‘Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east (or ‘at its rising’), and are come to pay him homage.”
Matthew makes quite clear here that he is dealing with what he sees as historical facts. He could not have made it more obvious. If he did not believe that it really happened then here he was being deceitful. He declares that Jesus was born, without going into detail (in line with his emphasis on Joseph, the son of David, and not on the bearer, Mary), that it was in Bethlehem of Judea, and that it was in the days of Herod the king, that is, of Herod the Great who died between 5 and 1 BC. The ‘of Judea’ differentiates this Bethlehem, five miles from Jerusalem, from other Bethlehems such as Bethlehem in Zebulun, which was north west of Nazareth (Bethlehem means ‘the house of bread’ or ‘the granary’). All this agrees with Luke and yet is distinctive. And all is clearly intended to be historical.
It should be noted that Matthew had had no reason to mention Bethlehem before this (he has not mentioned places). In chapter Matthew 1:18 ff, apart from the opening summary in Matthew 2:18 a, the recognition of Mary’s pregnancy probably occurred in Nazareth, and Joseph might well have posted there to deal with the matter, with only verse 25 occurring in Bethlehem. But at that stage place was hardly of importance. Indeed it is normal for Matthew to be indistinct about geography except when he thinks that it matters. And here geography only became of importance when the birth took place.
(Matthew appears to deliberately ignore the use of place names, so much so that when he does use them we need to prick up our ears and ask why. In this chapter he mentions Bethlehem (four times) and Nazareth but in each case so as to connect with a quotation from Scripture. He mentions Nazareth and Capernaum in Matthew 4:13 again connected with a ‘that it might be fulfilled’ statement. Thus the first straight mention of a place name in Matthew is Capernaum in Matthew 8:5 (‘his own city’ in Matthew 9:1) followed by ‘the country of the Gadarenes’ in Matthew 8:28. After that the next place name is Gennesaret in Matthew 14:34. We would not have known that Jesus visited Chorazin and Bethsaida, along with Capernaum, had it not been for His condemnation of them (Matthew 11:21). In general He visits ‘cities and villages’. Thus NOT to have a place name mentioned is normal for Matthew).
‘Magi from the East.’ The word ‘Magi’ could indicate either ‘high level’ astrologers or crude magicians. The context suggests the former. Their interest in and response to the message of the stars indicates it. There is nowhere any indication of magic. These are distinguished men who read the stars as part of their studies. We are not told whether ‘the East’ indicates Babylon, Persia or Arabia. The point is that they came, with their caravan, from distant, and possibly mysterious, places.
Note on Herod the Great.
By this time Herod the king had been on the throne for over thirty years. Although a tyrant he generally kept the peace, was loyal to his Roman masters, and was adept enough to keep in with different emperors. He was usually militarily successful, and engaged in splendid large-scale building, including commencing the building of the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. He established spectacular athletics contests, and was skilled in providing famine relief. In some ways therefore he was a good ruler. But there was a very much darker side to his character. Certainly those who were heavily and brutally taxed in order to pay for his building projects did not appreciate it, nor did they like the added brutality of the ‘games’ which the Romans and Greeks delighted in. Furthermore being an Idumaean (Edomite Jew) he was looked on as a usurper by many of the Jews, and in return treated the high priesthood with contempt, installing and removing high priests (whose tenure was Scripturally life-long) at will, and he similarly removed all the powers of the Sanhedrin. He was a brute of a man, and had a very cruel streak which became worse with increasing paranoia. He struck out left, right and centre at any whom he saw as rivals, even members of his own family, and overall behaved with total arrogance towards the Jewish leadership (which they on the whole attempted to reciprocate), and even at times towards the people as a whole. In his declining years he executed his wife and three of his sons, and finally died hated by the nation. His aim had in fact been that his death be turned into a bloodbath, and he had left instructions accordingly so as to ensure that there would be mourning at his funeral, but these instructions were fortunately not carried out. Such a man would have seen the slaughter of twenty or so innocents at Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) as just a sideshow.
End of note.
Note on Bethlehem.
We know that Mary was originally growing up in, and living in, Nazareth. We know nothing about where Joseph was living over the period before his marriage, and he may have had businesses in both Nazareth and Bethlehem, living at the family home when in Bethlehem. Or he may simply have lived at Bethlehem. He may well hardly ever have seen Mary. The marriage would almost certainly have been an arranged one. However, once the position with regard to Mary was settled in his mind he would go to Nazareth in order to sort things out. On their marriage taking place they would return to Bethlehem at a time when Mary was ‘great with child’ (there is no indication in the Gospels that the birth happened on the night of their arrival in Bethlehem). At the time when all the family gathered for the enrolment mentioned in Luke the guest chamber (kataluma - resting place, not necessarily an inn and possibly the guest chamber) may well have been taken over by his father and his relatives. This would explain why he and Mary had to sleep downstairs on the ground floor in what would be seen as a normal ‘bedroom’ even though it was shared with the domestic animals in accordance with good Palestinian practise. This in order to make room for everyone at a difficult time. The fact that he slept there does not mean that normally he did not live in Bethlehem. Nor would the room have been especially uncomfortable, while the manger would be utilised because it was both comfortable and warm. (Were it to have happened in my household it would not be the first time that I have given up my bedroom for guests).
