Visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and
The Wise Men Reach Jerusalem—The Sanhedrim,
on Herod's Demand, Pronounce Bethlehem to Be Messiah's Predicted
Birthplace (Mt 2:1-6).
1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of
Judea—so called to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in
the tribe of Zebulun, near the Sea of Galilee (Jos 19:15); called also Beth-lehem-judah,
as being in that tribe (Jud 17:7);
and Ephrath (Ge 35:16);
and combining both, Beth-lehem Ephratah (Mic 5:2). It lay about six miles southwest of
Jerusalem. But how came Joseph and Mary to remove thither from
Nazareth, the place of their residence? Not of their own accord, and
certainly not with the view of fulfilling the prophecy regarding
Messiah's birthplace; nay, they stayed at Nazareth till it was almost
too late for Mary to travel with safety; nor would they have stirred
from it at all, had not an order which left them no choice forced them
to the appointed place. A high hand was in all these movements. (See on
in the days of Herod the king—styled
the Great; son of Antipater, an Edomite, made king by the
Romans. Thus was "the sceptre departing from Judah" (Ge 49:10), a sign that Messiah was now at hand.
As Herod is known to have died in the year of Rome 750, in the fourth
year before the commencement of our Christian era, the birth of Christ
must be dated four years before the date usually assigned to it, even
if He was born within the year of Herod's death, as it is next to
certain that He was.
there came wise men—literally, "Magi"
or "Magians," probably of the learned class who cultivated astrology
and kindred sciences. Balaam's prophecy (Nu 24:17), and perhaps Daniel's (Da 9:24, &c.), might have come down to them
by tradition; but nothing definite is known of them.
from the east—but whether from Arabia,
Persia, or Mesopotamia is uncertain.
to Jerusalem—as the Jewish
2. Saying, Where is he that is born King of the
Jews?—From this it would seem they were not themselves Jews.
(Compare the language of the Roman governor, Joh 18:33, and of the Roman soldiers, Mt 27:29, with the very different language of the
Jews themselves, Mt 27:42,
&c.). The Roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus, bear witness to an expectation, prevalent
in the East, that out of Judea should arise a sovereign of the
for we have seen his star in the
east—Much has been written on the subject of this star; but
from all that is here said it is perhaps safest to regard it as simply
a luminous meteor, which appeared under special laws and for a special
and are come to worship him—to do Him
homage, as the word signifies; the nature of that homage depending on
the circumstances of the case. That not civil but religious homage is
meant here is plain from the whole strain of the narrative, and
particularly Mt 2:11.
Doubtless these simple strangers expected all Jerusalem to be full of
its new-born King, and the time, place, and circumstances of His birth
to be familiar to every one. Little would they think that the first
announcement of His birth would come from themselves, and still less
could they anticipate the startling, instead of transporting, effect
which it would produce—else they would probably have sought their
information regarding His birthplace in some other quarter. But God
overruled it to draw forth a noble testimony to the predicted
birthplace of Messiah from the highest ecclesiastical authority in the
3. When Herod the king had heard these things, he
was troubled—viewing this as a danger to his own throne:
perhaps his guilty conscience also suggested other grounds of fear.
and all Jerusalem with him—from a
dread of revolutionary commotions, and perhaps also of Herod's
4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests
and scribes of the people together—The class of the "chief
priests" included the high priest for the time being, together with all
who had previously filled this office; for though the then head of the
Aaronic family was the only rightful high priest, the Romans removed
them at pleasure, to make way for creatures of their own. In this class
probably were included also the heads of the four and twenty courses of
the priests. The "scribes" were at first merely transcribers of the law
and synagogue readers; afterwards interpreters of the law, both civil
and religious, and so both lawyers and divines. The first of these
classes, a proportion of the second, and "the elders"—that is, as
Lightfoot thinks, "those elders of the
laity that were not of the Levitical tribe"—constituted the
supreme council of the nation, called the Sanhedrim, the members
of which, at their full complement, numbered seventy-two. That this was
the council which Herod now convened is most probable, from the
solemnity of the occasion; for though the elders are not mentioned, we
find a similar omission where all three were certainly meant (compare
26:59; 27:1). As Meyer says, it was all the theologians of the nation
whom Herod convened, because it was a theological response that he
he demanded of them—as the authorized
interpreters of Scripture.
