Each year, as we approach the holiday season, our preparations for Christmas include revisiting the events surrounding the birth of Our Lord. Bethlehem, (1) the shepherds, and the angels are familiar to us all. But not much is generally known about the mysterious "Magi" who came to worship the infant Jesus. The following background may be helpful to stimulate conversations around the fireplace as our thoughts turn to this incredible event from which we measure our very calendar.
Most of what we associate with the "Magi" is from early church traditions. Most have assumed there were three of them, since they brought three specific gifts (but the Biblical text doesn't number them). They are called "Magi" from the Latinized form of the Greek word magoi, transliterated from the Persian, for a select sect of priests. (Our word "magic" comes from the same root.)
As the years passed, the traditions became increasingly embellished. By the 3rd century they were viewed as kings. By the 6th century they had names: Bithisarea, Melichior, and Gathaspa. Some even associated them with Shem, Ham and Japheth--the three sons of Noah--and thus with Asia, Africa, and Europe. A 141h century Armenian tradition identifies them as Balthasar, King of Arabia; Melchior, King of Persia; and Gasper, King of India.
(Relics attributed to them emerged in the 4th century and were transferred from Constantinople to Milan in the 5th century, and then to Cologne in 1162 where they remain enshrined.)
These are interesting traditions, but what do we really know about them?
The Priesthood of the Medes
.The ancient Magi were a hereditary priesthood of the Medes (known today as the Kurds) credited with profound and extraordinary religious knowledge. After some Magi, who had been attached to the Median court, proved to be expert in the interpretation of dreams, Darius the Great established them over the state religion of Persia. (2) (Contrary to popular belief, the Magi were not originally followers of Zoroaster. (3) That all came later.)
It was in this dual capacity, whereby civil and political counsel was invested with religious authority, that the Magi became the supreme priestly caste of the Persian empire and continued to be prominent during the subsequent Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian periods. (4)
The Role of Daniel
One of the titles given to Daniel was Rab-mag, the Chief of the Magi. (5) His unusual career included being a principal administrator in two world empires--the Babylonian and the subsequent Persian Empire. When Darius appointed him, a Jew, over the previously hereditary Median priesthood, the resulting repercussions led to the plots involving the ordeal of the lion's den. (6)
Daniel apparently entrusted a Messianic vision (to be announced in due time by a "star") to a secret sect of the Magi for its eventual fulfillment. But first let's review some historical background.
Since the days of Daniel, the fortunes of both the Persian and the Jewish nation had been closely intertwined. Both nations had, in their turn, fallen under Seleucid domination in the wake of Alexander's conquests. Subsequently, both had regained their independence: the Jews under Maccabean leadership, and the Persians as the dominating ruling group within the Parthian Empire.
It was at this time that the Magi, in their dual priestly and governmental office, composed the upper house of the Council of the Megistanes (from which we get the term "magistrates"), whose duties included the absolute choice and election of the king of the realm.
It was, therefore, a group of Persian--Parthian "king makers" who entered Jerusalem in the latter days of the reign of Herod. Herod's reaction was understandably one of fear when one considers the background of Roman-Parthian rivalry that prevailed during his lifetime.
Rome on the Rise
Pompey, the first Roman conqueror of Jerusalem in 63 B.C., had attacked the Armenian outpost of Parthia. In 55 B.C. Crassus led Roman legions in sacking Jerusalem and in a subsequent attack on Parthia proper. The Romans were decisively defeated at the battle of Carrhae with the loss of 30,000 troops, including their commander. The Parthians counterattacked with a token invasion of Armenia, Syria, and Palestine.
Nominal Roman rule was reestablished under Antipater, the father of Herod, who, in his turn, retreated before another Parthian invasion in 40 B.C.
Mark Antony reestablished Roman sovereignty in 37 B.C. and, like Crassus before him, Also embarked on a similarly ill-fated Parthian expedition. His disastrous retreat was followed by another wave of invading Parthians, which swept all Roman opposition completely out of Palestine (including Herod himself, who fled to Alexandria and then to Rome).
With Parthian collaboration, Jewish sovereignty was restored, and Jerusalem was fortified with a Jewish garrison.
Herod, by this time, had secured from Augustus Caesar the title of "King of the Jews." However, it was not for three years, including a five months' siege by Roman troops, that Herod was able to occupy his own capital city! Herod had thus gained the throne of a rebellious buffer state which was situated between two mighty contending empires. At any time his own subjects might conspire in bringing the Parthians to their aid. At the time of the birth of Christ, Herod may have been close to his final illness. Augustus was also aged, and Rome, since the retirement of Tiberius, was without an experienced military commander. Pro-Parthian Armenia was fomenting revolt against Rome (which was successfully accomplished within two years.)
The Tensions in Parthia
The time was ripe for another Parthian invasion of the buffer provinces, except for the fact that Parthia itself was racked by internal dissension. Phraates IV, the unpopular and aging king, had once been deposed and it was not improbable that the Persian Magi were already involved in the political maneuvering requisite to choosing his successor. It was conceivable that the Magi might be taking advantage of the king's lack of Popularity to further their own interests with the establishment of a new dynasty, which could have been implemented if a sufficiently strong contender could be found.
At this time it was entirely conceivable that the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, culminating in the writings of Daniel, one of their own Magians, was of profound motivating significance. The promise of a divinely imposed world dominion at the hands of a Jewish monarch might be more than acceptable to them. (Their own Persian and Medo-Persian history was studded with Jewish nobles, ministers, and counselors; and in the great Achaemenid days, some of the kings themselves were of Jewish blood.)
The Entourage to Jerusalem
In Jerusalem, the sudden appearance of the Magi, probably traveling in force with all imaginable oriental pomp and accompanied by an adequate cavalry escort to insure their safe penetration of Roman territory, certainly alarmed Herod and the populace of Jerusalem.
It would seem as if these Magi were attempting to perpetrate a border incident which could bring swift reprisal from Parthian armies. Their request of Herod regarding the one who "has been born King of the Jews" (7) was a calculated insult to him, a non--Jew (8) who had contrived and bribed his way into that office.
Consulting his scribes, Herod discovered from the prophecies in the Tanach (the Old Testament) that the Promised One, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. (9) Hiding his concern and expressing sincere interest, Herod requested them to keep him informed.
After finding the babe and presenting their prophetic gifts, the Magi "being warned in a dream" (a form of communication most acceptable to them) departed to their own country, ignoring Herod's request. (Within two years Phraataces, the parricide son of Phraates IV, was duly installed by the Magi as the new ruler of Parthia.)
Daniel's Messianic Role
Living six centuries before the birth of Christ, Daniel certainly received an incredible number of Messianic prophecies. In addition to several overviews of all of Gentile world history, (10) the Angel Gabriel told him the precise day that Jesus would present Himself as King to Jerusalem."
It is interesting that Daniel's founding of a secret sect of the Magi also had a role in having these prominent Gentiles present gifts at the birth of the Jewish Messiah.
The Christmas Gifts
The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were also prophetic, speaking of our Lord's offices of king, priest, and savior. Gold speaks of His kingship; frankincense was a spice used in the priestly duties; and myrrh was an embalming ointment anticipating His death.
In the Millennium, He will also receive the gifts of gold and frankincense;" but no myrrh: His death was once and for all.
What gifts are YOU going to give Him this year? Discuss it with Him.
For a review of other back ground items, see The Christmas Story: What Really Happened, on page 22. Also, for a complete study of one of the most captivating and astonishing books of the Bible, see our Expositional Commentary on the Book of Daniel, on special this month (see page 41).
1. For background on Bethlehem, study the Book of Ruth, our briefing package, The Romance of Redemption, or Chuck's Expositional Commentary on Ruth and Esther.
2. Oneiromancy, not astrology, is their key skill mentioned by Herodotus, 1.107,120;VII.19.
3, Encyclopedia Britannica, 7:691.
4. Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 4:31-34.
5. Daniel 4:9; 5: 11.
6. Daniel Chapter 6.
7. Matthew 2:2.
8. Herod was Idumean (an Edomite), a traditional enemy of Israel.
9. Micah 5:2. (Revealed by Holy Scripture, not astrology.)
10. Daniel 2 and 7. See also, An Empire Reborn? listed on page 23.
11. Daniel 9:24-26. See also, Daniel's 70 Weeks listed on page 23.
12. Isaiah 60:6.
Personal Update, November 1999 Koinonia House Ministries, PO Box D, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho 836=816-0347 www.khouse.org.
(Plural of Latin magus; Greek magoi).
The "wise men from the East" who came to adore Jesus
in Bethlehem (Matthew 2).
Rationalists regard the Gospel account as fiction; Catholics insist that it is a narrative of fact, supporting their interpretation with the evidence of all manuscripts and versions, and patristic citations. All this evidence rationalists pronounce irrelevant; they class the story of the Magi with the so-called "legends of the childhood of Jesus", later apocryphal additions to the Gospels. Admitting only internal evidence, they say, this evidence does not stand the test of criticism.
* John and Mark are silent. This is because they begin their Gospels with the public life of Jesus. That John knew the story of the Magi may be gathered from the fact that Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., III, ix, 2) is witness to it; for Irenaeus gives us the Johannine tradition.
* Luke is silent. Naturally, as the fact is told well enough by the other synoptics. Luke tells the Annunciation, details of the Nativity, the Circumcision, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, facts of the childhood of Jesus which the silence of the other three Evangelists does not render legendary.
* Luke contradicts Matthew and returns the Child Jesus to Nazareth immediately after the Presentation (Luke 2:39). This return to Nazareth may have been either before the Magi came to Bethlehem or after the exile in Egypt. No contradiction is involved.
The subject will be treated in this article under the two divisions:
I. Who the Magi were;
II. The Time and Circumstances of their Visit.
I. WHO THE MAGI WERE
A. Non-Biblical Evidence
We may form a conjecture by non-Biblical evidence of a probable meaning to the word magoi. Herodotus (I, ci) is our authority for supposing that the Magi were the sacred caste of the Medes. They provided priests for Persia, and, regardless of dynastic vicissitudes, ever kept up their dominating religious influence. To the head of this caste, Nergal Sharezar, Jeremias gives the title Rab-Mag, "Chief Magus" (Jeremias 39:3, 39:13, in Hebrew original - Septuagint and Vulgate translations are erroneous here). After the downfall of Assyrian and Babylonian power, the religion of the Magi held sway in Persia. Cyrus completely conquered the sacred caste; his son Cambyses severely repressed it. The Magians revolted and set up Gautama, their chief, as King of Persia under the name of Smerdis. He was, however, murdered (521 B.C.), and Darius became king. This downfall of the Magi was celebrated by a national Persian holiday called magophonia (Her., III, lxiii, lxxiii, lxxix). Still the religious influence of this priestly caste continued throughout the rule of the Achaemenian dynasty in Persia (Ctesias, "Persica", X-XV); and is not unlikely that at the time of the birth of Christ it was still flourishing under the Parthian dominion. Strabo (XI, ix, 3) says that the Magian priests formed one of the two councils of the Parthian Empire.
