MATTHEW CHAPTER 2.
The Wise Men from the East. Matt. 2, 1-12.
V. 1 a. Now when Jesus was born In Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king. The transition which the evangelist employs fitly connects the narrative of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Savior with the story of the adoration of the Magi. It is an account of the "reception given by the world to the new-born Messianic king. Homage from afar, hostility at home; foreshadowing the fortunes of the new faith: acceptance by the Gentiles, rejection by the Jews." 15) While Matthew does not fix the time of the nativity so exactly as Luke, chapter 2, 1. 2, he nevertheless mentions a very important point which corroborates the Old Testament prophecy in a most remarkable manner. For Herod, was king at this time. History calls him Herod the Great, since he was great in political sagacity, great in diplomatic shrewdness, great in energy which expended itself in works of external beauty and grandeur, but also great, almost incredibly so, in wickedness. He was the son of the Idumean Antipater, Roman procurator of Judea. His ambition succeeded in winning for him the governorship of Galilee when he was but twenty-five years of age. He next became governor of Coele-Syria, the fertile valley between the Lebanon and Anti Lebanon mountain ranges, including southern Syria and Decapolis, and later was made tetrarch by the Roman triumvir Antony. Driven from his province, where his standing with the people had always been insecure, by the Maccabean Antigonus, Herod fled to Rome, gained the help of Antony and Augustus, and was declared king of Judea by the Roman senate, 714 years after the founding of Rome, 37 B. C. It was necessary for him to win his kingdom by force of arms, but once in possession of it, he proceeded to use his power in a cruel and ruthless manner for his own aggrandizement. He flattered the influential party of the Pharisees by the erection of the magnificent Temple and by other feigned tokens of religious zeal; he courted the favor of Rome by a fawning servility, by various concessions to heathenism, and by the introduction of Grecian customs. Of his ten wives, he executed the Asmonean Mariamne, daughter of Hircanus, and he caused three of his sons, Antipater, Alexander, and Aristobulus, to be put to death, not to mention a multitude of other executions which were as cruel as they were unjustified. By such a degree of bloodthirstiness was his reign characterized that the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem is omitted by secular historians as an insignificant episode. Such was the character of Herod the Great. And by the final definite establishment of his kingdom the word of the Lord was fulfilled: "The scepter shall not depart from Judah . . . until Shiloh come," Gen. 49, 10. Cp. Gen. 27, 40. "In the first place, the evangelist cites Herod the king to remind of the prophecy of Jacob the patriarch, who had said, Gen. 49, 10: The scepter shall not be taken from Judah, nor a teacher out of his loins, until He comes that should come. From this prophecy it is evident that Christ must put in His appearance when the kingdom or government was taken from the Jews, that no king or ruler out of the tribe of Judah occupied it. That was done through this Herod, who was not from the tribe of Judah nor from the blood of the Jews, but of Edom, a stranger, established as a king of the Jews by the Romans; however, with great indignation of the Jews, so that he ground himself against them for thirty years, shed very much blood, and killed the best of the Jews, until he stunned and vanquished them. When this stranger, then, had ruled for thirty years and brought the government into his power, so that he sat in tranquility, and the Jews had yielded, since there was no more hope to get rid of him and therefore the prophecy of Jacob was fulfilled, then the time had come, then Christ came and was born under the first stranger, and appeared according to the prophecy. As though He would say: The scepter has ceased from Judah, a stranger is sitting over My people; now is the time that I enter and also become king, the government now pertains to Me." 16)
In Bethlehem of Judea, Jesus was born, in accordance with prophetic utterance. This Bethlehem is distinguished from another village of the same name in Galilee, in the former tribe of Zebulun, Josh. 19, 15. The town of Christ's birth is called Bethlehem-Judah, 1 Sam. 17, 12, and Ephrath or Ephratah, Gen. 48, 7; Micah 5, 2. It is situated on a small ridge or declivity overlooking a fertile farming country, whence its name, which signifies "house of bread," may have been suggested. It was a fitting name for the village which produced as its greatest son Him who is properly called the "Bread of Life," John 6, 35. 48.
