Soon after the sign of God’s blessing or curse is born (Matt. 1:22–25), another sign appears to tell the world the Messiah has come. “Wise men from the east” come to Jerusalem because they have seen a great star in the heavens, a portent that to them signifies the birth of the king of the Jews (Matt. 2:1–2). These magi must think this birth is good news, for they want to find and honor Him.
However, there are some who do not rejoice when the magi come calling. In today’s passage we read of Herod the king who is troubled by the rumors that a new king has been born (v. 3). It is the year 4 b.c. or so, and Herod, known as “Herod the Great” by historians, is serving as the client ruler over Roman-controlled Palestine. A skilled politician and capable ruler who loves power, he holds this position because he has wrangled himself into the good graces of Rome and not because his Jewish subjects want him on the throne. In fact, despite his monumental restoration of the Temple, he is detested by the populace largely due to his oppressive taxation. The fact that he also descends on his father’s side from Edom, the ancient enemy of Israel, does not help matters. Herod constantly fears the loss of his authority, and thus, for him, the birth of a new king is not a happy occasion.
Herod moves immediately to determine where this child might be, and he turns for this information to the chief priests (the high priest, former high priests, and other priests of note) and the scribes (lawyers skilled in the Mosaic law and the oral traditions, v. 4). The Messiah’s birthplace is easily located; according to the Scriptures it must be in the city of Bethlehem (vv. 5–6). A paraphrase of Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 is the proof-text for this location cited to the king. As King David’s hometown (1 Sam. 16:1–13), Bethlehem is the fitting place for his greater Son’s entry into the world.
Note especially the differing reactions to the Christ child’s birth. Foreigners to the covenant with Israel are those most excited to see the Messiah, but Herod, one who has blood ties to this covenant, refuses to receive him gladly. This irony will be oft-repeated during the life of Jesus (Matt. 27:41–43, 54).
The wise men are likely from Babylon and have had to take a long and arduous journey to find Jesus. Matthew Henry draws this application from this event: “Those who truly desire to know Christ, and find him, will not regard pains or perils in seeking after him.” What has it cost you to follow Jesus? Consider whether your devotion has cost you friends, family, income, or reputation, and if not, consider how eagerly you seek after Him.
For further study:
The Bible in a year: