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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 2



Other Authors
Verse 1


(1) In the days of Herod the king.—The death of Herod took place in the year of Rome A.U.C. 750, just before the Passover. This year coincided with what in our common chronology would be B.C. 4—so that we have to recognise the fact that our common reckoning is erroneous, and to fix B.C. 5 or 4 as the date of the Nativity.

No facts recorded either in St. Matthew or St. Luke throw much light on the season of the birth of Christ. The flocks and shepherds in the open field indicate spring rather than winter. The received day, December 25th, was not kept as a festival in the East till the time of Chrysostom, and was then received as resting on the tradition of the Roman Church. It has been conjectured, with some probability, that the time was chosen in order to substitute the purified joy of a Christian festival for the license of the Saturnalia which were kept at that season.

The time of the arrival of the wise men was probably (we cannot say more) after the Presentation in the Temple of Luke 2:22. The appearance of the star coincided with the birth. The journey from any part of the region vaguely called the East would occupy at least several weeks.

Wise men from the east.—The Greek word is Magi. That name appears in Jeremiah 39:3; Jeremiah 39:13, in the name Rab-Mag, “The chief of the Magi.” Herodotus speaks of them as a priestly caste of the Medes, known as interpreters of dreams (I. 101, 120). Among the Greeks the word was commonly applied with a tone of scorn to the impostors who claimed supernatural knowledge, and magic was in fact the art of the Magi, and so the word was commonly used throughout the Roman world when the New Testament was written, Simon Magus is Simon the sorcerer. There was however, as side by side with this, a recognition of the higher ideas of which the word was capable, and we can hardly think that the writer of the Gospel would have used it in its lower sense. With him, as with Plato, the Magi were thought of as observers of the heavens, students of the secrets of Nature. Where they came from we cannot tell. The name was too widely spread at this time to lead us to look with certainty to its original home in Persia, and that country was to the North rather than the East of Palestine. The watching of the heavens implied in the narrative belonged to Chaldea rather than Persia. The popular legends that they were three in number, and that they were kings, that they represented the three great races of the sons of Noah, and were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, are simply apocryphal additions, originating probably in dramatic representations, and perpetuated by Christian art.

Verse 1-2

The Magi

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him.—Matthew 2:1-2.

In the visit of the Magi we have an incident of surpassing imaginative beauty. All through the ages it has been glorified by pencil and song. Yet, singular to say, the Epiphany is the only scene in the sublime opening of the drama of the life of Jesus for which St. Matthew claims no prophecy whatever. We are tempted to think that he might have referred to Balaam’s language (Numbers 24:17). The Church in her Epiphany services has seen the bending forms of kings in the dim magnificence of the language of psalmist and seer (Psalms 72:10-15; Isaiah 60:6). Still the fact remains that over the Epiphany alone in these two chapters St. Matthew makes us hear no joy-bells of prophecy filling the air. If he had foreseen that he would be accused of translating a picture of prophecy into the language of fact, he could scarcely have taken a more effectual way of defending himself than by omitting between Matthew 2:11-12 of chap. 2 his familiar formula, “that it might be fulfilled.”

The Christians in the second century, discontented with the extreme plainness of the story in the Gospels, embellished it largely. We are told that the star sparkled more brilliantly than all the others in the sky. It was a strange and wondrous sight, for the moon and all the stars formed, as if in homage, a choir around it as it moved.

Later on the wise men are represented as princes, then as kings. They symbolize the Trinity. They are the lords of the three races of men. Their gifts have spiritual, then doctrinal, meanings. They are supplied with names and are made the patron saints of travellers. As the legend grew, and Art took it up, they arrive at Bethlehem attended by a great crowd of followers, splendidly dressed, and riding on horses and camels and bearing treasures. Kneeling in their royal robes, they adore the child in the manger, and the child bends forward to bless them.

Then come all the stories connected with them after their death. Their bodies rested for a long time in the magnificent temple that Eastern Christianity dedicated to the Divine Wisdom, which still bears that ancient title, though Mohammed claims it now instead of Christ. Milan received them next, and lost them; and now for six hundred years the great cathedral of the Rhine has grown up above their sacred bones, representing in its gradual up-building, and for a long time in its unfinished glory, not only the slow accretion of splendid and poetic thoughts around the solitary and ancient story, but also the growth of all those stories to which we give the name of myths.1 [Note: S. A. Brooke, The Early Life of Jesus, 27.]

From time immemorial they have been regarded as kings:

We three kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts, we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,

Following yonder star.

In the cathedral at Cologne there is a golden reliquary in which are preserved, in the odour of sanctity, the relics of these men. I said to the venerable monk in attendance, “Do you really believe that these are the relics of the wise men?” “Oh yes,” he replied, “there is no question whatever as to their genuineness; we know their names—Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The Venerable Bede tells all about them.”2 [Note: D. J. Burrell, The Religion of the Future, 99.]


Seeking a King

1. The wise men came from the East. They came from beyond the bounds of that chosen and favoured Israel whose were the covenants, the oracles, the fires of Sinai, the glory of Zion, and the faith of the fathers. They came, doubtless, from Persia. Their business was a vain attempt to read the fortunes of empires and of men by watching the changing positions and mutual attractions of the stars. No plainer revelation of God’s loving-kindness and wisdom stood before their eyes than the cold splendours of the midnight sky. The heavenly commandment and promise they must spell out in the mystic syllables of the constellations, or else grope on in darkness. The sun was the burning eye of an Unknown Deity. With night-long solemn vigils, they strained their eyes into the heavens; but they saw no “Heaven of heavens,” because they saw no Father of forgiveness, and no heart of love. Their prophet was Zoroaster—a mysterious, if not quite mythical, person, ever vanishing in the shadows of an uncertain antiquity. These were the men whom God was leading to Bethlehem, representatives of that whole pagan world which He would draw to the Saviour.

