The World’s Wisdom Bows Down
[Based on Matthew 2:1-12]
An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judea at this time would come one of the rulers of the world. Suetonius
It is roughly the last year of Herod the Great’s tumultuous reign. He is sickly, dying of gonorrhea and possibly also cancer. He has spent his entire reign protecting his precarious throne. His appointment first came in 40 B.C. through his patron Mark Antony. He weathered the split between Antony and Augustus and was able to deftly change sides and preserve his power. In time he would build temples and name cities for Caesar, further cementing his title as rex socius (a client king).
In the latter years of his reign, their relationship will begin to break down. At one point Augustus said of Herod, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son,” owing to the fact that Herod had killed so many of his own but maintained the appearance of keeping kosher. He barely survived a plot by none other than Queen Cleopatra of Egypt to seduce and blackmail him. He executed his beloved wife, Mariamne, and her mother, Alexandra, as well as his three older sons. As he lay dying in Jericho in 4 B.C., he ordered a number of well-loved Jewish leaders to be held in the hippodrome in Jericho to be executed upon his death so that there would be “mourning in Israel.” His tomb in the Herodium has only recently been discovered by archaeologists.
That the magi come from the East would have been interpreted as a particular threat. Herod had built several fortresses along his eastern borders in anticipation of a threat coming from Persia. Masada is the best known and most imposing of these forts. He also constructed the fortresses known as the Herodium and Machaerus, where John would later be beheaded by Herod’s son, Antipas.
Herod had degenerated into a sickly, spent force. Driven mad by decades of stress, not to mention the long-term neurological effects of gonorrhea, he was pathologically paranoid. With this as background, we can begin to imagine the impact the magi’s message would have had on the fragile king. The greatest threat he could imagine had reared its head once more, only this was a very real threat, not an imagined one.
The bearers of the message of the newborn king represented an even greater threat to Herod. The magi were an elite political and spiritual force that had exercised authority since before the time of Daniel, who was appointed as one of their number (Dan 2:48; 5:11). They were the interpreters of dreams (Dan 2:2; 4:7) and possessors of secret knowledge of the planets and the stars (see Esther 1:13). Owing to the presence of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon during the captivity, the Jewish Scriptures had become part of the magi’s vast accumulation of knowledge. Though the passage is not quoted, the most likely reason for their journey was the prophecy of the wicked prophet Balaam in Numbers 24:17:
I see him, but not now; I perceive him, but not near. A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.
The magi appear from the East, presumably with their entourage of Persian cavalry announcing they have come to “worship” the newborn king of the Jews. The word describing Herod’s response can also be translated “terrified,” “troubled,” or even “intimidated.” From what we know of Herod the Great, he most likely experienced this entire range of emotions.
The two groups of advisers he calls together—the chief priests and the teachers of the law—represent the two groups that will in time band together in an attempt to destroy the newborn king. The chief priests were primarily Sadducees, and the teachers of the law were mostly Pharisees. It seems common enough knowledge, from Micah 5:2, that the king will be born in the city of David’s birth: Bethlehem. Just why the magi didn’t notice the passage before we are left to wonder.
Herod’s secret meeting with them to determine the exact time of the guiding star’s appearance is actually a ruse to allow him to calculate the age range of the boys in Bethlehem he will order to be executed (see Mt 2:16). This number also indicates the probable length of their journey, two years.
As they resumed their journey, the star reappears and guides the weary troop to a house where the young child is waiting. Their joy at seeing the familiar star once more and finding the goal of their long trek is difficult for us to imagine. What, to me, is most significant about the magi occurs in Matthew 2:11. There is a doubled statement: they fall to their knees and worship him. When we take into consideration the vast knowledge base possessed by the magi, and the fact that they were willing to undertake such a long journey, indicates one simple startling fact: in all their sacred wisdom, in all their vast learning, they had not yet found the wisdom their hearts were longing for. Why else would they have taken such an arduous trip if not for an aching need to satisfy a hunger that all of the world’s wisdom had not yet satisfied?
We must rid ourselves of the notion that because there were three gifts, there must have been only three magi. Perhaps there were dozens of them. Gold is a gift for kings. Frankincense was the only incense allowed on the altar in the temple (Ex 30:9, 34-38). Myrrh was primarily used as a perfume but also in the process of embalming (Jn 19:39). They were the perfect gifts for a king who was also a priest who had come to die.
The simple fact that they worshiped the toddler king indicates that in him they apparently found all they had been looking for. This wordless one, who was the Word, was at the same time the wisdom of God. The wisest men in the world recognize it and fall to their knees.
The Persian dreamers are warned by one final dream to go home by another route, to avoid the insane Herod, who by this time was surely furious.