where Christ—the Messiah.
should be born—according to
5. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of
Judea—a prompt and involuntary testimony from the highest
tribunal; which yet at length condemned Him to die.
for thus it is written by the
6. And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of
Juda—the "in" being familiarly left out, as we say, "London,
art not the least among the princes of Judah:
for out of thee shall come a Governor, &c.—This
quotation, though differing verbally, agrees substantially with the
Hebrew and the Septuagint. For says the prophet, "Though
thou be little, yet out of thee shall come the Ruler"—this honor
more than compensating for its natural insignificance; while our
Evangelist, by a lively turn, makes him say, "Thou art not the
least: for out of thee shall come a Governor"—this
distinction lifting it from the lowest to the highest rank. The
"thousands of Juda," in the prophet, mean the subordinate divisions of
the tribe: our Evangelist, instead of these, merely names the "princes"
or heads of these families, including the districts which they
that shall rule—or "feed," as in the
my people Israel—In the Old Testament,
kings are, by a beautiful figure, styled "shepherds" (Eze 34:1-10, &c.). The classical writers
use the same figure. The pastoral rule of Jehovah and Messiah over His
people is a representation pervading all Scripture, and rich in import.
(See Ps 23:1-6; Isa 40:11; Eze 37:24; Joh
10:11; Re 7:17). That this
prophecy of Micah referred to the Messiah, was admitted by the ancient
The Wise Men Despatched to Bethlehem by Herod to
See the Babe, and Bring Him Word, Make a Religious Offering to the
Infant King, but Divinely Warned, Return Home by Another Way (Mt 2:7-12).
7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise
men—Herod has so far succeeded in his murderous design: he
has tracked the spot where lies his victim, an unconscious babe. But he
has another point to fix—the date of His birth—without
which he might still miss his mark. The one he had got from the
Sanhedrim; the other he will have from the sages; but secretly, lest
his object should be suspected and defeated. So he
inquired of them diligently—rather,
what time the star appeared—presuming
that this would be the best clue to the age of the child. The
unsuspecting strangers tell him all. And now he thinks he is succeeding
to a wish, and shall speedily clutch his victim; for at so early an age
as they indicate, He would not likely have been removed from the place
of His birth. Yet he is wary. He sends them as messengers from himself,
and bids them come to him, that he may follow their pious
8. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and
search diligently—"Search out carefully."
for the young child; and when ye have found him,
bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also—The
cunning and bloody hypocrite! Yet this royal mandate would meantime
serve as a safe conduct to the strangers.
9. When they had heard the king, they
departed—But where were ye, O Jewish ecclesiastics, ye chief
priests and scribes of the people? Ye could tell Herod where Christ
should be born, and could hear of these strangers from the far East
that the Desire of all nations had actually come; but I do not see you
trooping to Bethlehem—I find these devout strangers journeying
thither all alone. Yet God ordered this too, lest the news should be
blabbed, and reach the tyrant's ears, before the Babe could be placed
beyond his reach. Thus are the very errors and crimes and cold
indifferences of men all overruled.
and, lo, the star, which they saw in the
east—implying apparently that it had disappeared in the
went before them, and stood over where the young
child was—Surely this could hardly be but by a luminous
meteor, and not very high.
10. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with
exceeding great joy—The language is very strong, expressing
11. And when they were come into the
house—not the stable; for as soon as Bethlehem was emptied of
its strangers, they would have no difficulty in finding a
they saw—The received text has
"found"; but here our translators rightly depart from it, for it has no
the young child with Mary his
mother—The blessed Babe is naturally mentioned first, then
the mother; but Joseph, though doubtless present, is not noticed, as
being but the head of the house.
and fell down and worshipped
him—Clearly this was no civil homage to a petty Jewish king,
whom these star-guided strangers came so far, and inquired so eagerly,
and rejoiced with such exceeding joy, to pay, but a lofty spiritual
homage. The next clause confirms this.
and when they had opened their treasures they
unto him gifts—This expression, used
frequently in the Old Testament of the oblations presented to God, is
in the New Testament employed seven times, and always in a
religious sense of offerings to God. Beyond doubt,
therefore, we are to understand the presentation of these gifts by the
Magi as a religious offering.
gold, frankincense, and myrrh—Visits
were seldom paid to sovereigns without a present (1Ki 10:2, &c.; compare Ps
72:10, 11, 15; Isa 60:3, 6).