Yet these disciples of Zoroaster held the best religion of their time, outside of Judaism. Their sacred books prove them to have been no degraded or sensual idolaters. When they fed their sacred fires with spices and fragrant wood, it was not the fire they worshipped, but a strange and unseen Light, of which the fire was a symbol. Their Ormuzd was an Infinite Spirit, and the star spirits were his bright subordinates. They believed in immortality, in judgment, in prayer, in the sacredness of marriage, in obedience, in honesty; they practised carefully most of the virtues of the Christian morality, including that foundation one of truthfulness, which is rare enough in both East and West, and which Christianity has found it so hard to establish in public and in private life, in all its centuries of discipline. To this day, when the traveller or the merchant meets among the native eastern cities a man more intelligent, more upright, of nobler manners and gentler hospitality than the rest, he is almost sure to find him a Parsi, a descendant of those Zoroastrian students of the stars, brethren or children of the wise men who offered their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Messiah in the stable.

2. These wise men looked for a King. “Where is he,” they asked, “that is born King of the Jews?” Why did their expectations take this form? We could understand their longing for one who should give them bread; or, if they had bread enough, should give them more gold to buy whatever would minister to their comfort, and pride; or one who, since they cared for wisdom, should tell them hidden things that they desired to know; or one who should take away the sting of a guilty conscience, and set them at peace with any higher god whom they might have offended; or, better still, one who should cleanse their will, and strengthen their power to live a worthy life. But their hope, as we read of it, was simply in a king. The true King might indeed bestow all these benefits which we have been counting up; but that was not what came first to their minds. In hoping for a king, they hoped for one who would rule them, to whom they should do reverence, and whom, when the time came, they should obey. They felt that the first of all needs for themselves and for the whole distracted world was to be governed, to be bound together in a common work appointed by a common ruling head.

Man is always seeking a king, for he feels in the depths of his being that he is never so great as in the presence of his greater. Let a great man appear in the world, and smaller men spontaneously rally round him; for they feel they are never so great as in the presence of their greater, never so noble as in doing the work of obedience. “He that is great among you, let him be the servant of all.” That is an axiom engraved within us before Christ formulated it into words and committed it to the pages of inspiration. Mankind desire a king—one whose behests they deem it all honour to obey, and in whose presence they think it exaltation to bow. On what other principle can we account for the terrible despotisms that have crushed the world? How were they possible, a few tyrannizing over millions? They were possible only on one condition—that they were a response, or the semblance of one, to a deep craving implanted in our nature by the Creator. “Where is he that is born King?” The vast empires were only answers to the question—false ones if you like, but answers nevertheless—and the poor distracted heart of humanity deemed any answer better than none at all.1 [Note: J. C. Jones, Studies in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 44.]

As the magi seek a Redeemer, so Herod fears a successor. If His birth as an infant makes proud kings tremble, what will His tribunal as a judge do?2 [Note: St. Augustine.]

3. They sought one who was born king of the Jews. How they supposed at that time that this could be we know not; many thoughts were doubtless possible then which do not occur to us now. But the word assuredly meant at least thus much, that the expected king was not one raised to his throne by his own right hand, or by the voice of men, for his strength or courage or wisdom or riches, but one carrying a Divine title from his birth. That king was not to be a Saul, not even a David, but a David’s son. There was another king in the land already, Herod the king, as the Bible calls him, a powerful ruler, cruel and unscrupulous, but magnificent in his doings—the very ruler to draw to him men of the East with the charm of awe. He was no true Jew, much less of David’s line; there was nothing in him of the true Jew’s heart, which was David’s heart. Many of his own subjects might be dazzled by the one who promised to make them strong with earthly strength, because they were indifferent to his readiness to profane all that their fathers had kept holy. But to the wise men he could never be what they sought. They took no sort of account of him as they entered Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

4. Again, it was a king of the Jews that they looked for. How was this? They were not Jews themselves; they were strangers to the commonwealth of Israel. Yet there was much in that strange nation, so full as it seemed of undying life, again and again buffeted and crushed, but not yet destroyed, worshipping one unseen God at one holy place with psalm and sacrifice, which might well persuade men of the East that a wondrous future was in store for Israel and the ruler of Israel. This was not the first time that Gentile witness had been borne to the Divine mission of the Jewish people; twice, at two great moments of the history, a voice from the world without had done homage to the holy race. Before the Promised Land was entered, Balaam the prophet of Moab had confessed the new power that was growing in the East: “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies”; “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” Once again, the second birth of the people out of their long captivity was helped and blessed by a king of the Gentile East, when Cyrus proclaimed that the Lord God of heaven had charged him to build Him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and sent forth the summons, “Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him, and let him go up.”

