Herod's Ballroom

by Horatius Bonar

"When Herod's birthday celebration came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod." Matthew 14:6

This birth-day ball of Herod was held, in all likelihood, at Machaerus, a fortress beyond Jordan, not far from the Dead Sea. It was a high and royal festival. Pomp, splendor, luxury, and lust were all gathered there. In the midst of the song, and the glitter, and the mirth, there was one troubled conscience—Herod. There was one trembling man—Herod. His soul was ill at ease, though surrounded with all the world could give to banish care. He, Herodias, and John the Baptist may be said to be the chief personages brought before us in this scene. But let us take up the narrative in another form:

(1) Before the ball;
(2) During the ball;
(3) After the ball.

I. BEFORE the ball. The news of Christ's miracles had overspread the land, and reached Herod. He was startled and troubled. Who is this Jesus? Can he be John? Can John be risen? But why these fears on the part of Herod? The answer carries us back to the time before the ball. John had reproved Herod for his wickedness, more than a year and a half before; for Herod had taken his brother's wife, and John had proclaimed the unlawfulness of the deed. This had roused the king's anger. He would gladly have slain him, and was only kept from doing so by fear of the multitude, who reverenced John. But he imprisoned him, and kept him in the castle of Machaerus for eighteen months. The guilt of an unlawful marriage was on his conscience, as well as the guilt of imprisoning a holy man.

His course of sin had been begun and persevered in. He was braving out his crimes; and like worldly men in such circumstances, he rushes into gaiety to drown his troubles and terrors. The pleasures of the feast and the ball-room, the song and the dance—these are welcomed to induce forgetfulness, and 'minister to a diseased mind.' In how many cases do men fly to the ball, the theater, the card-table, the tavern, the riotous party—not simply for pleasure's sake, and to 'taste life's glad moments,' but to drown care, to smother conscience, to efface convictions, to laugh away the impressions of the last sermon, to soothe an uneasy mind, to relieve the burden, or pluck out the sting of conscious guilt! O slaughter-houses of souls! O shambles, reeking with blood! O lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries! How long shall men 'run on in this excess of riot?' O lust of the flesh, lust of the eye, and pride of life, when will you cease to intoxicate, and lead men captive at your will? O God-forgetting gaiety! O dazzling worldliness! O glittering halls of midnight, where youth and pleasure meet—when, when will you cease to be resorted to by men to 'heal the hurt' of the human soul, to still its throb and heartache, and to stupefy the unhealable wound?

II. DURING the ball. It is a mirthful scene. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life are there! All that can gratify these are there. Herod is there, feeding on lust, drinking in pleasure, stupefying conscience. The lovely daughter is there, in all the splendor of mirthful wantonness. And the vile mother is there, lascivious and revengeful. And the courtiers are there, in pomp and glitter. Music and mirth are there. The dance and the song are there. No note of gloom, no indication of trouble. What a scene of mirth and revelry!

But some are absent—conspicuously absent, we may say. John is not there. A prison holds him. His disciples are not there. They can but weep and lament. And Jesus is not there, nor His disciples. They were at the marriage festival in Cana—but this ball-room is not for them. It is not the place for a follower either of Jesus or of John.

These scenes of royal vanity are instructive, for they present the world in its most fascinating aspects. All that regal state, and princely beauty, and wealth, and gold, and silver, and gems, and tapestry, and blazing lamps can do to make this present world desired, is in such scenes and haunts. These balls are the most seductive specimens of pure worldliness, which can be found. Surely the god of this world knows how to enchant both ear and eye. In an assembly like this, the natural man is at home. Here the unregenerate heart delights to the full.

It is a place where God is not; where the cross is not; where such things as sin and holiness must not be named. It is a hall where the knee is not bent, except in the voluptuous waltz; where the music whose theme is the praise of Jesus is unheard; where the book of God and the name of God would be out of place; where you may speak of Venus or Apollo, but not of Jesus; where you may sing of human love, but not of the love which passes knowledge; where you may celebrate creature-beauty, but not the beauty of Him who is altogether lovely.

It was during that ball, that the murder of John was plotted and consummated. It was during that ball, that a drunken, lustful king, urged on by two women, perpetrated that foul deed. Such are the haunts of pleasure! Such are the masquerades of this world! Lust is let loose; revenge rises up; murder rages; conscience is smothered; the floor of the ball-room is spotted with blood; the dancers may slip their feet in it—but the dance goes on! Such was the gross worldliness of old days. But is the refined worldliness of modern times—less fatal to the soul?