So once the marriage had taken place Mary naturally joined her husband in Bethlehem. When, however, circumstance rendered Bethlehem unsafe Nazareth was a natural place to go to, once they had been warned to avoid Judaea. (They were not ‘directed’ to Nazareth, even though it turned out to be within God’s purposes. They were simply directed to avoid Judea). And from then on Nazareth was ‘home’.
To suggest that this does not accord with Luke 2:39 is ultra criticism. In Luke that verse is simply a bridging verse between events, and summarises a period in Jesus life that ends up in Nazareth. It is not particularising. Luke simply has no interest in providing the intermediate detail.
End of note.
Matthew then goes on to describe how some Magi (learned men who were also astrologers) arrived in Jerusalem from the East, asking concerning the birth of a ‘King of the Jews’, the typically Gentile way of describing the King of Israel (e.g. Matthew 27:11; Matthew 27:29; Matthew 27:37). For no sooner had they gathered from the stars that a special King of the Jews was shortly to be born, or had been born, then Jerusalem would have seemed to them the best place to make for. It was the ancient central city of the Jews. (We note that there is no suggestion that they ‘followed the star’. The ‘star’ that they had seen would have been no longer visible as such. But the star, which was quite possibly a conjunction of another heavenly light with Jupiter, had by its appearing told them all that they wanted to know. Many people might have seen an extra bright star which had appeared for a short while, but for most it would have passed them by as simply a curiosity. Bright stars were not all that unusual, apart from to those in the know. But these men constantly watched the stars, and connection with the planet Jupiter would have brought out the importance of this young prince to the ‘wise’, and thus these men had come to acknowledge Him and pay Him homage.
‘In the East.’ This should probably be translated ‘at its rising’, indicating a special astronomical phenomenon, or it could signify that they had spotted it immediately on its occurrence.
It should be noted that reference to the ‘star which arises out of Jacob’, in Numbers 2:7 refers to the ruler himself. It is therefore irrelevant here, and Matthew gives no indication of any connection with it.
a When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to pay him homage” (Matthew 2:1-2).
b And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ should be born (Matthew 2:3-4).
c And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judaea, for thus it is written through the prophet, And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no wise least among the princes of Judah, for out of you will come forth a governor, who shall be shepherd of my people Israel” (Matthew 2:5-6).
b Then Herod privately called the Magi, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search out exactly concerning the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and pay him homage him” (Matthew 2:7-8).
a And they, having heard the king, went their way. And lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy, and they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him, and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:9-11).
Note how in ‘a’ the Magi come from their home in the East seeking the new born King of the Jews, they are guided by the star, and they come in order to pay Him homage, and in the parallel they are again guided by the star, they do find the young child whom they are seeking, and they pay Him homage. In ‘b’ Herod enquires of his ‘wise men’ where the Christ is to be born, and in the parallel he enquires of the Magi at what time the child was signified as due to be born. Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact that the Scriptures are being filled to the full by what is happening.
‘And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’
The arrival of such men in Jerusalem asking questions about a royal birth and speaking of a ‘King of the Jews’ would soon become known to Herod’s informers, and when the bloodthirsty Herod heard the news of the possibility of the birth of a young prince important enough to be heralded by a star, and bearing a title that he saw as his, he was greatly troubled, for he was superstitious enough to believe it. Indeed there were many among both Jews and Gentiles who believed in astrology, even though the Scriptures discouraged it (Isaiah 47:13-15; Daniel 1:20; Daniel 2:27 etc.). All his life Herod had fought to keep his throne, and in the process had killed off a number of perceived threats, including some of his own sons and his beloved wife Mariamne. He was totally paranoid, and when it came to keeping the throne, he was completely determined to do so, whatever the cost in bloodshed. And none knew better than he the stories going around about the coming of a promised King to deliver Israel from all their troubles, for he had feared it all his reign. So if such a king was to be born he wanted to know about it as soon as could be.
Jerusalem would also be troubled along with him. Some because they knew that they would lose out by his being replaced, and the majority because of their fear of the way in which such news might cause Herod to behave. They had seen it all before. No one would be safe. It is understandable therefore that the arrival of the Magi with their questions thus produced huge concern throughout the whole city. Both Herod’s friends and Herod’s enemies were upset, for differing reasons.