The Messianic hope of the last half-century before Christ was the hope of a King, and the Psalms of Solomon see in the coming reign of Messiah the salvation of Israel: “Raise up unto them their King, the son of David … and there shall be no iniquity in his days in their midst, for all shall be holy, and their King is the Lord Messiah.” The charge laid against Jesus before the procurator was that, acting on these expectations, He had made Himself a king, and thus posed as a rival of Cæsar. As a matter of fact, He had withdrawn from the multitudes when they would have forced Him into that false position. Yet before Pilate He did not deny His kingly character, only affirming, “My kingdom is not of this world, or not from hence.” The title on the cross, therefore, though inexact, was not radically untrue; a king lay dying there, though not one who was in any exclusive or earthly sense “the King of the Jews.” The penitent robber came nearer to the truth when he said, “Jesus, remember me, when thou comest in thy kingdom.” It was borne in upon his mind that in some mysterious way the Kingdom was to be reached through the cross, and lay beyond it; and his words almost echo the Lord’s description of Himself as about to go “into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom and to return.”1 [Note: H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ, 17.]


Following a Star

1. “We saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” While in the East they saw the star of the King of the Jews. They saw, probably, at first, one of the fixed stars, to which they were led, in the course of their inquiry, to attach this specific value; and as it shone out on them night by night over their western horizon, they determined to walk in the direction from which it shone, or, as we should say, to follow it. They followed it, accordingly, day by day; night by night they gazed wistfully at it, and then rose to follow it again; they gazed and followed, and so they crossed the desert and reached the city to which even the heathen East had learned to ascribe an exceptional sanctity. And as their coming became known at gatherings of the priesthood, and in the palace of the king, they learned how an ancient prophecy had ruled that He whom they sought would be born in Bethlehem.

Many a starry night I have followed a road leading due south, and over the road hung Betelgeux of Capella (westering with the others), and as I walked the star “went before me,” and when I stopped it “stood” over farmstead or cottage. It was no strain of imagination to say that the star led me on; on the contrary, the optical illusion was so strong that while one was in motion one could scarcely help thinking of the star as advancing just as I myself advanced.1 [Note: W. Canton, in The Expositor, 5th Ser., ix. 471.]

What sort of a star was it which they tell us started them on their journey? Not a planet, clearly, nor a conjunction of planets, as Kepler first suggested; for the planets were malign for the Magi. It seems most natural to think of a Nova, one of those sudden apparitions that tell us of a stupendous outburst in the depths of space, bringing to our eyes a new star that in a few weeks or months fades away from sight. We remember the Nova in Perseus which in February 1901 added a brief unit to the small company of our first-magnitude stars. But the Star of the Magi need not have been as bright as this. Professional astrologers would notice a new star which had no chance of observation by amateurs; and whether it was a Nova or not, the place of the star would probably count for more with them than its brilliance. My preference for the postulate of a Nova comes from the naturalness of their quest for an identification of the Fravashi they would associate with it. They had no doubt met with numerous Jews in their own country, and had knowledge of their Messianic hopes, which may even have struck them with their resemblance to their own expectation of Saoshyant. A dream which would supply the sought-for identification is all that is needed to satisfy the demands of the narrative. Their five miles’ walk due south from Jerusalem gave time for the star, if seen low down in the sky in S.S.E. when they started, to be culminating just over Bethlehem when they drew near to the town; and men so deeply convinced of the significance of stellar motions would of course welcome this as fresh evidence that the end of their quest was gained.2 [Note: J. H. Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, 283.]

2. The star which might lead to the cradle of the Divine Infant shines at some time into every human conscience. God endows us all, without exception, with the sense and perception of a distinction and a law; the distinction between right and wrong, whatever right and wrong may be; and the law of obedience to right, when once it is discovered. And if a man makes the most of this endowment, instead of shunning or scorning it or doing it violence; if he allows himself to reflect that such inward legislation implies a Lawgiver, and to search for other traces of His presence and action; then, assuredly, is he on the way to learn more.

The work of the inner light is that of judgment. It leads us to distinguish between right and wrong, and continues to lead us according as we are faithful to the light already given. We must act on these judgments. If certain things are seen, in the light, to be wrong, we must be faithful and put them on one side. Further, the light is a universal light. It informs us of truths—truths of faith and truths of conduct which are valid for all men. If we either refuse to obey the particular disclosures of truth given to us, or if we regard them as purely private matters, we do, in effect, deny the light, and fail to recognize its true character. It is useless to profess to believe in the inner light in general, and then to refuse to accept and follow the findings of the enlightened conscience.1 [Note: H. G. Wood, George Fox, 115.]

There is a light which flashes and is gone, and yet survives. There is a light which eludes, but never deceives. There is a light which guides as it flies. There is a light which comes only to those who seek in the night, and can feel after what they cannot find, and can still nurse “the unconquerable hope,” and can never lose heart. There is a light which is for ever in motion, and can be retained only by moving with it. There is a light which is always just ahead of where you stand. You must follow if you would arrive; and the following must never cease. He, the grey magician, has done but this one thing faithfully from end to end of the long years. “I am Merlin, who follow the gleam.” His whole character, his whole secret, lies in that from the first days when

In early summers,

Over the mountain,

On human faces,

And all around me,

Moving to melody,

Floated The Gleam,

down to the end, when

I can no longer,

But die rejoicing,

For thro’ the Magic

Of Him the Mighty,

Who taught me in childhood,

There on the border

Of boundless Ocean,

And all but in Heaven,

Hovers The Gleam.


O young Mariner,

Down to the haven,

Call your companions,

Launch your vessel,

And crowd your canvas,

And, ere it vanishes

Over the margin,

After it, follow it—

Follow The Gleam.1 [Note: H. S. Holland, Vital Values, 24.]


Finding a Child

The star led the wise men to the cradle at Bethlehem, and “stood over the place where the young child was.” The pilgrims entered and were satisfied.

