But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.”
Who are “those” people spoken of in Matthew 2:19-20? The Gospel only reports that Herod had died. Is this a mistake?
It is not a mistake. God’s Word is accurate in even in the smallest detail. The solution to the problem may not be apparent to the casual reader of Scripture in our day, but to those who lived during the time of Matthew’s writing (c. A.D. 50) there would be no cause for debate. The earliest readers knew who “those” people were.
A contemporary of Matthew, the historian Josephus provides a dreadful account of the death of Herod (Antiquities xvii, vi, vii). Distemper fell upon the evil king in his seventieth year and became increasingly severe from then on. The king was also seized with a disease which burned him inwardly with inexpressible torture. He had an insatiable desire for eating meat and as a result had the colic, gout and dropsy. His private parts were so putrefied that they produced worms. The stench of his rotting body was so intolerable that no one could go near him. He became increasingly cruel and terrorized all who attended him. He became more barbarous than ever.
Herod’s illnesses caused him to attempt suicide. He ordered his servant to bring him an apple and a knife. As it was his custom to pare the apple himself, no one thought he would do otherwise with the blade. When Herod got the knife he had a mind to stab himself with it. His first cousin, Achiabus, prevented him from doing so. During the commotion there were screams and mayhem throughout the palace.
Herod’s son, Antipater, who was detained nearby, believed his father was already dead. He grew bold and ordered his release in hope of taking the kingdom. The jailer refused and informed the king of his intentions.
When Herod heard what the jailer said he commanded the guards to execute Antipater without further delay and bury him in a common grave. What’s more, we read elsewhere in Josephus that Antipater was, in fact, just as wickedly evil and paranoid as Herod himself.
So, then, we see that “those” people who wished the Child Jesus dead are actually two men. Those living during this time would have no difficulty discerning Matthew’s Gospel.