But Matthew’s purpose in stressing this was in order to bring home the importance of the news, and the reaction of Jerusalem to it. John says a similar thing when he says, ‘He came to His own and His own received Him not’ (John 1:11). It is being made apparent that on the whole Jesus was not initially received by the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who were the ones who finally condemned Him. They did not want the status quo upset, except in their favour, although a substantial minority did become more amenable after the resurrection, as we learn from Acts. Jerusalem on the whole, however, was anti-Jesus, as Matthew recognised here, and as their behaviour in Acts 12 demonstrates, and as the martyrdoms of the two James’s were to prove (consider the martyrdom of James the Apostle in Acts 12 and the description of the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother in Josephus), both occurring in order to please the people of Jerusalem in one way or another, even though many deplored what happened to James, the Lord’s brother.
We should note how this picture of a troubled Jerusalem is in direct contrast with the exceedingly great joy of the Magi (Matthew 2:10). The holy city rejects the Holy One, while the unholy Gentiles exalt Him and rejoice in Him. Had they gone out to Him Jerusalem too would have had great joy. It is salutary to recognise that they discovered the truth in the Scriptures, but left it to the Gentiles to seek Jesus. As Paul would later put it, a veil was over their hearts (2 Corinthians 3).
‘And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ should be born.’
Aware that he needed to discover the whereabouts of such a prince, if one had indeed been born, Herod gathered together all the leaders of the Jews, ‘the chief priests’ who were responsible for the Temple. This definition would include the high priests past and present, the Temple treasurer, the overseers of the priestly courses, and other leading priests. ‘The Scribes’ were the learned teachers of the Law. And from them he enquired where the Messiah was to be born. If anyone knew, they would.
‘Scribes of the people’ contrasts with the chief priests. The chief priests received a certain respect because of their position but were mainly not appreciated by the people, whereas the Scribes tended to be looked up to by them. The chief priests and Scribes were enemies and they may in fact have been called in separately. But even if not, they would hardly have allowed their enmity to prevent them from responding to Herod’s ‘invitation’. It would have been dangerous to do so. And they may well have thought that he was calling a meeting of the almost defunct Sanhedrin which included both chief priests and Scribes.
We should possibly note that ‘the Scribes’ could include both Sadducees and Pharisees, as well possibly as more general Scribes. ‘Scribes of the people’ may thus be intended to distinguish the ones who were at loggerheads with the Sadducean priesthood. Matthew seems to have taken a delight in linking the Sadducees and Pharisees together, who whilst being enemies with each other, were united by their common bond of hatred of Jesus. Once the Sanhedrin again came into its own they would necessarily have to work together, however much they hated each other (something that is constantly coming out - Acts 5:33-34; Acts 23:6-9). And even Paul the Pharisee was appointed by the Sadducees for his task of rooting out Christians (Acts 9:1-2), being prepared to work under their authority for the greater ‘good’. Compare ‘elders of the people’ who were the independent, usually wealthy, aristocrats, although that is not to deny that they may have had various leanings one way or the other.
‘And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judaea, for thus it is written through the prophet,”
Whether they were able to answer almost immediately, or whether they had to go into in depth consultation we are not told, but if the latter we can be sure that they took a great deal of trouble about it. For Herod in this mood was not a man to be crossed. Eventually (or possibly even immediately, although if so they probably made the most of it) they were able to give him his answer. According to the prophet it would be in Bethlehem of Judaea. For that was what was written ‘through the prophet’ (in Micah 5:2 with a sprinkling of 2 Samuel 5:2). The citation is an amplified translation of combined texts, which may well be why he does not name ‘the prophet’. For such combined texts compare Mark 1:2-3. The version from which they were taken is not known to us, and it may have been Matthew’s (or the Scribes’) own paraphrase.
The verse in Micah comes in a context which is dealing with the days when God will finally establish His king in triumph over Jerusalem and the world, after the tribulations that they have been through. The idea is that then will arise the promised Davidic king. Bethlehem was the home of the house of David, and thus the king was seen as necessarily coming from Bethlehem, David’s home town. The thought is that small though Bethlehem might be, it had produced a great house (1 Samuel 16:4-13), the house that God had chosen, and the house through which He would establish His name. Thus as David had come forth from Bethlehem, so would the greater David.
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are in no wise least among the princes of Judah, for out of you will come forth a governor, who will be shepherd of my people Israel.”
We have no evidence elsewhere that this verse was commonly seen as declaring where the Messiah would be born, for it is not cited in such a way anywhere else (but compare John 7:27, although that may simply be a reference to the mysteriousness of the Messiah, not to his birthplace), but it seems unlikely that such a clear reference had never been spotted before, at least as the source from which the Davidic Messiah would come. They would naturally have expected a son of David to be connected with Bethlehem. Certainly, however, to a group of men fearing the worst if they discovered nothing, Micah’s reference would have seemed like manna from Heaven. But they did not follow up their words with action. It may be that they were too apathetic to follow the situation up, or it may simply be that they had no confidence in ‘those astrologers’.