1. They sought a king, and found a child. There is something very remarkable in the fact that they came from the distant East, and after all their sojourning and seeking found only a Child. Yet it was worth all their toil and trouble to learn the hard but precious lesson that true greatness consists in childlikeness. The world all the ages through had been growing away from the Child; its notions of greatness lay quite at the opposite pole. The Evil Spirit in his interview with our first parents succeeded in confusing the mind of the world relative to this point, and in putting the case altogether on a false issue. “Ye shall be as gods,” said he, “knowing good and evil.” He put likeness to God to lie in knowledge; and the whole drift of the Divine education of the race has been to counteract that notion, and to teach us that it consists neither in knowledge nor in power, but in childlikeness. As we review the history of the world, we see it dividing itself into three stages. In the first, Power is magnified, Force is deified. The great man is the strong man. In that era Nimrod is the hero after the world’s heart; strength receives the homage of men. In the second stage Power is pushed back a step or two, and Intellect comes to the front. The great man is the intellectual man. In that era Homer is the favoured idol before whom the people delight to bow; genius receives the homage of men. But Christianity has inaugurated a new period; it points the world not to Nimrod or to Homer, but to a Child—not to Power or to Genius, but to Goodness. The great man of the future will be the good man.

I remember a time, when, if any one mentioned the names of Napoleon Buonaparte or the Duke of Wellington, my heart responded in admiration, and I wished to become a soldier. I remember a time after that when, if you mentioned the names of Shakespeare or Milton, my heart responded in admiration, and I wished to be a poet. Yes; I have had my heroes, and I have worshipped them devoutly. But, were I to tell you my experience to-day, it is this—I have lost a great deal of my respect for power; I have lost a great deal of my admiration for genius; the supreme desire of my heart to-day is that I may be a good man, a childlike man, one whose life and character will mirror the Divinity. The great man of the future will be the good man. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”1 [Note: J. C. Jones, Studies in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 46.]

The Russian peasantry have a curious tradition. It is that an old woman, the Baboushka, was at work in her house when the wise men from the East passed on their way to find the Christ Child. “Come with us,” they said, “we have seen His star in the East, and go to worship Him.” “I will come, but not now,” she answered; “I have my house to set in order; when that is done, I will follow, and find Him.” But when her work was done, the three kings had passed on their way across the desert, and the star shone no more in the darkened heavens. She never saw the Christ Child, but she is living, and searching for Him still. For His sake, she takes care of all His children. It is she who in Russian homes is believed to fill the stockings and dress the tree on Christmas morn. The children are awakened with the cry, “Behold the Baboushka,” and spring up, hoping to see her before she vanishes out of the window. She fancies, the tradition goes, that in each poor little one whom she warms and feeds, she may find the Christ Child whom she neglected ages ago; but she is doomed to eternal disappointment.

2. They fell down and worshipped Him. No journey, although conducted with faith in the guide, will be successful unless it be sanctified by this bowing down of soul and body. And such worship as this was natural to the Gentile mind. It had been abused by it doubtless for idolatrous purposes, but the very bowing down to stocks and stones, being a corruption of true worship, indicates what the universal tradition was before it was so diverted. And this is implied in the second commandment, “Thou shalt not bow down to them nor worship them.” For as every commandment commands the contrary of what it forbids, so we understand that the commandment is not fulfilled by merely not bowing down to idols, unless we also bow down and worship God. And hence Gentile Christianity began with this idea of worship.

Wise men from afar are still seeking that cradle. All the great religions of the earth are really feeling for Christ. The consummation of all deep thought and aspiration is in Him. And, although often unknowingly, all the sovereign thinkers do Him reverence. The greatest of men have in successive generations made that cradle the shrine of their sincerest worship. In the corn-fields the heaviest heads bow most, and the mightiest intellects have done the Master lowliest reverence. All the ground is strewn with the tokens of their homage—sublime poems, harps and organs, deep philosophies, eloquent orations, rich sculpture, delightful pictures, magnificent architecture, dedicated to His praise and glory. Genius brings its choicest products to His feet, and thinks them poor.1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]

Have you noticed that the three Wise Men are represented in art as men of different ages? One is old, one is middle-aged, and one is young. And the reason why they are so represented is because of a tradition which came from the lips of that great traveller Marco Polo. He recounts that when he got to Persia he made every effort to find out more about the Wise Men. He was shown their tomb, but that did not satisfy him. He wanted to hear something more about them, and he could not find any one who could give him any information. At last in his travels he came to a little town which rejoiced in the name of Cala Ataperistan, or the town where they worshipped fire, and he inquired the reason of its name. They told him it was because it was from that town that three men—three Kings—had started to worship some great Being who was born in the West, and whose star they had followed. He goes on to say that of these three men one was old, one middle-aged, and one young, and they followed the star, taking with them their gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh; gold to give to the great Being if He should turn out to be a king; frankincense to offer if the great Being should have something of the Deity about Him; myrrh if He were a physician. And when they came to the stable of Bethlehem they went in one at a time. First went in the old man, and instead of finding what he expected, he found an old man who talked with him. He left and was followed by the man of middle-age. He in his turn entered and was met by a Teacher of his own years who spoke with him. When the young man entered he in his turn found a young Prophet. Then the three met together outside the stable and marvelled—How was it that all three had gone in to worship this Being who was just born, and they had found not a child but three men of different ages? The old man had found the old, the middle-aged the middle-aged, and the young the young. And so taking their gifts they go in all together, and are amazed to discover that the Prophet is then a baby of twelve days old! Each separately sees in Christ the reflection of his own condition, the old man sees the old, the middle-aged the middle-aged, and the young the young: but when they go in all together they see Christ as He is. We shall all find in Christ the answer to our needs.1 [Note: W. Gascoyne Cecil, in The Church Family Newspaper, Jan. 20, 1911, p. 48.]