The ball is finished, and John lies dead in prison. What a picture of gaiety! What a specimen of ball-room revelry! And this is pleasure! This is the world's joy! "You adulterers and adulteresses! Don't you know that the friendship of the world is enmity with God!"

III. AFTER the ball. Of the chief actors in this ball-room murder, nothing more is said. They pass to the judgment-seat, there to receive sentence for lust, rage, revenge, and murder! They have sent John before them to the presence of his Judge—to receive his reward. They have got their revenge. John's lips are silenced; that is all they care for. But his disciples find their way into the prison; they gather round their master's body; they bury it in silence. They can do no more. That ball has robbed them of their master. It has been a costly festival to them.

Then they go and tell Jesus, knowing His sympathies, and feeling that they have no one else to whom they can unbosom themselves so confidingly. Jesus hears of the murder, and is silent! Not a word escapes Him. He had come to suffer both in Himself and in His members; so He is silent. This is the day of silent endurance and patient suffering. The day of recompense is coming. O gaieties of earth! Feasts, and revelings, and banquetings, how often have you slain both body and soul! Men call you innocent amusements, harmless pleasures; but can you be harmless, can you be innocent, when you steal away the soul from God, when you nourish the worst lusts of humanity, when you smother conscience, when you shut out Jesus, when the floors on which your votaries dance off their immortal destinies, are red with the blood of souls?

Very strongly does this mirthful scene in Herod's ball-room speak to the sons and daughters of pleasure. You did not think that a ball-room could produce a murder; but here it is. You did not think that a lovely girl could be a murderess, thirsting for the blood of God's saints; but here it is. You did not think that out of the cup of pleasure, such poison could come; but here it is. The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life are here—all here! The scene is beautiful; the music is thrilling; the mirth is fascinating; the voices, the dress, the company, the flowers, the glitter, the lights, the mirthful faces—these are irresistible spells, leading captive every attendant.

But God is shut out; Christ cannot enter, for there is no room for Him in the ball-room; prayer could not be heard; the word 'eternity,' or 'death,' would overshadow the brightness and the gaiety. Is not all this true? I know not any place where 'the world' shows itself to more advantage, than the ball-room. All that is offensive has been left behind. All that is attractive is spread out to the full. The world is there at its best—and yet it is the world still!

What is the world? It is the unregenerate tastes, pursuits, pleasures, and lusts of Adam's fallen sons. 'Love not this world.' 'Be not conformed to this world.' There is a manifest contrast between 'this present evil world,' and between 'the things above.' Was not the world made to be loved? Yes; it was created 'very good.' But it has changed its nature, its character, its ruler. It is now evil—and not good; cursed—and not blessed; unholy—and not holy; under Satan—and not under God. It is now in a condition in which it is neither safe or right to love it. It is now an enemy and a snare! Its society is injurious; its pleasures and pursuits are full of deadly poison!

Why, then, do we stay in it? We do not stay in it further than is necessary. We have been delivered from it; we have come out of it; we are not of it, though in it. We cannot leap into heaven at once. The new earth has not yet come. Yet we say, 'Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest!' Why does God allow us to remain here in this world, amid evil and temptation? He might have brought us to heaven at conversion. But He has not done so. The only instance of such a thing is the thief on the cross. The thief is the only one so wondrously favored! And John, the beloved disciple, is kept longest here! There must be good reasons for our being kept thus amid temptation,

(1) It proves us, and brings out the evil that is in us.

(2) It glorifies God to sustain us.

(3) It displays the power of the blood of Christ.

(4) It gives scope to the working of the Holy Spirit.

(5) It gives us opportunities for working for God.

(6) It is God's way of saving others, and bearing witness before the world.

(7) We are God's army against Satan.

There is great need for us here. We are the salt and light of the world.

Why, then, are we not love the world? Ah, this is the question!

1. God commands us not to love the world. 'Love not the world.' He did not leave us in the midst of the world—that we might love it, but that we might not love it. And even though we did not see the reasons for not loving it, His command is enough. It is quite explicit, and very uncompromising: 'Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.' There is no loophole here, no way of escape, no evasion. Sometimes the line of separation may not be quite distinct; in that case let us take the safe side. Let us keep aloof from what is doubtful.

2. Christ set us an example of not loving the world. He was holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners. He was in the world, but not of the world. There was nothing worldly about Him in any sense or degree. He received sinners and ate with them—yet He was not of the world. His words were not of the world; nor His doings, nor His pursuits: 'I must be about my Father's business.' He said of His disciples and Himself, 'They are not of the world—even as I am not of the world.' Thus He whom we profess to follow, loved not the world—and shall we love it?