We may compare the rendering here with MT (Hebrew text) and LXX (Greek text). There are some differences, although they make little difference to the overall sense.
‘But you, Bethlehem
‘And you, Bethleem, house,
‘And you, Bethlehem
Ephrathah, which is little
of Ephratha are few in
in the land of Judah
number to be reckoned
are in no wise least
among the thousands
among the thousands
among the princes
(clans) of Judah, out of
(clans) of Juda, yet out of
of Judah, for out of
you will one come forth
you will one come forth
you will come forth
to me, to be a ruler of Israel
to me, who is to be ruler
a governor, who will
in Israel, whose goings
in Israel, and his goings
forth are from of old,
forth were from the
beginning, even from
And he shall stand and
And the Lord shall stand,
be shepherd of my
shall feed his flock in
and see, and feed his flock
the strength of the Lord.
It will be noted that MT and LXX are very similar to each other, while the ‘Matthaean’ version differs, in that in MT and LXX Bethlehem is described as little or few in number among the clans of Judah, whereas in Matthew Bethlehem is described as in no wise least among the princes of Judah. At first it appears to be a contradiction, but it is in fact not so, for Matthew’s version does not say ‘is in no wise few in number’. ‘In no wise least’ suggests small, but not the smallest, and yet for all that not insignificant. He merely then stresses that its status is not small. It is true that it does at first sight appear, probably deliberately, to give a different impression. But the difference is more apparent than real, for what follows in MT and LXX confirms that while few in number they are not ‘least’ in status as a result of what will ensue, the coming forth of a ruler of Israel. That could only indicate a higher status. No town that produced the glorious Davidic house could be called insignificant. Thus in the end they are all three saying the same thing. The alteration simply helps to draw attention to what all are saying, that the One Who is to come forth from Bethlehem gives to Bethlehem a prestige that lifts up its head among the clans/princes of Judah.
The other difference in emphasis is that MT and LXX are assessing Bethlehem’s size in contrast with the size of the clans of Judah, while Matthew’s version appears to be assessing Bethlehem’s status in the eyes of the princes of Judah, the leaders of the clans. (That is unless we assume that by using ‘princes’ he is really indicating ‘princedoms’, and therefore signifying ‘clans’, which is quite possible. The same consonants in Hebrew can in fact mean both). Thus he is saying that while few in number, Bethlehem is high in status, either in contrast with the princedoms of Judah or in the eyes of the Princes of Judah. We may certainly feel that Matthew’s version is giving an additional boost to Jesus’ Messianic status in that He is thereby being seen as recognised by the princes of Judah, but that is not his major emphasis, nor does it on the whole disagree with the significance of the other renderings. All are in the end saying that Bethlehem is exalted because of the house of David that has sprung from her. Indeed it is unlikely that Matthew, if it had not already been in his text, would have invented this, as the MT would have been more suitable to his purpose, in that the princes of Judah on the whole did not acknowledge Jesus, (although of course some like Joseph of Arimathea did). It may, however, be that Matthew wants to draw out a contrast between Herod and the princes of Judah.
Matthew’s version then goes on to add the clause about the shepherd, (possibly making use of 2 Samuel 5:2, but having in mind Amos 5:4), while excluding the reference back to eternity. Certainly the shepherd theme points forward to the coming David (compare Ezekiel 34:23). But then so does the reference to a ruler coming from Bethlehem. This additional phrase immediately brings out the fact that Matthew’s is not to be seen as a direct quotation from Amos 5:2 but as an accumulation of ideas. Nor does it actually claim to be an exact rendering of Amos 5:2.
But none of these alterations were in fact needed in order to get over the point, and it therefore seems probable that we are to see Matthew’s citation as taken from some paraphrase known either to him, or to the Sanhedrin, with the differences not being seen as important. After all the main point of the quotation in all versions, is that while Bethlehem is small it should not be discounted for that reason, because one day it will produce a great King who will watch over his people. And thus it will be the home of the Messiah. And that was what whoever quoted it was wanting to bring out.
(We should possibly note here the struggles of some scholars to try to prove that the Messiah was not in fact expected from Bethlehem, while others seek to prove that this ‘revised version’ was inserted precisely because He was. We might feel justified in thinking sometimes that their efforts simply cancel each other out).
‘Then Herod privately called the Magi, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared.’
Having learned from his own ‘wise men’ what he wanted to know, Herod now summoned the Magi in private audience and discovered from them at what time the star had appeared. It was important to him for it would tell him something about the age of the child.
‘And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, “Go and search out exactly concerning the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and pay him homage him.’