B. Biblical Evidence
The word magoi often has the meaning of "magician", in both Old and New Testaments (see Acts 8:9; 13:6, 8; also the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 10, 27; 4:4; 5:7, 11, 15). St. Justin (Tryph., lxxviii), Origen (Cels., I, lx), St. Augustine (Serm. xx, De epiphania) and St. Jerome (In Isa., xix, 1) find the same meaning in the second chapter of Matthew, though this is not the common interpretation.
C. Patristic Evidence
No Father of the Church holds the Magi to have been kings. Tertullian ("Adv. Marcion.", III, xiii) says that they were well nigh kings (fere reges), and so agrees with what we have concluded from non-Biblical evidence. The Church, indeed, in her liturgy, applies to the Magi the words: "The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring him gifts: and all the kings of the earth shall adore him" (Psalm 71:10). But this use of the text in reference to them no more proves that they were kings than it traces their journey from Tharsis, Arabia, and Saba. As sometimes happens, a liturgical accommodation of a text has in time come to be looked upon by some as an authentic interpretation thereof. Neither were they magicians: the good meaning of magoi, though found nowhere else in the Bible, is demanded by the context of the second chapter of St. Matthew. These Magians can have been none other than members of the priestly caste already referred to. The religion of the Magi was fundamentally that of Zoroaster and forbade sorcery; their astrology and skill in interpreting dreams were occasions of their finding Christ. (See THEOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF THE AVESTA.)
The Gospel narrative omits to mention the number of the Magi,
and there is no certain tradition in this matter. Some Fathers
speak of three Magi; they are very likely influenced by the number
of gifts. In the Orient, tradition favors twelve. Early Christian
art is no consistent witness:
* a painting in the cemetery of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus shows two;
* one in the Lateran Museum, three;
* one in the cemetery of Domitilla, four;
* a vase in the Kircher Museum, eight (Marucchi, "Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne", Paris, 1899, I 197).
The names of the Magi are as uncertain as is their number. Among the Latins, from the seventh century, we find slight variants of the names, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar; the Martyrology mentions St. Gaspar, on the first, St. Melchior, on the sixth, and St. Balthasar, on the eleventh of January (Acta SS., I, 8, 323, 664). The Syrians have Larvandad, Hormisdas, Gushnasaph, etc.; the Armenians, Kagba, Badadilma, etc. (Cf. Acta Sanctorum, May, I, 1780). Passing over the purely legendary notion that they represented the three families which are descended from Noah, it appears they all came from "the east" (Matt., ii, 1, 2, 9). East of Palestine, only ancient Media, Persia, Assyria, and Babylonia had a Magian priesthood at the time of the birth of Christ. From some such part of the Parthian Empire the Magi came. They probably crossed the Syrian Desert, lying between the Euphrates and Syria, reached either Haleb (Aleppo) or Tudmor (Palmyra), and journeyed on to Damascus and southward, by what is now the great Mecca route (darb elhaj, "the pilgrim's way"), keeping the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan to their west till they crossed the ford near Jericho. We have no tradition of the precise land meant by "the east". It is Babylon, according to St. Maximus (Homil. xviii in Epiphan.); and Theodotus of Ancyra (Homil. de Nativitate, I, x); Persia, according to Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I xv) and St. Cyril of Alexandria (In Is., xlix, 12); Aribia, according to St. Justin (Cont. Tryphon., lxxvii), Tertullian (Adv. Jud., ix), and St. Epiphanius (Expos. fidei, viii).
II. TIME AND CIRCUMSTANCES OF THEIR VISIT
The visit of the Magi took place after the Presentation of the Child in the Temple (Luke 2:38). No sooner were the Magi departed than the angel bade Joseph take the Child and its Mother into Egypt (Matthew 2:13). Once Herod was wroth at the failure of the Magi to return, it was out of all question that the presentation should take place. Now a new difficulty occurs: after the presentation, the Holy Family returned into Galilee (Luke 2:39). Some think that this return was not immediate. Luke omits the incidents of the Magi, flight into Egypt, massacre of the Innocents, and return from Egypt, and takes up the story with the return of the Holy Family into Galilee. We prefer to interpret Luke's words as indicating a return to Galilee immediately after the presentation. The stay at Nazareth was very brief. Thereafter the Holy Family probably returned to abide in Bethlehem. Then the Magi came.
It was "in the days of king Herod" (Matthew 2:1), i.e. before the year 4 B.C. (A.U.C. 750), the probable date of Herod's death at Jericho. For we know that Archelaus, Herod's son, succeeded as ethnarch to a part of his father's realm, and was deposed either in his ninth (Josephus, Bel. Jud., II, vii, 3) or tenth (Josephus, Antiq., XVII, xviii, 2) year of office during the consulship of Lepidus and Arruntius (Dion Cassis, lv, 27), i.e., A.D. 6. Moreover, the Magi came while King Herod was in Jerusalem (vv. 3, 7), not in Jericho, i.e., either the beginning of 4 B.C. or the end of 5 B.C. Lastly, it was probably a year, or a little more than a year, after the birth of Christ. Herod had found out from the Magi the time of the star's appearance. Taking this for the time of the Child's birth, he slew the male children of two years old and under in Bethlehem and its borders (v. 16). Some of the Fathers conclude from this ruthless slaughter that the Magi reached Jerusalem two years after the Nativity (St. Epiphanius, "Haer.", LI, 9; Juvencus, "Hist. Evang.", I, 259). Their conclusion has some degree of probability; yet the slaying of children two years old may possibly have been due to some other reason - for instance, a fear on Herod's part that the Magi had deceived him in the matter of the star's appearance or that the Magi had been deceived as to the conjunction of that appearance with the birth of the Child. Art and archaeology favour our view. Only one early monument represents the Child in the crib while the Magi adore; in others Jesus rests upon Mary's knees and is at times fairly well grown (see Cornely, "Introd. Special. in N.T.", p.203).
From Persia, whence the Magi are supposed to have come, to
Jerusalem was a journey of between 1000 and 1200 miles. Such a
distance may have taken any time between three and twelve months
by camel. Besides the time of travel, there were probably many
weeks of preparation. The Magi could scarcely have reached Jerusalem
till a year or more had elapsed from the time of the appearance
of the star. St. Augustine (De Consensu Evang., II, v, 17) thought
the date of the Epiphany, the sixth of January, proved that the
Magi reached Bethlehem thirteen days ofter the Nativity, i.e.,
after the twenty-fifth of December. His argument from liturgical
dates was incorrect. Neither liturgical date is certainly the
historical date. (For an explanation of the chronological difficulties,
see Chronology, Biblical, Date of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.)
In the fourth century the Churches of the Orient celebrated the
sixth of January as the feast of Christ's Birth, the Adoration
by the Magi, and Christ's Baptism, whereas, in the Occident, the
Birth of Christ was celebrated on the twenty-fifth of December.
This latter date of the Nativity was introduced into the Church
of Antioch during St. Chrysostom's time (P.G., XLIX, 351), and
still later into the Churches of Jerusalem and Alexandria.
That the Magi thought a star led them on, is clear from the words (eidomen gar autou ton astera) which Matthew uses in 2:2. Was it really a star? Rationalists and rationalistic Protestants, in their efforts to escape the supernatural, have elaborated a number of hypotheses:
* The word aster may mean a comet; the star of the Magi was a comet. But we have no record of any such comet.
* The star may have been a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (7 B.C.), or of Jupiter and Venus (6 B.C.).
* The Magi may have seen a stella nova, a star which suddenly increases in magnitude and brilliancy and then fades away.
These theories all fail to explain how "the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was" (Matthew 2:9). The position of a fixed star in the heavens varies at most one degree each day. No fixed star could have so moved before the Magi as to lead them to Bethlehem; neither fixed star nor comet could have disappeared, and reappeared, and stood still. Only a miraculous phenomenon could have been the Star of Bethlehem. it was like the miraculous pillar of fire which stood in the camp by night during Israel's Exodus (Exodus 13:21), or to the "brightness of God" which shone round about the shepherds (Luke 2:9), or to "the light from heaven" which shone around about the stricken Saul (Acts 9:3).
The philosophy of the Magi, erroneous though it was, led them to the journey by which they were to find Christ. Magian astrology postulated a heavenly counterpart to complement man's earthly self and make up the complete human personality. His "double" (the fravashi of the Parsi) developed together with every good man until death united the two. The sudden appearance of a new and brilliant star suggested to the Magi the birth of an important person. They came to adore him - i.e., to acknowledge the Divinity of this newborn King (vv. 2, 8, 11). Some of the Fathers (St. Irenaeus, "Adv. Haer.", III, ix, 2; Progem. "in Num.", homil. xiii, 7) think the Magi saw in "his star" a fulfillment of the prophesy of Balaam: "A star shall rise out of Jacob and a scepter shall spring up from Israel" (Numbers 24:17). But from the parallelism of the prophesy, the "Star" of Balaam is a great prince, not a heavenly body; it is not likely that, in virtue of this Messianic prophesy, the Magi would look forward to a very special star of the firmament as a sign of the Messias. It is likely, however, that the Magi were familiar with the great Messianic prophesies. Many Jews did not return from exile with Nehemias. When Christ was born, there was undoubtedly a Hebrew population in Babylon, and probably one in Persia. At any rate, the Hebrew tradition survived in Persia. Moreover, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus (Hist., V, xiii), and Suetonius (Vespas., iv) bear witness that, at the time of the birth of Christ, there was throughout the Roman Empire a general unrest and expectation of a Golden Age and a great deliverer. We may readily admit that the Magi were led by such hebraistic and gentile influences to look forward to a Messias who should soon come. But there must have been some special Divine revelation whereby they knew that "his star" meant the birth of a king, that this new-born king was very God, and that they should be led by "his star" to the place of the God-King's birth (St. Leo, Serm. xxxiv, "In Epiphan." IV, 3).
