Matthew 2: The Wise Men
I shut my eyes and I see a great city built on its hills, with high walls and gates. Inside the walls is a beautiful great temple standing high above the valley. On a still higher hill there are strong towers that must, I think, be a part of a palace where some king lives. As I look I see a train of camels just going in at one of the city gates. They move along with swinging steps, one behind another, and seem tired, as if they had come a long way. They are beautifully harnessed with bright cloths and tassels, and some of the men who ride on them are richly dressed. The travelers stopped to ask a question of the guard at the gate, and now they have gone into the city. Do you know what this city is, and who these travelers are, and where they have come from, and what question they stopped to ask?
It was soon known through the city that these travelers had come. The question that they asked was passed from one to another and came to the old king, Herod, who lived in the palace with the strong towers on the hill. Herod was now an old man, in feeble health, with a thin, anxious face. He was a cruel man and suspicious, always afraid that someone was trying to harm him, or to get away his kingdom. You can imagine that Herod was troubled when he heard the question asked by the travelers,
"Where is he that is born King of the Jews? " And you can imagine that all Jerusalem was troubled with him, fearing what the king might do.
Herod could not answer the wise men's question. He would ask the priests and scribes who studied the Scriptures; they would know if any prophecy told where the Lord should be born. They looked in the sacred books and found a prophecy, which said that He should be born in Bethlehem. They told the king, and he gave the answer to the wise men. He asked them, too, a question. He asked what time the star appeared for he wished to learn how old the new king might be.
Now if we stand outside the city gate we see the travelers starting out again and taking the road to Bethlehem. They are rejoicing with exceeding great joy, for they see again the star, which they saw in their country far away, which was the sign to them that the Lord was born. They are glad, for they know now that they will find Him. The beautiful star goes before them; it stands over Bethlehem and over the very house where the Baby Lord is.
We follow and look in with them. It is such a holy place, for the little Child is the Lord, and the little house is His home. The wise men who have come this long way to find Him are worshiping. And now they open their treasures and present unto Him gifts, gold and sweet precious gums from their country, frankincense and myrrh.
Today we must all repeat the verses that tell the story of the wise men. First let me ask you a few questions to make sure that we understand the verses as we say them. Can you show me on the map Judea? And Bethlehem? And Jerusalem? Have you any idea where to look for the country from which the wise men came? It was in the East, perhaps beyond the Euphrates River. There were wise men there who had some knowledge of heavenly things handed down from long ago. They knew that the Lord was coming, and when a bright star shone out in their sky they knew that the Lord was born. There had been prophecies of a star in connection with his coming. See Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17. The journey was a long one, no doubt they were some months preparing and on their way. The Gospel does not say how many wise men there were; some traditions say three, some more; we do not know. It does not say how they traveled. King Herod, called Herod the Great, was an Edomite by race. He was feared but not loved by the Jews. His suspicious, deceitful, cruel character is shown in this story.
The prophecy which names Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, the promised King, you find in Micah 5:2: "But thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." Ephratah was an old name of Bethlehem. (See Genesis 48:7.) It seems to mean "fruitful," the same as Bethlehem, "house of bread." We are not told the wise men's answer to Herod's question about the time when the star appeared. From verse 16 we might infer that it was about two years before, certainly not more than two years. Frankincense and myrrh were fragrant gums, the frankincense from a tree, and the myrrh from a smaller shrubby tree.
You need your map again, to trace the journey of Joseph and Mary with the Holy Child to Egypt, and after their stay there back again to Nazareth. There are more prophecies for you to find. See Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15. We have already been reminded of the association of Bethlehem with Rachel; how Rachel died near Bethlehem when Benjamin was born. A little building by the wayside north of Bethlehem is still called Rachel's tomb. It is as if Rachel were watching over Bethlehem and weeping for the death of its children.
You cannot find a prophecy that the Lord should be called a Nazarene. Samson and Samuel and others who represented the Lord were Nazarites. (Judges 13:5; 1 Samuel 1: 11) The words are similar and perhaps were regarded as the same in meaning: "separated" as holy.
Now we will recite the story. The visit of the wise men will come clearly to our minds. We shall feel the eagerness of their journey, their joy as they saw again the star, the holiness of the scene in Bethlehem when they worshiped and presented their gifts, the loving presence of the angels with the infant Lord. It is describing not only what happened long ago, but our turning to the Lord today, eager to learn of Him and to make Him our King.
1. Who came first from the East, Abraham or the wise men?
2. What sign told the wise men that the Lord was born? Where did they stop to ask their way? Where did they find the Lord?
3. How did the wise men know the meaning of the star?
4. How did they find the town and the house where the Lord was?
5. What presents did they bring? Why did they choose these gifts?
You will repeat the story of the wise men with the little children and enjoy it with them. At the same time you will have some thoughts of its deeper meaning, as describing spiritual conditions of the Lord's coming, and of our own acknowledgment of Him as our King.
In regard to the remnants of spiritual knowledge from the Ancient Church among the wise men of the East, read interesting things in A. 9293, 10252, and S. 23. Their knowledge that the Lord was coming was a part of this ancient wisdom; also the knowledge of correspondences which enabled them to choose gifts which were representative of love to the Lord in all degrees from highest to lowest. The gift of gold means the holiest love of all; the frankincense, which rose as a sweet fragrance with prayer, is an emblem of gratitude for all heavenly blessings; and the myrrh, a fragrant gum of a more common kind, represents gratitude for natural good things. (A. 9293, 10252)
The story brings into contrast two kings: King Herod ruling in Jerusalem, and the newborn King of the Jews. The Lord was King in the power of the Divine truth and love, which He brought into the world. King Herod stands for the power of falsity and evil, which held dominion in men's hearts. Well might Herod be troubled at the mention of the new King, as the devils often cried out at the presence of the Lord.
We seek the Lord as King and acknowledge Him as King especially when we learn His truth and allow it to order and rule our lives. Those who are seeking the Lord's truth are also spiritually wise men. The little knowledge that they have is their star; they follow it joyfully, and it will surely bring them to the Lord. (E. 422 end; S. 23)
In our study of the Old Testament stories we have thought of the meaning of Egypt. It represents a natural state, especially a state in which the mind is being stored through the senses with natural knowledge. A child is in this Egyptian state when his senses are acute and his memory is strong for laying up knowledge. This state with its store of knowledge is the necessary foundation for the development of a rational and spiritual understanding of truth. The development of the spiritual understanding from natural knowledge is described by the words of the Psalm, "Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt." It is described also in the prophet's words, "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." And now this Scripture that describes the experience of every regenerating man is applied by the Gospel to the Lord, meaning that He too received through the senses natural knowledge as the basis of rational and spiritual understanding. This also was represented by His being taken as a child into Egypt and His coming up out of Egypt to the home in Nazareth. (A. 1462; E. 654; R. 503)