(Jerusalem and Bethlehem, b.c.4.)
^A Matt. II.1-12.
^a 1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem [It lies five miles south by west of Jerusalem, a little to the east of the road to Hebron. It occupies part of the summit and sides of a narrow limestone ridge which shoots out eastward from the central chains of the Judæan mountains, and breaks down abruptly into deep valleys on the north, south, and east. Its old name, Ephrath, meant |the fruitful.| Bethlehem means |house of bread.| Its modern name, Beitlaham, means |house of meat.| It was the home of Boaz and Ruth, of Jesse and David. The modern town contains about five hundred houses, occupied by Greek-church Christians. Over the rock-hewn cave which monks point out as the stable where Christ was born, there stands a church built by the Empress Helena, a.d.325-327, which is the oldest monument to Christ known to men. Bethlehem was a suitable birthplace for a spiritual king; as suitable as Rome would have been a temporal king. We do not know when the town received its name, nor by whom the name was given, but as God had chosen it as the birthplace of Jesus for many centuries before the incarnation, he may have caused it to be named Bethlehem, or |house of bread,| with prophetic reference to Him who is the |Bread of Life|] of Judæa [called thus to distinguish it from Bethlehem of Zebulon -- Josh. xix.15] in the days [it is difficult to determine the exact year of Christ's birth. Dionysus the Small, an abbot at Rome in a.d.526, published an Easter cycle, in which he fixed the birth of Christ in the year 754 of the city of Rome (A. U. C.). This date has been followed ever since. But Jesus was born before the death of Herod, and Josephus and Dion Cassius fix the death of Herod in the year 750 A. U. C. Herod died that year, just before the Passover, and shortly after an eclipse of the moon, which took place on the night between the 12th and 13th of March. Jesus was born several months previous to the death of Herod, either toward the end of the year 749 A. U. C. (b.c.5) or at the beginning of the year 750 -- b.c.4] of Herod [This man was born at Ascalon, b.c.71, and died at Jericho, a.d.4. His father was an Edomite, and his mother an Ishmaelite. He was a man of fine executive ability and dauntless courage, but was full of suspicion and duplicity, and his reign was stained by acts of inhuman cruelty. He enlarged and beautified the temple at Jerusalem, and blessed his kingdom by many other important public works] the king [The life of Herod will be found in Josephus' Antiquities, Books 14-17. He was not an independent monarch, but a king subject to the Roman Empire.] behold, Wise-men [This word designates an order, or caste, of priests and philosophers (called magi), which existed in the countries east of the Euphrates, from a very remote period. We first find the word in Scripture at Jer. xxxix.13, in the name rab-mag, which signifies chief magi. This class is frequently referred to in the Book of Daniel, where its members are called magicians, and it is probable that Daniel himself was a rab-mag (Dan. v.11). The order is believed to have arisen among the Chaldeans and to have come down through the Assyrian, Medean and Persian kingdoms. The magi were, in many ways, the Levites of the East; they performed all public religious rites, claimed exclusive mediatorship between God and man, were the authority on all doctrinal points, constituted the supreme council of the realm, and had charge of the education of the royal family. The practiced divination, interpreted auguries and dreams, and professed to foretell the destinies of men. They were particularly famous for their skill in astronomy, and had kept a record of the more important celestial phenomena, which dated back several centuries prior to the reign of Alexander the Great. They were probably originally honest seekers after truth, but degenerated into mere imposters, as the Bible record shows (Acts viii.9-11 and xiii.8). Nothing is said as to the number who came nor as to the country whence they came. The number and quality of the gifts has become the foundation for a tradition that they were three kings from Arabia, and during the Middle Ages it was professed that their bodies were found and removed to the cathedral at Cologne. Their shrine is still shown there to credulous travelers, and their names are given as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar] from the east [Probably from Persia, the chief seat of the Median religion. Jews dwelling in Persian provinces among the Parthians, Medes, and Elamites (Acts ii.9) may have so prepared the minds of the magi as to set them looking for the star of Bethlehem. But in addition to the knowledge carried by captive Israelites, the men of the East had other light. The great Chinese sage, Confucius ( b.c.551-479), foretold a coming Teacher in the West, and Zoroaster, the founder of the Persian religion, who is thought to have been a contemporary of Abraham, had predicted the coming of a great, supernaturally begotten Prophet. To these Balaam had added his prophecy (Num. xxiv.17). Moreover, the Septuagint translation made at Alexandria about 280 b.c. had rendered the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek, the language of commerce, and had carried the knowledge of Hebrew prophecy into all lands, and had wakened a slight but world-wide expectation of a Messiah. The Roman writers, Suetonius (70-123, a.d.) and Tacitus (75-125, a.d.) bear witness to this expectation that a great world-ruling king would come out of Judæa. But all this put together can not account for the visit of the magi. They were guided directly by God, and nothing else may have even influenced them] came to Jerusalem [They naturally sought for the ruler of the state at the state's capital. They came to Jerusalem after Jesus had been presented in the temple, and taken back to Bethlehem, and, therefore, when the infant Jesus was more than forty days old. They must have come at least forty days before the death of Herod, for he spent the last forty days of his life at Jericho and the baths of Callirrhoe; but the wise men found him still at Jerusalem. Jesus must, therefore, have been at least eighty days old when Herod died], saying, 2 Where is he [They seem to have expected to find all Jerusalem knowing and worshiping this new-born King. Their disappointment is