3. The world and the Spirit are totally opposed to each other. Christ speaks thus: 'The Spirit of God, whom the world cannot receive, because it sees Him not, neither knows Him.' The world cannot bear the Spirit—and the Spirit cannot sympathize with the world. We profess to have received the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit; what, then, have we to do with the world? Worldliness, or conformity to the world, grieves the Spirit, quenches the Spirit, and is inconsistent with His dwelling in us as His temples. Can we then love the world? In loving God—we are seeking to expel the world. We are saying to it, Depart from us! If we would cherish the Holy Spirit, let us keep aloof from the world.

4. The world is the enemy of God. It is out and out opposed to God and to His Christ. It is part of that seed of the serpent which the woman's seed was to bruise—to which the prophetic words have reference: 'I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.' There can be no sympathy between the saint and the world—no love in him to that world which is enmity to him and to his God. 'Don't you know that friendship with the world is enmity with God—and whoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God?' If such is the world, we need not wonder that it should be said to us, 'Love not the world.'

5. The world slew the Son of God. It was not Pilate nor Herod nor the Jews alone, that did this; it was the world! For all these were but the world's representatives. They were the world's voices crying, Crucify Him! They the world's hands nailing Him to the cross! It was the world in and through them—that condemned and crucified the Son of God. The world's hatred against Christ was consummated on the cross! The world's hands are red with His blood. Can a lover of Christ then, love the world? Can a follower of Christ follow the world? Need we wonder that it should be said, Love not the world!

6. The world's king is Satan. He is its prince and its god. The world worships him; he reigns everywhere. It is subject to him in its religion, its pleasures, its business. Even in lawful and useful things—Satan is at work, turning them to his own account, and serving his own ends by them. He is the prince of the power of the air, the ruler of the darkness of this world. All is under him, and will be—until the day when he is bound. Are we, then, to love a world thus impregnated with his hellish influences—a world which obeys him and not God? Love not the world—for Satan is its king and god. Love not the world—for it is in alliance with hell. All that is in it is from beneath, not from above.

7. The world is at variance with our new nature. Having been 'begotten again to a living hope, by the resurrection of Christ from the dead,' we are separated from our former selves. A great gulf is fixed between us, as we are now and as we once were. Our affections have gone up to heaven; and the things of this world have nothing in common with the things of the world to come. We have lost our relish for the joys of earth. We have ceased to take an interest in the conversation, the amusements, the politics, the literature which used to delight us most. The world has nothing in common with our new relishes, our new sympathies. Two cannot walk together except they are agreed; and we are no longer agreed. Our friendship has been broken, and our fellowship can no longer be maintained on the same footing of common objects of pursuit. The world stands aloof from us—and we stand aloof from the world.

8. The world's influences are unholy. The atmosphere of the world is unfriendly to us. It is fraught with poison; it stifles noble and serious thought! At the best—it acts as an opiate, to lull us asleep, and make us forget our noble character, our eternal prospects and our spiritual profession. These influences are often very imperceptible. We are not aware of the evil they are working in our spiritual constitution—lowering us, carnalizing us, contracting our vision of the eternal glory. As we mix with the world, either in the ball-room or the theater, or the card-table or the jovial party—we are insensibly harmed. Our eyes grow dim, our ears become dull of hearing, our tastes grow earthly—we become less prayerful, and less watchful—our relish for the Bible undergoes a change; the Word is no longer sweet, and the society of the saints is irksome. Yes; we cannot drink the cup of the Lord—and the cup of devils; we cannot be partakers of the Lord's table—and the table of devils!

9. The world tempts us. Its smiles are enchanting, alluring us into snares and sin. It puts on its fairest face; it speaks with its softest voice—all to win us back from Christ, to itself. It is our special tempter. It has a thousand enchantments, and the god of this world makes use of them to entangle our yielding steps, and to draw us once more to its bright embrace. Shun this tempter, O Christian! Do not let the world come between you and Christ—or dim the light of His cross. Love not the world! It has overcome thousands; it may conquer you! Beware! Do not dally with its beauty, nor remain within the sound of its intoxicating music! You come near, you listen—and so you yield, and are led back into its mirthful vanities, and become once more a captive to its will. Beware of the tempter in every form. 'Come out, and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will be a Father unto you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.'

10. The world blinds us. There is a veil of beauty spread over our eyes by Satan, as an angel of light, hindering us from seeing the things above. The 'god of this world blinds us,' lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine into our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:4). We are not aware of this blinding influence; but it is not the less fatal and real. The beauty of this world, comes between us and the 'King in His beauty.' The bewitching spell of seen and temporal things—hides the things that are unseen and eternal, from our view.

