It was a mark of humiliation put upon the Lord Jesus that, though he was the Desire of all nations, yet his coming into the world was little observed and taken notice of, his birth was obscure and unregarded: herein he emptied himself, and made himself of no reputation. If the Son of God must be brought into the world, one might justly expect that he should be received with all the ceremony possible, that crowns and sceptres should immediately have been laid at his feet, and that the high and mighty princes of the world should have been his humble servants; such a Messiah as this the Jews expected, but we see none of all this; he came into the world, and the world knew him not; nay, he came to his own, and his own received him not; for having undertaken to make satisfaction to his Father for the wrong done him in his honour by the sin of man, he did it by denying himself in, and despoiling himself of, the honours undoubtedly due to an incarnate Deity; yet, as afterward, so in his birth, some rays of glory darted forth in the midst of the greatest instances of his abasement. Though there was the hiding of his power, yet he had horns coming out of his hand (Hab. 3:4) enough to condemn the world, and the Jews especially, for their stupidity.
The first who took notice of Christ after his birth were the shepherds (Luke 2:15), who saw and heard glorious things concerning him, and made them known abroad, to the amazement of all that heard them, Matt. 2:17, 18. After that, Simeon and Ann a spoke of him, by the Spirit, to all that were disposed to heed what they said, Luke 2:38. Now, one would think, these hints should have been taken by the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and they should with both arms have embraced the long-looked-for Messiah; but, for aught that appears, he continued nearly two years after at Bethlehem, and no further notice was taken of him till these wise men came. Note, Nothing will awaken those that are resolved to be regardless. Oh the amazing stupidity of these Jews! And no less that of many who are called Christians! Observe,
I. When this enquiry was made concerning Christ. It was in the days of Herod the king. This Herod was an Edomite, made king of Judea by Augustus and Antonius, the then chief rulers of the Roman state, a man made up of falsehood and cruelty; yet he was complimented with the title of Herod the Great. Christ was born in the 35th year of his reign, and notice is taken of this, to show that the sceptre had now departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet; and therefore now was the time for Shiloh to come, and to him shall the gathering of the people be: witness these wise men, Gen. 49:10.
II. Who and what these wise men were; they are here called Magoi—Magicians. Some that it in a good sense; the Magi among the Persians were their philosophers and their priests; nor would they admit any one for their king who had not first been enrolled among the Magi; others think they dealt in unlawful arts; the word is used of Simon, the sorcerer (Acts 8:9, 11), and of Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13:6), nor does the scripture use it in any other sense; and then it was an early instance and presage of Christ’s victory over the devil, when those who had been so much his devotees became the early adorers even of the infant Jesus; so soon were trophies of his victory over the powers of darkness erected. Well, whatever sort of wise men they were before, now they began to be wise men indeed when they set themselves to enquire after Christ.
This we are sure of, 1. That they were Gentiles, and not belonging to the commonwealth of Israel. The Jews regarded not Christ, but these Gentiles enquired him out. Note, Many times those who are nearest to the means, are furthest from the end. See Matt. 8:11, 12. The respect paid to Christ by these Gentiles was a happy presage and specimen of what would follow when those who were afar off should be made nigh by Christ. 2. That they were scholars. They dealt in arts, curious arts; good scholars should be good Christians, and then they complete their learning when they learn Christ. 3. That they were men of the east, who were noted for their soothsaying, Isa. 2:6. Arabia is called the land of the east (Gen. 25:6), and the Arabians are called men of the east, Jdg. 6:3. The presents they brought were the products of that country; the Arabians had done homage to David and Solomon as types of Christ. Jethro and Job were of that country. More than this we have not to say of them. The traditions of the Romish church are frivolous, that they were in number three (though one of the ancients says that they were fourteen), that they were kings, and that they lie buried in Colen, thence called the three kings of Colen; we covet not to be wise above what is written.
