Keeping the Wise Men in Focus
Nevil Williams, Llanelli
Keeping in focus the persons you wish to photograph is essential to having a clear picture of them. With the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel chapter 2 we see a clear picture of them because Matthew wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but, unfortunately, over time they have become ‘out of focus’ because of folklore, songs, and pictures. I wish to focus on the wise men, with the aid of Rudyard Kipling’s adage: ‘I keep six honest serving men (they taught me all I knew). Their names are what and why and when and how and where and who’.
Who were the wise men?
The literal translation is magi. Herodotus, the Greek historian, says they were initially one of the tribes of the Medes in the Persian Empire who were astrologers and interpreters of dreams. As Zoroastrians, they worshipped the heavenly bodies and the elements. In the Old Testament, wise men were advisers to kings, such as those of Egypt and Babylon. In Genesis chapter 41 verse 39, Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘there is none so discreet and wise as thou art’ when he interpreted his dreams. Compare this with Daniel and his three companions, Dan. 1. 19, 20.
A. C. Gaebelein says that the magi became aware of the Lord Jesus as ‘the desire of all nations’ at His birth, Hag. 2. 7. Like him, many Jewish and Christian scholars regard it as a messianic title. The magi, therefore, were representative of the nations who, in the future, would come to pay homage to the Messiah during the Millennium when the Temple referred to by Haggai would be built.
The magi came from the east, that is, east of Palestine. It includes Mesopotamia and the region beyond the Euphrates. Probably, they came from Persia, that is Iran. Symbolically, east has an evil and good significance in scripture. Moving from west to east implies sinfulness, such as Lot ‘who journeyed east . . . and dwelled in the cities of the plain, and pitched his tent towards Sodom’, Gen. 13. 11, 12. Moving from east to west implies blessing. When the priests entered the Tabernacle and Temple they had to move from east to west. When the Lord went to Calvary, starting with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He came from the east to the west. The wise men ‘rejoiced with exceeding great joy’, Matt. 2. 11, as the star guided them from the east to the west soon after His birth. Interestingly, in John chapter 12 verses 20 and 21, we read of Greeks from the west who sought Him prior to His death.
Where were they heading?
The wise men were heading for Palestine. The precise location was unclear at first. They came initially to Jerusalem, under the guidance of the star, as it was the metropolis. There they were expecting celebrations everywhere. There was nothing of the sort. They would have to travel five miles south of Jerusalem to find the new born King. Something similar happened at the end of His life, when He resorted to Bethany for accommodation rather than remain in Jerusalem.
They were redirected to Bethlehem, or Bethlehem-Ephratah, as Micah refers to it in his prophecy, 5. 2. The chief priests and scribes in Herod’s courtroom quote it, Matt. 2. 6. ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘house of bread’, because of the cornfields of which we read in the book of Ruth. To this ‘House of Bread’ came the living Bread, the Bread of God, from heaven, John 6. 33, 35, 48, 51. Ephratah means ‘fruitfulness’, so called because of the fertility of the land there. Bethlehem was in the ‘land of Juda’, v. 6, as opposed to Bethlehem in Zebulon, Josh. 19. 15. God did not want us to be in any doubt as to where Christ would be born.
‘Art not the least [in honour] among the princes of Juda’, v. 6. Micah says, ‘among the thousands of Judah’. The tribes were divided into families, clans or ‘thousands’, with a prince over each, as we read in Numbers chapter 1 verse 16, ‘These were the renowned of the congregation, princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel’. Micah stresses the insignificance of the birthplace of Israel’s King. It is omitted from Joshua chapter 15, where we have a description of the region allocated to the tribe of Judah after the Israelites conquered Canaan. Nor is it mentioned in the roll of cities in Nehemiah chapter 11. Bethlehem was merely an unwalled town in the countryside in contrast to the walled cities of the urban districts, John 7. 42.1 Bethlehem is minimised so that its Prince can be magnified.
What kind of person were they seeking?
The wise men were seeking a king. God wanted Israel to be a theocracy when they had conquered Canaan. ‘After that he gave them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet. And afterward they desired a king: and God gave unto them Saul the son of Cis, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, by the space of forty years. And when He had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their king . . . of this man’s seed has God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus’, Acts 13. 20-23.
Normally, an infant would become a prince at birth. The Lord Jesus was born King because He is the sovereign of the universe. He does not have to wait for His accession to the throne of Israel to be King. According to the Roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus, there was the expectation in the east of a king arising out of Judea, which was based on Messianic prophecies such as Isaiah chapters 9 and 11 and Daniel chapter 7. The Jews were expecting a king who would release them from Roman occupation, Luke 24. 21. Rather, He first had to be a suffering Messiah before being a conquering Messiah, 24. 26.
The Lord was referred to as ‘the King of the Jews’ by Gentiles. Indirectly and sincerely, the wise men from the east acknowledged Him as such in His infancy. Before His death, Gentiles from the west mocked Him directly as the King of the Jews. The Roman soldiers did so collectively, Matt. 27. 29, and Pilate personally, 27. 11. He reminded the Jews that they themselves called Jesus ‘the King of the Jews’, Mark 15. 12. These words were written above the cross in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
When did the wise men seek the King?
‘In the days of Herod the king’, v. 1, they sought Him.2 He was the first of the ‘Herods’, a family of petty rulers among the Jews in New Testament times. This one was an imposter, being half Edomite, half Jew. He was made king of Judea in 40 BC by the Roman Senate, so ’king’ was merely an honorary title. The Jews opposed him but were defeated by him, enabling him to rule Judea. He was very suspicious of, and ruthless toward, any that he regarded as a threat to his authority. Hence, he instigated the ‘slaughter of the innocents’, vv. 13, 16-18.
The announcement of the birth of a King by foreigners who were guided by cosmic phenomena troubled Herod. His recently acquired kingdom may soon be taken from him. The people of Jerusalem were also troubled, for they could not suffer another rash change of government.
How were the wise men guided?
They were guided by a star on their outward journey and a dream on their homeward journey. God guided them by these means because they were conversant with them.3 They obeyed God with the knowledge He had given them. The Jews were more privileged by having the scriptures, vv. 4-6.
Some commentators draw a comparison between the Star of Jacob, spoken of by Balaam the soothsayer in Numbers chapter 24 verse 17, and the star followed by the wise men, because they were all from the east, Num. 23. 7. However, the star in Matthew chapter 2 is literal and relates to the King’s first coming, whilst the star in Numbers chapter 24 is symbolic of Christ at His second coming. These commentators suggest that the wise men found a document stating Balaam’s parables. If Balaam did write such a document, he certainly did not return home with it because he died in battle.
God also guided them through dreams. This title is used because the magi were Gentiles who did not have an intimate relationship with Him. After paying homage to the King, they returned by a different route.
Why did the wise men seek the King?
The wise men came to pay homage to the King. It was customary for monarchs to bring gifts to each other, 1 Kgs. 10. 1-10. In Matthew chapter 2 the ‘young child’ received homage in a house rather than in a palace. ’The young child’, not His mother, is worshipped. The magi from their caskets bring out gold, frankincense and myrrh, typifying His kingship, deity and sufferings respectively. Here is an allusion to Psalm 72 and Isaiah chapter 60, where the nations will bring similar gifts in the Millennium. Indeed ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever’.4
May we, guided by our daily reading of the scriptures, be filled with adoration for the Lord!
1 C. L. Feinberg, The Minor Prophets, Moody, 1976, pg. 173.
2 Compare Luke 1. 5.
3 Compare Daniel 2. 27, 28.
4 Westmister Shorter Catechism.