3. The sincerity of their worship was proved by their gifts—“gold and frankincense and myrrh.” We know what gold is, but the other gifts are unfamiliar in our day. Frankincense was an aromatic resin, used for perfume and also in the sacrifices. Myrrh was a highly-prized article of commerce, and, like frankincense, was an odorous gum. All these gifts represented value. We do not know the financial ability of these men, but it is safe to say that their offerings adequately represented their means. More significant than the seen was the unseen offering that they made. In the lowly house they bowed themselves before the Child and worshipped Him. Not content with bringing their rare gifts of valuable substances, they gave themselves.

The old Mediæval interpretation of the offered gold as signifying recognition of His kingship, the frankincense of His deity, and the myrrh of His death, is so beautiful that one would fain wish it true. But it cannot pretend to be more than a fancy. We are on surer ground when we see in the gifts the choicest products of the land of the Magi, and learn the lesson that the true recognition of Christ will ever be attended by the spontaneous surrender to Him of our best.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

I suppose that the gold and frankincense and myrrh which the Eastern sages brought, represented the most valued treasures of each which they hastened to lay before the feet of the infant Christ. Even so, the heathen nations will all have their contribution to bring. The Indian will bring his mysticism and his deeply religious nature; the Chinese his patience and endurance and contentment; the Japanese his sense of discipline and chivalry; the Buddhist his kindliness and lofty ideals; the Mohammedan his strong sense of the oneness of God and his faith and resignation. The Christian Church as it is at present needs all these elements.2 [Note: H. N. Grimley.]

Gold would be always a suitable present. Frankincense and myrrh would be used chiefly in the houses of the great, and in holy places. They were prized for the delicious fragrance which they suffused. They were gifts fit to be presented to monarchs; and it was to Jesus, as a royal child, that they were presented by the Magi. The fathers of the Church thought that they could detect mysteries in the peculiar nature of the gifts. In the gold, says Origen, there is a reference to the Lord’s royalty; the frankincense has reference to His Divinity; the myrrh to His decease. The number of the gifts was also a fertile source of cabalistic ingenuity to the older expositors. It symbolized the Trinity; it symbolized the triplicity of elements in the Saviour’s personality; it symbolized the triad of the Christian graces, faith, hope, charity, etc. etc. But such a method of expounding is to turn the simple and sublime solemnities of Scripture into things ludicrous and grotesque. It is of moment to note that the visit of the Magi, and their reverential obeisance, and their gifts, must have had a finely confirming influence upon the faith of Joseph in reference to the perfect purity of Mary and the lofty character and destiny of her Offspring.3 [Note: James Morison.]

The Magi


Aitken (W. H. M. H.), The Revealer Revealed, 17.

Alexander (W.), The Leading Ideas of the Gospels, 49.

Brooke (S. A.), The Early Life of Jesus, 26.

Burrell (D. J.), The Religion of the Future, 97.

Burrell (D. J.), The Wondrous Cross, 124.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, i. 403.

Eames (J.), The Shattered Temple, 69.

Hall (C. R.), Advent to Whit-Sunday, 54.

Holland (H. S.), Vital Values, 24.

Hort (F. J. A.), Cambridge and other Sermons, 25.

Hunt (A. N.), Sermons for the Christian Year, i. 56.

Jones (J. C.), Studies in the Gospel according to St. Matthew , 27.

Liddon (H. P.), Christmastide Sermons, 348.

Maclaren (A.), Expositions: St. Matthew i.–viii., 19.

Morgan (G. C.), The Crises of the Christ, 74.

Mursell (W. A.), Sermons on Special Occasions, 107.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, v. 2.

Robertson (F. W.), Sermons, ii. 17.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xvi. (1870), No. 967; xxix. (1883), No. 1698.

Tipple (S. A.), The Admiring Guest, 60.

Wilberforce (B.), The Hope that is in Me, 52.

Christian Age, xli. 36 (T. de W. Talmage); xlvi. 386 (P. Brooks).

Christian World Pulpit, xlix. 40 (A. G. Brown); lvii. 33 (H. S. Holland); lxxii. 580 (A. H. Sime); lxxiv. 403 (L. A. Crandall).

Churchman’s Pulpit: The Epiphany, iii. 226 (F. Field).

Homiletic Review, lvi. 460 (F. W. Luce).

Verse 2

(2) Where is he . . .?—The Magi express here the feeling which the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, tell us sixty or seventy years later had been for a long time very widely diffused. Everywhere throughout the East men were looking for the advent of a great king who was to rise from among the Jews. The expectation partly rested on such Messianic prophecies of Isaiah as Isaiah 9, 11, partly on the later predictions of Daniel 7. It had fermented in the minds of men, heathens as well as Jews, and would have led them to welcome Jesus as the Christ had He come in accordance with their expectations. As it was, He came precisely as they did not expect Him, shattering their earthly hopes to pieces, and so they did not receive Him.