Having discovered from them what he wanted to know he then informed them that their destination must be Bethlehem, no doubt knowledgeably citing the Scripture to them so as to impress them. Then he earnestly told them to seek out what they could about the young child, and then bring him back word so that he too could hasten to pay Him homage. As he said it he must have leered to himself. He knew exactly what kind of homage he intended to pay Him. See Matthew 2:13, ‘For Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him.’
Some have asked why Herod did not send his own men with the Magi, but as he would have had no reason to doubt that they would do as he asked, he would not necessarily have thought it necessary, especially because any of his own men would have been instantly recognised had they gone with them, which might well have hindered what the Magi were seeking to do. If they saw any of Herod’s men, no one who knew him, especially in a suspicious small town, would have been in any doubt about what his intentions were, and why he had sent them. The group would then have been met with a look of innocent surprise and a total lack of knowledge about any such child. So he obviously felt it better to leave the initial search in the hands of these men who clearly had unique powers.
‘And they, having heard the king, went their way, and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.’
Having heard what the king had to say the Magi took the well known route to Bethlehem. It was now simply a matter of following this well defined route, and then making enquiries in Bethlehem. And then something happened that rejoiced their hearts. For as they travelled they saw in front of them the same star as they had first seen ‘at its rising’. That is, it was the same astronomical phenomenon as they had previously observed when in the East. Here was evidence that they were on the right track both physically and intellectually. It confirmed their greatest hopes.
The star ‘went before them’. It does not say that they specifically followed it. That was unnecessary. They only had to follow the road, and there is no more reason to think that the star moved as it ‘went before them’, than there would have been to think that the road moved if it had said that they ‘followed the road’. It is the language of appearance (just as we say that ‘the sun rises’ when we know perfectly well that literally it does not). All that was necessary was that they thought that it moved before them, because that was what it appeared to do. After all they knew that stars moved, otherwise their months and years spent in calculating their movements would have been a waste of time, and those who travel widely often feel that the stars are moving before them. Many a mariner has spoken of following the north star, and of the north star, or some other heavenly lights, going before their ship, when it was only their ship that moved.
And then Bethlehem came into sight with the star still in front of them and to their delight it appeared as though the star hovered over Bethlehem. There was Bethlehem below them, and the light of the star appeared to be reflecting on the town. It was clear to them from this that the wonder child was indeed there. They had reached the end of their journey. Note the very vague ‘over where the young child was’. It is totally open to interpretation. We may make of it what we want.
(Whether the star did actually in any way stop, apart from because they were stopping, we do not know. But for any who quibble about whether a star could ‘stop’ we supply the following extract from an article by an expert astronomer, based on the assumption that having seen the conjunction of Jupiter with another star, producing an excessively bright star, they had continued to monitor Jupiter while on their travels, something which must be considered quite likely. They were after all observers of the stars.“The word "stop" was used for what we now call a planet's "stationary point." A planet normally moves eastward through the stars from night to night and month to month, but regularly exhibits a "retrograde loop." As it approaches the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) through the sky for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course. It seems plausible that the Magi were "overjoyed" at again seeing before them, as they travelled southward, the ‘star’, Jupiter, which at its stationary point was standing still over Bethlehem. We do know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC, and that it was actually stationary on December 25, interestingly enough, during Hanukkah, the season for giving presents.
But it should be noted that there is nothing in this story that any modern twenty-first century man and woman could not have said in the same circumstances, given a recognition of astrology and a descriptive frame of mind. It must not, however, be seen as vindicating astrology, which is disapproved of in Scripture. It simply indicates that God can use any instrument in His purposes. For we should note that no magic was involved. All that happened was a matter of interpretation. Had this been simply an invented account we can be sure that it would have been made much more exciting. But Matthew simply gives us the facts as he was probably told them by either Joseph, Mary or the Magi (from whom Joseph and Mary would have learned it).
‘And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.’
The sight of the star filled them with great joy. It vindicated the activities of the past few months, justified their journey, and indicated that they would shortly see this great prince for themselves. No wonder then that they were filled with joy. However, it might well be that Matthew wants us to see in it the joy of the believer (Matthew 13:44; Matthew 25:21; Matthew 28:8). His Gospel thus begins with joy and ends with joy (Matthew 28:8), both at the anticipated thought of Jesus.
‘And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and paid him homage, and opening their treasures they offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’
And then, having made enquiries, they came to the house where the young child was, and saw Him with Mary His mother. And they fell down before Him and paid Him homage, opening up their treasures and offering Him gold and frankincense and myrrh (compare Isaiah 60:6; Psalms 72:10-11; Psalms 72:15). Note how Joseph, who has been prominent all the way through chapter 1 is here kept out of sight. All the homage, and even worship, was for the young child. There were eyes for no one but Jesus only. Mary is only introduced because He was on His mother’s knee, being little more than a year old. To have introduced Joseph would have been to distort the picture and detract attention from Jesus. Mary is only mentioned because she was the necessary framework so as to emphasise that the young child was an infant (note her description as ‘His mother’ and the ‘Him’ --- ‘Him’). The centre of attention had to be kept on Jesus.