The advent of the Magi caused a great stir in Jerusalem; everybody, even King Herod, heard their quest (v. 3). Herod and his priests should have been gladdened at the news; they were saddened. It is a striking fact that the priests showed the Magi the way, but would not go that way themselves. The Magi now followed the star some six miles southward to Bethlehem, "and entering into the house [eis ten oikian], they found the child" (v. 11). There is no reason to suppose, with some of the Fathers (St. Aug., Serm. cc, "In Epiphan.", I, 2), that the Child was still in the stable. The Magi adored (prosekynesan) the Child as God, and offered Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The giving of gifts was in keeping with Oriental custom. The purpose of the gold is clear; the Child was poor. We do not know the purpose of the other gifts. The Magi probably meant no symbolism. The Fathers have found manifold and multiform symbolic meanings in the three gifts; it is not clear that any of these meanings are inspired (cf. Knabenbauer, "in Matth.", 1892).
We are certain that the Magi were told in sleep not to return to Herod and that "they went back another way into their country" (v. 12). This other way may have been a way to the Jordan such as to avoid Jerusalem and Jericho; or a roundabout way south through Beersheba, then east to the great highway (now the Mecca route) in the land of Moab and beyond the Dead Sea. It is said that after their return home, the Magi were baptized by St. Thomas and wrought much for the spread of the Faith in Christ. The story is traceable to an Arian writer of not earlier than the sixth century, whose work is printed, as "Opus imperfectum in Matthæum" among the writings of St. Chrysostom (P.G., LVI, 644). This author admits that he is drawing upon the apocryphal Book of Seth, and writes much about the Magi that is clearly legendary. The cathedral of Cologne contains what are claimed to be the remains of the Magi; these, it is said, were discovered in Persia, brought to Constantinople by St. Helena, transferred to Milan in the fifth century and to Cologne in 1163 (Acta SS., I, 323).
Transcribed by John Szpytman
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX
Copyright © 1910 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor
Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, pp14-25, Westminster Press, Philadelphia 1958
THE BIRTH PLACE OF THE KING, Matthew 2: 1, 2
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea, In the days of Herod the King, behold there came to Jerusalem wise men from the East. " Where," they said, "is the newly born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in its rising and we have come to worship Him."
IT was in Bethlehem that Jesus was born. Bethlehem was quite a little town six miles to the south of Jerusalem. In the olden days it had been called Ephrath or Ephratah. The name Bethlehem means The House of Bread, and Bethlehem stood in a fertile countryside, which made its name a fitting name. It stood high up on a grey limestone ridge more than two thousand five hundred feet in height. The ridge had a summit at each end, and a hollow like a saddle between them. So, from its position, Bethlehem looked like a town set in an amphitheater of hills. Bethlehem had a long history. It was there that Jacob had buried Rachel, and had set up a pillar of memory beside her grave (Genesis 48: 7; 35: 20). It was there that Ruth had lived when she married Boaz (Ruth 2: 1), and from Bethlehem Ruth could see the land of Moab, her native land, across the Jordan valley. But above all Bethlehem was the home and the city of David (I Samuel 16: 1; 17: 12; 20: 6); and it was for the water of the well of Bethlehem that David longed when he was a hunted fugitive upon the hills (2 Samuel 23: 14, 15). In later days we read that Rehoboam fortified the town of Bethlehem (2 Chronicles 11: 6). But in the history of Israel, and to the minds of the people, Bethlehem was uniquely the city of David. It was from the line of David that God was to send the great deliverer of His people. As the prophet Micah had it: " Thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be the ruler of Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting " (Micah 5: 2).
It was in Bethlehem, David's city, that the Jews expected great David's greater Son to be born; it was there that they expected God's Anointed One to come into the world, and it was so.
The picture of the stable and the manger as being the birthplace of Jesus is a picture which is indelibly etched in our minds; but it may well be that that picture is not altogether correct. Justin Martyr, one of the greatest of the early fathers, who lived about A.D. 150, and who came from the district near Bethlehem, tells us that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78, 304); and it may well be that Justin's information is correct. The houses in Bethlehem are built on the slope of the limestone ridge; and it is very common for them to have a cave-like stable hollowed out in the limestone rock below the house itself; and it is very likely that it was in such a cave-stable that Jesus was born.
To this day such a cave is shown in Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus and above it the great Roman Church of the Nativity has been built. For very long that cave has been shown as the birthplace of Jesus. It was so in the days of the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, for Hadrian, in a deliberate attempt to desecrate the place, erected a shrine to the heathen god Adonis above it. When the Roman Empire became Christian, early in the fourth century, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, built a great church there, and that church still stands. H. V. Morton tells how he visited that Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He came to a great wall, and in the wall there was a door so low that even a dwarf would have to stoop to enter it; and through the door, and on the other side of the wall, there was the church. Beneath the high altar of the church, there is the cave, and when the pilgrim descends into it he finds a little dark cavern about fourteen yards long and four yards wide, lit by fifty-three silver lamps; and in the floor there is a star, and round it a Latin inscription: " Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary."
When the Lord of Glory came to this earth, He was born in a cave where men sheltered the beasts. The cave, which is now in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, may be that same cave, or it may not be. That, we will never know for certain. But there is something beautiful in the symbolism that the church where the cave is has a door so low that all who enter it must stoop to enter. It is supremely fitting that every man should approach the infant Jesus upon his knees.
WHEN Jesus was born in Bethlehem there came to do Him homage wise men from the East. The name of these men is the Magi, and that is a word which is difficult to translate. Herodotus (i: 101, 132) has certain information about these men called the Magi. He says that the Magi were originally a Median tribe. The Medes were part of the Empire of the Persians; they tried to overthrow the Persians and to substitute the power of the Medes. The attempt failed. From that time the Magi ceased to have any ambitions for power or prestige, and became a tribe of priests. They became in Persia almost exactly what the Levites were in Israel. They became the teachers and instructors of the Persian kings. In Persia no sacrifice could be offered unless one of the Magi was present. They became men of holiness and wisdom.
These Magi were men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine and natural science. They were soothsayers and interpreters of dreams. In later times the word Magus developed a much lower meaning, and came to mean little more than a fortune-teller, a sorcerer, a magician, and a charlatan. Such was Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13: 6, 8), and Simon who is commonly called Simon Magus (Acts 8: 9, 11). But at their best the Magi were not like that; at their best they were good and holy men, who sought for truth.
In those ancient days all men believed in astrology. They believed that they could foretell the future from the stars, and they believed that a man's destiny was settled by the star under which he was born. It is not difficult to see how that belief arose. The stars pursue their unvarying courses; they represent the order of the universe. if then there suddenly appeared some brilliant star, if the unvarying order of the heavens was broken by some special phenomenon, it did look as if God was -breaking into His own order, and announcing some special thing.
We do not know what brilliant star these ancient Magi saw. Many suggestions have been made. About II B.C. Halley's comet was visible shooting brilliantly across the skies. About 7 B.C. there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. In the years 5 to 2 B.C. there was an unusual astronomical phenomenon. In these years, on the first day of the Egyptian month, Mesorl, Sirius, the dog star, rose heliacally, that is at sunrise, and shone with extraordinary brilliance. Now the name Mesori means the birth of a prince, and to those ancient astrologers such a star would undoubtedly mean the birth of some great king. We cannot tell what star the Magi saw; but it was their profession to watch the heavens, and some heavenly brilliance spoke to them of the entry of a king into the world.
It may seem to us extraordinary that these men should set out from the East to find a king, but the strange thing is that, just about the time when Jesus was born, there was in the world a strange feeling of expectation, a waiting for the coming of a king. Even the Roman historians knew about this. Not so very much later than this, on the days of Vespasian, Suetonius could write, " There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea. to rule the world " (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4: 5). Tacitus tells of the same belief that " there was a firm persuasion ... that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire universal empire " (Tacitus, Histories, 5: 13). The Jews had the belief that "about that time one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth - (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6: 5, 4). At a slightly later time we find Tiridates, King of Armenia, visiting Nero at Rome with his Magi along with him (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13: 1). We find the Magi in Athens sacrificing to the memory of Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58: 31). Almost at the same time as Jesus was born we find Augustus, the Roman Emperor, being hailed as the Savior of the World, and Virgil, the Roman poet, writing his Fourth Eclogue, which is known as the Messianic Eclogue, about the golden days to come.
There is not the slightest need to think that the story of the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend. It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world. When Jesus Christ came into this world the world was in an eagerness of expectation. Men were waiting for God. The desire for God was in the hearts of men. They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God. It was to a waiting world that Jesus came; and, when He came, the ends of the earth were gathered at His cradle. It was the first sign and symbol of the world conquest of Christ.
THE CRAFTY KING, Matthew 2: 3-9
When Herod the king heard of this he was disturbed, and so was all Jerusalem with him. So he collected all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and asked them where the Anointed One of God was to be born. They said to him, " In Bethlehem in Judea. For so it stands written through the prophets, ' And you Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means the least among the leaders of Judah. For there shall come forth from you the leader, who will be a shepherd to my people Israel.' " Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men, and carefully questioned them about the time when the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem. " Go," he said, " and make every effort to find out about the little child. And, when you have found Him, send news to me, that 1, too, may come and worship Him." When they had listened to the king they went on their way.
IT came to the ears of Herod that the wise men had come from the East, and that they were searching for the little child who had been born to be King of the Jews. Any king would have been worried at the report that a child had been born who was to occupy his throne. But Herod was doubly disturbed. Herod was half Jew and half Idumean.
There was Edomite blood in his veins. He had made himself useful to the Romans in the wars and civil wars of Palestine, and they trusted him. He had been appointed governor in 47 B.C.; in 40 B.C. he had received the title of king; and he was to reign until 4 B.C. He had wielded power for long. He was called Herod the Great, and in many ways he deserved the title. He was the only ruler of Palestine who ever succeeded in keeping the peace and in bringing order into disorder. He was a great builder; he was indeed the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem. He could be generous.
