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And now, his wickedness increasing as his rage boiled within him, rather than miss of committing the one crime, which alone he designed at first, he resolves to commit he knows not how many more of the like sort, without any other pretext for them: imagining that the object of his apprehensions continued still in the same place. On that imagination solely, either having first enquired after him in vain, (for he was removed by the direction of God,) or conceiving, that no certain information would be obtained by a person so abhorred as he knew himself to be, and that taking time for a search was giving time for an escape; he forms the shocking resolution of killing all the children of Bethlehem, and its territory; unmoved by conscience, or compassion, or fear of revenge, or the detestation of mankind, in order to make sure of killing that child, from which, of all others, he ought to have abstained, the long-expected hope of Israel *, the great promised blessing to that religion, which he himself professed. This direful purpose he orders to be put in immediate execution: too many find their interest in obeying his will: no one hath power, or courage, to resist it: the deed is done: the poor infants miserably slain.
No wonder, that then, as St. Matthew observes, was fulfilled, that is, verified anew, more eminently and literally, what was spoken originally on a different occasion, by Jeremy the prophet, saying: In Rama, a town of Benjamin, adjoining to Bethlehem of Judah, which tribes were therefore probably mixed here, as well as at Jerusalem and other places; In Rama, a voice was heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning : Rachel, the mother of Benjamin, weeping, that is, in the persons of her female descendants, for
Acts xxviii, 20.
her children; and would not be comforted, because they are not: are not any longer in this world, for a comfort and joy to their friends; but taken away, to their inexpressible affliction, by a stroke of violence, the most unexpected, the most afflicting and desolating, the most exquisitely painful and insupportable, that can be conceived.
Some perhaps may be tempted almost to doubt, whether a human creature be capable of such barbarity. But, alas, we cannot tell to what degree our own dispositions might be depraved, were we to give ourselves up to iniquity, and provoke a just God to withdraw his grace from us.
Much less can we be sure what amazing abominations others may come to harbour within their breasts. The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked : who can know it? But especially the hearts of tyrants, grown old in the possession and exercise of absolute power, accustomed by flattery and pride to think themselves of a higher species than the rest of mankind, hardened to executions and slaughter by long use, become suspicious of every person and thing, by experience of the falshood of others, and consciousness of their own; and habituated to hate their subjects; as knowing that they are hated by them. Now such, if ever man was, Herod was. His whole history, written not by a Christian, but a Jew, fully proves that no degree of cruelty was improbable concerning one of a nature so savage: who, besides the fierce wars, in which his boundless ambition engaged him, was committing murders in cold blood throughout his life; of his nearest relations amongst others, even of his own children; every one of them from motives of state-jealousy, the very inducement that prompted him to the inhumanity charged on him in the text : and was so far from relenting at the approach of death, which commonly inspires less hardened sinners with penitence and mildness, that he caused a large number of his principal subjects to be assembled ; and putting them under confinement, bound those about him by an oath, to massacre them all, as soon as he should expire ; that the nation might mourn for his decease on that account, which on all others, he knew, would rejoice *. It is in vain to say of such a one, that he shewed on many occasions a great concern for his reputation : and therefore was not likely to commit so monstrous a murder, as that of these children. He did so, when he could gratify his vanity, without prejudicing his imaginary interests : but never else. And therefore his proceeding without mercy in this case, far from being incredible, is only an evidence, that the expectations of the Messiah's coming at that time were great and general ; and his own apprehensions of it inexpressibly strong.
* Jer. xvii. 9.
But still it may be wondered, if Herod was guilty of so execrable a deed, that no ancient historian should record it, and paint it in its due colours, as they have done many things, which deserved it less : but should all, excepting St. Matthew, omit the mention of it t. Now, in truth, there is no ancient heathen historian of those times extant, besides Suetonius; whose work is only a brief account of the lives of the twelve Cæsars; in which a narrative of this kind is by no means to be expected. And, were all the historians of that age remaining; Judea, lay at the
Joseph. Ant. I. xvii. c. 6. g.5. Bell. Jud. I. i. c. 33. §. 6. + Joseph Scaliger is said to have denied the genuineness of this part of St. Matthew. Ansaldi hath defended it, in a book, intituled, Herodiani Infanticidii Vindiciæ, 4°, Brixia, 1747.
extremity of the Roman empire, nor was, in Herod's reign, a province of it, properly speaking; the smaller internal affairs therefore of such a petty district would be little regarded, amidst so many of greater importance. And, though the murder of a number of innocent babes excites in us, with the utmost reason, the strongest pity and horror; yet, alas, the case was far otherwise during the days of Pagan darkness ; when, in the most civilized nations, parents destroyed, or exposed to destruction, their own children, at pleasure, how strange soever it may seem, without scruple and without punishment.
But further, it doth not appear, that any other old authors ever did write the life of Herod, or the history of his reign, than Nicolas of Damascus, and Josephus. Now the work of the former is lost. And he was not only a courtier and domestic friend of Herod, but was employed as embassador to Augustus, to defend him in his life-time, and his character after his death, from imputations of tyranny and cruelty, brought before that emperor by the Jewish nation *. This man therefore neither would be inclined to relate such things of him in his book; nor could do it indeed, without condemning himself for having been his apologist. Besides, he was so shamefully partial to him, as to deduce his genealogy from a noble Hebrew family; though it was notorious that his father was an Edomite ti
As for Josephus : he wrote at the distance of above ninety years after the fact : which we are apt to consider, as taking away many more lives, than probably it did. Bethlehem was not a large plaçe: whether its
• Joseph. Ant. I. xvi. c. 9. g. 4. & c. 10. §. 8. & l. xvii. e. 5. 5. 4. & c. 11. 5. 3. and Bell. Jud. ). ii. c. 6. 9.2.
+ Joseph. Ant. I. xiv. c. 1. g.3.
territory was, we know not. The order given could be only against the male children. Herod, we are told, slew all these, under a certain age : that is, all whom the messengers of his bloody purpose found. But possibly, going on so shocking an errand, they might not be desirous of executing their orders with the utmost secresy and strictness. Or, if they were ; the alarm, once taken, would quickly spread ; and a considerable proportion undoubtedly be carried away, or concealed. The fabulous legends tell us indeed of vast multitudes killed : but allege no sufficient proof of their assertions *. And the wiser authors, even of the Popish communion, disregard and ridicule them. Now, supposing the number of the slaughtered infants to be small; the memory of what a few villagers had suffered, might easily, when printing was unknown, and writing not near so common as now, be, in much less time than ninety years, quite buried under the stories of the many large executions, which the tyrant had made, of persons more noted. Or it might be industriously stifled by the unbelieving Jews, to prevent it from being of service to the cause of Christianity. Or indeed it might be utterly overwhelmed by the total destruction of their country, with the slaughter of millions, which had happened before Josephus began to compile materials for his book. It is therefore extremely possible, that this massacre, though perfectly true, might never come to his ears : or, if it did, yet not with any certainty. And, if his information about it seemed
• Jerom saith, Herodes, Scribæ et Pharasæi, pro uno infante multa parvulorum millia trucidarunt. Com. in Is. I. 3. c. 7. vol. 4. p. 112. Ed. Veron. But he lived about 400 years after the time. And as he asserts, what the least reflection would have shewn him was false, that the Scribes and Pharisees were guilty of this fact, he deserves no credit in what lay more out of his knowledge.