Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

11. The Wise Men (Matt. 2)*

Why does the story of Gentile wise men honouring Jesus come in Matthew, the most Jewish gospel, when it would seem to be so much more appropriate to the theme of Luke’s gospel? The answer is:

Matthew wrote with his eye on one of the most tricky problems the early church had to face—how to fuse into one the two very different communities of Jewish and Gentile believers. So of course he had to include this superb episode. How better could he commend Gentiles to Jews than by a story such as this?

That they were Gentiles is evident from their ignorance of the Micah prophecy (v.5,6) which all Jewry knew (Jn. 7:42). It is also implied by their use of the expression: “King of the Jews”, for every New Testament occurrence of this phrase comes from a Gentile.

Errors Galore

Probably no part of the Bible narrative is so cluttered up with popular misconceptions as this is. These Magi are represented as being kings, but Matthew does not say so. They are supposed to be three in number, presumably because they presented three gifts, but again Matthew does not say three. Certain of the early fathers guessed that there were twelve of them, but that seems less likely.

They are commonly thought of as following the star all the way from their distant home, as it led them through deserts and forests, over mountains and across rivers. Yet Matthew’s record distinctly says that they saw the star in the east, and again after they left Herod. There is no hint of its continual guidance throughout their journey. Nor was the “star” either star or planet in the normal astronomical sense of the term. Nor is it likely that it guided them to Bethlehem; Mary and Joseph had surely left Bethlehem long before this, for at the time of their coming Jesus was no longer in his cradle but an active young toddler. In any case, would the wise men need a special heavenly guidance to show them the road to Bethlehem?

An Error Corrected

It may be well to settle this last point first, and the rest can be sorted out as examination of the narrative proceeds.

The very fact that dastardly Herod appointed that all the babies under the age of two should be butchered, “according to the time that he had diligently enquired of the wise men” (Mt. 2:16)-this, by itself, is sufficient indication that the Christmas-card pictures of the wise men worshipping the new-born baby, side by side with the shepherds, are sadly in error. Also the record says plainly (v. 11) that the family was in a house, not in a cave or stable or inn. Also, the word used by Matthew here means “a young child, a little boy” by contrast with Luke’s expression (2:12) meaning “a babe in arms”. Lastly, there is the undeniable fact of the sharp poverty of Mary and Joseph, witnessed by their offering for Mary’s cleansing-forty days after Jesus was born-two young pigeons, a special concession to the poorest of the people. Yet nothing is more certain than this, that if such devout people had been able to offer a lamb, they would have done so. It may be inferred, therefore, that the precious gifts including gold, out of the wise men’s “treasures” were not in their possession at this time. Also, after the visit of the wise men would it not be too dangerous for Joseph and Mary to appear in Jerusalem?

From Babylon?

Where did these wise men come from? And how did they know that the appearance of the star signified the birth of a King of the Jews? Answers to these questions are necessarily guess-work.

The most plausible suggestion is that they came from Babylon. In the Old Testament this term Magi is associated with Babylon’ (e.g. Jeremiah 39:3,13). It would be a very natural thing for Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy about Messiah the Prince to be passed on to succeeding generations there (note Dan. 5:11). That period of 490 years was now drawing to its close, as many students of the Scriptures must have known. If, also, that prophecy had come to be associated with another about “a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre out of Israel” (Num. 24:17), there would be here adequate basis for the conviction in these men that the Jews’ Messianic expectations were soon to be fulfilled. The appearance of an altogether unusual celestial phenomenon-the Chaldeans, let it be remembered, were excellent astronomers -would convince them that the time was at hand. There may be a hint of their dependence on Messianic prophecies in the Greek expression for “the east”. The LXX uses the same word to describe Messiah the Branch (Zech. 3:8; 6:12; Jer. 23:5; cp. Lk. 1:78 mg).

The “Star”

So they came to Jerusalem, seeking the King, and perhaps somewhat mystified that the entire nation was not in a state of excitement over the appearance of Messiah’s star. But, of course, it was not a star at all. A good deal of guesswork and a tremendous amount of futile mathematical computation has gone into attempts to establish that this star was a brilliant nova, or the planet Venus, or the conjunction of two, or maybe three, major planets. All such approaches fall down badly over one simple fact: the star “came and stood over where the young child was”. In other words, it guided the wise men to the very spot. But if at the same moment two people ten miles apart both attempt to identify the star which is immediately overhead, they will both pick the same star-this because of the fantastically great distances between the stars and the earth, compared with their negligibly small base line. This consideration by itself dictates the conclusion that, whatever the star was, it hung comparatively low down in the sky, say, as low as the flight of a helicopter-this, at least. Thus all astronomy is ruled out.