In times of difficulty he remitted the taxes to make things easier for the people; and in the famine of 25 B.C. he had actually melted down his own gold plate to buy corn for the starving people. But Herod had one terrible flaw in his character. He was almost insanely suspicious. He had always been suspicious, and the older he became the more suspicious he grew, until, in his old age, he was, as someone said, Is a murderous old man." If he suspected anyone as a rival to his power, that person was promptly eliminated. He murdered his wife Marianne and her mother Alexandra. His eldest son, Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, were all assassinated by him. Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had said, bitterly, that it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son. (The saying is even more epigrammatic in Greek, for in Greek hus is the word for a pig, and huios is the word for a son). Something of Herod's savage, bitter, warped nature can be seen from the provisions he made when death came near. When he was seventy he knew that he must die. He retired to Jericho, the loveliest of all his cities. He gave orders that a collection of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem should be arrested on trumped up charges and imprisoned. And he ordered that the moment he died, they should all be killed. He said grimly that he was well aware that no one would mourn for his death, and that he was determined that some tears should be shed when he died.
It is clear how such a man would feel when news reached him that a child was born who was destined to be king Herod was troubled, and Jerusalem was troubled too, to Jerusalem well knew the steps that Herod would take t pin down this story and to eliminate this child. Jerusalem knew Herod, and Jerusalem shivered as it waited for Herod's inevitable reaction.
Herod summoned the chief priests and the scribes. The scribes were the experts in scripture and in the law. The chief priests consisted of two kinds of people. They consisted of ex-high priests. The high priesthood was confine to a very few families. They were the priestly aristocracy and the members of these select families were called the chief priests. So Herod summoned the religious aristocracy and the theological scholars of his day, and asked them where, according to the scriptures, the Anointed One of God should be born. They quoted the text in Micah 5: 2 to him. Herod sent for the wise men, and dispatched them to make diligent search for the little child who had been born. He said that he, too, wished to come and worship the child, but his one desire was to murder the child born to be king.
No sooner was Jesus born into this world than we see men grouping themselves into these three groups in which men are always to be found in regard to Jesus Christ. Let us look at the three reactions.
(i) There was the reaction of Herod, the reaction of hatred and hostility. Herod was afraid that this little child was going to interfere with his life, his place, his power, his influence, and therefore his first instinct was to destroy Him. There are still those who would gladly destroy Jesus Christ, because they see in Him the one who interferes with their lives. They wish to do what they like, and Christ will not let them do what they like; and so they would kill Him. The man whose one desire is to do what he likes has never any use for Jesus Christ. The Christian s the man who has ceased to do what he likes, and who has dedicated his life to do as Christ likes.
(ii) There was the reaction of the chief priests and scribes. Their reaction was complete indifference. It did not make the slightest difference to them. They were so engrossed in their Temple ritual and their legal discussions that they completely disregarded Jesus. He meant nothing to them. There are still those who are so interested in their own affairs that Jesus Christ means nothing to them. The prophet's poignant question can still be asked: " Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? " (Lamentations 1: 12).
(iii) There was the reaction of the wise men, the reaction of adoring worship, the desire to lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts which they could bring. Surely, when any man realizes the love of God in Jesus Christ, he too should be lost in wonder, love and praise.
And, behold, the star, which they had seen In Its rising, led them on until it came and stood over the place where the little child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. When they came into the house, they saw the little child with Mary, His mother, and they fell down and worshiped Him; and they opened their treasures, and offered to Him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. And because a message from God came to them in a dream, telling them not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another way.
So the wise men found their way to Bethlehem We need not think that the star literally moved like a guide across the sky. There is poetry here, and we must not turn lovely poetry into crude and lifeless prose. But over Bethlehem the star was shining. There is a lovely legend which tells how the star, its work of guidance completed, fell into the well at Bethlehem, and that it is still there and can still be seen sometimes by those whose hearts are pure.
Later legends have been busy with the wise men. In the early days eastern tradition said that there were twelve of them. But now the tradition that there were three of them is almost universal. The New Testament does not say that there were three, but the idea that there were three of them no doubt arose from the threefold gift which they brought. Later legend made them kings. And still later legend gave them names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Still later legend assigned to each a personal description, and distinguished the gift which each of them gave to Jesus. Melchior was an old man, grey haired, and with a long beard, and it was he who brought the gift of gold. Caspar was young and beardless, and ruddy in countenance and it was he who brought the gift of frankincense. Balthasar was swarthy, with the beard newly grown upon in the gifts the wise men brought. They have seen In each gift something which specially matched some character.
(I) Gold is the gift for a king. Seneca tells us that in Parthia it was the custom that no one could ever approach the king without a gift. And gold, the king of metals, is the fit gift for a king of men. So then Jesus was " the Man born to be King." But He was to reign, not by force, but by love; and He was to rule over men's hearts, not from a throne, but from a Cross. We do well to remember that Jesus Christ is King. We can never meet Jesus on an equality. We must always meet Him on terms of complete submission and complete surrender. Nelson, the great admiral, always treated his vanquished opponents with the greatest kindness and courtesy. After one of his naval victories, the defeated admiral was brought aboard Nelson's flagship and on to Nelson's quarter-deck. Knowing Nelson's reputation for courtesy, and thinking to trade upon it, he advanced across the quarter-deck with hand outstretched as if he was advancing to shake hands with an equal. Nelson's hand remained by his side. " Your sword first," he said, " and then your hand." Before we must be friends with Christ, we must submit to Christ.
(ii) Frankincense is the gift for a Priest. It was in the Temple worship and at the Temple sacrifices that the sweet perfume of frankincense was used. The function of a priest is to open the way to God for men. The Latin word for priest is Pontifex, which means a bridge-builder. The priest is the man who builds a bridge between men and God. That is what Jesus did. He opened the way to the presence of God; He made it possible for men to enter into the very presence of God.
(III) Myrrh is the gift for one who is to die Myrrh was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into the world to die. Holman Hunt has a famous picture of Jesus. It shows Jesus at the door of the carpenter's shop in Nazareth. He is still only a boy. The setting sun is shining in at the door, and the lad, Jesus, has come to the door to stretch His limbs which had grown cramped over the bench. He stands there in the doorway with his arm outstretched, and behind Him, on the wall, the setting sun throws His shadow, and it is the shadow of a cross. And in the background there stands Mary, and as she sees that shadow there is the fear of coming tragedy in her eyes. Jesus came into the world to live for men, and, in the end, to die for men. He came to give for men His life and His death.
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who was to die-these were the gifts of the wise men, and, even at the cradle of Christ, they foretold that He was to be the true King, the perfect High Priest, and in the end the supreme Savior of men.
ESCAPE TO EGYPT, Matthew 2: 13-15
When they had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph. " Rise, he said, " and take the little child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the little child, in order to kill Him." So he arose and took the little child and His mother by night and went away into Egypt, and he remained there until the death of Herod. This happened that the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: 'Out of Egypt have I called My Son."
THE ancient world had no doubt that God sent His messages to men in dreams. So Joseph was warned in a dream to flee into Egypt to escape Herod's murderous intentions. The flight into Egypt was entirely natural. Often, throughout the troubled centuries before Jesus came, when some peril and some tyranny and some persecution made life intolerable for the Jews, they sought refuge in Egypt. The result was that every city in Egypt had its colony of Jews; and in the city of Alexandria there were actually more than a million Jews, and certain districts of the city were entirely handed over to them. Joseph in his hour of peril was doing what many a Jew had done before; and when Joseph and Mary reached Egypt they would not find themselves altogether amidst strangers, for in every town and city they would find Jews who had sought refuge there.
It is an interesting fact that in the after days the foes of Christianity and the enemies of Jesus used the stay in Egypt as a peg to attach their slanders to Him. Egypt was proverbially the land of sorcery, of witchcraft and of magic. The Talmud says, "Ten measures of sorcery descended into the world; Egypt received nine, the rest of the world one". So the enemies of Jesus declared that it was in Egypt that Jesus had learned a magic and a sorcery which made Him able to work miracles, and to deceive men. When the pagan philosopher, Celsus, directed his attack against Christianity in the third century, that attack which Origen met and defeated, he said that Jesus was brought up as an illegitimate child, that He served for hire in Egypt, that He came to the knowledge of 'certain miraculous powers, and returned to His own country and used these powers to proclaim Himself God (Origen, Contra Celsum 1: 38). A certain Rabbi, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, said that Jesus had the necessary magical formulae tattooed upon His body so that He would not forget them. Such were the slanders that twisted minds connected with the flight to Egypt; but they are obviously false, for it was as a little baby that Jesus was taken to Egypt, and it was as a little child that He was brought back.
Matthew Henry Commentary on Matthew 2
In this chapter, we have the history of our Savior's infancy, where we find how early he began to suffer, and that in him the word of righteousness was fulfilled, before he himself began to fulfil all righteousness. Here is, I. The wise men's solicitous inquiry after Christ (v. 1-8). II. Their devout attendance on him, when they found out where he was (v. 9–12). III. Christ's flight into Egypt, to avoid the cruelty of Herod (v. 13–15). IV. The barbarous murder of the infants of Bethlehem (v. 16–18). V. Christ's return out of Egypt into the land of Israel again (v. 19–23). Mat 2:1-8
It was a mark of humiliation put upon the Lord Jesus that, though he was the Desire of all nations, yet his coming into the world was little observed and taken notice of, his birth was obscure and unregarded: herein he emptied himself, and made himself of no reputation. If the Son of God must be brought into the world, one might justly expect that he should be received with all the ceremony possible, that crowns and scepters should immediately have been laid at his feet, and that the high and mighty princes of the world should have been his humble servants; such a Messiah as this the Jews expected, but we see none of all this; he came into the world, and the world knew him not; nay, he came to his own, and his own received him not; for having undertaken to make satisfaction to his Father for the wrong done him in his honour by the sin of man, he did it by denying himself in, and despoiling himself of, the honors undoubtedly due to an incarnate Deity; yet, as afterward, so in his birth, some rays of glory darted forth in the midst of the greatest instances of his abasement. Though there was the hiding of his power, yet he had horns coming out of his hand (Hab. 3:4) enough to condemn the world, and the Jews especially, for their stupidity.