I do not say that the world has no attractions. I know that it has many. Its fascinations are amazingly powerful. When on some 'festival day' it puts on its bright attire, and crowds forth to make mirth amid flowers and sunshine; or when on festal nights it gathers its youth together, and bids them 'taste life's glad moments' in the dance—it shows its power to dazzle and to fascinate. That it is an evil world I know; that its beauty is unreal as well as perilous, thousands can testify. But still, like most things here, it has two aspects—one fair, the other dark. It is by the former that it beguiles its victims. The churchyard has two aspects: above there is the rich green of its turf or its flowers; beneath there is the unsightly corruption of the dead. So is it with the world. Its outside dazzles and allures; but its hidden parts are loathsome and evil.

It could serve no good end to rail at the world, speaking against it with sour words or in an unkind spirit, as if we were beings of a better race and made of finer clay. He who would win men out of it, must speak as one who once belonged to it, but who, having left it for what is truer and dearer, would gladly make others partakers of his elevated hope and joy. Let no one think that it is in anger that we speak of the world, as if we cherished anything like contempt or aversion for those who belong to it. We remember the apostle's words, 'On some have compassion, and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire' (Jude 22); and we seek to act accordingly. Having tasted the bread of life, we pity those 'who feed on ashes.' We grieve over the madness of men who cling to a sinking vessel, or choose a leprous house for their dwelling, or pitch their tent upon the hot lava; but we feel that their position is much too serious for anger or for scorn.

Besides, we are in earnest; and there is no true earnestness either in anger or in scorn. These are selfish; whereas true earnestness has risen above self. It has shaken off what is little and narrow, expanding as well as elevating the soul by the intensity of its workings. Of this I do not know a better example than Richard Baxter. You can hardly read a page or two of his practical works without lighting on some remark or appeal or epithet in reference to 'the world.' Its hollow, evil character, as the great enemy of God and souls, seems to have haunted it. He can hardly lift his pen without touching on this. He can scarcely write a chapter without bearing solemn testimony as to this. The multitudes of souls crowding with such strange eagerness into this vast enchanting prison-house, and fascinated with this siren song, seem to be continually before his sight, making his 'head waters and his eyes a fountain of tears.' How sorrowfully does he mourn over 'a weary, restless, empty world;' 'a world of cares and griefs and pains;' an 'vain, defective, troublesome' world; a 'calamitous world!' How solemnly he warns against 'this earthy, heavy world;' 'this dead and sleepy world;' this 'flattering, tempting world;' 'this dark, distracted, sensual world!' With what overwhelming earnestness does he bear his testimony against 'a licentious world;' 'a blinded, bedlam world;' a 'distracted, dreaming, dead-hearted, and impenitent world!'

With what intensity of feeling, quickened by the bitterness of his own experience, does he call it 'a malicious, cruel, ungodly world; a false, treacherous, deceitful world!' But in all this, is there anything of anger, or hatred, or envy, or revenge? No! The tone of profound yet noble sadness which every such appeal displays, shows the spirit in which it was uttered. The sharpest epithet or argument came from a heart yearning over that very world which he so unsparingly condemns—a heart in whose fervor there mingled no element of harshness or repulsive self-sufficiency, or unfeeling and complacent scorn. The words are the words of one whose compassions have been stirred to their depths, by the sight or thought of men trifling with a holy God, tampering with an eternal heir-ship of glory, and preferring to an immortal treasure—the giddy laugh, or the pride of pomp, or the sensual lust, or the glitter of gold, or the dream of fond romance. What an intensity of lofty tenderness, do these utterances express for a world which is spending its money for that which is not bread, and its labor for that which satisfies not! Those who know not the man, may call them invectives; but those who know him will appreciate, even if they do not wholly sympathize with, the spirit of sorrowful compassion in which they are spoken, and admit that they are altogether like him who wrote the Call to the Unconverted, and who wished that he were able to go up to each man separately, and upon his knees beseech him to turn to God.

With what burning words does Richard Baxter appeal to the 'voluptuous youths that run after games and dancings and revelings!' May his solemn words pierce the reader's conscience, if he is a lover of pleasure: 'Do you not know, that you have higher delights to mind? And are these toys befitting a noble soul—which has holy and heavenly matters to delight in? Do you not feel what a plague the very pleasure is to your affections; how it bewitches you and befools you, and makes you out of love with holiness? Do you know the worth of those precious hours which you play away? Have you no more to do with them? Look inwards to your soul and forward to eternity—and bethink better. Is it sports that you need? Do you not more need Christ and grace and pardon, and preparation for death and judgment, and assurance of salvation? Why, then, are not these your business? You are but preparing for your future sorrow, either by repentance or destruction.'