The best alternative suggestion is that it was another manifestation of the Shekinah Glory, which had already appeared, more proximately, to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Here was a primary fulfilment of the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee ... the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and fangs to the brightness of thy rising (the word for “east” in Matthew 2 also means “rising”)... they shall bring gold and frankincense, and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord” (60:1-3,6). This prophecy hints at “myrrh” also, for the Hebrew text of the last phrase sounds like: “his drinking of myrrh shall shew the Lord” although the AV translation is correct. Here, in Isaiah 60, was evidently the Scripture, known to the wise men, which dictated their journey.

If the star of the wise men were the Shekinah Glory (see further note on v.7), it becomes easy to see why there was no excitement in the rest of the populace and no attempt by others to follow the star as the wise men did. On an earlier noteworthy occasion the Glory of the Lord was “a cloud and darkness” to the Egyptians, but “it gave light by night” to Israel (Ex. 14:20).

The same kind of thing could well have happened in Judaea.

Herod the Monster

Herod the Great-”great in energy, in magnificence, and in wickedness”-was much disturbed at the news of the birth of another King of the Jews, and he decided immediately on drastic precautionary measures. This was characteristic of the man, for he was one of the most evil and cruel men who ever lived. He had not always been like this, but in his old age at the slightest breath of suspicion he thought nothing of having even faithful servants and close relatives tortured or butchered. To live anywhere near Herod the Great was to live in peril. And now he was set on the speedy elimination of this latest threat to the security of his throne, trivial though it might seem. For these reasons “all Jerusalem was troubled with him”. The people were immediately fearful about Herod’s reactions to the news. Another holocaust?

His first problem was to find the new-born King. Since the wise men did not know, Herod could only turn to the priests and scribes for their interpretation of the ancient prophecise. The mentality of the man is not easy to understand. Apparently he fully believed that a Messiah had been foretold and that all the details written concerning him would be accurately fulfilled. Yet at the same time he did not appear to doubt his own ability to destroy this divine child before ever the prophecies of his royalty could be fulfilled. Even if the control of heaven should be demonstrated by prophecies of Messiah’s birth being fulfilled to the letter, he-Herod the Great-would see to it that divine omnipotence should not accomplish the rest. “Herod, what aileth thee?” In any case, what difference would it make to Herod if there were a new King of the Jews in a Bethlehem cradle, for Herod, now seventy and rotten with disease, would be dead and gone long before he came to maturity!

The learned men called together by Herod can hardly have been a full assembly of the Sanhedrin, for the king had lately had most of them slaughtered for their refusal to pronounce that Deuteronomy 17:15 did not invalidate his kingship. Regarding this present enquiry the rabbinic scholars were quite definite and emphatic in their opinions: The King of the Jews is to be born in Bethlehem; and, lest there by any doubt about it, (for there was another Bethlehem away north in Zebulun; Josh 19:15), this was to be Bethlehem in Judah, so Micah’s prophecy (5:2) declared explicitly. Of course, the royal Son of David must be born in the city of David.

The Micah quotation, as repeated in Matthew 2:6, is not without its problems:

Why were these men of rabbinic scholarship ready to give Herod such precise information? They knew him well enough, and must have realised the purpose of his enquiries. Evidently they were reluctant to talk, for Herod “kept on demanding” (v.4 Gk.) where Messiah’s birthplace might be.

Is it not remarkable that these religious leaders did not betake themselves to Bethlehem as fast as they could go, to greet their new King? Too great a fear of Herod? But perhaps they did go-and failed in their search.

Very probably, also, as commentary on the wise men’s story of the appearance of an unusual star, one of those Bible scholars quoted another prophecy: “There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab . . . and Edom shall be a possession ...” (Num. 24:17,18). Herod was an Edomite, so knowledge of such a prophecy would alarm him all the more and strengthen his resolution to thwart its accomplishment.

Guided - whither?

So, feigning a godly zeal to match that of the wise men, he asked the specific time of the star’s appearing (as though intent on some astrological divination), and he bade them share with him the secret of their discovery when they should return from Bethlehem. Eagerly they set out once again, confident that their search would soon be ended, “Herod ... secretly smiling at their diligent devotion, whilst God in heaven laughed at his dissimulation”-so blithely comments Tom Fuller (17th century).

