Adam Clarke Commentary
Wise men come from the east to worship Christ, Matthew 2:1, Matthew 2:2. Herod, hearing of the birth of our Lord, is greatly troubled, Matthew 2:3; and makes inquiry of the chief priests and scribes, where the Christ should be born, Matthew 2:4. They inform him of the prophecy relative to Bethlehem, Matthew 2:5, Matthew 2:6. The wise men, going to Bethlehem, are desired by Herod to bring him word when they have found the child, pretending that he wished to do him homage, Matthew 2:7, Matthew 2:8. The wise men are directed by a star to the place where the young child lay, adore him, and offer him gifts, Matthew 2:9-11. Being warned of God not to return to Herod, they depart into their own country another way, Matthew 2:12. Joseph and Mary are divinely warned to escape into Egypt, because Herod sought to destroy Jesus, Matthew 2:13, Matthew 2:14. They obey, and continue in Egypt till the death of Herod, Matthew 2:15. Herod, finding that the wise men did not return, is enraged, and orders all the young children in Bethlehem, under two years of age, to be massacred, Matthew 2:16-18. Herod dies, and Joseph is divinely warned to return to the land of Israel, Matthew 2:19-21. Finding that Archelaus reigned in Judea in place of his father Herod, he goes to Galilee, and takes up his residence at Nazareth, Matthew 2:22, Matthew 2:23.
Bethlehem of Judea - This city is mentioned in Judges 17:7, and must be distinguished from another of the same name in the tribe of Zebulon, Joshua 19:15. It is likewise called Ephrath, Genesis 48:7, or Ephratah, Micah 5:2, and its inhabitants Ephrathites, Rth 1:2; 1 Samuel 17:12. It is situated on the declivity of a hill, about six miles from Jerusalem. בית לחם (Beth-(lechem), in Hebrew, signifies the house of bread. And the name may be considered as very properly applied to that place where Jesus, the Messiah, the true bread that came down from heaven, was manifested, to give life to the world. But לחם (lehem) also signifies flesh, and is applied to that part of the sacrifice which was burnt upon the altar. See Leviticus 3:11-16; Leviticus 21:6. The word is also used to signify a carcass, Zephaniah 1:17. The Arabic version has (Beet lehem), and the Persic (Beet allehem): but (lehem), in Arabic, never signifies bread, but always means flesh. Hence it is more proper to consider the name as signifying the house of flesh, or, as some might suppose, the house of the incarnation, i.e. the place where God was manifested in the flesh for the salvation of a lost world.
In the days of Herod the king - This was Herod, improperly denominated the Great, the son of Antipater, an Idumean: he reigned 37 years in Judea, reckoning from the - time he was created - king of that country by the Romans. Our blessed Lord was born in the last year of his reign; and, at this time, the scepter had literally departed from Judah, a foreigner being now upon the throne.
There came wise men from the east - Or, Magi came from the eastern countries. “The Jews believed that there were prophets in the kingdom of Saba and Arabia, who were of the posterity of Abraham by Keturah; and that they taught in the name of God, what they had received in tradition from the mouth of Abraham.” - Whitby. That many Jews were mixed with this people there is little doubt; and that these eastern magi, or philosophers, astrologers, or whatever else they were, might have been originally of that class, there is room to believe. These, knowing the promise of the Messiah, were now, probably, like other believing Jews, waiting for the consolation of Israel. The Persic translator renders the Greek Μαγοι by (mejooseean), which properly signifies a worshipper of fire; and from which we have our word magician. It is very probable that the ancient Persians, who were considered as worshippers of fire, only honored it as the symbolical representation of the Deity; and, seeing this unusual appearance, might consider it as a sign that the God they worshipped was about to manifest himself among men. Therefore they say, We have seen his star - and are come to worship him; but it is most likely that the Greeks made their Μαγοι (magi), which we translate wise men, from the Persian (mogh), and (moghan), which the Kushuf ul Loghat, a very eminent Persian lexicon, explains by (atush perest), a worshipper of fire; which the Persians suppose all the inhabitants of Ur in Chaldea were, among whom the Prophet Abraham was brought up. The Mohammedans apply this title by way of derision to Christian monks in their associate capacity; and by a yet stronger catachresis, they apply it to a tavern, and the people that frequent it. Also, to ridicule in the most forcible manner the Christian priesthood, they call the tavern-keeper, (peeri Mughan), the priest, or chief of the idolaters. It is very probable that the persons mentioned by the evangelist were a sort of astrologers, probably of Jewish extraction, that they lived in Arabia-Felix, and, for the reasons above given, came to worship their new-born sovereign. It is worthy of remark, that the Anglo-saxon translates the word Μαγοι by astrologers, from a star or planet, and to know or understand.