"Frankincense" was an aromatic used in sacrificial offerings; "myrrh"
was used in perfuming ointments. These, with the "gold" which they
presented, seem to show that the offerers were persons in affluent
circumstances. That the gold was presented to the infant King in token
of His royalty; the frankincense in token of His divinity, and the
myrrh, of His sufferings; or that they were designed to express His
divine and human natures; or that the prophetical, priestly, and kingly
offices of Christ are to be seen in these gifts; or that they were the
offerings of three individuals respectively, each of them kings, the
very names of whom tradition has handed down—all these are, at
the best, precarious suppositions. But that the feelings of these
devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that
the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the
blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay
there—that much at least admits of no dispute.
12. And being warned of God in a dream that they
should not return to Herod, they departed—or, "withdrew."
to their own country another way—What
a surprise would this vision be to the sages, just as they were
preparing to carry the glad news of what they had seen to the
pious king! But the Lord knew the bloody old tyrant better than
to let him see their face again.
Mt 2:13-23. The Flight into
Egypt—The Massacre at
Bethlehem—The Return of Joseph and
Mary with the Babe, after Herod's Death, and Their Settlement at
Nazareth. ( = Lu 2:39).
The Flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15).
13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel
of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the
young child and his mother—Observe this form of expression,
repeated in Mt 2:14—another indirect hint that Joseph
was no more than the Child's guardian. Indeed, personally
considered, Joseph has no spiritual significance, and very little place
at all, in the Gospel history.
and flee into Egypt—which, being near,
as Alford says, and a Roman province
independent of Herod, and much inhabited by Jews, was an easy and
convenient refuge. Ah! blessed Saviour, on what a checkered career hast
Thou entered here below! At Thy birth there was no room for Thee in the
inn; and now all Judea is too hot for Thee. How soon has the sword
begun to pierce through the Virgin's soul (Lu 2:35)! How early does she taste the reception
which this mysterious Child of hers is to meet with in the world! And
whither is He sent? To "the house of bondage?" Well, it once was that.
But Egypt was a house of refuge before it was a house of bondage, and
now it has but returned to its first use.
and be thou there until I bring thee word; for
Herod will seek the young child to destroy him—Herod's
murderous purpose was formed before the Magi had reached Bethlehem.
14. When he arose, he took the young child and his
mother by night, and departed into Egypt—doubtless the same
15. And was there until the death of
Herod—which took place not very long after this of a horrible
disease; the details of which will be found in Josephus [Antiquities, 17.6.1,5,7,8].
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of
the Lord by the prophet, saying—(Ho 11:1).
Out of Egypt have I called my son—Our
Evangelist here quotes directly from the Hebrew, warily
departing from the Septuagint, which renders the words, "From
Egypt have I recalled his children," meaning Israel's children. The
prophet is reminding his people how dear Israel was to God in the days
of his youth; how Moses was bidden to say to Pharaoh, "Thus saith the
Lord, Israel is My son, My first-born; and I say unto thee, Let
My son go, that he may serve Me; and if thou refuse to let him
go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy first-born" (Ex 4:22,
23); how, when Pharaoh
refused, God having slain all his first-born, "called His own
son out of Egypt," by a stroke of high-handed power and love. Viewing
the words in this light, even if our Evangelist had not applied them to
the recall from Egypt of God's own beloved, Only-begotten Son, the
application would have been irresistibly made by all who have learnt to
pierce beneath the surface to the deeper relations which Christ bears
to His people, and both to God; and who are accustomed to trace the
analogy of God's treatment of each respectively.
