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A Tale of Two Kings
Two kings, two kingdoms—one temporal, one eternal. The author takes you on a guided tour of the birthplace of Jesus—the way it really was.

"Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King" (Matthew 2:1, KJV).

A Tale of Two Kings

He was a maniac and a tyrant, and he ordered the slaughter of all baby boys less than two years of age, but we have to give Herod the Great some credit—this King knew how to build.

Herod's building projects

Near the Dead Sea is an enormous desert fortress called Masada. Perched on top of this rock fortress hundreds of feet high, Herod built fresh water swimming pools with water carried up from cisterns below. A western palace with mosaic floors is visible even to this day. The palace featured hot and cold baths and balconies that appeared to overhang the northern end. Undoubtedly, Masada was one of the architectural marvels of the ancient world.

To the northwest, along the coast, is Caesarea. In this city Herod constructed a huge complex featuring a beautiful amphitheatre that seated 4000 people and a palace with a fresh water swimming pool that stretched 100 yards out into the salt water of the Mediterranean Sea.

A Tale of Two Kings
Glass-covered frescoes in the northern palace.

Herod is also responsible for the golden temple mount in Jerusalem. The temple was at least twice the size of any temple enclosure of its day, and measured approximately 500 by 300 yards. Stunning marble columns supported double porticos surrounding the temple's outer court. Gigantic stones stacked approximately 30-40 feet above the street still comprise the walls.

These are brief descriptions of some of Herod's architectural accomplishments.

Inside The Herodium

Herod's greatest accomplishment, however, was his fortress palace known as the Herodium, which was carved into a flat mountaintop. The mountain's steep slant and rough terrain offered protection because it made it difficult to climb. Inside was a large beautiful dining room with mosaic floors. Its inner décor also featured walls covered in paintings and the distinctive red, black and tan color scheme that Herod was so famous for.

From the dining room one could move to the outer courtyard. At one end of the outer courtyard stood four pillars with a large statue of a false god balanced on top. At the other end stood a tower that pierced the sky to 120 feet. Approximately 55 feet in diameter, the tower housed several storeys of apartments with large picture windows along a golden rock wall that captured the warm breezes of the Mediterranean.

A Tale of Two Kings
Herodium is three miles southeast of Bethlehem and eight miles south
of Jerusalem. Its summit is 2460 feet above sea level.

Photo courtesy of Todd Bolen,

At the base of the wall was a garden with red, pink and white flowers. Nearby were olive, fig and date trees. Herod could stroll in the shade on a hot day under the trees. In the evening he could enjoy the floral aroma. Next to the garden was a water system that carried water to cisterns at the base. It was then manually transported to an upper reservoir in the tower. The glory of this palace would have been unbelievable.

The real significance for us, however, is the palace's location. Where did Herod build this masterpiece? He built it four miles east of Bethlehem. In those days Bethlehem was a small village—100 to 300 people settled on the edge of the Judean wilderness. But it was to Bethlehem, that a young pregnant Jewish girl, Mary, and her husband Joseph traveled.

Joseph, Mary and a manger

Joseph, with Mary on a donkey, walked toward Bethlehem—weary and worn from their journey, clothes dingy and soiled, hair unkempt. Joseph's woolly beard straggled. Mary's sparkling eyes squinted against the wind and sand. Exhausted, Mary and Joseph ascended one final, wind blown hill en route to Bethlehem. Reaching the crest of the hill, they spotted meagre Bethlehem below. In the distance they could make out the contours of the mighty Herodium. There in the shadow of the fortress Jesus would be born.

A Tale of Two Kings
The Herodium palace, built over an existing hill.
Photo courtesy of Todd Bolen,

We can only imagine their thoughts as Mary and Joseph trudged toward Bethlehem with the Herodium palace in all its glory providing an imposing backdrop. The angel had already told Mary, " … you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:30).Yet their son would be born in a shepherd's cave behind an inn.

Entering a shepherd's cave would have been an unpleasant experience. It was a dirty, dark place without fresh straw. An assortment of grubby farm animals would have met them with a chorus of noises. Layers of manure from thousands of sheep created a false floor beneath their feet. A soot-stained rock ceiling indicated that countless shepherds had made fires there before. This was the "palace" the Messiah, the Son of God, first called home.

How could it be?

How could it be that the heavenly Messiah was born into weakness while the earthly Herod enjoyed might and power? How could it be that Herod revelled in opulent comfort and glory while the baby Jesus, the omnipotent God, was hidden in squalor and humility?

Ponder Herod's earthly priorities against the heavenly priorities of Jesus. Consider Herod's worldly greatness and the insignificance of Jesus at His birth. Contrast Herod's unchallenged commands with the cooing of the Christ child. Place the unblemished armour of the worldly king alongside the swaddling clothes of the One sent from above.

The story of the first Christmas demands unprecedented faith. The early believers had to trust God that the King of the universe was not in the palace, but instead in a shepherd's cave. Mary and Joseph believed it. The shepherds and wise men believed it too. Herod himself believed it with all his heart.

A King is born in Bethlehem

When Herod received word that a Messiah, a King, had been born to the Jews—even if it was an infant King in a manger cave—he panicked. Out of Herod's fortresses spilled his army with sharpened swords to slaughter the children in an effort to kill the newborn King.

It is hard to comprehend why God would chose to place Herod on the world's stage when the Messiah was born. But it is clear that God wanted a faith commitment from His people that the baby in the cave was really the King of the universe.

Today tourists travel to the Herodium and find ruins. They speak of the fact that the earthly king and his vision are gone. Herod built for an empire for himself, and in the end only ruins remain.

Jesus the master builder

Jesus didn't build physical buildings, but we must give Him all the credit due Him—this King knows how to build! Christ the newborn King started a movement. With His love and forgiveness Jesus captured the hearts and minds of people the world over and is still building a growing family of faith. Jesus is building with people like you and me. The Bible describes us as "living stones" that today so not lie in ruins, but continue to be placed side by side, one upon another, as His kingdom continues to expand.

Through forgiveness Christianity continues to grow and transform lives this Christmas season. The babe in a manger did not place stone upon stone to be remembered, but He left us a great salvation. By giving place to the two kings side by side in history, God demonstrated that His way is the way to eternal life.

Dr. Richard Burton is the Senior Pastor at Calvary Pentecostal Church in Carleton Place, Ontario.

Originally published in Testimony, September 6, 2005.




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