The first who took notice of Christ after his birth were the shepherds (Lu. 2:15, etc.), who saw and heard glorious things concerning him, and made them known abroad, to the amazement of all that heard them, v. 17, 18. After that, Simeon and Anna spoke of him, by the Spirit, to all that were disposed to heed what they said, Lu. 2:38. Now, one would think, these hints should have been taken by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and they should with both arms have embraced the long-looked-for Messiah; but, for aught that appears, he continued nearly two years after at Bethlehem, and no further notice was taken of him till these wise men came. Note, Nothing will awaken those that are resolved to be regardless. Oh the amazing stupidity of these Jews! And no less that of many who are called Christians! Observe,
I. When this inquiry was made concerning Christ. It was in the days of Herod the king. This Herod was an Edomite, made king of Judea by Augustus and Antonius, the then chief rulers of the Roman state, a man made up of falsehood and cruelty; yet he was complimented with the title of Herod the Great. Christ was born in the 35th year of his reign, and notice is taken of this, to show that the scepter had now departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet; and therefore now was the time for Shiloh to come, and to him shall the gathering of the people be: witness these wise men, Gen. 49:10.
II. Who and what these wise men were; they are here called Magoi. Magicians. Some that it in a good sense; the Magi among the Persians were their philosophers and their priests; nor would they admit any one for their king who had not first been enrolled among the Magi; others think they dealt in unlawful arts; the word is used of Simon, the sorcerer (Acts 8:9, 11), and of Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13:6), nor does the scripture use it in any other sense; and then it was an early instance and presage of Christ's victory over the devil, when those who had been so much his devotees became the early adorers even of the infant Jesus; so soon were trophies of his victory over the powers of darkness erected. Well, whatever sort of wise men they were before, now they began to be wise men indeed when they set themselves to inquire after Christ.
This we are sure of, 1. That they were Gentiles, and not belonging to the commonwealth of Israel. The Jews regarded not Christ, but these Gentiles enquirers him out. Note, Many times those who are nearest to the means, are furthest from the end. See ch. 8:11, 12. The respect paid to Christ by these Gentiles was a happy presage and specimen of what would follow when those who were afar off should be made nigh by Christ. 2. That they were scholars. They dealt in arts, curious arts; good scholars should be good Christians, and then they complete their learning when they learn Christ. 3. That they were men of the east, who were noted for their soothsaying, Isa. 2:6. Arabia is called the land of the east (Gen. 25:6), and the Arabians are called men of the east, Jdg. 6:3. The presents they brought were the products of that country; the Arabians had done homage to David and Solomon as types of Christ. Jethro and Job were of that country. More than this we have not to say of them. The traditions of the Romish church are frivolous, that they were in number three (though one of the ancients says that they were fourteen), that they were kings, and that they lie buried in Colen, thence called the three kings of Colen; we covet not to be wise above what is written.
III. What induced them to make this inquiry. They, in their country, which was in the east, had seen an extraordinary star, such as they had not seen before; which they took to be an indication of an extraordinary person born in the land of Judea, over which land this star was seen to hover, in the nature of a comet, or a meteor rather, in the lowers regions of the air; this differed so much from any thing that was common that they concluded it to signify something uncommon. Note, Extraordinary appearances of God in the creatures should put us upon inquiring after his mind and will therein; Christ foretold signs in the heavens. The birth of Christ was notified to the Jewish shepherds by an angel, to the Gentile philosophers by a star: to both God spoke in their own language, and in the way they were best acquainted with. Some think that the light which the shepherds saw shining round about them, the night after Christ was born, was the very same which to the wise men, who lived at such a distance, appeared as a star; but this we cannot easily admit, because the same star which they had seen in the east they saw a great while after, leading them to the house where Christ lay; it was a candle set up on purpose to guide them to Christ. The idolaters worshiped the stars as the host of heaven, especially the eastern nations, whence the planets have the names of their idol-gods; we read of a particular star they had in veneration, Amos 5:26. Thus the stars that had been misused came to be put to the right use, to lead men to Christ; the gods of the heathen became his servants. Some think this star put them in mind of Balaam's prophecy, that a star should come out of Jacob, pointing at a scepter, that shall rise out of Israel; see Num. 24:17. Balaam came from the mountains of the east, and was one of their wise men. Others impute their inquiry to the general expectation entertained at that time, in those eastern parts, of some great prince to appear. Tacitus, in his history (lib. 5), takes notice of it; Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum literis contineri, eo ipso tempore fore, ut valesceret oriens, profectique Judaea rerum potirentur. A persuasion existed in the minds of many that some ancient writings of the priests contained a prediction that about that time an eastern power would prevail, and that persons proceeding from Judea would obtain dominion. Suetonius also, in the life of Vespasian, speaks of it; so that this extraordinary phenomenon was construed as pointing to that king; and we may suppose a divine impression made upon their minds, enabling them to interpret this star as a signal given by Heaven of the birth of Christ.
IV. How they prosecuted this inquiry. They came from the east to Jerusalem, in further quest of this prince. Wither shall they come to inquire for the king of the Jews, but to Jerusalem, the mother-city, whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord? They might have said, "If such a prince be born, we shall hear of him shortly in our own country, and it will be time enough then to pay our homage to him.'' But so impatient were they to be better acquainted with him, that they took a long journey on purpose to inquire after him. Note, Those who truly desire to know Christ, and find him, will not regard pains or perils in seeking after him. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord. Their question is, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? They do not ask, whether there were such a one born? (they are sure of that, and speak of it with assurance, so strongly was it set home upon their hearts); but, Where is he born? Note, Those who know something of Christ cannot but covet to know more of him. They call Christ the King of the Jews, for so the Messiah was expected to be: and he is Protector and Ruler of all the spiritual Israel, he is born a King.
To this question they doubted not but to have a ready answer, and to find all Jerusalem worshiping at the feet of this new king; but they come from door to door with this question, and no man can give them any information. Note, There is more gross ignorance in the world, and in the church too, than we are aware of. Many that we think should direct us to Christ are themselves strangers to him. They ask, as the spouse of the daughters of Jerusalem, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth? But they are never the wiser. However, like the spouse, they pursue the inquiry, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? Are they asked, "Why do ye make this inquiry?'' It is because they have seen his star in the east. Are they asked, "What business have ye with him? What have the men of the east to do with the King of the Jews?'' They have their answer ready, We are come to worship him. They conclude he will, in process of time, be their king, and therefore they will betimes ingratiate themselves with him and with those about him. Note, Those in whose hearts the day-star is risen, to give them any thing of the knowledge of Christ, must make it their business to worship him. Have we seen Christ's star? Let us study to give him honour.
V. How this inquiry was treated at Jerusalem. News of it at last came to court; and when Herod heard it he was troubled, v. 3. He could not be a stranger to the prophecies of the Old Testament, concerning the Messiah and his kingdom, and the times fixed for his appearing by Daniel's weeks; but, having himself reigned so long and so successfully, he began to hope that those promises would for ever fail, and that his kingdom would be established and perpetuated in spite of them. What a damp therefore must it needs be upon him, to hear talk of this King being born, now, when the time fixed for his appearing had come! Note, Carnal wicked hearts dread nothing so much as the fulfilling of the scriptures.
But though Herod, an Edomite, was troubled, one would have thought Jerusalem should rejoice greatly to hear that her King comes; yet, it seems, all Jerusalem, except the few there that waited for the consolation of Israel, were troubled with Herod, and were apprehensive of I know not what ill consequences of the birth of this new king, that it would involve them in war, or restrain their lusts; they, for their parts, desired no king but Herod; no, not the Messiah himself. Note, The slavery of sin is foolishly preferred by many to the glorious liberty of the children of God, only because they apprehend some present difficulties attending that necessary revolution of the government in the soul. Herod and Jerusalem were thus troubled, from a mistaken notion that the kingdom of the Messiah would clash and interfere with the secular powers; whereas the star that proclaimed him king plainly intimated that his kingdom was heavenly, and not of this lower world. Note, The reason why the kings of the earth, and the people, oppose the kingdom of Christ, is because they do not know it, but err concerning it.
VI. What assistance they met with in this inquiry from the scribes and the priests, v. 4-6. Nobody can pretend to tell where the King of the Jews is, but Herod inquires where it was expected he should be born. The persons he consults are, the chief priests, who were teachers by office; and the scribes, who made it their business to study the law; their lips must keep knowledge, but then the people must inquire the law at their mouth, Mal. 2:7. It was generally known that Christ should be born at Bethlehem (Jn. 7:42); but Herod would have counsel's opinion upon it, and therefore applies himself to the proper persons; and, that he might be the better satisfied, he has them altogether, all the chief priests, and all the scribes; and demands of them what was the place, according to the scriptures of the Old Testament, where Christ should be born? Many a good question is put with an ill design, so was this by Herod.
The priests and scribes need not take any long time to give an answer to this query; nor do they differ in their opinion, but all agree that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, here called Bethlehem of Judea, to distinguish it from another city of the same name in the land of Zebulun, Jos. 19:15. Bethlehem signifies the house of bread; the fittest place for him to be born in who is the true manna, the bread which came down from heaven, which was given for the life of the world. The proof they produce is taken from Mic. 5:2, where it is foretold that though Bethlehem be little among the thousands of Judah (so it is in Micah), no very populous place, yet it shall be found not the least among the princes of Judah (so it is here); for Bethlehem's honour lay not, as that of other cities, in the multitude of the people, but in the magnificence of the princes it produced. Though, upon some accounts, Bethlehem was little, yet herein it had the pre-eminence above all the cities of Israel, that the Lord shall count, when he writes up the people, that this man, even the man Christ Jesus, was born there, Ps. 87:6. Out of thee shall come a Governor, the King of the Jews. Note, Christ will be a Savior to those only who are willing to take him for their Governor.
Bethlehem was the city of David, and David the glory of Bethlehem; there, therefore, must David's son and successor be born. There was a famous well at Bethlehem, by the gate, which David longed to drink of (2 Sa. 23:15); in Christ we have not only bread enough and to spare, but may come and take also of the water of life freely. Observe here how Jews and Gentiles compare notes about Jesus Christ. The Gentiles know the time of his birth by a star; the Jews know the place of it by the scriptures; and so they are capable of informing one another. Note, It would contribute much to the increase of knowledge, if we did thus mutually communicate what we know. Men grow rich by bartering and exchanging; so, if we have knowledge to communicate to others, they will be ready to communicate to us; thus many shall discourse, shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
VII. The bloody project and design of Herod, occasioned by this inquiry, v. 7, 8. Herod was now an old man, and had reigned thirty-five years; this king was but newly born, and not likely to enterprise any thing considerable for many years; yet Herod is jealous of him. Crowned heads cannot endure to think of successors, much less of rivals; and therefore nothing less than the blood of this infant king will satisfy him; and he will not give himself liberty to think that, if this new-born child should be indeed the Messiah, in opposing him, or making any attempts upon him, he would be found fighting against God, than which nothing is more vain, nothing more dangerous. Passion has got the mastery of reason and conscience.