16. Then Herod, &c.—As Deborah sang
of the mother of Sisera: "She looked out at a window, and cried through
the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels
of his chariots? Have they not sped?" so Herod wonders that his
messengers, with pious zeal, are not hastening with the news that all
is ready to receive him as a worshipper. What can be keeping them? Have
they missed their way? Has any disaster befallen them? At length his
patience is exhausted. He makes his inquiries and finds they are
already far beyond his reach on their way home.
when he saw that he was mocked—was
of the wise men—No, Herod, thou art
not mocked of the wise men, but of a Higher than they. He that sitteth
in the heavens doth laugh at thee; the Lord hath thee in derision. He
disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot
perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness,
and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong (Ps 2:4; Job
5:12, 13). That blessed Babe
shall die indeed, but not by thy hand. As He afterwards told that son
of thine—as cunning and as unscrupulous as thyself—when the
Pharisees warned Him to depart, for Herod would seek to kill
Him—"Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out
devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall
be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the
day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem"
13:32, 33). Bitter
was exceeding wroth—To be made a fool
of is what none like, and proud kings cannot stand. Herod burns with
rage and is like a wild bull in a net. So he
sent forth—a band of hired
and slew all the children—male
that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts
from two years old and under, according to the
time which he had diligently—carefully.
inquired of the wise men—In this
ferocious step Herod was like himself—as crafty as cruel. He
takes a large sweep, not to miss his mark. He thinks this will surely
embrace his victim. And so it had, if He had been there. But He is
gone. Heaven and earth shall sooner pass away than thou shalt have that
Babe into thy hands. Therefore, Herod, thou must be content to want
Him: to fill up the cup of thy bitter mortifications, already full
enough—until thou die not less of a broken heart than of a
loathsome and excruciating disease. Why, ask skeptics and skeptical
critics, is not this massacre, if it really occurred, recorded by Josephus, who is minute enough in detailing
the cruelties of Herod? To this the answer is not difficult. If we
consider how small a town Bethlehem was, it is not likely there would
be many male children in it from two years old and under; and when we
think of the number of fouler atrocities which Josephus has recorded of him, it is unreasonable to
make anything of his silence on this.
17. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by
Jeremy the prophet, saying—(Jer 31:15, from which the quotation differs but
18. In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation,
and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and
would not be comforted, because they are not—These words, as
they stand in Jeremiah, undoubtedly relate to the Babylonish captivity.
Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, was buried in the
neighborhood of Bethlehem (Ge 35:19),
where her sepulchre is still shown. She is figuratively represented as
rising from the tomb and uttering a double lament for the loss of her
children—first, by a bitter captivity, and now by a bloody death.
And a foul deed it was. O ye mothers of Bethlehem! methinks I hear you
asking why your innocent babes should be the ram caught in the thicket,
while Isaac escapes. I cannot tell you, but one thing I know, that ye
shall, some of you, live to see a day when that Babe of Bethlehem shall
be Himself the Ram, caught in another sort of thicket, in order that
your babes may escape a worse doom than they now endure. And if these
babes of yours be now in glory, through the dear might of that blessed
Babe, will they not deem it their honor that the tyrant's rage was
exhausted upon themselves instead of their infant Lord?
19. But when Herod was dead—Miserable
Herod! Thou thoughtest thyself safe from a dreaded Rival; but it was He
only that was safe from thee; and thou hast not long enjoyed even this
fancied security. See on Mt 2:15.
behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a
dream to Joseph in Egypt—Our translators, somewhat
capriciously, render the same expression "the angel of the
Lord," Mt 1:20; 2:13; and "an angel of the Lord," as
here. As the same angel appears to have been employed on all these high
occasions—and most likely he to whom in Luke is given the name of
"Gabriel," Lu 1:19, 26—perhaps it should in every
instance except the first, be rendered "the angel."