We have seen his star - Having discovered an unusual luminous appearance or meteor in the heavens, supposing these persons to have been Jews, and knowing the prophecies relative to the redemption of Israel, they probably considered this to be the star mentioned by Balaam, Numbers 24:17. See the note there.
In the east - Εν τη ανατολη , At its rise. Ανατολη and δυσμη are used in the New Testament for east and west.
To worship him - Or, To do him homage; προσκυνησαι αυτω . The word προσκυνεω , which is compounded of προς , to, and κυων , a dog, signifies to crouch and fawn like a dog at his master‘s feet. It means, to prostrate oneself to another, according to the eastern custom, which is still in use. In this act, the person kneels, and puts his head between his knees, his forehead at the same time touching the ground. It was used to express both civil and religious reverence. In Hindostan, religious homage is paid by prostrating the body at full length, so that the two knees, the two hands, forehead, nose, and cheeks all touch the earth at the same time. This kind of homage is paid also to great men. Ayeen Akbery, vol. iii. p. 227.
When Herod - heard these things, he was troubled - Herod‘s consternation was probably occasioned by the agreement of the account of the magi, with an opinion predominant throughout the east, and particularly in Judea, that some great personage would soon make his appearance, for the deliverance of Israel from their enemies; and would take upon himself universal empire.
The words of Tacitus are nearly similar: -
The chief priests - Not only the high priest for the time being, called כהן הראש (cohen(ha-(rosh), 2 Kings 25:18, and his deputy, called כהן משנה (cohen mishneh), with those who had formerly borne the high priest‘s office; but also, the chiefs or heads of the twenty four sacerdotal families, which David distributed into so many courses, 1 Chronicles 24. These latter are styled סרי הכהנים (sarey(ha-(cohanim), chief of the priests, 2 Chronicles 36:14; Ezra 8:24; and ראשי הכהנים (roshey(ha-(cohanim), heads of the priests, Nehemiah 12:7. Josephus calls them by the same name as the writers of the New Testament. In his Life, sect. 8, he mentions πολλους - των Αρχιερεων , Many of the chief priests. The word is used in the singular in this last sense, for a chief of the priests, Acts 19:14.
Scribes - The word Γραμματευς , in the Septuagint, is used for a political officer, whose business it was to assist kings and civil magistrates, and to keep an account in writing of public acts and occurrences. Such an officer is called in Hebrew ספר המלך (seper hamelech), ὁ γραμματευς του βασιλεως , the king‘s scribe, or secretary. See Lxx. 2 Kings 12:10.
In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet - As there have been several confused notions among the Jews, relative not only to the Messiah, and his character, but also to the time of his birth, it may be necessary to add, to what has already been said on this subject, the following extracts from the Talmudists and Gemarists, quoted by Lightfoot. At the close of a long dissertation on the year of our Lord‘s birth, (which he places in the 35th of the reign of Herod, not the last or 37th as above), he says: “It will not be improper here to produce the Gemarists themselves openly confessing that the Messias had been born, a good while ago before their times. For so they write: After this the children of Israel shall be converted, and shall inquire after the Lord their God, and David their king: Hosea 3:5. Our rabbins say, That is King Messias, If he be among the living, his name is David, or if dead, David is his name. R. Tanchum said, Thus I prove it: He showeth mercy to David his Messiah. (Psalm 18:50). R. Joshua ben Levi saith, His name is צמח (tsemach), a Branch. (Zechariah 3:8). R. Juban bar Arbu saith, His name is Menahem. (That is, παρακλητος , the Comforter). ‹And that which happened to a certain Jew, as he was ploughing, agreeth with this business. A certain Arabian travelling, and hearing the ox bellow, said to the Jew at plough, O Jew, loose thy oxen, and loose thy ploughs, for behold! The temple is laid waste. The ox belloweth the second time; the Arabian saith to him, O Jew, Jew, yoke thy oxen, and fit thy ploughs: והא יליר מלכא משיחא For behold! King Messiah is born. But, saith the Jew, What is his name? Menahem, saith he (i.e. the Comforter). And what is the name of his Father? Hezekiah, saith the Arabian. To whom the Jew, But whence is He? The other answered, From the palace of the king of Bethlehem Judah. Away he went, and sold his oxen and his ploughs, and became a seller of infants‘ swaddling clothes, going about from town to town. When he came to that city, (Bethlehem), all the women bought of him, but the mother of Menahem bought nothing. He heard the voice of the women saying, O thou mother of Menahem, thou mother of Menahem, carry thy son the things that are here sold. But she replied, May the enemies of Israel be strangled, because on the day that he was born, the temple was laid waste. To whom he said, But we hoped, that as it was laid waste at his feet, so at his feet it would be built again. She saith, I have no money. To whom he replied, But why should this be prejudicial to him? Carry him what you buy here, and if you have no money today, after some days I will come back and receive it. After some days, he returned to that city, and saith to her, How does the little infant? And she said, From the time you saw me last, spirits and tempests came, and snatched him away out of my hands. R. Bon saith, What need have we to learn from an Arabian? Is it not plainly written, And Lebanon shall fall before the powerful one? (Isaiah 10:34). And what follows after? A branch shall come out of the root of Jesse. (Isaiah 11:1).