We have seen his star in the east.—Here again we enter on questions which we cannot answer. Was the star (as Kepler conjectured) natural—the conjuncture of the planets Jupiter and Saturn appearing as a single star of special brightness—or supernatural; visible to all beholders, or to the Magi only? Astronomy is against the first view, by showing that the planets at their nearest were divided by the apparent diameter of the moon. The last hypothesis introduces a fresh miracle without a shadow of authority from Scripture. We must be content to remain in ignorance. We know too little of the astrology of that period to determine what star might or might not seem to those who watched the heavens as the precursor of a great king. Any star (as e.g., that which was connected with the birth of Cæsar) might, under given rules of art, acquire a new significance. Stories, not necessarily legends, of the appearances of such stars gathered round the births of Alexander the Great and Mithridates as well as Cæsar. The language of Balaam as to “the Star that was to rise out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17) implied the existence of such an association of thoughts then, and tended to perpetuate it. As late as the reign of Hadrian, the rebel chief who headed the insurrection of the Jews took the name of Bar-cochab, the “Son of a Star.” Without building too much on uncertain data, we may, however, at least believe that the “wise men” were Gentiles. They do not ask for “our king,” but for the king of the Jews; and yet, though Gentiles, they were sharers in the Messianic hopes of the Jews. They came to worship, i.e., to do homage, as subjects of the new-born King. They were watchers of the signs of the heavens, and when they saw what they interpreted as the sign that the King had come, they undertook a four months’ journey (if they came from Babylon, Ezra 7:9; more, if they came from Persia), partly, perhaps, led by the position of the star (though this is not stated), partly naturally making their way to Jerusalem, as certain to hear there some tidings of the Jewish King.

Verse 3

(3) Herod the king.—When the Magi reached Jerusalem, the air was thick with fears and rumours, The old king (the title had been given by the Roman Senate in B.C. 40) was drawing to the close of his long and blood-stained reign. Two years before he had put to death, on a charge of treason, his two sons by Mariamne, his best-loved wife, through sheer jealousy of the favour with which the people looked on them. At the time when this history opens, his eldest son, Antipater, was under condemnation. The knowledge that priests and people were alike looking for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25; Luke 2:38), the whispers that told that such a consolation had come, the uneasiness excited in the people by the “taxing” in which he had been forced to acquiesce, all these were elements of disquietude prior to the arrival of the Magi, and turned the last days of the Idumæan prince (his subjects never forgot his origin) into a time of frenzied and cruel suspicion. The excitement naturally spread throughout the city.

Verse 4

(4) The chief priests and scribes.—The chief priests were probably the heads of the twenty-four courses into which the sons of Aaron were divided (2 Chronicles 23:8; Luke 1:5), but the term may have included those who had, though only for a time, held the office of high priest. The “scribes” were the interpreters of the Law, casuists and collectors of the traditions of the Elders, for the most part Pharisees. The meeting thus convened was not necessarily a formal meeting of the Sanhedrim or Great Council, and may have been only as a Committee of Notables called together for a special purpose. With a characteristic subtlety, as if trying to gauge the strength of their Messianic hopes, Herod acts as if he himself shared them, and asks where the Christ, the expected Messiah, the “anointed” of the Lord (Psalms 2:2; Psalms 45:7; Psalms 89:20) was to be born.

Verse 5

(5) In Bethlehem of Judæa.—The words of the people in John 7:42 show the same belief thirty years later. The Targum, or Jewish paraphrase, of Micah 5:2, inserts the very words, “Out of thee the Messiah shall come.”

Verse 6

(6) And thou Bethlehem. . . .—The Evangelist is not quoting the prophecy of Micah himself, but recording it as it was quoted by the scribes. This in part explains the fact that he does not give either the version of the LXX., or a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew, but a free paraphrase. As the Targum, just referred to, belongs to this period, it is perfectly possible that the writer of it may have been one of the Council. At any rate, his Messianic reference of the passage was likely to be dominant. The chief difference for the English reader to note is, that the Hebrew gives “thou art little among the thousands (i.e., as in Judges 6:15, the families or clans) of Judah;” the version given by St. Matthew, “thou art not the least among the princes.” The prophet contrasts the outward insignificance with the spiritual greatness. The paraphrast sees the outward transfigured by the glory of the spiritual. So again the simpler “out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” is paraphrased into “out of thee shall come a Governor that shall rule (e.g., feed, as a shepherd) my people Israel.” The fact that the scribes stopped, and did not go on to the words that told of the Ruler as one “whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting,” may have arisen either from an unwillingness to bring that aspect of the expected Christ before the mind of Herod, or, possibly, from an equal unwillingness to face it themselves.

Verse 7

(7) When he had privily called.—True to his nature to the last—himself probably a believer in astrology, and haunted by fears of what the star portended—the king’s next measure is to ascertain the limits of his danger. The English “what time the star appeared” is not quite accurate. Literally, the time of the star that was appearing—i.e., at what time the star, which was still visible (Matthew 2:9), had first appeared.

Enquired of them diligently.—Better, ascertained exactly.

Verse 8

(8) Bethlehem was but a short six miles from Jerusalem. “Diligently,” better, as before, exactly. So far as the mission became known, it would impress the people with the belief that he too shared their hopes, and was ready to pay his homage to the new-born King.

Verse 9

(9) Which they saw. . . .—The words would seem to imply that they started in the evening, and, as they started, saw the star in the direction of Bethlehem. In popular language it served to guide them, and so led them on. We need not suppose that they found the child whom they sought in the “manger” described by St. Luke. There had been time for the crowds that had been gathered by the census to disperse, and Joseph and Mary may have found a house in which they could lodge. The expectations that connected Bethlehem with the coming of the Christ might naturally lead them to remain there at least for a season,

Verse 11

(11) Opened their treasures.—The word points to caskets, or chests, which they had brought with them.

Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.—These were natural enough as the traditional gifts of homage to a ruler. Compare the gifts sent by Jacob to Joseph (Genesis 43:11), and Psalms 45:8, for the myrrh and spices; Psalms 72:15, for the gold; Isaiah 60:6, for gold and incense. The patristic interpretation of the gifts as significant—the gold, of kingly power; the incense, of Divinity; the myrrh, of death and embalmment—interesting as it is, cannot be assumed to have been definitely present to the mind of the Evangelist. It is noticeable that there is here no mention of Joseph. Looking to his prominence in St. Matthew’s narrative, we must assume that his absence on the night of their arrival was accidental.

Verse 12

(12) Being warned of God.—Following the order of events in our minds, it seems probable that after their homage on the evening of their arrival, they retired, possibly to the “inn” of Bethlehem, and were then, in their sleep, warned not to return to Jerusalem the following day, but to make their way to the fords of Jordan, and so to escape from the tyrant’s jealous pursuit. So ends all that we know of the visit of the Magi. St. Matthew, writing for Hebrews, recorded it apparently as testifying to the kingly character of Jesus. Christendom, however, has rightly seen in it a yet deeper significance, and the “wise men” have been regarded as the first-fruits of the outlying heathen world, the earnest of the future ingathering. Among all the festivals that enter into the Christmas cycle, none has made so deep an impression on Christian feeling, poetry, and art as the Epiphany, or “Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The arrangement which places that festival at an interval of twelve days only from the Nativity is purely arbitrary.

We need not ignore the fact that the narrative has been treated by many critics as purely mythical. Those who so regard it, however, with hardly an exception, extend their theory to every supernatural element in the Gospel history; and so this is but a fragmentary issue, part of a far wider question, with which this is not the place to deal. The very least that can be said is that there are no special notes of a legendary character in this narrative which could warrant our regarding it as less trustworthy than the rest of the Gospel. Why St. Matthew only records this fact, and St. Luke only the visit of the shepherds, is a question which we may ask, but cannot answer. The two narratives are, at any rate, in no way whatever irreconcilable.

Verse 13

(13) The angel.—Better, an angel. The interval of time between the departure of the Magi and Joseph’s dream is not specified. Probably it was very short. As with the Magi, the dream may have come as an echo of his waking thoughts, an answer to the perplexities with which their visit and the other wonders of the time had filled his spirit.

Flee into Egypt.—The nearness of Egypt had always made it a natural asylum for refugees from Palestine. So Jeroboam had found shelter there (1 Kings 11:40), and at a later date, Johanan the son of Kareah and his companions had fled thither from the face of Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 43:7). The number of Jews who were settled in Alexandria and other cities of Egypt had probably made the step still more common during the tyranny of Herod’s later years.

Verse 14

(14) He took the young child and his mother.—The form adopted here, as in the preceding verse, is significantly reverential. In a narrative of common life the natural expression would have been “his wife and the young child.”

And departed into Egypt.—The brevity with which this is told is, to a certain extent, an argument for the non-mythical character of the narrative of which it forms a part. The legends of the Apocryphal Gospels, embodied in many forms of poetry and art, show how easily, in later times, the fabulous element crystallised round the Gospel nucleus of fact. The idols of Egypt bowed or fell down before the divine child; a well sprung up under the palm-tree that gave the traveller shelter. They were attacked by robbers, and owed their preservation to the pity of Dismas, one of the band, who was afterwards the penitent thief of the crucifixion. How far the journey extended we cannot tell. It would have been enough for Joseph’s object to pass the so-called River of Egypt, which separated that country from the region under Herod’s sovereignty.

Verse 15

(15) Until the death of Herod.—The uncertainty which hangs over the exact date of the Nativity hinders us from arriving at any precise statement as to the interval thus described. As the death of Herod took place a little before the Passover, B.C. 4 (according to the common but erroneous reckoning), it could not have been more than a few months, even if we fix the Nativity in the previous year.

Out of Egypt have I called my son.—As the words stand in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt,” they refer, beyond the shadow of a doubt, to the history of Israel, as being in a special sense, among all the nations of the world, the chosen son of Jehovah (Exodus 4:22-23). It is hard to imagine any reader of the prophecy not seeing that this was what we should call the meaning. But the train of thought which leads the Evangelist to apply it to the Christ has a distinct method of its own. A coincidence in what seems an accessory, a mere circumstance of the story, carries his mind on to some deeper analogies. In the days of the Exodus, Israel was the one representative instance of the Fatherhood of God manifested in protecting and delivering His people. Now there was a higher representative in the person of the only begotten Son. As the words “Out of Egypt did I call my Son” (he translated from the Hebrew instead of reproducing the Greek version of the LXX.) rose to his memory, what more natural than that mere context and historical meaning should be left unnoticed, and that he should note with wonder what a fulfilment they had found in the circumstances he had just narrated. Here, as before, the very seeming strain put upon the literal meaning of the words is presumptive evidence that the writer had before him the fact to which it had been adapted, rather than that the narrative was constructed, as some have thought, to support the strained interpretation of the prophecy.