(Any suggestion that this non-mention of Joseph therefore indicates another ‘source’ is to miss the point completely. Whatever sources there may have been they cannot be found by this means).
‘They offered to him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ These were three of the greatest portable treasures that the world could afford, and all three were involved in Israel’s worship. But gold is the delight of the hearts of men, indicating kingship and wealth; frankincense (Isaiah 60:6; Jeremiah 6:20) was used in worship and for perfuming king’s palaces; and myrrh is what sweetens men and women in both life and death (Genesis 37:25; Genesis 43:11; Esther 2:12; Psalms 45:8; Proverbs 7:17; Song of Solomon 1:13; Song of Solomon 3:6; Song of Solomon 4:6 etc.; Mark 15:23; John 19:39). They are in the end simply illustrations of luxury gifts fit for a King. Frankincense is an odiferous resinous gum coming from certain trees growing in Arabia, India and Somalia. Myrrh is similar and is found in Arabia and Ethiopia. It is noteworthy that there is no verse in Scripture where all three are brought together as gifts, apart from here. Had Matthew simply wanted to deliberately imitate Scripture he would surely have chosen alternatives about which he could find a quotation.
We may close our dealings with the passage by emphasising its significance.
While the most important men in Jewry ignored the coming of the Messiah, apart from the godly who were waiting for the consolation of Israel, learned but anonymous men from afar, guided by God, came to seek Him, putting them to shame. We are reminded of the words of John, ‘He came to His own world and His own people did not receive Him’ (John 1:11).
Those who had the knowledge of the Scriptures, but were hardened in their views, took no note of them, while the nameless Magi who heard them afresh and did not claim them as God’s Law, responded to them. As with the tax-gatherers and sinners later, it was the unexpected who sought Jesus. ‘I am enquired of by those who asked not for me; I am found of those who sought me not; I said, Behold me, behold me, to a nation which was not called by my name’ (Isaiah 65:1).
While the Jews on the whole did not allow themselves to be stirred by the arrival of the Magi, except in the wrong way, the interest of these Gentiles themselves only increased more and more, an indication of what was to follow in Acts as many Jews were apathetic while many Gentiles were eager to learn about Jesus.
God had made even the creation itself bear witness to the advent of His Son. The very stars cried out to all who would hear, and added their testimony to His coming (we might add, ‘and all the sons of God shouted for joy’).
‘And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.’
Having paid homage to the King of the Jews the Magi began to plan their journey home, but they were warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod. But to whom did the dream come? We are not told. Perhaps then it was to Joseph, the man with the gift of dreams? (Note how there is here the same wording as where Joseph is in mind in Matthew 2:22). Or perhaps it was to one of the Magi or even to more than one? Matthew is not interested in who the recipient of the dream was, (and perhaps his source did not tell him). He is only interested in its divine source. He does not want to direct attention to human beings, for salvation history is being played out. Joseph therefore may well have been the source and it would fit in with his clear gift in that direction. On the other hand we can argue that it was anonymous precisely because it was to one or more of the Magi. The angel of the Lord might very well not have appeared to them in this dream. A warning dream would be sufficient.
In strict obedience to the dream the Magi took a way out of Judaea which avoided Jerusalem, and made their way back to where they came from.
a And being warned of God in a dream that they (the Magi) should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way (Matthew 2:12).
b When they (the Magi) were departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and you must remain there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him”, and he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.
c And was there until the death of Herod (Matthew 2:14-15 a).
d That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt did I call my son” (Matthew 2:15 b).
e Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Magi, was extremely angry, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Magi (Matthew 2:16).
d ‘Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying,’
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she would not be comforted,
Because they are not.” (Matthew 2:17-18)
c But when Herod was dead (Matthew 2:19 a).
b Behold, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for they are dead who sought the young child’s life. And he arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel, but when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there (Matthew 2:19-22 b).
a And being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:22-23).
Note how in ‘a’ the Magi were warned of God in a dream and avoided Jerusalem, and in the parallel Joseph is warned by God in a dream and avoids Judaea. In ‘b’ the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, and directs his movements, and in the parallel he does the same again some time later. In ‘c’ it is ‘until the death of Herod’ and in the parallel Herod is dead. A certain inevitability about his death is indicated. In ‘d’ the Scriptures are filled to the full, and in the parallel they are again filled to the full. Notice how the positive act is described as spoken ‘by the Lord through the prophet’, while the negative result is spoken ‘by the prophet’, for the latter was not the Lord’s direct doing. Centrally in ‘e’ is the gruesome behaviour of Herod in dealing out death to the children of Bethlehem which we can gather finally led to his death, as what precedes and follows makes clear, ‘until he dies’ - ‘he died’.