shared by many modern converts from heathendom who visit so-called Christian countries, and are filled with astonishment and sadness at the ignorance and unbelief which they discover] that is born King of the Jews? [These words were calculated to startle Herod, who was by birth neither king nor Jew. This title was accorded to Jesus by Pilate, who wrote it in his inscription, and caused it to be placed over the head of Christ upon the cross. None has borne the title since; so Jesus has stood before the world for nearly two thousand years as the last and only king of the Jews. The king of the Jews was the prophetically announced ruler of all men] for we saw [Those in the pagan darkness of the East rejoiced in the star. It was as a light that shineth in a dark place (II. Pet. i.19). But those in Jerusalem appear not to have seen it, and certainly ignored it] his star [The great astronomer Kepler, ascertaining that there was a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 747 A. U. C., to which conjunction the planet Mars was also added in the year 748, suggested that this grouping of stars may have formed the so-called star of Bethlehem. But this theory is highly improbable; for these planets never appeared as one star, for they were never nearer to each other than double the apparent diameter of the moon. Moreover, the magi used the word |aster,| star, not |astron,| a group of stars. Again, the action of the star of Bethlehem forbids us to think that it was any one of the ordinary heavenly bodies. It was a specially prepared luminous orb moving toward Bethlehem as a guiding sign, and resting over the house of Joseph as an identifying index] in the east [the magi were in the east; the star was in the west], and are come [if the reign of Edomite Herod began to fulfill the first part of Jacob's prophecy by showing the departure of the scepter from Judah (Gen. xlix.10), the coming of the Gentile magi began the fulfillment of the second part by becoming the firstfruits of the gathering of the people] to worship him. [Was their worship a religious service or a mere expression of reverence for an earthly king? More likely the former. If so, the boldness with which they declared their purpose to worship proved them worthy of the benediction of Him who afterwards said, |And blessed is he whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me.|] 3 And when Herod the king had heard it [his evil heart, full of suspicions of all kinds, caused him to keep Jerusalem full of spies; so that knowledge of the magi soon reached his ears], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. [Herod was troubled because his succession to the throne was threatened, and Jerusalem was troubled because it dreaded a conflict between rival claimants for the throne. A short time before this, certain Pharisees had predicted that |God had decreed that Herod's government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it.| In consequence, six thousand Pharisees had refused to take the oath of allegiance to Herod, and a great commotion had ensued (Josephus xvii.2, 4). Herod was determined to maintain his rule at any cost. To secure himself against the claims of the house of the Maccabees, he had slain five of its princes and princesses, including his favored wife Mariamne, thus extirpating that line of pretenders. Of course, prophecy predicted that Messiah should have the kingdom; but Herod's sinful heart hoped that these prophecies would not be fulfilled in his own time. Modern Herods know concerning Christ's second coming, but hope that it will be postponed till their own career is finished. Modern Jerusalemites prefer their Herods with peace to Messiah with revolution. Multitudes rest under the dominion of Satan, because they fear the revolutionary conflict and struggle necessary to enthrone the Christ in his stead. Christ is the peace of the righteous, the trouble of the wicked. Imperfect knowledge of him troubles, but perfect knowledge and love cast out fear -- I. John iv.18.] 4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people [This is one of several expressions which designate the whole of or a portion of the Sanhedrin or Jewish court. This body consisted of seventy-one or seventy-two members, divided into three classes; namely, chief priest, scribes, or lawyers, and elders, or men of age and reputation among the people. The Sanhedrin was probably formed in imitation of the body of elders appointed to assist Moses ( Num. xi.16). It is thought to have been instituted after the Babylonian captivity. As the scribes transcribed the Scriptures, they were familiar with their contents, and well skilled in their interpretation], he inquired of them [Herod shows that common but strange mixture of regard and contempt for the Word of God which makes men anxious to know its predictions, that they may form their plans to defeat him. The first inquirers for Jesus were shepherds, the second were wise men, the third was a king, the fourth were scribes and priests. He wakens inquiry among all classes; but each uses a different means of research. The shepherds are directed by angels; the wise men by a star; the scribes by Scriptures; the king by counselors] where the Christ [the fact that these foreigners came thus wondrously guided, coupled with the fact that the King they sought was one by birth (David's line having been so long apparently extinct), led Herod to the conclusion that this coming King could be none other than the Messiah] should be born. [Thus, by light from different sources, king and priests and people were informed of the fact that Messiah was newly born into the world, and the very time and place of his birth were brought to notice. God gave them the fact, and left them to make such use of it as they would.] 