III. What induced them to make this enquiry. They, in their country, which was in the east, had seen an extraordinary star, such as they had not seen before; which they took to be an indication of an extraordinary person born in the land of Judea, over which land this star was seen to hover, in the nature of a comet, or a meteor rather, in the lowers regions of the air; this differed so much from any thing that was common that they concluded it to signify something uncommon. Note, Extraordinary appearances of God in the creatures should put us upon enquiring after his mind and will therein; Christ foretold signs in the heavens. The birth of Christ was notified to the Jewish shepherds by an angel, to the Gentile philosophers by a star: to both God spoke in their own language, and in the way they were best acquainted with. Some think that the light which the shepherds saw shining round about them, the night after Christ was born, was the very same which to the wise men, who lived at such a distance, appeared as a star; but this we cannot easily admit, because the same star which they had seen in the east they saw a great while after, leading them to the house where Christ lay; it was a candle set up on purpose to guide them to Christ. The idolaters worshipped the stars as the host of heaven, especially the eastern nations, whence the planets have the names of their idol-gods; we read of a particular star they had in veneration, Amos 5:26. Thus the stars that had been misused came to be put to the right use, to lead men to Christ; the gods of the heathen became his servants. Some think this star put them in mind of Balaam’s prophecy, that a star should come out of Jacob, pointing at a sceptre, that shall rise out of Israel; see Num. 24:17. Balaam came from the mountains of the east, and was one of their wise men. Others impute their enquiry to the general expectation entertained at that time, in those eastern parts, of some great prince to appear. Tacitus, in his history (lib. 5), takes notice of it; Pluribus persuasio inerat, antiquis sacerdotum literis contineri, eo ipso tempore fore, ut valesceret oriens, profectique Judaea rerum potirentur—A persuasion existed in the minds of many that some ancient writings of the priests contained a prediction that about that time an eastern power would prevail, and that persons proceeding from Judea would obtain dominion. Suetonius also, in the life of Vespasian, speaks of it; so that this extraordinary phenomenon was construed as pointing to that king; and we may suppose a divine impression made upon their minds, enabling them to interpret this star as a signal given by Heaven of the birth of Christ.
IV. How they prosecuted this enquiry. They came from the east to Jerusalem, in further quest of this prince. Wither shall they come to enquire for the king of the Jews, but to Jerusalem, the mother-city, whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord? They might have said, “If such a prince be born, we shall hear of him shortly in our own country, and it will be time enough then to pay our homage to him.” But so impatient were they to be better acquainted with him, that they took a long journey on purpose to enquire after him. Note, Those who truly desire to know Christ, and find him, will not regard pains or perils in seeking after him. Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord.
Their question is, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? They do not ask, whether there were such a one born? (they are sure of that, and speak of it with assurance, so strongly was it set home upon their hearts); but, Where is he born? Note, Those who know something of Christ cannot but covet to know more of him. They call Christ the King of the Jews, for so the Messiah was expected to be: and he is Protector and Ruler of all the spiritual Israel, he is born a King.
To this question they doubted not but to have a ready answer, and to find all Jerusalem worshipping at the feet of this new king; but they come from door to door with this question, and no man can give them any information. Note, There is more gross ignorance in the world, and in the church too, than we are aware of. Many that we think should direct us to Christ are themselves strangers to him. They ask, as the spouse of the daughters of Jerusalem, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth? But they are never the wiser. However, like the spouse, they pursue the enquiry, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? Are they asked, “Why do ye make this enquiry?” It is because they have seen his star in the east. Are they asked, “What business have ye with him? What have the men of the east to do with the King of the Jews?” They have their answer ready, We are come to worship him. They conclude he will, in process of time, be their king, and therefore they will betimes ingratiate themselves with him and with those about him. Note, Those in whose hearts the day-star is risen, to give them any thing of the knowledge of Christ, must make it their business to worship him. Have we seen Christ’s star? Let us study to give him honour.
V. How this enquiry was treated at Jerusalem. News of it at last came to court; and when Herod heard it he was troubled, Matt. 2:3. He could not be a stranger to the prophecies of the Old Testament, concerning the Messiah and his kingdom, and the times fixed for his appearing by Daniel’s weeks; but, having himself reigned so long and so successfully, he began to hope that those promises would for ever fail, and that his kingdom would be established and perpetuated in spite of them. What a damp therefore must it needs be upon him, to hear talk of this King being born, now, when the time fixed for his appearing had come! Note, Carnal wicked hearts dread nothing so much as the fulfilling of the scriptures.
But though Herod, an Edomite, was troubled, one would have thought Jerusalem should rejoice greatly to hear that her King comes; yet, it seems, all Jerusalem, except the few there that waited for the consolation of Israel, were troubled with Herod, and were apprehensive of I know not what ill consequences of the birth of this new king, that it would involve them in war, or restrain their lusts; they, for their parts, desired no king but Herod; no, not the Messiah himself. Note, The slavery of sin is foolishly preferred by many to the glorious liberty of the children of God, only because they apprehend some present difficulties attending that necessary revolution of the government in the soul. Herod and Jerusalem were thus troubled, from a mistaken notion that the kingdom of the Messiah would clash and interfere with the secular powers; whereas the star that proclaimed him king plainly intimated that his kingdom was heavenly, and not of this lower world. Note, The reason why the kings of the earth, and the people, oppose the kingdom of Christ, is because they do not know it, but err concerning it.