20. Saying, Arise, and take the young child and
his mother, and go into the land of Israel—not to the land of
Judea, for he was afterward expressly warned not to settle there, nor
to Galilee, for he only went thither when he found it unsafe to settle
in Judea but to "the land of Israel," in its most general sense;
meaning the Holy Land at large—the particular province being not
as yet indicated. So Joseph and the Virgin had, like Abraham, to "go
out, not knowing whither they went," till they should receive further
for they are dead which sought the young child's
life—a common expression in most languages where only one is
meant, who here is Herod. But the words are taken from the strikingly
analogous case in Ex 4:19,
which probably suggested the plural here; and where the command is
given to Moses to return to Egypt for the same reason that the
greater than Moses was now ordered to be brought back from
it—the death of him who sought his life. Herod died in the
seventieth year of his age, and thirty-seventh of his reign.
21. And he arose, and took the young child and his
mother, and came into the land of Israel—intending, as is
plain from what follows, to return to Bethlehem of Judea, there, no
doubt, to rear the Infant King, as at His own royal city, until the
time should come when they would expect Him to occupy Jerusalem, "the
city of the Great King."
22. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in
Judea in the room of his father Herod—Archelaus succeeded to
Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; but Augustus refused him the title of
king till it should be seen how he conducted himself; giving him
only the title of ethnarch [Josephus, Antiquities, 17.11,4]. Above this,
however, he never rose. The people, indeed, recognized him as his
father's successor; and so it is here said that he "reigned in
the room of his father Herod." But, after ten years' defiance of the
Jewish law and cruel tyranny, the people lodged heavy complaints
against him, and the emperor banished him to Vienne in Gaul, reducing
Judea again to a Roman province. Then the "scepter" clean "departed
he was afraid to go thither—and no
wonder, for the reason just mentioned.
notwithstanding—or more simply,
being warned of God in a dream, he turned
into the parts of Galilee—or the
Galilean parts. The whole country west of the Jordan was at this time,
as is well known, divided into three provinces—Galilee being the northern, Judea the southern, and Samaria the central province. The province of
Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the brother of
Archelaus, his father having left him that and Perea, on the east side
of the Jordan, as his share of the kingdom, with the title of
tetrarch, which Augustus confirmed. Though crafty and
licentious, according to Josephus—precisely what the Gospel history
shows him to be (see on Mr 6:14-30; Lu 13:31-35)—he was of a less cruel disposition
than Archelaus; and Nazareth being a good way off from the seat of
government, and considerably secluded, it was safer to settle
23. And he came and dwelt in a city called
Nazareth—a small town in Lower Galilee, lying in the
territory of the tribe of Zebulun, and about equally distant from the
Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Sea of Galilee on the east.
Note—If, from Lu 2:39, one
would conclude that the parents of Jesus brought Him straight back to
Nazareth after His presentation in the temple—as if there had
been no visit of the Magi, no flight to Egypt, no stay there, and no
purpose on returning to settle again at Bethlehem—one might, from
our Evangelist's way of speaking here, equally conclude that the
parents of our Lord had never been at Nazareth until now. Did we know
exactly the sources from which the matter of each of the Gospels was
drawn up, or the mode in which these were used, this apparent
discrepancy would probably disappear at once. In neither case is there
any inaccuracy. At the same time it is difficult, with these facts
before us, to conceive that either of these two Evangelists wrote his
Gospel with that of the other before him—though many think this a
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by
the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene—better, perhaps,
"Nazarene." The best explanation of the origin of this name appears to
be that which traces it to the word netzer in Isa 11:1—the small twig, sprout, or
sucker, which the prophet there says, "shall come forth from the
stem (or rather, 'stump') of Jesse, the branch which should fructify
from his roots." The little town of Nazareth, mentioned neither in the
Old Testament nor in Josephus, was
probably so called from its insignificance: a weak twig in contrast to
a stately tree; and a special contempt seemed to rest upon
it—"Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Joh 1:46)—over and above the general
contempt in which all Galilee was held, from the number of Gentiles
that settled in the upper territories of it, and, in the estimation of
the Jews, debased it. Thus, in the providential arrangement by which
our Lord was brought up at the insignificant and opprobrious town
called Nazareth, there was involved, first, a local humiliation;
next, an allusion to Isaiah's prediction of His lowly, twig-like
upspringing from the branchless, dried-up stump of Jesse; and yet
further, a standing memorial of that humiliation which "the prophets,"
in a number of the most striking predictions, had attached to the