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And Herod respected John, knowing that he was a good and holy man, so he kept him under his protection. Herod was disturbed whenever he talked with John, but even so, he liked to listen to him. — Mark 6:20

Allan Bloom, in his book The Closing of the American Mind, likely borrowed from Shakespeare’s famous line, “Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” Bloom wrote, “Conscience is a coward, and those faults it has not strength enough to prevent, it seldom has justice enough to punish by accusing.”

The story of John the Baptist and Herod Antipas is a fascinating commentary on Bloom’s observation.

Herod and John knew each other well. As a matter of conscience, John had been outspoken in opposing Herod’s marriage to “his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias” (Mark 6:17). Herodias was understandably upset by this public condemnation and persuaded Herod to imprison John. But even in prison John would not be silenced. He “kept telling Herod, ‘It is illegal for you to marry your brother’s wife’” (6:18).

There was something about John’s integrity which appealed to Herod, and he “liked to listen to him” (6:20), even though John said things he didn’t like to hear. But Herodias did not like the prophet, and when Herod (no doubt in a rash, unguarded, and possibly wine-induced moment) offered Herodias’ daughter anything she wanted—up to half his kingdom—she asked for John’s head on a platter. And much to Herod’s chagrin, she got it—due to his fear of losing face (6:26).

When Jesus appeared on the scene, superstitious people said, “This must be John the Baptist come back to life again” (6:14). The gossip reached Herod’s ears, and this powerful man “was worried and puzzled” because of what he heard (Luke 9:7). The ruler of all Galilee and Perea was troubled by a guilty conscience. John, whom he had executed, “was a good and holy man” (Mark 6:20). While Herod sat on his royal throne with a troubled conscience, John had gone to his grave with a clear one.

John undoubtedly had his faults, but cowardice was not one of them. Herod was full of faults, but his conscience did not have strength enough to prevent them. Whether or not Herod’s conscience had the justice to accuse his faults, we cannot be sure. At least he was worried and puzzled!

The issue for every person is how to keep the conscience alive, and where to find the courage to respond. In John’s case, the answer was found in his commitment to truth and his relationship to God’s Spirit. It comes down to whether your conscience makes you a coward or your commitment to truth gives you the courage of conviction—whether you’re a Herod or a John.

For further study: Mark 6:14-29

Content taken from The One Year Book of Devotions for Men by Stuart Briscoe. Copyright ©2000. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.