5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem [It was generally known that Christ should be born in Bethlehem (John vii.42). The very body or court which officially announced the birthplace of Jesus subsequently condemned him to death as an imposter] of Judæa: for thus it is written. [The quotation which follows in the sixth verse is taken from Mic. v.2-4, but is freely translated. The translation sets the words of Micah in the language of the times of Herod, and therefore resembles some of our modern attempts at Biblical revision. The use which the scribes made of this prophecy is very important, for it shows that the Jews originally regarded this passage of Scripture as fixing the birthplace of Messiah, and condemns as a fruit of bigotry and prejudice the modern effort of certain rabbis to explain away this natural interpretation] through the prophet, 6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah, Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah: For out of thee shall come forth a governor, Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.7 Then Herod privily [Herod did not wish to give the infant claimant the honor and prestige of an open and avowed concern about him. Moreover, had he openly professed a desire to worship the new King, all Jerusalem would have been conscious of his hypocrisy, and some would have found it hard to keep silent] called the Wise-men, and learned of them [Though Herod sought Christ from improper motives, yet he used the best methods. He asked aid of those versed in the Scriptures, and also of those proficient in science] exactly what time the star appeared. [That he might ascertain, if possible, exactly on what night Christ had been born.] 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem [thus answering their question asked in verse 2], and said, Go and search out excatly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word that I also may come and worship him. [His meaning was, That I may come with my Judas kiss to betray and to destroy. Duplicity was a well-known characteristic of Herod. He had Aristobulus, the high priest, drowned by his companions while bathing, though they seemed to be only ducking him in sport. In this case Herod concealed fraud beneath an appearance of piety. Religion is one of the favorite masks of the devil (II. Cor. xi.13-15). It is as hard for the ambitious to avoid hypocrisy as it is for the rich to shun avarice.] 9 And they, having heard the king, went their way [No scribes were with them. The scribes were content with the theory as to the place of Christ's birth, but desired no practical knowledge of the Babe himself]; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them [guiding them], till it came and stood [thus stopping them] over where the young child was. [A real or ordinary star would have stood indiscriminately over every house in Bethlehem, and would have been no aid whatever toward finding the right child. For planets to stand over any place, they must be in the zenith and have an altitude of ninety degrees. This star, therefore, could not have been a conjunction of planets, for their altitude at Bethlehem is fifty-seven degrees, and seen that this angle they would have led the magi on down into Africa. The magi were undoubtedly favored with a special revelation as to the Babe and the star. It was probably given in a dream similar to that spoken of in verse 12. The star, as one of the temporary incidentals of Christianity, faded away; but the Sun of righteousness which took its place in the spiritual firmament shines on, and shall shine on forever.] 10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced [a comfort restored is a comfort multiplied] with exceeding great joy. [The return of the star assured them that God would lead them safely and surely to the object of their desires. Their joy was such as comes to those who come from seasons of dark doubt to the glories of light and faith. The star enabled them to find Jesus without asking questions, and bringing such public attention to him as would aid Herod in preventing his escape. Since the magi were guided by a star, they were forced to enter Bethlehem by night, and this contributed to the privacy of their coming and the safety of Jesus.] 11 And they came into the house [the humble home of the carpenter might have shook their faith in the royalty of the son, but the miraculous honors accorded him in the star and the Scripture raised him in their estimation above all the humiliation of external circumstances], and saw the young child with Mary his mother [she was the only attendant in this King's retinue -- the retinue of him who became poor that we, out of his poverty, might be made rich]; and they fell down [The usual Oriental method of showing either reverence or worship] and worshipped him [It is safe to think that the manner in which they had been led to Jesus caused them to worship him as divine. Their long journey and their exuberant joy at its success indicate that they sought more than the great king of a foreign nation. The God who led them by a star, would hardly deny them full knowledge as to the object of their quest. Had their worship been mere reverence, Mary would, no doubt, have been included in it. We should note their faith. They had known Christ but one day; he had performed no miracles; he had none other to do him homage; he was but a helpless Babe, yet they fell down and worshiped him. Their faith is told for a memorial of them. They worshiped him not as one who must win his honors; but as one already invested with them. When we come to Christ, let us come to worship, not to patronize, not to employ him for sectarian uses, not to use him as an axiom on which to base some vapid theological speculation]; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts [Oriental custom requires that an inferior shall approach his superior with a gift. These gifts probably contributed to the sustenance of the parents and the child while in Egypt] , gold and frankincense [A white resin or gum obtained by slitting the bark of the Arbor thuris. The best is said to come from Persia. It is also a product of Arabia. It is very fragrant when burned] and myrrh. [It is also obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. The tree is similar to the acacia. It grows from eight to ten feet high, and is thorny. It is found in Egypt, Arabia, and Abyssinia. Myrrh means bitterness. The gum was chiefly used in embalming dead bodies, as it prevented putrefaction. It was also used in ointments, and for perfume; and as an anodyne it was sometimes added to wine.] 12 And being warned of God in a dream [this suggests that as they came by night, so they were aroused and caused to depart by night, that their coming and going might, in no way, betray the whereabouts of the infant King] that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. [They took the road from Bethlehem to Jericho, and thus passed eastward without returning to Jerusalem.]