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda - To distinguish it from Bethlehem, in the tribe of Zebulon. Joshua 19:15. See on Matthew 2:1 (note).
Art not the least - In Micah 5:2, it is read, Though thou be little - צעיר להיות (tsdir lehayoth), little to be. Houbigant, struck with the oddness of the construction of the Hebrew, by dividing the last word, and making a small change in two of the letters, makes the prophet agree with the evangelist, צעיר לא היית ,tsilegna (tsdir lo hayita), thou art not the least. Several learned men are of opinion, that the copy from which St. Matthew quoted, had the text in this way. However, some MSS. of very good note, among which is the Codex Bezae, have μη ελαχιστη ει , for ουδαμως ελαχιστη ει , Art thou not the least? This reconciles the prophet and evangelist without farther trouble. See the authorities for this reading in Griesbach and Wetstein.
Among the princes of Juda - In Micah 5:2, it is, the thousands of Judah. There is much reason to believe that each tribe was divided into small portions called thousands, as in England certain small divisions of counties are called hundreds. For the proof of the first, the reader is referred to Judges 6:15, where, instead of my Family is poor in Manasseh, the Hebrew is, my Thousand (אלפי) is the meanest in Manasseh: and to 1 Samuel 10:19, Present yourselves before the Lord by your Tribes and by your Thousands: and to 1 Chronicles 12:20, Captains of the Thousands of Manasseh. Now these Thousands being petty governments, Matthew renders them by the word ηγεμοσιν , because the word princes or governors was more intelligible in the Greek tongue than thousands, though, in this case, they both signify the same. See Wakefield.
That shall rule my people Israel - Οστις ποιμανει , Who shall Feed my people. That is as a shepherd feeds his flock. Among the Greeks, kings are called, by Homer, λαων ποιμενες , shepherds of the people. This appellation probably originated from the pastoral employment, which kings and patriarchs did not blush to exercise in the times of primitive simplicity; and it might particularly refer to the case of David, the great type of Christ, who was a keeper of his father‘s sheep, before he was raised to the throne of Israel. As the government of a good king was similar to the care a good shepherd has of his flock, hence ποιμην signified both shepherd and king; and ποιμαινω , to feed and to rule among the ancient Greeks.
That I may come and worship him also - See Matthew 2:2, and on Genesis 17:3 (note), and Exodus 4:31 (note). What exquisite hypocrisy was here! he only wished to find out the child that he might murder him; but see how that God who searches the heart prevents the designs of wicked men from being accomplished!
In the east - Or, at its rise. See Matthew 2:2.
Stood over where the young child was - Super caput pueri, Over the head of the child, as the Opus Imperfectum, on this place, has it. See Griesbach‘s Var. Lect. So it appears to have been a simple luminous meteor in a star-like form, and at a very short distance from the ground, otherwise it could not have ascertained the place where the child lay. But the last quoted reading, from the Opus Imperfectum, justifies the opinion that the luminous appearance which had hitherto directed them now encompassed the head of the child; and probably this gave the first idea to the ancient painters, of representing Christ in the manger, with a glory surrounding his head. This glory, or nimbus, is usually given also to saints and eminent persons, especially in the Roman Church, by all Roman Catholic painters.