Strange that some Christian men, nay, ministers, should not only allow, but teach their children to dance! Thus they educate them for the ball-room, and the ball-room ushers them into the theater; for these two are but adjoining chambers of the same hall of pleasure—with a thin partition between.

Nor would it serve any good end, to say that the world has no attractions. I admit the opposite. I know that it has many. They are astonishingly varied in their nature, and so suited to the varied tastes of fallen man. They adapt themselves to each rank, each age, each class, each temper. It has visions, all its own, for the natural eye; sounds, all its own, for the natural ear; dreams, all its own, for the natural imagination; objects, all its own, for the natural heart. Its fascinations are cunningly contrived. Its enchantments are strangely powerful. Its spells are all but resistless.

For the young especially, it spreads its snares, seeking to lead them away from God. It multiplies its deceptions, that it may multiply its victims; and its success is astonishing in blinding and bewitching even those who seemed to be setting their affections on things above.

Some, it may be, will say, 'You make us to be the world, and yourselves to be the Church—what right have you to do so?' To this we make answer: We do not do so, as is thus said. It is not of persons—but of characters that we speak. We name no one; we leave each one to name himself. We tell men what God has said of the world—and having so done, we say, 'Judge yourselves; inquire how far your features resemble the world. God has said, "Love not the world;" if, therefore, you do not love the world, you have no cause to take offence at what has been said; but if you do love the world, then you must take the question to God and quarrel with His word, if there must be a quarrel in the matter. If you love the world, you cannot belong to God; for it is written, "If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him."

Others may say, 'We do not love the world, though we love some of the things that are in it; we do not count ourselves to belong to the world, merely because we love its amusements.' Now what are those amusements which a man may enjoy—and yet not love the world? They are such as the theater, the opera, the pantomime, the ball-room, the play, the novel. But are not these things just the essentials of the world? To love these—is to love the world. To love these is to love those very things which make the world what it is. Take away these, and what remains of the world—but its open vilenesses, which pure lips would not name? What would you say to a friend who would tell you, 'I don't admire that town; I only admire its streets, and houses, and towers, and spires, and walls'? But are not these the chief things that make up the town? Take away these, and there is no town at all; for you would not think of giving the name of town to the cellars and alleys, and lanes and low haunts of crime?

So you would designate the world not by its worst features, but by its best; not by its vices and villainies, but just by its characteristic amusements; those amusements in which all take part, and from which, therefore, more than from anything else, it takes its special name—'the world.' Others will say, 'But what harm is there in dancing, or other such gaieties?' None, of course, if you mean by this merely the act of leaping up and down. There is no more harm in it than in walking or in skipping. It is not to the mere act of leaping that I object, but to its circumstances and accompaniments. These are the things that make it evil; for 'they are not of the Father but of the world.'

And here I may notice, that by analyzing sin in this way—you may easily persuade yourself that there is no such thing as sin at all. You may say, 'Stealing is nothing; it is merely changing the position of a little gold or silver—placing in my pocket what was once in another's.' Or you may say, 'Lying is nothing; it is merely using a few words of the commonest meaning, inserting or leaving out a not in making a statement; that is all.' Thus, by analyzing the grossest sins, you may show that there is no sin in them, any more than in plucking a leaf or in rolling a stone. It is in this way that Romish casuists try to palliate all manner of evil. They analyze it, and straightway its essence evaporates. They will prove that murder is no sin, simply by separating it into its elements—as they do, who defend the amusements of the ball-room.

Even were there no harm in it, the question would remain, Is it really pure? Is it profitable? Is it befitting a saint? Does it suit the profession of one who calls himself a Christian—the bearer of a cross—the follower of a crucified Lord? Could you dance in a church? Could you dance in the death-chamber? Could you dance under the shadow of the cross or within sight of Calvary?

The day is coming, which shall strip off all guises from the objects of man's idolatry, and show them in all their unsatisfying emptiness. The deathbed has much to tell us of the world's vanity; and the grave still more. Will men listen? Will the lovers of pleasure give heed? Christ—or the world? Which is it to be? Which is it now? Not both. That cannot be. One or other; but not both. Take your choice, O man! But remember that the fashion of this world is passing away; and that a few years will end it all.

Remember, again, that Christ and His joys are forever; that the rivers of pleasure at His right hand never run dry; and that if you will take Him and all that He has, you may have eternal fullness. For no man buys Christ. No man buys the kingdom. We get Christ simply by taking Him from the Father's hand—as the Father's gift to sinners; and we get the kingdom by receiving the divine testimony to the one way of entering it—by Him who is 'the Way and the Truth and the Life.'