Place and time of the nativity having been indicated, the evangelist now proceeds: V. 1b. Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem. He introduces the new theme in a lively manner, also for the purpose of bringing out the contrast between the reigning king of Judea and these strangers from heathen lands. Wise men, or, more literally, Magi, he calls them, not kings, as the medieval legend has it, but the scientists of those days who, at many a court, formed the king's privy council, Jer. 39, 3; Dan. 2, 48. They cultivated chiefly medicine, natural science, especially in its occult applications, the interpretation of dreams, astronomy, and astrology. "Therefore the Magi, or wise men, were not kings, but learned and expert people in natural science.... The Magi were nothing else than what the philosophers were in Greece and the priests in Egypt, and such men as are with us the learned men of the universities; in short, they were the theologians and the learned men of Arabia Felix, just as if ecclesiastics and learned men from universities would now be sent to a prince." 17) Magi from the East they were, and Matthew probably used the vague indication of the locality intentionally. It matters little whether the men were from Arabia, or from Persia, or from Media, or from Babylon, or from Parthia. A tradition among the Jews has it that there were prophets in the kingdom of Saba and Arabia that were of the posterity of Abraham by Keturah, who transmitted the promise of God given to Abraham from one generation to the next. All this signifies nothing. But all the more important is the fact that these strangers from a far country come to Jerusalem on such an extraordinary errand. "Him whom His own would not seek or acknowledge, nor the inhabitants and citizens, this strange, foreign people sought in so many days' journeying. To Him to whom the learned men and priests would not come and worship, to Him the soothsayers and astronomers come. That was truly a great disgrace for the entire Jewish land and people that Christ was born in the midst of them and they should first learn of it from strange, heathen, foreign people." 18)
The message of the Magi was brief: V. 2. Saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him. There was an assertion contained in their question. Their knowledge was definite as to His having been born. It was a fact beyond question or discussion. A Child has been born that is King of the Jews; His kingship is even now established beyond a doubt. The evidence which the Magi adduce for their belief is sensational. They had seen a star in its rising, just as soon as the phenomenon became visible; not any star, not a meteor provided for the occasion, not a comet of peculiar brilliance, not an extraordinary conjunction of planets, but His star, a star which was set in the firmament, or which flashed forth at just this time with unusual brightness. The appearance and, according to verse 9, also the guidance of this star was to them a definite sign, an unmistakable token of the fulfillment of a prophecy, tradition, or revelation which was known to them. It may have been that the prophecy of Balaam, Num. 24, 17, had been explained by their teachers as referring to an actual, physical star, or it may he, as the medieval legend, which is embodied in the Old Saxon poem of The Heliand, has it, that Daniel transmitted to the learned men of the East a tradition concerning this particular star. At any rate, they had come to worship Him whose coming the star indicated, to give Him divine homage and adoration by a gesture or ceremony of abject submission, placing themselves and all their possessions at His disposal.
The effect of this startling announcement: V. 3. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. The consternation of Herod may be explained in two ways. As king, because of his position as king, Herod was troubled. Having himself reached his position of ruling sovereign by methods which were not at all unobjectionable, the foreigner and usurper feared a rival, and the tyrant feared the joyful acceptance of the rival by the people. At the same time, Herod felt a dread since it was freely predicted that a great personage, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, should judge both the nation and the world, — and Herod's conscience was not clean. On the other hand, the people were excited for different reasons. Their alarm was due to a bad conscience and the feeling of guilt because of their hypocrisy and selfishness which was sure to be found out by the Messiah, but mingled with this was the excitement of expecting a deliverer from the yoke of Rome, a hope which had been carefully cherished by the Pharisees.
Herod's measures to meet the emergency: V. 4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. Not the entire Sanhedrin, or Great Council of the Jewish people, — for that included also the elders, many of whom Herod had put to death, — but the chief priests, the present incumbent of the office as well as former high priests; and the scribes, who were also political officers, assisting the civil magistrates in the role of confidential secretaries and statisticians. All of these were men of letters. Here again was a political move planned to strengthen Herod's tottering prestige: to be summoned to a secret meeting might be thought a rare distinction by the Jewish leaders. And Herod, accustomed as he was to commanding, in this instance was very careful about couching his request in polite, though urgent, terms. The question he submitted was a theological one: Where, according to the transmitted records, according to the accepted tradition, is the birthplace of the Christ?