Now, 1. See how cunningly he laid the project (v. 7, 8). He privily called the wise men, to talk with them about this matter. He would not openly own his fears and jealousies; it would be his disgrace to let the wise men know them, and dangerous to let the people know them. Sinners are often tormented with secret fears, which they keep to themselves. Herod learns of the wise men the time when the star appeared, that he might take his measures accordingly; and then employs them to inquire further, and bids them bring him an account. All this might look suspicious, if he had not covered it with a show of religion: that I may come and worship him also. Note, The greatest wickedness often conceals itself under a mask of piety. Absalom cloaks his rebellious project with a vow.
2. See how strangely he was be fooled and infatuated in this, that he trusted it with the wise men, and did not choose some other managers, that would have been true to his interests. It was but seven miles from Jerusalem; how easily might he have sent spies to watch the wise men, who might have been as soon there to destroy the child as they to worship him! Note, God can hide from the eyes of the church's enemies those methods by which they might easily destroy the church; when he intends to lead princes away spoiled, his way is to make the judges fools. Mat 2:9-12
We have here the wise men's humble attendance upon this new-born King of the Jews, and the honors they paid him. From Jerusalem they went to Bethlehem, resolving to seek till they should find; but it is very strange that they went alone; that not one person of the court, church, or city, should accompany them, if not in conscience, yet in civility to them, or touched with a curiosity to see this young prince. As the queen of the south, so the wise men of the east, will rise up in judgment against the men of that generation, and of this too, and will condemn them; for they came from a far country, to worship Christ; while the Jews, his kinsmen, would not stir a step, would not go to the next town to bid him welcome. It might have been a discouragement to these wise men to find him whom they sought thus neglected at home. Are we come so far to honour the King of the Jews, and do the Jews themselves put such a slight upon him and us? Yet they persist in their resolution. Note, We must continue our attendance upon Christ, though we be alone in it; whatever others do, we must serve the Lord; if they will not go to heaven with us, yet we must not go to hell with them. Now,
I. See how they found out Christ by the same star that they had seen in their own country, v. 9, 10. Observe, 1. How graciously God directed them. By the first appearance of the star they were given to understand where they might inquire for this King, and then it disappeared, and they were left to take the usual methods for such an inquiry. Note, Extraordinary helps are not to be expected where ordinary means are to be had. Well, they had traced the matter as far as they could; they were upon their journey to Bethlehem, but that is a populous town, where shall they find him when they come thither? Here they were at a loss, at their wit's end, but not at their faith's end; they believed that God, who had brought them thither by his word, would not leave them there; nor did he; for, behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them. Note, If we go on as far as we can in the way of duty, God will direct and enable us to do that which of ourselves we cannot do; Up, and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Vigilantibus, non dormientibus, succurit lex. The law affords its aid, not to the idle, but to the active. The star had left them a great while, yet now returns. They who follow God in the dark shall find that light is sown, is reserved, for them. Israel was led by a pillar of fire to the promised land, the wise men by a star to the promised Seed, who is himself the bright and morning Star, Rev. 22:16. God would rather create a new thing than leave those at a loss who diligently and faithfully sought him. This star was the token of God's presence with them; for he is light, and goes before his people as their Guide. Note, If we by faith eye God in all our ways, we may see ourselves under his conduct; he guides with his eye (Ps. 32:8), and said to them, This is the way, walk in it: and there is a day-star that arises in the hearts of those that inquire after Christ, 2 Pt. 1:19. 2. Observe how joyfully they followed God's direction (v. 10). When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Now they saw they were not deceived, and had not taken this long journey in vain. When the desire cometh, it is a tree of life. Now they were sure that God was with them, and the tokens of his presence and favour cannot but fill with joy unspeakable the souls of those that know how to value them. Now they could laugh at the Jews in Jerusalem, who, probably, had laughed at them as coming on a fool's errand. The watchmen can give the spouse no tidings of her beloved; yet it is but a little that she passes from them, and she finds him, Cant. 3:3, 4. We cannot expect too little from man, nor too much from God. What a transport of joy these wise men were in upon this sight of the star; none know so well as those who, after a long and melancholy night of temptation and desertion, under the power of a Spirit of bondage, at length receive the spirit of adoption, witnessing with their spirits that they are the children of God; this is light out of darkness; it is life from the dead. Now they had reason to hope for a sight of the Lord's Christ speedily, of the Sun of righteousness, for they see the Morning Star. Note, We should be glad of every thing that will show us the way to Christ. This star was sent to meet the wise men, and to conduct them into the presence chamber of the King; by this master of ceremonies they were introduced, to have their audience. Now God fulfills his promise of meeting those that are disposed to rejoice and work righteousness (Isa. 64:5), and they fulfill his precept. Let the hearts of those rejoice that seek the Lord, Ps. 105:3. Note, God is pleased sometimes to favour young converts with such tokens of his love as are very encouraging to them, in reference to the difficulties they meet with at their setting out of the ways of God.
II. See how they made their address to him when they had found him, v. 11. We may well imagine their expectations were raised to find this royal babe, though slighted by the nation, yet honorably attended at home; and what a disappointment it was to them when they found a cottage was his palace, and his own poor mother all the retinue he had! Is this the Savior of the world? Is this the King of the Jews, nay, and the Prince of the kings of the earth? Yes, this is he, who, though he was rich, yet, for our sakes, became thus poor. However, these wise men were so wise as to see through this veil, and in this despised babe to discern the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father; they did not think themselves balked or baffled in their inquiry; but, as having found the King they sought, they presented themselves first, and then their gifts, to him.
1. They presented themselves to him: they fell down, and worshiped him. We do not read that they gave such honour to Herod, though he was in the height of his royal grandeur; but to this babe they gave this honour, not only as to a king (then they would have done the same to Herod), but as to a God. Note, All that have found Christ fall down before him; they adore him, and submit themselves to him. He is thy Lord, and worship thou him. It will be the wisdom of the wisest of men, and by this it will appear they know Christ, and understand themselves and their true interests, if they be humble, faithful worshipers of the Lord Jesus.
2. They presented their gifts to him. In the eastern nations, when they did homage to their kings, they made them presents; thus the subjection of the kings of Sheba to Christ is spoken of (Ps. 72:10), They shall bring presents, and offer gifts. See Isa. 60:6. Note, With ourselves, we must give up all that we have to Jesus Christ; and if we be sincere in the surrender of ourselves to him, we shall not be unwilling to part with what is dearest to us, and most valuable, to him and for him; nor are our gifts accepted, unless we first present ourselves to him living sacrifices. God had respect to Abel, and then to his offering. The gifts they presented were, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, money, and money's-worth. Providence sent this for a seasonable relief to Joseph and Mary in their present poor condition. These were the products of their own country; what God favors us with, we must honour him with. Some think there was a significance in their gifts; they offered him gold, as a king, paying him tribute, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's; frankincense, as God, for they honoured God with the smoke of incense; and myrrh, as a Man that should die, for myrrh was used in embalming dead bodies.
III. See how they left him when they had made their address to him, v. 12. Herod appointed them to bring him word what discoveries they had made, and, it is probable, they would have done so, if they had not been countermanded, not suspecting their being thus made his tools in a wicked design. Those that mean honestly and well themselves are easily made to believe that others do so too, and cannot think the world is as bad as it really is; but the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation. We do not find that the wise men promised to come back to Herod, and, if they had, it must have been with the usual proviso, If God permit; God did not permit them, and prevented the mischief Herod designed to the Child Jesus, and the trouble it would have been to the wise men to have been made involuntarily accessory to it. They were warned of God, chreĶmatisthentes—oraculo vel responso accepto—by an oracular intimation. Some think it intimates that they asked counsel of God, and that this was the answer. Note, Those that act cautiously, and are afraid of sin and snares, if they apply themselves to God for direction, may expect to be led in the right way. They were warned not to return to Herod, nor to Jerusalem; those were unworthy to have reports brought them concerning Christ, that might have seen with their own eyes, and would not. They departed into their own country another way, to bring the tidings to their countrymen; but it is strange that we never hear any more of them, and that they or theirs did not afterwards attend him in the temple, whom they had worshiped in the cradle. However, the direction they had from God in their return would be a further confirmation of their faith in this Child, as the Lord from heaven. Mat 2:13-15
We have here Christ's flight into Egypt to avoid the cruelty of Herod, and this was the effect of the wise men's inquiry after him; for, before that, the obscurity he lay in was his protection. It was but little respect (compared with what should have been) that was paid to Christ in his infancy: yet even that, instead of honoring him among his people, did but expose him.
Now here observe, 1. The command given to Joseph concerning it, v. 13. Joseph knew neither the danger the child was in, nor how to escape it; but God by an angel, tells him both in a dream, as before he directed him in like manner what to do, ch. 1:20. Joseph, before his alliance to Christ, had not been wont to converse with angels as now. Note, those that are spiritually related to Christ by faith have that communion and correspondence with Heaven which before they were strangers to.
1. Joseph is here told what their danger was: Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. Note, God is acquainted with all the cruel projects and purposes of the enemies of his church. I know thy rage against me, saith God to Sennacherib, Isa. 37:28. How early was the blessed Jesus involved in trouble! Usually, even those whose riper years are attended with toils and perils have a peaceable and quiet infancy; but it was not so with the blessed Jesus: his life and sufferings began together; he was born a man striven with, as Jeremiah was (Jer. 15:10), who was sanctified from the womb, Jer. 1:5. Both Christ the head, and the church his body, agree in saying, Many a time have they afflicted me, from my youth up. Pharaoh's cruelty fastens upon the Hebrews' children, and a great red dragon stands ready to devour the man-child as soon as it should be born, Rev. 12:4.