VI. What assistance they met with in this enquiry from the scribes and the priests, Matt. 2:4-6. Nobody can pretend to tell where the King of the Jews is, but Herod enquires where it was expected he should be born. The persons he consults are, the chief priests, who were teachers by office; and the scribes, who made it their business to study the law; their lips must keep knowledge, but then the people must enquire the law at their mouth, Mal. 2:7. It was generally known that Christ should be born at Bethlehem (John 7:42); but Herod would have counsel’s opinion upon it, and therefore applies himself to the proper persons; and, that he might be the better satisfied, he has them altogether, all the chief priests, and all the scribes; and demands of them what was the place, according to the scriptures of the Old Testament, where Christ should be born? Many a good question is put with an ill design, so was this by Herod.
The priests and scribes need not take any long time to give an answer to this query; nor do they differ in their opinion, but all agree that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, here called Bethlehem of Judea, to distinguish it from another city of the same name in the land of Zebulun, Josh. 19:15. Bethlehem signifies the house of bread; the fittest place for him to be born in who is the true manna, the bread which came down from heaven, which was given for the life of the world. The proof they produce is taken from Mic. 5:2; where it is foretold that though Bethlehem be little among the thousands of Judah (so it is in Micah), no very populous place, yet it shall be found not the least among the princes of Judah (so it is here); for Bethlehem’s honour lay not, as that of other cities, in the multitude of the people, but in the magnificence of the princes it produced. Though, upon some accounts, Bethlehem was little, yet herein it had the pre-eminence above all the cities of Israel, that the Lord shall count, when he writes up the people, that this man, even the man Christ Jesus, was born there, Ps. 87:6. Out of thee shall come a Governor, the King of the Jews. Note, Christ will be a Saviour to those only who are willing to take him for their Governor. Bethlehem was the city of David, and David the glory of Bethlehem; there, therefore, must David’s son and successor be born. There was a famous well at Bethlehem, by the gate, which David longed to drink of (2 Sam. 23:15); in Christ we have not only bread enough and to spare, but may come and take also of the water of life freely. Observe here how Jews and Gentiles compare notes about Jesus Christ. The Gentiles know the time of his birth by a star; the Jews know the place of it by the scriptures; and so they are capable of informing one another. Note, It would contribute much to the increase of knowledge, if we did thus mutually communicate what we know. Men grow rich by bartering and exchanging; so, if we have knowledge to communicate to others, they will be ready to communicate to us; thus many shall discourse, shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
VII. The bloody project and design of Herod, occasioned by this enquiry, Matt. 2:7, 8. Herod was now an old man, and had reigned thirty-five years; this king was but newly born, and not likely to enterprise any thing considerable for many years; yet Herod is jealous of him. Crowned heads cannot endure to think of successors, much less of rivals; and therefore nothing less than the blood of this infant king will satisfy him; and he will not give himself liberty to think that, if this new-born child should be indeed the Messiah, in opposing him, or making any attempts upon him, he would be found fighting against God, than which nothing is more vain, nothing more dangerous. Passion has got the mastery of reason and conscience.
Now, 1. See how cunningly he laid the project (Matt. 2:7, 8). He privily called the wise men, to talk with them about this matter. He would not openly own his fears and jealousies; it would be his disgrace to let the wise men know them, and dangerous to let the people know them. Sinners are often tormented with secret fears, which they keep to themselves. Herod learns of the wise men the time when the star appeared, that he might take his measures accordingly; and then employs them to enquire further, and bids them bring him an account. All this might look suspicious, if he had not covered it with a show of religion: that I may come and worship him also. Note, The greatest wickedness often conceals itself under a mask of piety. Absalom cloaks his rebellious project with a vow.
2. See how strangely he was befooled and infatuated in this, that he trusted it with the wise men, and did not choose some other managers, that would have been true to his interests. It was but seven miles from Jerusalem; how easily might he have sent spies to watch the wise men, who might have been as soon there to destroy the child as they to worship him! Note, God can hide from the eyes of the church’s enemies those methods by which they might easily destroy the church; when he intends to lead princes away spoiled, his way is to make the judges fools.