Scripture Sketches: John the Baptist

 •  7 min. read  •  grade level: 11
Another great and glorious life that seemed at the time of its close to be a most disastrous failure was that of John the Baptist. Of the lofty devotion, consecration, and self-sacrifice of this life there were little need to speak: a life spent in a wilderness apart from every comfort of civilization, and every consolation of human companionship; a life that was indeed brightened by the consciousness of a great mission and warmed by the hope of seeing the advent of “the desire of all nations” —but still a life of lonely privation which was closed at thirty-three years of age, after long imprisonment, by public execution for the amusement of an infamous woman and her profligate daughter: and this before any of the events hoped for were attained. When monsters of cruelty and wickedness live to a gloriously successful old age, as did Attila, Zingis, Tamerlane,—who were probably the cruelest men that afflicted the earth—it seems to the natural mind a strange thing that God should allow the life of one of the greatest and most honorable of His servants to terminate thus.
Strange indeed if it really did terminate there; but the beheading of John only opened his existence, not closed it. It only closed the first stage of it, the overture to its oratorio.
Besides there was just then a conjuncture of events in which he could do nothing more here; so well had he done his work, and his Successor had taken it all out of his hand. When however a man can do no more for his cause, he can still generally suffer for it and, if need be, die for it. This the Baptist did. In Corneille, Horatius, lamenting the disgrace he supposes to have been brought on him by the flight of his son in the combat with the Curiatii, is asked what he could have done against three foes, and the old man passionately replies, “Qu'il mourût”!
He was a man of more than Spartan simplicity and abstemiousness, his food locusts and wild honey, his clothing camel's hair, his home the wilderness. Of the most absolute humility, he called himself merely a voice,—a thing of breath and sound, but still indeed of significance,—and said he was not worthy to loose the shoe-latchet of One Who came after him; that “He must increase, but I must decrease,” evidently meaning entirely what he said. Being thus utterly devoid of self-consciousness or self-importance, he was the fittest man living for the high honor of announcing and baptizing the Messiah.
Yet we also find that kind of courage and endurance which is so often associated with native humility and reserve; and that not merely as regards passive courage, but active and aggressive where duty requires. He does not talk vaguely to people about sin in the abstract, but directly and incisively about their own sins. He says to the publicans (whose special characteristic was extortion in collecting the taxes), “Exact no more than that which is appointed you “: to the soldiers, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” (the Roman soldier's three tendencies, violence, reckless accusation, and looting, being here uncovered and rebuked in a dozen words). To Herod the king, who was doubtless accustomed to very different language, he addresses the rebuke brief and stern, “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.” These last few words cost him his life. He came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but his departure was very different from the glorious rapture of the ancient prophet in flaming chariot. After lingering in prison until the infamous woman had arranged a plot for his death, he is beheaded at her daughter's request,—he, than whom there had lived no greater man, was put to death at the request of a profligate ballet-girl! They made a ghastly jest of it all too; his head struck off and dished up on a silver plate. Nor have we any ground for supposing that, when the glazed eyes of the dead prophet glared on that gay company, they produced any feeling of remorse or sorrow. Probably the guests were only highly amused at this espieglerie of their brilliant hostess and her attractive daughter. There were a few loving and reverent hands though, who took what remained of the great prophet when his head and his soul were gone, and buried it. Then, apparently with broken hearts, they “went and told Jesus.” 1
“When Jesus heard of it he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart.” May we not say though with guardedness and reverence, that this dreadful occurrence to the most honorable of His disciples was a very deep and personal sorrow to the Master? And this, though we know that the Master foresaw the event and could have prevented it, as we believe He would have done, and would prevent every ill that comes upon us, only that He sees some reason to let many of them take their course.
If the Baptist had been a spiritual automaton, he would no doubt have been an entirely consistent character to the end; but he was a man of like passions with ourselves, and at one time his faith failed. He is surprised to find himself left languishing in prison by the One Whom he understood to be the Messiah, Who was to right all wrongs, whilst the great work of the rescue and restoration of the nation is apparently as far off as ever, and the Lord seems to take no notice. He therefore sends to Christ a question framed in one of those brief direct sentences which he appears to have generally used, “Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?” We cannot for a moment think, however, that it was fear or anxiety as to his own fate that impelled him to act thus. It was that kind of doubt which a capacious mind feels at times of discouragement as to whether the course pursued has been absolutely right after all, and such a kind of depression as every just mind feels when God seems to take no notice of the things all going disastrously wrong, “when His eyelids try the children of men.”
This message brings out one of the most beautiful passages in the life of our Lord. He could not without loss of dignity give a direct answer to a question from His servant which, after what had occurred, was of an offending nature. Neither would He grieve that servant by leaving him unanswered, or sending a reply that the bearers would know to be a rebuke. Therefore He advises them to go and tell John the wonderful and miraculous things that they had themselves seen and to give him this message, “Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me!” It is not “Cursed is he that is offended in me;” that would have been the same and yet so very different. He then turns round to the multitude after John's disciples were gone and pronounces the most glowing eulogy. At the time of failure, when others would be “improving the occasion” by throwing stones at the one who was down, the Lord defends and praises his old and tried servant, ending the panegyric. “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.”
All this is full of an infinite generosity and delicacy. Good is it that, when we fail, we have such an one for an Advocate. As the noble tree when wounded by the knife yields its healing balm; as from the ground when wounded by the spade the living streams well forth; so from the heart of the Master there flows out only a more fragrant and ineffable benediction, when it is wounded by the failures and distrust of His servants.