The answer of the Jewish theologians savors of a hidden satisfaction: V. 5. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet, v. 6a. And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah. Their opinion was given without hesitation; it reflected the current opinion and agreed with Talmudic tradition. In their Scriptural proof they do not quote the Old Testament passage literally, but combine the words of the prophet, Micah 5, 2, with 2 Sam. 5, 2. Incidentally, their answer was shaped by some interpretation due to rabbinical teaching. "Art not thou the least?" the text inquires. Bethlehem may be little in size and influence, especially as compared with its metropolitan neighbor, but it is by no means the least in dignity and distinction. It may have been considered small and insignificant among the thousands of Judah, the cities that could boast a population of a thousand or more families, but it still had the best-founded claim for excellence among the princes of Judah. Here is indisputable evidence: V. 6b. For out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel. Out of the despised village One should come forth, should regard it as His native town, who would combine the qualities of a Ruler with those of a tender, loving Friend and watchful Guardian. He whose birth was to distinguish Bethlehem-Judah, would be a Prince and Leader, who would make the shepherd's sleepless devotion for those entrusted to him His life's object.
Herod was convinced that the information he received was reliable. He resolved, therefore, to remove a possible rival by a speedy and thorough, though cruel method. But he must have more information: V. 7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. It was a secret conference, just fitting in with his political trickery. Had he made his inquiries in a public reception, his own courtiers might have become suspicious, but the unsuspecting visitors could be coaxed to talk freely in a private interview and would not become alarmed. The exact time of the star's first appearance was what Herod wanted, assuming probably that the birth of the child had occurred at the same time. All of which was an especially loathsome form of hypocrisy, an affectation of a kind interest in all that related to the Child in whose destinies the very stars seemed involved.
Herod carried out his scheme: V. 8a. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said. Go and search diligently for the young Child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again. Eager for the success of his plans, he nevertheless manages to make his guileless visitors feel that he has nothing but the favorable outcome of their quest at heart. The text implies the idea of great haste. He sent them off at once with the urgent entreaty, almost command: Go and search. Leave nothing undone, make your search most thorough, in order that the Child may be found. And not only that: V. 8b. That I may come and worship Him also. He crowns his hypocrisy with a final base lie. For it was not that he wanted to bow down to the Child in adoring worship, but he intended to bow down the Child's soul into the dust of death.
In simple trustfulness, the Magi proceed to act according to the king's words: V. 9. When. they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star which they saw in the East went before them, till it came and stood, over where the young Child was. They left Jerusalem, apparently all alone and with only general directions to guide them. Herod wanted no talebearers from among those that patterned after him. But the Magi, looking up to heaven, once more see their guide in the sky; they recognize the heavenly sign which had first called their attention to the miracle. And this star kept going before them all the way until, as they came to Bethlehem, it took up its definite position right over the house where the Child was, for He was the object of their search, to Him they were directed. Another proof that the star here referred to was made for just this purpose: it traveled from north to south. It must have stood much lower than other stars, since it indicated exactly in which house the Child was. "But this star, since it goes with them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, went from north to south; which therefore establishes clearly that it was of a different kind, course, and place than the stars in the sky. It was not an attached star, as the astronomers call the stars, but a free star that could rise and sink, turn to all places." 19)
The effect of its appearance upon the Magi; V. 10. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. They were overjoyed. Their long journey was successful. their arduous quest was ended. The most intense gladness, a fairly ecstatic delight, took possession of them, as the evangelist expresses it. At once they carried out the purpose of their journey: V. 11a. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and. fell down, and worshiped Him. So vivid is Matthew's description that the words fairly gush forth in a joyful stream. The Magi saw with their own eyes Him whom they had longed to behold, the Child, the Messiah, the promised Star of Judah. His mother Mary and His foster-father, who is intentionally omitted, had now found shelter in one of the houses of the village. The Magi worshiped the Child after the Oriental fashion of falling down on the knees and touching the forehead to the earth. in complete surrender. V. 11b. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. With full hands they come, as befits such as would enter into the presence of royalty. They open their treasure-chests; they bring forth gold, the most precious metal, frankincense and myrrh, costly aromatic gums distilled from trees, much used in religious ceremonies, Ps.72, 10; Is, 60, 6. Whether there is any special significance, a mystical meaning, in the gifts, is an idle speculation which has engaged many commentators. It was commonly stated: Gold, as to the King; incense, as to God; myrrh, as to one destined to die; or, as a medieval rhyme has it: "The first was gold, as most mighty King; the second was myrrh. as Priest of priests being; the third was incense in tokening of burying." Luther's explanation is simple: "Although they [the Magi] enter a poor house, find a poor young woman, with a poor child, and also there is an appearance so unlike a king that their servant is more honorable and reputable, yet they are not troubled, but in great, strong, full faith they put everything out of their eyes and mind which nature with its arrogance might adduce and bring into play; they simply follow the verse of the prophet and the testimony of the star and believe Him to be King, fall down, worship Him, and give presents to Him." 20)
Matthew concludes the narrative of the adoration: V. 12. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. Here is another instance of divine intervention to frustrate the bloodthirsty designs of Herod toward the Savior. It does not appear from the text that the simple trustfulness of the wise men had given way to suspicion as to the king's intention, and that they had asked God for a sign. It is simply narrated that by command of God they received an earnest admonition, an emphatic warning, not to turn back on their steps over Jerusalem. Whether each individual member of the party had the vision; or whether their leader alone received God's command, is immaterial. Enough that they complied with the request. They departed, they withdrew, and thus escaped into their own country by taking a different caravan route, away from the dangerous neighborhood of Herod. Their object had been gained, they had seen the light of the Gentiles; their hearts were filled with the content of the believing soul that has seen the salvation of the Lord.