‘And when they were departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and you must remain there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” ’
Then as soon as they had departed the angel of the Lord approached Joseph, again in a dream (compare Matthew 1:20), and bade him ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and you must remain there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” Note the emphasis on the young child. The mother is again secondary. (It is not ‘take your wife and child’). And they were to flee to Egypt and remain there until they were told further what to do. They were now under divine supervision. And the reason for the urgency is then explained, Herod will seek the young child to destroy Him.
We should note here the reason why Herod was seeking to destroy Him. It was because He was ‘the King of the Jews’. This has not only been stated by the Magi but has also been the burden of Matthew’s presentation up to this point. So the King of the Jews was now to take refuge in Egypt where Israel had once taken refuge so long before. This is not surprising. Egypt regularly acted as an asylum for threatened Jews, and there were in fact at this time already over a million Jews in Egypt.
a ‘And he arose and took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod.’
Obediently Joseph did as he was told, and taking the young child and His mother by night, fled to Egypt. Egypt had always provided a place of refuge for Israel in times of danger, and indeed over a million Jews lived there at that time. It had sheltered Israel in the days of the previous Joseph as described in Genesis, it would do the same for the hope of Israel now. Note how Jesus is treading the same path as Israel trod, as He takes refuge in Egypt.
‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt did I call my son.’
And all this was to be seen as a ‘filling full’ of God’s purposes for Israel. Matthew here refers back to a passage in Hosea 11:1. That verse had referred to God’s call to Israel as His ‘firstborn’ in the time of Moses (Exodus 4:22), and it was at that time that He had ‘called them out of Egypt’. He had looked on them as His son. But Hosea does not stop with that. He then goes on to point out that they had not obeyed the call. They had not responded to God’s love. They had left Egypt physically, but their hearts had remained in Egypt (Exodus 4:2). And thus God had caused them to return again to Egypt until such a time as they were ready to truly respond (This is described in Matthew 2:5, in MT by taking it as a question, ‘shall he not return to Egypt, and Assyria shall be his king?’, (which is what is required in context) or in LXX by literal translation ‘they will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they refused to return to Me’). Then He would one day call them again. But this had never happened. Israel’s heart had remained in Egypt, and a million Jews were still there in order to prove it. Now, however, God was going to call them one last time in the person of their Messiah. For He had sent Him to Egypt too, as an exile, and He would call Him from there and He would come. His heart would not remain in Egypt. The idea would seem to be that through Him their call out of Egypt would also become a reality, at least in so far as the faithful were concerned, for they would come out in Him. Their hearts would be wooed from Egypt once and for all through the activity of this child Who was His Son as no other had been. For He was the Saviour.
And that this would now proceed with reasonable urgency comes out in that what has been spoken has been spoken directly by ‘the Lord’. He will Himself act to bring it about, as the next few years would reveal. There was nothing of Egypt about Jesus.
The idea contained here is important if we are to understand what follows in Matthew. God is calling His King to come out from Egypt. But with what purpose? There could surely only be one purpose, so as to fulfil the original purpose of God in calling His son out of Egypt, in other words to initially establish in Palestine the Kingly Rule of God. That had been the original intention previously, and Moses had gone into the mountain in order to view that kingdom afar off, but God’s purpose in this had failed because of Israel’s failure to truly come out of Egypt in their hearts. Now God was in action again, and was bringing His Son out of Egypt. It is no accident that John the Baptist will shortly declare that, ‘The Kingly Rule of Heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 3:2) as he begins to prepare the way for the King, and that God will declare of His King, ‘This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.’ It was His coronation.
In view of the complexity of this verse we will now consider it in more detail, on behalf of those who are puzzled about it, in an Excursus.
EXCURSUS. On ‘Out of Egypt Have I Called My Son.’
In considering this quotation one or two factors need to be born in mind. And the first is as to what is meant by ‘prophecy’. The prophets are not to be seen as a kind of glorified fortune-teller. That is not how they saw themselves at all. Rather they are to be seen as men who spoke from God, and who spoke in God’s name, and who in that speaking sought to cover the whole range of history. They were forth-tellers rather than fore-tellers. Thus the greatest of the prophets ‘prophesied’ about the past, they ‘prophesied’ about the present and they ‘prophesied’ about the future. And they sought to bring it all together as one, as descriptive of the purposes of God. In other words they were God’s mouthpiece as regards the whole of the past, the present and the future. And thus all their writings were to be seen as ‘prophecy’, the forth-telling of the mighty ways and acts of God.