2. He is directed what to do, to escape the danger; Take the young child, and flee into Egypt. Thus early must Christ give an example to his own rule (ch. 10:23): When they persecute you in one city, flee to another. He that came to die for us, when his hour was not yet come, fled for his own safety. Self-preservation, being a branch of the law of nature, is eminently a part of the law of God. Flee; but why into Egypt? Egypt was infamous for idolatry, tyranny, and enmity to the people of God; it had been a house of bondage to Israel, and particularly cruel to the infants of Israel; in Egypt, as much as in Ramah, Rachel had been weeping for her children; yet that is appointed to be a place of refuge to the hold child Jesus. Note, God, when he pleases, can make the worst of places serve the best of purposes; for the earth is the Lord's, he makes what use he pleases of it: sometimes the earth helps the woman Rev. 12:16. God, who made Moab a shelter to his outcasts, makes Egypt a refuge for his Son. This may be considered,
(1.) As a trial of faith of Joseph and Mary. They might be tempted to think, "If this child be the Son of God, as we are told he is, has he no other way to secure himself from a man that is a worm, than by such a mean and inglorious retreat as this? Cannot he summon legions of angels to be his life-guard, or cherubim with flaming swords to keep this tree of life? Cannot he strike Herod dead, or wither the hand that is stretched out against him, and so save us the trouble of this remove?'' They had been lately told that he should be the glory of his people Israel; and is the land of Israel so soon become too hot for him? But we find not that they made any such objections; their faith, being tried, was found firm, they believe this is the Son of God, though they see no miracle wrought for his preservation; but they are put to the use of ordinary means. Joseph had great honour put upon him in being the husband of the blessed virgin; but that honour has trouble attending it, as all honors have in this world; Joseph must take the young child, and carry him into Egypt; and now it appeared how well God had provided for the young child and his mother, in appointing Joseph to stand in so near a relation to them; now the gold which the wise men brought would stand them in stead to bear their charges. God foresees his people's distresses, and provides against them beforehand. God intimates the continuance of his care and guidance, when he saith, Be thou there until I bring thee word, so that he must expect to hear from God again, and not stir without fresh orders. Thus God will keep his people still in a dependence upon him.
(2.) As an instance of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus. As there was no room for him in the inn in Bethlehem, so there was no quiet room for him in the land of Judea. Thus was he banished from the earthly Canaan, that we, who for sin were banished from the heavenly Canaan, might not be for ever expelled. If we and our infants be at any time in straits, let us remember the straits Christ in his infancy was brought into, and be reconciled to them.
(3.) As a token of God's displeasure against the Jews, who took so little notice of him; justly does he leave those who have slighted him. We have also here an earnest of his favour to the Gentiles, to whom the apostles were to bring the gospel when the Jews rejected it. If Egypt entertain Christ when he is forced out of Judea, it will not be long ere it be said, Blessed be Egypt my people, Isa. 19:25. II. Joseph's obedience to this command, v. 14. The journey would be inconvenient and perilous both to the young child and to his mother; they were but poorly provided for it, and were likely to meet with cold entertainment in Egypt: yet Joseph was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, made no objection, nor was dilatory in his disobedience. As soon as he had received his orders, he immediately arose, and went away by night, the same night, as it should seem, that he received the orders. Note, Those that would make sure work of their obedience must make quick work of it. Now Joseph went out, as his father Abraham did, with an implicit dependence upon God, not knowing whither he went, Heb. 11:8. Joseph and his wife, having little, had little to care of in this remove. An abundance encumbers a necessary flight. If rich people have the advantage of the poor while they possess what they have, the poor have the advantage of the rich when they are called to part with it. Joseph took the young child and his mother. Some observe, that the young child is put first, as the principal person, and Mary is called, not the wife of Joseph, but, which was her great dignity, the mother of the young child. This was not the first Joseph that was driven from Canaan to Egypt for a shelter from the anger of his brethren; this Joseph ought to be welcome there for the sake of that. If we may credit tradition, at their entrance into Egypt, happening to go into a temple, all the images of their gods were overthrown by an invisible power, and fell, like Dagon before the ark, according to that prophecy, The Lord shall come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, Isa. 19:1. They continued in Egypt till the death of Herod, which, some think, was seven years, others think, not so many months. There they were at a distance from the temple and the service of it, and in the midst of idolaters; but God sent them thither, and will have mercy, and not sacrifice. Though they were far from the temple of the Lord, they had with them the Lord of the temple. A forced absence from God's ordinances, and a forced presence with wicked people, may be the lot, are not the sin, yet cannot but be the grief, of good people.
III. The fulfilling of the scripture in a this scripture (Hos. 11:1), Out of Egypt have I called my son. Of all the evangelists, Matthew takes most notice of the fulfilling of the scripture in what concerned Christ, because his gospel was first published among the Jews, with whom that would add much strength and luster to it. Now this word of the prophet undoubtedly referred to the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, in which God owned them for his son, his first-born (Ex. 4:22); but it is here applied, by way of analogy, to Christ, the Head of the church. Note, The scripture has many accomplishments, so full and copious is it, and so well ordered in all things. God is every day fulfilling the scripture. Scripture is not of private interpretation: we must give it its full latitude. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him; and, though I loved him, I suffered him to be a great while in Egypt; but, because I loved him, in due time I called him out of Egypt.'' They that read this must, in their thoughts, not only look back, but look forward; that which has been shall be again (Eccl. 1:9); and the manner of expression intimates this; for it is not said, I called him, but I called my son, out of Egypt. Note, It is no new thing for God's sons to be in Egypt, in a strange land, in a house of bondage; but they shall be fetched out. They may be hid in Egypt, but they shall not be left there. All the elect of God, being by nature children of wrath, are born in a spiritual Egypt, and in conversion are effectually called out. It might be objected against Christ that he had been in Egypt. Must the Sun of righteousness arise out of that land of darkness! But this shows that to be no strange thing; Israel was brought out of Egypt, to be advanced to the highest honors; and this is but doing the same thing. Mat 2:16-18
Here is, I. Herod's resentment of the departure of the wise men. He waited long for their return; he hopes, though they be slow, they will be sure, and he shall crush this rival at his first appearing; but he hears, upon inquiry, that they are gone off another way, which increases his jealousy, and makes him suspect they are in the interest of this new King, which made him exceedingly wroth; and he is the more desperate and outrageous for his being disappointed. Note, Inveterate corruption swells the higher for the obstructions it meets with in a sinful pursuit.
II. His political contrivance, notwithstanding this, to take off him that is born King of the Jews. If he could not reach him by a particular execution, he doubted not but to involve him in a general stroke, which, like the sword of war, should devour one as well as another. This would be sure work; and thus those that would destroy their own iniquity must be sure to destroy all their iniquities. Herod was an Edomite, enmity to Israel was bred in the bone with him. Doeg was an Edomite, who, for David's sake, slew all the priests of the Lord. It was strange that Herod could find any so inhuman as to be employed in such a bloody and barbarous piece of work; but wicked hands never want wicked tools to work with. Little children have always been taken under the special protection, not only of human laws, but of human nature; yet these are sacrificed to the rage of this tyrant, under whom, as under Nero, innocence is the least security. Herod was, throughout his reign, a bloody man; it was not long before, that he destroyed the whole Sanhedrim, or bench of judges; but blood to the blood-thirsty is like drink to those in a dropsy; Quo plus sunt potae, plus sitiuntur aquae—The more they drink, the more thirsty they become. Herod was now about seventy years old, so that an infant, at this time under two years old, was not likely ever to give him any disturbance. Nor was he a man over fond of his own children, or of their preferment, having formerly slain two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and his son Antipater after this, but five days before he himself died; so that it was purely to gratify his own brutish lusts of pride and cruelty that he did this. All is fish that comes to his net.
Observe, What large measures he took, 1. As to time; He slew all from two years old and under. It is probable that the blessed Jesus was at this time not a year old; yet Herod took in all the infants under two years old, that he might be sure not to miss of his prey. He cares not how many heads fall, which he allows to be innocent, provided that escape not which he supposes to be guilty. 2. As to place; He kills all the male children, not only in Bethlehem, but in all the coasts thereof, in all the villages of that city. This was being overmuch wicked, Eccl. 7:17. Hate, an unbridled wrath, armed with an unlawful power, often transports men to the most absurd and unreasonable instances of cruelty. It was no unrighteous thing for God to permit this; every life is forfeited to his justice as soon as it commences; that sin which entered by one man's disobedience, introduced death with it; and we are not to suppose any thing more than that common guilt, we are not to suppose that these children were sinners above all that were in Israel, because they suffered such things. God's judgments are a great deep. The diseases and deaths of little children are proofs of original sin. But we must look upon this murder of the infants under another character: it was their martyrdom. How early did persecution commence against Christ and his kingdom! Think ye that he came to send peace on the earth? No, but a sword, such a sword as this, ch. 10:34, 35. A passive testimony was hereby given to the Lord Jesus. As when he was in the womb, he was witnessed to by a child's leaping in the womb for joy at his approach, so now, at two years old, he had contemporary witnesses to him of the same age. They shed their blood for him, who afterwards shed his for them. These were the infantry of the noble army of martyrs. If these infants were thus baptized with blood, though it were their own, into the church triumphant, it could not be said but that, with what they got in heaven, they were abundantly recompensed for what they lost on earth. Out of the mouths of these babes and sucklings God did perfect his praise; otherwise, it is not good to the Almighty that he should thus afflict.
The tradition of the Greek church (and we have it in the Aethiopic missal) is, that the number of the children slain was 14,000; but that is very absurd. I believe, if the births of the male children in the weekly bills were computed, there would not be found so many under two years old, in one of the most populous cities in the world, that was not near a fortieth part of it. But it is an instance of the vanity of tradition. It is strange that Josephus does not relate this story; but he wrote long after St. Matthew, and it is probable that he therefore would not relate it, because he would not so far countenance the Christian history; for he was a zealous Jew; but, to be sure, if it had not been true and well attested, he would have contested it. Macrobius, a heathen writer, tells us, that when Augustus Caesar heard that Herod, among the children he order to be slain under two years old, slew his own son, he passed this jest upon him, That it was better to be Herod's swine than his son. The usage of the country forbade him to kill a swine, but nothing could restrain him from killing his son. Some think that he had a young child at nurse in Bethlehem; others think that, through mistake, two events are counfounded: the murder of the infants, and the murder of his son Antipater. But for the church of Rome to put the Holy Innocents, as they call them, into their calendar, and observe a day in memory of them, while they have so often, by their barbarous massacres, justified, and even one Herod, is but to do as their predecessors did, who built the tombs of the prophets, while they themselves filled up the same measure.