It is only a few miles along a well-travelled road, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. No guidance whatever was needed. Yet, no sooner were they away from Herod’s palace than they saw the “star” again. The only possible inference is that at this time Jesus was no longer in Bethlehem, and these wise men had to be steered in a completely different direction. Whither? To Hebron? or north to Nazareth?

Worship and Offerings

The Greek text is beautifully emphatic in its description of the gladness of the wise men when they saw the “star” once again: “they rejoiced a great joy exceedingly”. By the aid of the “star” they were guided continuously and unerringly to the very house where Jesus was to be found. Here, rejoicing more than ever, they prostrated themselves before the holy child. It was a different kind of worship from that which regularly goes on in many a family as it takes delight in the winsome ways of its baby. By this time Jesus was probably talking. One wonders what he attempted to say to these impressive visitors.

The Magi laid before him gifts which they had brought. It is usually assumed that these had been decided upon and carefully prepared before they left their homes in the east. But the form of the text-”when they had opened their treasures”-rather suggests that they chose out from the variety of valuable commodities they carried with them those which they deemed to be most suitable—gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is probably a mistake to seek a separate meaning behind these three gifts. The significance of the three is one and the same, for gold, frankincense and myrrh are all associated with the High Priest-he had on his forehead a golden plate: Holy to the Lord (Ex. 28:36), and in the sanctuary he carried a golden censer where incense burned, frankincense being the main ingredient (Ex. 30:34); also, his high priesthood began with his anointing with the holy oil in which myrrh was an essential element (Ex. 30:23). If this is correct, then, with extraordinary insight, these Gentile worshippers thus made glad acknowledgment that this new King of the Jews was also to be a “priest offer the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).


Herod’s evil intentions, whether or not they were read by the wise men, were bound to be frustrated, for it was written concerning this baby Messiah: “He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up... surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 91:11,3). However, when these godly men were ready to depart, they prayed to heaven for guidance (so the Greek of v.12 seems to imply), and were bidden ignore Herod and return home without delay. In the LXX version the word translated “they departed” almost always has the idea of flight. In modern slang, “they cleared out”. The same word comes again in verses 13,14,22, with the same idea inherent in it.

It was not sufficient to have frustrated Herod in his immediate design. So warped was the mind of this crafty beastly old man that for Joseph and his family to stay in the country was now quite out of question. Sooner or later Herod’s gestapo would track them down. So another dream bade them flee to Egypt for safety.

It is interesting here to observe how Mary and her little Jesus quite dominate the story, although in its action they are quite passive: “the young child and his mother”-never once “your wife and child”! The phrase recurs five times. Doubtless safety could have been achieved by other means. A legion of angels could have been permanently encamped round the home of these for whom the God of heaven had special love and regard. But this is not His way. As nearly as possible the Son of God was to face life as son of man, and this from his earliest days.

So there was flight into Egypt, in order that before long God might call His Son out of Egypt, as He had called Israel out of Egypt in ancient days. Not a few, including some who should know better, find difficulty in Matthew’s quotation from Hosea 11:1. The passage, they assert, certainly refers to Israel’s deliverance in the time of Moses, and equally certainly has nothing to do with Joseph and his precious charges seeking refuge in Egypt. Such an outlook lacks insight into the subtlety of Bible prophecy. Do men, and especially those who profess a good understanding of the gospel, have to deem their own human standard of judgement more dependable than that of inspired prophets and evangelists?

Another prophecy of similar character, which Matthew might well have quoted is Psalm 80: “Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the Gentiles (the death of Herod!), and planted it (the Branch) . . . the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the Branch that thou modest strong for thyself... Let thy hand be upon the Man of thy right hand, upon the Son of man, whom thou modest strong for thyself” (v.8,15,17).

Israel was a vine which God discarded (Ez.l5:6). Instead, there was Jesus the True Vine (Jn.l5: 1).

He was the beginning of a New Israel, and from time to time the gospels are found hinting at or openly asserting a parallel with the experiences of ancient Israel, first in the life of Jesus and later (in the rest of the New Testament) in the life of the early church. Once this feature is recognized, is there any serious difficulty in Matthew’s quotation from Hosea?

Herod makes sure

Herod, that personification of human pride and cruelty, was robbed of the prey he sought. Within thirty-six hours no trace was to be found of either wise men or Messiah’s family.