They presented unto him gifts - The people of the east never approach the presence of kings and great personages, without a present in their hands. This custom is often noticed in the Old Testament, and still prevails in the east, and in some of the newly discovered South Sea Islands.
Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh - Some will have these gifts to be emblematic of the Divinity, regal office, and manhood of Christ. “They offered him incense as their God; gold as their king; and myrrh, as united to a human body, subject to suffering and death.” Aurum, thus, myrrham, regique, Deo, Hominique, dona ferunt. Juvencus. Rather, they offered him the things which were in most esteem among themselves; and which were productions of their own country. The gold was probably a very providential supply, as on it, it is likely, they subsisted while in Egypt.
Flee into Egypt - Many Jews had settled in Egypt; not only those who had fled thither in the time of Jeremiah, see Jeremiah 48; but many others who had settled there also, on account of the temple which Onias IV. had built at Heliopolis. Those who could speak the Greek tongue enjoyed many advantages in that country: besides, they had the Greek version of the Septuagint, which had been translated nearly 300 years before this time. Egypt was now a Roman province, and the rage of Herod could not pursue the holy family to this place. There is an apocryphal work in Arabic, called the Gospel of the infancy, which pretends to relate all the acts of Jesus and Mary while in Egypt. I have taken the pains to read this through, and have found it to be a piece of gross superstition, having nothing to entitle it to a shadow of credibility.
Out of Egypt have I called my son - This is quoted from Hosea 11:1, where the deliverance of Israel, and that only, is referred to. But as that deliverance was extraordinary, it is very likely that it had passed into a proverb, so that “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” might have been used to express any signal deliverance. I confess, I can see no other reference it can have to the case in hand, unless we suppose, which is possible, that God might have referred to this future bringing up of his son Jesus from Egypt, under the type of the past deliverance of Israel from the same land. Midrash Tehillin, on Psalm 2:7, has these remarkable words: I will publish a decree: this decree has been published in the Law, in the Prophets, and in the Hagiographia. In the Law, Israel is my first-born son: Exodus 4:22. In the Prophets, Behold, my servant shall deal prudently: Isaiah 52:13. In the Hagiographia, The Lord said unto my lord: Psalm 110:1. All these passages the Jews refer to the Messiah. See Schoetgen.
Slew all the children - This cruelty of Herod seems alluded to in very decisive terms by Macrobius, who flourished toward the conclusion of the fourth Century. In his chapter De jocis Augusti in alios, et aliorum rursus in ipsum, he says, Cum audisset inter pueros, quos in Syria Herodes, rex Judeorum, intra bimatum jussit interfici, filium quoque ejus occisum, ait, Melius est Herodis Porcum esse, quam Filium. “When he heard that among those male infants about two years old, which Herod, the king of the Jews, ordered to be slain in Syria, one of his sons was also murdered, he said: ‹It is better to be Herod‘s Hog than his Son.‘” Saturn. lib. ii. c. 4. The point of this saying consists in this, that Herod, professing Judaism, his religion forbade his killing swine, or having any thing to do with their flesh; therefore his hog would have been safe, where his son lost his life.
In Rama was there a voice heard - These words, quoted from Jeremiah 31:15, were originally spoken concerning the captivity of the ten tribes; but are here elegantly applied to the murder of the innocents at Bethlehem. As if he had said, Bethlehem at this time resembled Rama; for as Rachel might be said to weep over her children, which were slaughtered or gone into captivity; so in Bethlehem, the mothers lamented bitterly their children, because they were slain. The word θρηνος , lamentation is omitted by the Codd. Vatic. Cypr. one of Selden‘s MSS. the Syriac, Arabic, Persic, Ethiopic, all the Itala, (except that in the Cod. Bezae), Vulgate, and Saxon, several of the fathers, and above all Jeremiah, Jeremiah 31:15, from which it is quoted. Griesbach leaves it in the text with a note of doubtfulness. This mourning may refer to cases far from uncommon in the east, where all the children have been massacred. The lamentations of a Hindoo mother for her child are loud and piercing; and it is almost impossible to conceive of a scene more truly heart-rending than that of a whole town of such mothers wailing over their massacred children. See Ward.
They are dead - Both Herod and Antipater his son; though some think the plural is here used for the singular, and that the death of Herod alone is here intended. But as Herod‘s son Antipater was at this time heir apparent to the throne, and he had cleared his way to it by procuring the death of both his elder brothers, he is probably alluded to here, as doubtless he entered into his father‘s designs. They are dead - Antipater was put to death by his father‘s command, five days before this execrable tyrant went to his own place. See Josephus, Antiq. xvi. 11; xvii. 9.