Verse 16

(16) The fact of the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem is not mentioned by Josephus, or by any other writer, and has on that ground been called in question. It is admitted, however, on all hands, that it was an act every way in harmony with Herod’s character. Tormented with incurable disease, and yet more incurable suspicion; so fiendish in his cruelty, that he gave orders for the execution of many of the leading men of Judæa immediately upon his own death, that there might at least be some genuine mourning at his funeral; making fresh wills, according to the passing passion of the moment; adding, as his last act, the death of yet another son, Antipater, to those of the two sons of Mariamne (so that Augustus was reported to have said that it was better to be “Herod’s swine than son”),—it might well be that he gave such a command as this among the cruel and reckless acts of the last months of his life. Nor need we wonder that the act was not recorded elsewhere. The population of Bethlehem could hardly have been more than 2,000, and the number of children under two years of age in that number would be between twenty and thirty. The cruelty of such an act would naturally impress itself on the local memory, from which, directly or indirectly, the Gospel record was derived, and yet escape the notice of an historian writing eighty or ninety years afterwards of the wars and court history of the period. The secrecy which marked the earlier part of Herod’s scheme (Matthew 2:7) would extend naturally, as far as Jerusalem was concerned, to its execution.

Verse 18

(18) In Rama was there a voice heard.—Here again we have an example of St. Matthew’s application of a passage that had a direct bearing upon the events of the time when it was delivered to those which his narrative had brought before him. The tomb of Rachel, “in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem” (Genesis 35:19), had been, probably from the day when the “pillar” which marked it was first set up, one of the sacred places of the land. It was so in the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 10:2). The language of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:15, shows that it was so in his time. In his picture of the sufferings and slaughter of the captives of Judah, the image which best embodied his feelings of sorrow for his people was that of Rachel, as the great “mother in Israel,” seeing, as from the “high place” of her sepulchre (this is the meaning of the name Ramah), the shame and death of her children at the other Ramah, a few miles further to the north, and weeping for her bereavement. Historically, as we find from Jeremiah 40:1, this was the place to which the prisoners were dragged, that Nebuzaradan might assign “such as were for death” to death, others to exile, and others again to remain as bondsmen in the land. That picture, St. Matthew felt, had been reproduced once again. The tomb of Rachel was as familiar to the people of Bethlehem (it stands but one mile to the north of the town) as it had been in the time of Jeremiah, and the imagery was therefore as natural in the one case as the other. The Ramah of Jeremiah 40:1. was about seven or eight miles further north, on the borders of Benjamin, but it has been thought by some geographers that the name was given to some locality nearer the tomb of Rachel.

Verse 20

(20) They are dead.—The use of the plural is noticeable, as Herod alone had been named. Possibly, however, others may have been implicated in the scheme; or the turn of the phrase may have been suggested to the reporter of the dream by the parallel language of Exodus 4:19, in reference to Moses.

Verse 22

(22) Archelaus.—Strictly speaking, this prince, who, under his father’s will (made just before his death), governed Judæa, Samaria, and Idumæa, was never recognised as a king by the Roman Emperor, but received the inferior title of Ethnarch. Antipas had Galilee and Peræa, Philip the region of Trachonitis. Popularly, however, the higher title was still used of him as we find it in of the Tetrarch Antipas. The character of Archelaus was as cruel and treacherous as that of his father, and within a few months after his accession, he sent in his horsemen to disperse a multitude, and slew not less than 3,000 men. The temper of Antipas on the other hand was as yet looked on as milder. This, and possibly his absence from Galilee on a visit to Rome, may well have led Joseph to turn to that region as offering a prospect of greater safety (Jos. Ant. xvii. 2, 5, 6, 8, 9). Nine years later the oppression of Archelaus became so intolerable that both Jews and Samaritans complained of him to the Emperor, and he was deposed and banished to Gaul.

Verse 23

(23) He shall be called a Nazarene.—For an account of Nazareth, see Note on Luke 1:26. Here it will be enough to deal with St. Matthew’s reference to the name as in itself the fulfilment of a prophetic thought. He does not, as before, cite the words of any one prophet by name, but says generally that what he quotes had been spoken by or through the prophets. No such words are to be found in the Old Testament. It is not likely that the Evangelist would have quoted from any apocryphal prophecy, nor is there any trace of the existence of such a prophecy. The true explanation is to be found in the impression made on his mind by the verbal coincidence of fact with prediction. He had heard men speak with scorn of “the Nazarene,” and yet the very syllables of that word had also fallen on his ears in one of the most glorious of the prophecies admitted to be Messianic—“There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Netzer (Branch) shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). So he found in the word of scorn the nomen et omen of glory. The town of Nazareth probably took its name from this meaning of the word, as pointing, like our -hurst and -holt, to the trees and shrubs for which it was conspicuous. The general reference to the prophets is explained by the fact that the same thought is expressed in Jeremiah 23:5; Jeremiah 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; Zechariah 6:12, though there the Hebrew word is Zemach, and not Netzer. A like train of thought is found in the language of Tertullian and other early Christian writers to their heathen opponents—“You call us Christians,” they say,” worshippers of Christos, but you pronounce the words Chrestiani and Chrestos, i.e., you give us a name which in your own language (Greek) means ‘good,’ and so you unconsciously bear testimony to the life we really lead.” This seems the only tenable explanation of the passage. It is hardly likely that the Evangelist should have referred to the scorn with which Nazareth was regarded. Any reference to the Nazarite vow is out of the question, (1) because the two words are spelt differently, both in Greek and Hebrew, and (2) because our Lord’s life represented quite a different aspect of holiness from that of which the Nazarite vow was the expression. That vow, as seen pre-eminently in the Baptist, represented the consecration which consists in separation from the world. The life of Christ manifested the higher form of consecration which is found in being in the world but not of it, mingling with the men and women who compose it, in order to purify and save.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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Sunday, January 26th, 2020
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