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1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,
2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
At the risk of ruining many nativity scenes, the Scriptures do not attest to the presence of the wise men at the birth of Christ. In fact, many scholars believe that as many as two years may have passed between the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi from the East. Despite their absence on the night Jesus was born, the visit of the wise men to the child Jesus is important. Matthew, in writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, includes their visit in his account because of its significance to numerous Old Testament themes and promises. The historical elements that Matthew includes in these verses, identify Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant; the promised Old Testament King who would lead and shepherd God’s people.
Matthew begins his account by telling his readers that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king” (v.1). Bethlehem was known as the city of David, for out of Bethlehem had come David, the great king of Israel. Lord had made a covenant with David that the kingdom should never depart from his family (2 Sam 7:1-17). At the time of Jesus’ birth however, Herod the Great reigned in Israel. Herod the Great was the Roman appointed ruler of Judea and is known in history as a great builder, firm ruler, and ruthless politician who swiftly and mercilessly disposed of any perceived threat to his kingship. Therefore, when the wise men arrive in Herod’s palace asking where they can find the one “born King of the Jews” (v.2) they immediately arouse Herod’s suspicions. Herod gathers his many counselors and inquires as to where the Christ was to be born. The scribes point to a passage from the prophet Micah, which seems to indicate that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Sensing an opportunity, Herod sends the wise men on their way to find the child, only requesting that when they have found him they report back. The star that had risen led the wise men to the directly to the home of Mary and Joseph, and when the wise men saw the child Jesus, “they fell down and worshipped him” (v.11). Then “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way” (v.12).
This passage in Matthew presents the reader with several pertinent questions. Why would Herod the Great be so threatened by a child? What significance does an obscure passage from a minor prophet have to the story? How would these wise men from Persia and Babylon have come to hear of a prophecy from Jewish literature? What can we learn about the identity of Jesus from Matthew’s inclusion of these events?
The answer to these questions is rooted in the coronation of David as king over Israel at the beginning of the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel. Saul, the first king of Israel has died, and the elders of Israel come to David at Hebron to anoint him king. David had been selected by the Lord and anointed by Samuel to be king over Israel (1 Sam 16) and to be the “shepherd and prince over Israel” (2 Sam 5:2). Two chapters later, the Lord covenants with David, promising him that “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body and I will establish his kingdom… I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…and your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:12,14,16). The Lord promises that a king will one day come from the line of the shepherd-king David, who will shepherd and rule God’s people in perfect peace.
David rules in Israel for forty prosperous years and afterward his son Solomon will reign in his place. After Solomon, the kingdom is divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Throughout the period of the divided kingdom, both Israel and Judah stray from the Lord and fall into idolatry. The Lord sends prophets to both kingdoms, beckoning them to repent of their idolatry and be restored, or face God’s judgment on their sin. One of these prophets is the prophet Micah, who is sent to the southern kingdom of Judah to warn them of the Lord’s forthcoming judgment for their sinfulness. The people do not listen to Micah and in 586 B.C., Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah is destroyed by the Babylonians and the people of Judah are carried into exile in Babylon. Buried in the middle of Micah’s pronouncement of judgment against Judah, is a seed of hope. Micah prophesies of a future day (Mic 5:1-5) when out of Bethlehem (the city of David) will come a ruler (from the line of David) who will shepherd God’s people (like his father David) and will reign over all Israel in perfect peace. This coming son of David will be the rightful ruler of Israel and all the nations will come to bow down to him as the true King.
So when the magi from the east arrive in Herod’s throne room asking where they can find the child born king of the Jews, they are seeking the fulfillment of a prophecy spoken hundreds of years earlier to the people of Judah. A prophecy that had likely been learned by the Babylonians through a Jewish exile, holding onto hope in the midst of judgment, that one day Israel’s true king would rescue God’s people. A prophecy that had been passed down through the generations and had led these wise men far from their own country, to search for this shepherd-king, that they might worship him. A prophecy that had its roots in a promise made to Israel’s greatest king, that one day a greater king would come from his lineage who would rule not just Israel, but the nations.
This king, our king, THE KING, Jesus, has come and is even now seeking people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9) to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). May we, like the wise men, fall down and worship him this Christmas.