The Flight into Egypt and the Return to Nazareth. Matt. 2, 13—23.
One part of Herod's plan had not worked out: the Magi did not return to reveal the exact whereabouts of the Child. Now the Lord also foiled the design against the Child's life. V. 13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young Child and His mother and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young Child, to destroy Him. God again makes use of an angelic vision to protect His Son, by giving the necessary instructions to Joseph. Cp. chapter 1, 20. The need of haste is expressed: Having arisen, take at once; lose no time. The Child is again named first, everything revolves about His well-being. "And His mother," the angel says. The phraseology is very careful and once more definitely points to the virgin birth. The reason for the command is also stated, in order to prevent delay. Herod has the intention, he has planned, he is about to search for the Child with the purpose of putting Him to death. Even the place of refuge is named in the divine message. Egypt should be their temporary home until such a time as a further command or communication to Joseph would permit their return to their native land. It is probable that Egypt was chosen because many Jews had settled in that country. The holy family would therefore be among fellow-countrymen and in a Roman province, where the rage of Herod could not pursue them.
Joseph again was obedient to the angel's word: V. 14. When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt: v. 15. and was there until the death of Herod; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called My Son. Matthew relates the carrying out of the command in the very words in which the angel had spoken them in order to show the obedient spirit of Joseph. That very night he quietly made his escape with those entrusted to his care. He made Egypt his home until after the death of Herod, which, by the nearest historical calculation, occurred in the same year. He died of a peculiar, loathsome disease, which caused his flesh to decay upon his bones, rendering him an abhorrent carcass before his soul finally left the body. It may be remarked, in passing, that all accounts of Christ's stay in Egypt, as found in apocryphal sources, are entirely fanciful and gross pieces of superstition. But it is of interest to find even here a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, Hos. 11, 1. Though the deliverance of Israel out of the serfdom of Egypt is there referred to, the Holy Ghost here gives us another true explanation, showing that the prophecy relates to the infant Jesus, in His sheltered sojourn in, and safe return from, the country where His ancestors had been held in bondage. Note the reference to the divine inspiration of the prophecy!
V. 16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. The evangelist, after his brief digression, returns to his story proper. Herod saw that, from his standpoint, he had been outwitted, made a fool of, by the Magi. And when he was certain that they were not going to retrace their steps to Jerusalem, to report what they had found at Bethlehem, he was enraged, extremely incensed with an unreasonable rage. This wrath demanded an outlet, it could be quenched only in blood. Herod sent executioners. to Bethlehem with the command to kill all children that were to be found in the village proper and in its entire vicinity, the rural district surrounding the town. Not one was spared, not even, according to an ancient report, his own son. In fixing the age of his victims, he made use of the information given him by the Magi, probably extending the time either way in order to make sure that none escaped. Herod would not be too scrupulous: from one hour to two years old, it mattered not; if anything, it insured him an ample margin either way.
