Formations 11.05.2017: Monument to Ivan the Terrible Erected

Matthew 2:1-12

Statue of Ivan the Terrible (Moskva News Agency)

A bronze statue has been erected in Moscow to one of the most brutal rulers in Russian history. The monument is the first of its kind in the Russian capital and only the second in the entire country.

The statue was first placed in the city of Alexandrov, where the locals protested. It only took an hour after the statue’s installation before residents dismantled it.

Now, the monument is on display at the so-called Alley of Rulers in central Moscow. This site features thirty-three bronze statues of Russian rulers from ancient times to the 1917 Communist revolution. According to the Russian Military-Historical Society, statues of eight other leaders, including Vladimir Lenin and Boris Yeltsin, are scheduled to be erected before the end of the year.

Ivan the Terrible was as terrible as his epithet suggests. History remembers him as paranoid, erratic, and prone to sudden, rash outbursts. Low points of his reign include murdering his own son and killing off Russia’s aristocracy to consolidate his power.

We might be forgiven for scratching our heads and wondering why such a leader deserves a monument.

Ivan wasn’t the first terrible ruler, however. Herod the Great killed several of his sons as well as ordered the massacre of the entire Sanhedrin and forty-five partisans of the Hasmonean priest-king Antigonus.

The Gospel of Matthew depicts the patriarch of the Herodian dynasty as a violent, power-hungry man willing to inflict death and misery in order to secure his position at the top of the political food chain. From everything we know about this man, Matthew’s report has the ring of truth—even if there are no extrabiblical records of the Bethlehem massacre described in today’s text. Jesus was born into a world when such a man ruled the people of Israel.

“First Monument to Ivan the Terrible Erected in Moscow,” The Moscow Times, 25 Oct 2017 https://themoscowtimes.com/news/ivan-the-terrible-erected-in-moscow-58508.

Discussion

• What does the life and ministry of Jesus tell us about power and those who so heartlessly hold onto it?
• What is God’s assessment of King Herod’s reign?
• What might be God’s assessment of any of us when we hold too tightly to the power we have been given?

Reference Shelf

Herod’s Troubles

During the second period of [Herod’s] reign (25–13 B.C.E.), Herod engaged in a remarkable building program. Among his many accomplishments were theaters, royal palaces, numerous fortresses, and even entire gentile cities, which he built or rebuilt. The best known of the latter was Caesarea Maritima, which included a harbor he had constructed. But the most famous of his architectural masterpieces was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This ambitious project, the remains of which can still be seen, was begun around 20 B.C.E. It was not fully completed until 62 C.E., just before its destruction by the Romans during the war of 66–70. It was this Temple that was known by Jesus and his disciples.

This period also saw Herod’s total disregard for Jewish Law. This can be clearly seen in his introduction of games to honor Caesar. Politically he was a significant and successful ruler who enjoyed considerable favor with Rome.

But if Herod was successful politically, his personal life was an unmitigated disaster. As Josephus succinctly (and mildly!) put it: “In revenge for his public prosperity, fortune visited Herod with troubles at home” (BJ 1.22.1). Troubles indeed! Herod had no fewer than ten wives and at least fifteen children, ten of whom were sons. His house was filled with plots, lies, counterplots, and machinations of all descriptions as each child tried to discredit his rivals and ingratiate himself to Herod. Such was Herod’s temperament that he had no scruples against killing his own children, and he did so on several occasions. Thus it was said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.

John C. H. Laughlin, “Herod,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 376.

Regime Change

What we know of Herod suggests that he was paranoid and superstitious about many things and prone to colossal overreaction. Yet Herod had enough sense to know that a sign of the birth of a new king of the Jews meant his own demise could not be far off, and in fact this was the case, historically speaking. Jesus was born not long before the death of Herod, even though the historical Jesus was not destined to rule Judea directly in the conventional sense during this era. Nevertheless, this story comports with the prophecy about Jesus found in Luke—he was a figure destined to precipitate the rise and fall of many great ones in Israel (Luke 2:34). Note that the title “King of Jews” (which Herod liked to call himself) is only found elsewhere in this Gospel applied to Jesus in the Passion narrative (27:11, 29, 37). The term “king” always had political connotations, and it is noteworthy that all Gospels agree Jesus was crucified on the political charge of claiming to be a king, which amounted to high treason, an offense for which one could indeed be crucified under Roman jurisprudence. As we shall see, it is significant that the titulus over the cross read king rather than mashiach or christos. Jesus would not likely have been crucified for merely being another Jewish sage or holy man, or even a prophet.

Herod is depicted in vv. 3-4 as not knowing his Jewish history well, so he has to consult with chief priests and scribes to discover where the Bible says messiah was to be born. Notice that the text also says that not only Herod but all Jerusalem is dismayed or disturbed at this news. The last thing they wanted was more turmoil and upheaval in Judea. The coming of a new king would not necessarily be seen as good news, and especially not by the elite who were indebted to and partially dependent on the current regime for their own power and wealth. We should not have romantic notions about all of Jerusalem longing for a messiah. Those who were currently prospering would certainly not be anxious for any change in regime. Notice how in Matthew 21:10 the whole city is shaken by the triumphal entry of Jesus.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 64.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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