When he heard that Archelaus did reign - Herod, having put Antipater his eldest son to death, altered his will, and thus disposed of his dominions: he gave the tetrarchy of Galilee and Petrea to his son Antipas; the tetrarchy of Gaulonitis, Trachonitis, Batanea, and Paneadis, to his son Philip; and left the kingdom of Judea to his eldest remaining son, Archelaus. This son partook of the cruel and blood-thirsty disposition of his father: at one of the passovers, he caused three thousand of the people to be put to death in the temple and city. For his tyranny and cruelty, Augustus deprived him of the government, and banished him. His character considered, Joseph, with great propriety, forbore to settle under his jurisdiction.
He turned aside into the parts of Galilee - Here Antipas governed, who is allowed to have been of a comparatively mild disposition: and, being intent on building two cities, Julias and Tiberias, he endeavored, by a mild carriage and promises of considerable immunities, to entice people from other provinces to come and settle in them. He was besides in a state of enmity with his brother Archelaus: this was a most favorable circumstance to the holy family; and though God did not permit them to go to any of the new cities, yet they dwelt in peace, safety, and comfort at Nazareth.
That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets - It is difficult to ascertain by what prophets this was spoken. The margin usually refers to Judges 13:5, where the angel, foretelling the birth of Samson, says, No razor shall come upon his head; for the child shall be a Nazarite (נזיר (nezir)) unto God from the womb. The second passage usually referred to is Isaiah 11:1: There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch (נצר (netser)) shall grow out of his roots. That this refers to Christ, there is no doubt. Jeremiah, Jeremiah 23:5, is supposed to speak in the same language - I will raise unto David a righteous Branch: but here the word is צמח (tsemach), not נצר (netser); and it is the same in the parallel place, Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12; therefore, these two prophets cannot be referred to; but the passages in Judges and Isaiah may have been in the eye of the evangelist, as well as the whole institution relative to the Nazarite (נזיר (nezir)) delivered at large, Num. 6:, where see the notes. As the Nazarite was the most pure and perfect institution under the law, it is possible that God intended to point out by it, not only the perfection of our Lord, but also the purity of his followers. And it is likely that, before St. Matthew wrote this Gospel, those afterwards called Christians bore the appellation of Nazarites, or Nazoreans, for so the Greek word, Ναζωραιος , should be written. Leaving the spiritual reference out of the question, the Nazarene or Nazorean here may mean simply an inhabitant or person of Nazareth; as Galilean does a person or inhabitant of Galilee. The evangelist evidently designed to state, that neither the sojourning at Nazareth, nor our Lord being called a Nazarene, were fortuitous events, but were wisely determined and provided for in the providence of God; and therefore foretold by inspired men, or fore-represented by significant institutions.
RULE I. Reading the words, not according to the regular vowel points, but to others substituted for them. He thinks this is done by Peter, Acts 3:22, Acts 3:23; by Stephen, Acts 7:42, etc.; and by Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:54; 2 Corinthians 8:15.
Let it be observed, that although all these rules are used by the rabbins, yet, as far as they are employed by the sacred writers of the New Testament, they never, in any case, contradict what they quote from the Old, which cannot be said of the rabbins: they only explain what they quote, or accommodate the passage to the facts then in question. And who will venture to say that the Holy Spirit has not a right, in any subsequent period, to explain and illustrate his own meaning, by showing that it had a greater extension in the Divine mind than could have been then perceived by men? And has He not a right to add to what he has formerly said, if it seem right in his own sight? Is not the whole of the New Testament, an addition to the Old, as the apostolic epistles are to the narrative of our Lord‘s life and acts, as given by the evangelists?
RULE I. When the thing predicted is literally accomplished.
St. Matthew seems to quote according to all these rules; and it will be useful to the reader to keep them constantly in view. I may add here, that the writers of the New Testament seem often to differ from those of the Old, because they appear uniformly to quote from some copy of the Septuagint version; and most of their quotations agree verbally, and often even literally, with one or other of the copies of that version which subsist to the present day. Want of attention to the difference of copies, in the Septuagint version, has led some divines and critics into strange and even ridiculous mistakes, as they have taken that for The Septuagint which existed in the printed copy before them; which sometimes happened not to be the most correct.
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