Here again there is the fulfillment, not of a literal, but of a typical prophecy: V. 17. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, v. 18. In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. The passage as penned by the prophet, Jer. 31, 15, is the narration of a vision with reference to the deportation of Israel into captivity, Rachel being the representative mother of the nation, and Ramah having been a fortress of Israel on the frontier where the captives were collected. This prophetic passage Matthew applies to the slaughter of the innocents. Rachel is represented as the mother of Bethlehem and its environs, because it was here that she died, in childbirth, Gen. 35, 16—20. Her sympathy for her children's misfortunes would cause her to indulge in such bitter weeping and mourning as the mothers of Bethlehem doubtless gave themselves to at this exhibition of revolting and senseless cruelty on the part of Herod. Consolation and comfort could avail but little when they were obliged to witness the murder of their children before their very eyes and could only wring their hands in helpless sorrow and agony.
The evangelist now returns to the story of the Savior: V. 19. But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, v. 20. saying, Arise, and take the young Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young Child's life. Herod died at Jericho in the year 750 after the founding of Rome. And his son Antipater, heir apparent to the throne, who had inherited his father's cruel disposition, had been put to death at the tyrant's command, five days before he himself yielded up his soul. So they whose murderous designs were most apparent were no longer living. The angel therefore gave Joseph the command to return to the land of Israel. No immediate danger threatened the Savior's life. No apprehension need be felt regarding His safety. There is nothing, no person to fear: Go! Note again that Matthew always gives to the Christ-child the prominent position to which His divinity entitles Him. He is to be kept foremost in the minds and hearts of all readers.
Joseph lost no time in obeying the command: V. 21. And he arose, and took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he reached Judea, a new danger confronted him, causing his fears to be renewed: V. 22a. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither. Herod, indeed, was dead, but Augustus had divided his kingdom among his three sons. Archelaus obtained Judea, Idumea, and Samaria, with the designation of ethnarch; Herod Antipas, Galilee and Perea; and Philip, Batanea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis, the latter two receiving the title tetrarch (ruler over a fourth part). Like his father, Archelaus was a suspicious and cruel tyrant. It is related of him that, at one of the passovers, he caused three thousand people to be put to death in the Temple and city. No wonder that Joseph was filled with apprehension as to the safety of his charges. To settle in Judea was the most natural course to follow, and he probably had Jerusalem in mind. But once more God Himself, through the agency of an angel, solved the difficulty and indicated to him a place of security. And so he turned aside, made the journey up to Galilee, the northern part of Palestine, formerly divided into Upper and Lower Galilee, the former being Galilee proper. Matt. 4, 12; John 4, 43, the latter occupying the ancient territory of Zebulon. It was to Lower Galilee that Joseph journeyed with the Child and His mother: V. 22 b. Notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: v. 23. and he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. So Joseph returned to his former city, which had also been Mary's home, Luke 1, 26; 2, 4. Nazareth was a small city southwest of the Sea of Galilee, not far from Cana, on the one side, and from Mount Tabor, on the west. It was situated on the slope of a hill, and was surrounded by beautiful and grand scenery. It was here that Jesus lived until He entered upon His ministry, Luke 2, 51; 4, 16; Matt. 3, 13.
This reference of the evangelist to a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy has ever caused difficulties, since there is no individual passage, with the exact contents as given, in the writings referred to. It is significant, however, that Matthew writes: "Which was spoken by the prophets," thus indicating a general type rather than an explicit text. The most plausible explanation: "Nazarene" or "man of Nazareth" contains the reference. For the name Nazareth is derived from a Hebrew root meaning a branch or tender offshoot. Thus the Messiah is called in Is. 11, 1. And this passage is analogous to the expressions used in Is. 53, 2; 4, 2; Jer. 23, 5; 33, 15; Zech. 3, 8; 6, 12, and to other descriptions of the humble appearance of the Messiah. Cp John 1, 46. Others have suggested that the reference is to Judg. 13, 7. "It is with the prophetic references in the gospels as with songs without words. The composer has a certain scene or state of mind in his view, and writes under its inspiration. But you are not in his secret, and cannot tell when you hear the music what it means. But let the key be given, and immediately you find new meaning in the music. The prophecies are the music; the key is the history.'' 21)
Summary. The Magi having been directed to Bethlehem by a special star and by prophetic direction, give to the Christ-child divine adoration, while the life of the Savior is preserved from the cruelty of Herod by divine interposition, which directs Joseph first to Egypt, then to Galilee.