vomiting. Able to migrate to other parts of the body, the worms can damage the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. Being eaten by worms both before and after his death seems a fitting end for such a despicable man and both Luke and Josephus agree that his agonizing (and gross) death was a supernatural act of divine judgment for Herod Agrippa’s arrogance and blasphemy in accepting the people’s worship.
Herod Agrippa I was raised in Rome where, after playing the dangerous game of political intrigue, he ended up on the winning side. It was through his friendship with the emperors Caligula and Claudius that he gained rulership of all the Jewish territories once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. Although he owed his position to the favor of the Roman emperor, Agrippa was part Jewish. The politician in him recognized the importance of prudence and diplomacy with the Jews if he wanted to maintain his powerful position. According to Josephus, Agrippa sought the support of the Pharisees and proved his Jewish identity by carefully observing the law and making daily sacrifices. By acting as a Roman for the Romans and an observant Jew for his subjects, the king did what was politic and self-serving until that day in Caesarea when he was lauded as a god.
Caesarea was a pagan city, so it’s somewhat understandable that the crowd may have been in awe of him. Nevertheless, Agrippa was a Jew who knew that what occurred was nothing short of idolatry! Moreover, as a Roman, he knew that only Caesar could be proclaimed a god. The right (and expedient) thing to do would have been to immediately correct the crowd and reject the honor of being called a god but Agrippa didn’t. Instead, he was filled with pride and the man who’d lived by flattering others to curry favor made the mistake of believing his own flattering reviews. When Agrippa accepted the crowd’s worship, he offended both the emperor Claudius and the Jewish leadership. More important, he offended God!
While none of us are likely to be lauded as gods, we all will have moments, like Herod Agrippa’s, when pride takes hold of us. Pride like the king’s, however, is idolatry because it is worship of self! When we put ourselves front and center, our pride displaces God from His rightful place. Pride may not bring on a fatal case of worms but let us remember these words by Charles Spurgeon: “No matter how dear you are to God, if pride is harbored in your spirit, He will whip it out of you. They that go up in their own estimation must come down again by His discipline.”
None are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not. [Baruch Spinoza]