Some observe another design of Providence in the murder of the infants. By all the prophecies of the Old Testament it appears that Bethlehem was the place, and this the time, of the Messiah's nativity; now all the children of Bethlehem, born at this time, being murdered, and Jesus only escaping, none but Jesus could pretend to be the Messiah. Herod now thought he had baffled all the Old Testament prophecies, had defeated the indications of the star, and the devotions of the wise men, by ridding the country of this new King; having burnt the hive, he concludes he had killed the master bee; but God in heaven laughs at him, and has him in derision. Whatever crafty cruel devices are in men's hearts, the counsel of the Lord shall stand.
III. The fulfilling of scripture in this (v. 17, 18); Then was fulfilled that prophecy (Jer. 31:15), A voice was heard in Ramah. See and adore the fullness of the scripture! That prediction was accomplished in Jeremiah's time, when Nebuzaradan, after he had destroyed Jerusalem, brought all his prisoners to Ramah (Jer. 40:1), and there disposed of them as he pleased, for the sword, or for captivity. Then was the cry in Ramah heard to Bethlehem (for those two cities, the one in Judah's lot, and the other in Benjamin's, were not far asunder); but now the prophecy is again fulfilled in the great sorrow that was for the death of these infants. The scripture was fulfilled,
1. In the place of this mourning. The noise of it was heard from Bethlehem to Ramah; for Herod's cruelty extended itself to all the coasts of Bethlehem, even into the lot of Benjamin, among the children of Rachel. Some think the country about Bethlehem was called Rachel, because there she died, and was buried. Rachel's sepulcher was hard by Bethlehem, Gen. 35:16, 19. Compare 1 Sa. 10:2. Rachel had her heart much set upon children: the son she died in travail of she called Benani, the son of her sorrow. These mothers were like Rachel, lived near Rachel's grave, and many of them descended from Rachel; and therefore their lamentations are elegantly represented by Rachel's weeping.
2. In the degree of this mourning. It was lamentation and mourning, and great mourning; all little enough to express the sense they had of this aggravated calamity. There was a great cry in Egypt when the first-born were slain, and so there was here when the youngest was slain; for whom we naturally have a particular tenderness. Here was a representation of this world we live in. We hear in it lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and see the tears of the oppressed, some upon one account, and some upon another. Our ways lie through a vale of tears. This sorrow was so great, that they would not be comforted. They hardened themselves in it, and took a pleasure in their grief. Blessed be God, there is no occasion of grief in this world, no, not that which is supplied by sin itself, that will justify us in refusing to be comforted! They would not be comforted, because they are not, that is, they are not in the land of the living, are not as they were, in their mothers' embraces. If, indeed, they were not, there might be some excuse for sorrowing as though we had no hope; but we know they are not lost, but gone before; if we forget that they are, we lose the best ground of our comfort, 1 Th. 4:13. Some make this grief of the Bethlehemite to be a judgment upon them for their contempt of Christ. They that would not rejoice for the birth of the Son of God, are justly made to weep for the death of their own sons; for they only wondered at the tidings the shepherds brought them, but did not welcome them.
The quoting of this prophecy might serve to obviate an objection which some would make against Christ, upon this sad providence. "Can the Messiah, who is to be the Consolation of Israel, be introduced with all this lamentation?'' Yes, for so it was foretold, and the scripture must be accomplished. And besides, if we look further into this prophecy, we shall find that the bitter weeping in Ramah was but a prologue to the greatest joy, for it follows, Thy work shall be rewarded, and there is hope in thy end. The worse things are, the sooner they will mend. Unto them a child was born, sufficient to repair their losses. Mat 2:19-23
We have here Christ's return out of Egypt into the land of Israel again. Egypt may serve to sojourn in, or take shelter in, for a while, but not to abide in. Christ was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and therefore to them he must return. Observe,
I. What it was that made way for his return, the death of Herod, which happened not long after the murder of the infants; some think not above three months. Such quick work did divine vengeance make! Note, Herods must die; proud tyrants, that were the terror of the mighty, and the oppressors of the godly, in the land of the living, their day must come to fall, and down to the pit they must go. Who art thou then, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die? (Isa. 51:12, 13) especially considering that at death, not only their envy and hatred are perished (Eccl. 9:6), and they cease from troubling (Job 3:17), but they are punished. Of all sins, the guilt of innocent blood fills the measure soonest. It is a dreadful account which Josephus gives of the death of this same Herod (Antiq. 17.146-199), that he was seized with a disease which burned him inwardly with an inexpressible torture; that he was insatiably greedy of meat; had the colic, and gout, and dropsy; such an intolerable stench attended his disease, that none could come near him: and so passionate and impatient was he, that he was a torment to himself, and a terror to all that attended him: his innate cruelty, being thus exasperated, made him more barbarous than ever; having ordered his own son to be put to death, he imprisoned many of the nobility and gentry, and ordered that as soon as he was dead they should be killed; but that execution was prevented. See what kind of men have been the enemies and persecutors of Christ and his followers! Few have opposed Christianity but such as have first divested themselves of humanity, as Nero and Domitian.
II. The orders given from heaven concerning their return, and Joseph's obedience to those orders, v. 19–21. God had sent Joseph into Egypt, and there he staid till the same that brought him thither ordered him thence. Note, In all our removes, it is good to see our way plain, and God going before us; we should not move either one way or the other without order. These orders were sent him by an angel. Note, Our intercourse with God, if it be kept up on our part, shall be kept up on his, wherever we are. No place can exclude God's gracious visits. Angels come to Joseph in Egypt, to Ezekiel in Babylon, and to John in Patmos. Now, 1. The angel informs him of the death of Herod and his accomplices: They are dead, which sought the young Child's life. They are dead, but the young Child lives. Persecuted saints sometimes live to tread upon the graves of their persecutors. Thus did the church's King weather the storm, and many a one has the church in like manner weathered. They are dead, to wit, Herod and his son Antipater, who, though there were mutual jealousies between them, yet, probably, concurred in seeking the destruction of this new King. If Herod first kill Antipater, and then die himself, the coasts are cleared, and the Lord is known by the judgments which he executes, when one wicked instrument is in the ruin of another. 2. He directs him what to do. He must go and return to the land of Israel; and he did so without delay; not pleading the tolerably good settlement he had in Egypt, or the inconveniences of the journey, especially if, as is supposed, it was in the beginning of winter that Herod died. God's people follow his direction whithersoever he leads them, wherever he lodges them. Did we but look upon the world as our Egypt, the place of our bondage and banishment, and heaven only as our Canaan, our home, our rest, we should as readily arise, and depart thither, when we are called for, as Joseph did out of Egypt.
III. The further direction he had from God, which way to steer, and where to fix in the land of Israel, v. 22, 23. God could have given him these instructions with the former, but God reveals his mind to his people by degrees, to keep them still waiting on him, and expecting to hear further from him. These orders Joseph received in a dream, probably, as those before, by the ministration of an angel. God could have signified his will to Joseph by the Child Jesus, but we do not find that in those removes he either takes notice, or gives notice, of any thing that occurred; surely it was because in all things it behooved him to be made like his brethren; being a Child, he spake as a child, and did as a child, and drew a veil over his infinite knowledge and power; as a child he increased in wisdom. Now the direction given this holy, royal family, is, 1. That it might not settle in Judea, v. 22. Joseph might think that Jesus, being born in Bethlehem, must be brought up there; yet he is prudently afraid for the young Child, because he hears that Archelaus reigns in Herod's stead, not over all the kingdom as his father did, but only over Judea, the other provinces being put into other hands. See what a succession of enemies there is to fight against Christ and his church! If one drop off, another presently appears, to keep up the old enmity. But for this reason Joseph must not take the young Child into Judea. Note, God will not thrust his children into the mouth of danger, but when it is for his own glory and their trial; for precious in the sight of the Lord are the life and the death of his saints; precious is their blood to him.
2. That it must settle in Galilee, v. 22. There Philip now ruled, who was a mild, quiet, man. Note, The providence of God commonly so orders it, that his people shall not want a quiet retreat from the storm and from the tempest; when one climate becomes hot and scorching, another shall be kept more cool and temperate. Galilee lay far north; Samaria lay between it and Judea; thither they were sent, to Nazareth, a city upon a hill, in the centre of the lot of Zebulun; there the mother of our Lord lived, when she conceived that holy thing; and, probably, Joseph lived there too, Lu. 1:26, 27. Thither they were sent, and there they were well known, and were among their relations; the most proper place for them to be in. There they continued, and from thence our Savior was called Jesus of Nazareth, which was to the Jews a stumbling-block, for, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? In this is said to be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. Which may be looked upon, (1.) As a man of honour and dignity, though primarily it signifies no more than a man of Nazareth; there is an allusion or mystery in speaking it, speaking Christ to be, [1.] The Man, the Branch, spoken of, Isa. 11:1. The word there is Netzar, which signifies either a branch, or the city of Nazareth; in being denominated from that city, he is declared to be that Branch. [2.] It speaks him to be the great Nazarite; of whom the legal Nazarites were a type and figure (especially Samson, Jdg. 13:5), and Joseph, who is called a Nazarite among his brethren (Gen. 49:26), and to whom that which was prescribed concerning the Nazarites, has reference, Num. 6:2, etc. Not that Christ was, strictly, a Nazarite, for he drank wine, and touched dead bodies; but he was eminently so, both as he was singularly holy, and as he was by a solemn designation and dedication set apart to the honour of God in the work of our redemption, as Samson was to save Israel. And it is a name we have all reason to rejoice in, and to know him by. Or, (2.) As a name of reproach and contempt. To be called a Nazarene, was to be called a despicable man, a man from whom no good was to be expected, and to whom no respect was to be paid. The devil first fastened this name upon Christ, to render him mean, and prejudice people against him, and it stuck as a nickname to him and his followers. Now this was not particularly foretold by any one prophet, but, in general, it was spoken by the prophets, that he should be despised and rejected of men (Isa. 53:2, 3), a Worm, and no man (Ps. 22:6, 7), that he should be an Alien to his brethren Ps. 69:7, 8. Let no name of reproach for religion's sake seem hard to us, when our Master was himself called a Nazarene. (from http://www.blueletterbible.org).
November 21, 1999.
The Christmas Star, by Barry Setterfield
The Star of Bethlehem, by Dr. David Bohlin
Back to Lambert Dolphin's Library