It soon dawned on the king that the seekers from the east had let him down; in fact, as he saw it, they had “played tricks with him, made a fool of him” (Gk). This king of the earth had taken counsel against the Lord and against His anointed, but the Lord had him in derision. So other drastic and more comprehensive plans became necessary. The king’s only clue was that supplied by the chief priests-Bethlehem. From what the wise men had said it was a year or more since the strange sign of the Son of Man had been seen in the sky. So, allowing a good margin for error, Herod resolved that every boy in Bethlehem up to the age of two should die. And not only in Bethlehem but in the countryside round it. Had Herod heard the story of the shepherds? What did he care if it meant the fiendish slaughter of (at most) a couple of dozen harmless little boys? Was he not king, to do as he pleased? And were they not mere Jews? Thus, once again, Esau persecuted Jacob. It had happened in former days (Gen. 27:41; 1 Sam. 21:7). The next generation was to continue the tradition (Mk. 6:17; Lk. 13:31; 23:11; Acts 12:7); and the twentieth century is to see it enacted once again, more vilely than ever (Obad. 9-14; Joel 3:19; Ez. 35:5,6; Ps. 83:4,6).

This evil business at Bethlehem is underlined by Matthew with another of his characteristic citations from the Old Testament, which perhaps more than any other has been written off as a palpable misapplication of Scripture. But is that really so?

“In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children... “ (from Jer. 31:15). The difficulty has been made worse by an almost universal identification with the wrong Ramah. It is not the Ramah of Samuel, a few miles north-by-west of Jerusalem, but Ramath-Rachel, the burial place of Jacob’s wife, only a mile or so north of Bethlehem.

“Give me children, or else I die”, Rachel had very exaggeratedly lamented to her husband (Gen. 30:1). So God gave her children-and she died, bringing forth “a son of sorrow” who was to become “Son of God’s right hand” (35:18,19).

In Jeremiah’s day it seemed that the nation was being destroyed, but God’s man of faith was carried off to Egypt, his life being given him for a prey, until the day when God called him out of Egypt. Read thus, Matthew’s quote from Jer. 31:15 is perhaps not as freakish as it has been made out to be.

The lamentation and weeping in Bethlehem was heard through the land. But it carried further than that, for, as one writer very aptly puts it, “this was a sin crying to heaven for vengeance.” In his unique style Fuller describes it thus: “Here no pen can express the mothers’ sorrows for their children; whilst one stood amazed, as if she had lost her son and her senses together; another bleeds out sorrow in her eyes, to prevent festering in her heart; a third vents her passions in exclamations, and it gives her some ease, though she could not recall her dead child, to call him tyrant that murdered it. All their mourning going several ways, meet in one common misery.” Fuller goes on to refer to these slaughtered babies as “the infantry of the noble army of martyrs”. Yet this “was a small affair in Herod’s career . . . Incredible?

Anything is credible of the man who murdered his own wife and sons” (Exp. Gk. Test.).

No one was sorry when, a short time later (in B.C. 4 actually, by our current system of reckoning), Herod died in misery, full of diseases and vindictive to the end against everyone. The Jews made the day of his death a permanent feast day. And this was the man who had supplied all the resources for the rebuilding of their temple!

Return from Egypt

The news of his death soon reached Egypt, but it was only when encouraged by a further divine revelation that Joseph determined to return to Judaea. Evidently the intention was to settle in Bethlehem or near to Zacharias and Elisabeth, but then they heard that Augustus Caesar had divided up the country between three of Herod’s sons, and Archelaus, the worst of the whole bunch, was the new ruler of Judaea. Matthew’s word means “reign as king”. But when Archelaus went to Rome seeking confirmation of the title, Caesar demoted him to tetrarch. “It is remarkable how near the Evangelists often seem to be to an inaccuracy, while yet closer inspection shows them to be, in these very points, minutely accurate” (Farrar).

‘Better to be Herod’s pig than his son’, Augustus is reported to have said, making a pun on the two Greek words. The quip was intended as a censure on Herod. But Archelaus was no better. At his first passover he had three thousand Jews massacred in the temple, No wonder, then, that Joseph was scared of what might befall on their return. These Herods had long memories. So God made a concession to his fears. Another dream bade him keep away from Archelaus. Plans were changed, and instead Joseph and his family returned to Nazareth in the territory of Herod Antipas.

Yet another prophecy

Strictly, this precaution was hardly necessary, for had not the angel said to Joseph: “They (who else besides Herod?) are dead which sought the young child’s life”? Archelaus need not be feared. However, the diversion to Nazareth became also the means of fulfilment of another Old Testament prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene”-or so Matthew asserts.

But there is no known Scripture which has these words! Was Matthew alluding to an oral tradition which had never been included in the written Word? This is the solution supplied by some, putting emphasis on “that which was spoken by the prophets.” The intention cannot have been to make Jesus into a Nazirite like John the Baptist, for Jesus was not this, except in spirit.

It can be safely argued that the words quoted by Matthew were not known or understood by many, or Nazareth would not have been despised as it was. Therefore it is far more likely that the allusion is to Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”. Nazareth means “the city of the Branch”. Evidently Matthew saw in Nazareth as the home town of Jesus the fore-shadowing of a yet greater fulfilment of that prophecy. It is rather remarkable that in September (when Jesus was born?), the sun is in the constellation of Virgo, the first of the signs of the zodiac. From very ancient times the Virgin is represented with a Branch in her hand. One of the chief stars in Virgo was called Al Zimach, i.e. Tsemach, the Branch.

But this thing was spoken by “prophets”-plural! Which prophets? The Hebrew word which makes “Nazareth” also means “preserved” (how marvellously appropriate here to one kept safe from the wrath of Herod!), and it is used in more than one prophecy regarding the Messiah (e.g. Gen. 49:26; Ps. 40:11; Is. 49:8).

So Jesus grew up in Nazareth. But the nation had already made up its mind long ago about that place: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46; cp. 1 Kgs. 9.13). Already it was settled: “There is no beauty in him that we should desire him.” As one ancient commentator puts it, “he was in some degree veiled, as it were, by the name of Nazarene, that faith might not lose its price.”

Notes: Matthew 2:1 -

From the east. They use the word for “Branch”, thus hinting at O.T. prophecies known to them?: Is. 60:2; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Jer.23:5; and see on v. 23.

To Jerusalem. Remarkably, Mt. uses the Gk. (Gentile) form of the name.
Born King of the Jews. They are confident that he is born. But where? Herod is called “king of Judaea” (Lk. 1:5), but not “King of the Jews”.

His star. Num. 24:17 was well-known. It almost certainly accounts for the name taken on by the great rebel Bar-Cochba in A.D. 132-5.
He was troubled. There was an eclipse of the moon (on March 13, B.C. 4) shortly before Herod died (Jos.Ant.17.6.4). This chronological detail points fairly strongly to Sept. B.C.6. as the date of the birth of Jesus.

And all Jerusalem with him, because of Herod’s uncontrollably suspicious mania in his last years. The use of meta here makes a neat distinction between Herod’s alarm and that of the people.
Demanded. Gk. imperfect; contrast the aorist in v. 7.

The Christ, defined by v.2. But today the churches ignore this plain meaning.
Bethlehem; cp. Jn. 7:42. But in v. 27, a different opinion on Messianic prophecy.
Appeared. Gk: phaino, almost invariably describes the glory of the Lord; e.g. 24:30; Mk. 16:9; Lk. 9:8; Rev. 1:16.So also nogah in ls.60: 3; cp. Ps 18:12; Is.4:5; Ez. 1:4,13,27,28; Hab.3:4.
The house . . . the young child. These phrases show how gross is the common error which has the wise men worshipping Jesus in his manger. The Gk. word implies a toddler; contrast Id. 2:12: “babe”. Worshipped him, not “her” or “them”, as Catholic practice might suggest. But this is by no means the only place in Matthew where the worship of Jesus is mentioned with approval: 8:2; 9:18; 14:33; 15:25; 18:26; 20:20; 28:9,17.

Presented, a word which normally describes the offering of sacrifice.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. An alternative meaning to that already suggested: king, priest, and sacrifice (Ps. 72:15; Lev. 24:7; Jn. 19:39). There is no essential difference.
Warned of God. The word might suggest an answer to the prayer of men made suspicious and uneasy by Herod’s eager enquiries and his known character. They were wise men, not fools.

Return. Literally: bend back. Return to Jerusalem, although ensuring a royal reward, would mean a detour.
Herod. . . destroy him. It was soon after this that Herod had his own firstborn put to death; Jos. Ant. 17 7 1-cp Ex. 4:22,23. 16.

Slew all the children. One of the ridiculous legends which the church came to revel in makes the number 14,000.
The end of this verse quotes Ex. 4:19 LXX, the point being, apparently, that just as Moses, so also Messiah must be with the people he is to save.
Verse 20 is repeated a most verbatim—to indicate how intent Joseph was on exact fulfilment of divine instructions?
Turned aside. Again, the word which so often means “fled”.
Nazareth. Rather remarkably, the other name for Galilee – Genneseret – means land of Nazareth.

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