That means that they were not all to be seen as simply foretelling future events. Far from it. Rather they were to be seen as relating the future to the past and the present. Clearly the future was important to them, but it was important, not as something to be forecast so as to show how clever they were, but as something that was in the hands of God, and as something in which God was going to act in fulfilling the promises of the past, precisely because of that past, taking into account the present. And their main aim in speaking was in order to affect that present. So even in the case of their looking into the future it is better to think of them as declaring what God was going to do in the future in fulfilment of the promises and warnings of the past, rather than as simply an attempt to discern the future. That is not to doubt that sometimes they did specifically act to discern the future, and did even lay claim at times to be heard because what they said came about (for they were confident that God was speaking through them), but it was not to be seen as the central purpose of prophecy. (It is the modern not the ancient view of prophecy that prophecy is merely about foretelling).
A further thing that we need to keep in mind when considering the application of Old Testament Scriptures to the days of Jesus was the Jewish sense of being a part of their past. They did not see the past as something that was of little concern to them apart from being a matter of historical interest. They felt themselves as bound up in that past. Thus each year when they met to celebrate the Feast of the Passover, they felt that they were at one with those people in Egypt who had first celebrated the Passover. As they ate ‘the bread of affliction’ they saw themselves as sharing in their experience. And they looked ahead for a similar great deliverance for themselves. They believed that the past would be repeated in their own futures. And it was not only so with the Passover. In the whole of their worship there was the same sense of unity with the past, for they saw themselves as connected with Moses and the past in all that they did. Thus prophecies concerning Israel could very much be seen as equally applying in their day. They felt that the promises of Moses and the prophets had been made to them. For they considered themselves to be the same as the Israel of the past, the same as those to whom the promises and warning were originally given, they were YHWH’s firstborn son. So when Matthew spoke of ‘fulfilment’, of prophecy being ‘filled to the full’, it would be an idea close to their hearts
The next thing that must be recognised as we consider these ‘prophecies’ is that Matthew saw Jesus as very much a continuation of the promises and history of the Old Testament. Indeed he saw Him as the One Who summed them up. Jesus is the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1). He is the son of David (Matthew 1:1). He is, in His family, One Who has, as it were, endured Exile (Matthew 1:12; Matthew 1:17), just as the patriarchs with their families had long before (Exodus 1:1). And now He is One Who has left behind the ties of Egypt (Matthew 2:15) and is therefore the hope of all who are in exile. His coming spurs again the weeping of Rachel as she awaits the deliverance of her children (Matthew 2:17). He is One Who bears the name of being despised and rejected, ‘a Nazarene’ (Matthew 2:23). Like Israel of old He goes into the wilderness to be tested, although in His case He emerges from it as triumphant (Matthew 4:1-11). He is the One Who confirms and establishes the Law, bringing out its deeper meaning (5-7). He is the Servant of the Lord of Isaiah (Matthew 12:17-21) Who has been described as ‘Israel’ by God (Isaiah 49:3). Thus in His person He is to be seen as representing Israel in every way, and in such a way that God would be able to say of Him, just as He did of the Servant in Isaiah 49:3, ‘You are My Servant Israel, in Whom I will be glorified’. This idea that Jesus represents Israel is elsewhere most obviously emphasised by John in John 15:1-6 where Jesus declares Himself to be ‘the true Vine’ in contrast with the old Israel, the degenerate vine, and in the other synoptic Gospels by, for example, the cursing of the fig tree. It is also confirmed by the fact that the New Testament writers saw the new people of God as being the continuation of the true Israel of the Old Testament, what are often called the Remnant. They saw them as the new ‘congregation (of Israel)’ set up on the rock of Christ and His Apostles and on what they believed about Him (Matthew 16:16-19). Or to put it in modern parlance, they believed that the true church, as made up of all true believers, was the true Israel (so Romans 11:16-28; Galatians 3:27-29; Galatians 4:26-31; Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22; 1 Peter 2:5-9; etc.).
And this therefore is partly why Matthew can see Him as ‘fulfilling’ certain prophecies. But in saying this we must not stop there. We must also note again what the content of the word ‘fulfilled’ has for Matthew, as for Judaism. The word means ‘to fulfil’, ‘to complete’, and often ‘to complete something already begun’. Thus Matthew is not necessarily saying that the prophecies that He ‘fulfils’ referred solely to Jesus, so that first we have the foretelling out of the blue, and then He fulfils that foretelling. The argument is often rather that in the end things which are stated by the prophets, which have never really come to their final completion, do find their completion in Him (see above).
So even if we stopped there we could see good reason for Matthew applying this verse to Jesus on the grounds that 1). He was Israel. 2) Because they were His people and had come out of Egypt He could see Himself as being involved with Israel in coming out of Egypt. 3) Because it could be seen as a further fulfilment of the prophecy.
But in fact we do not have to stop there, because when we look at what Hosea actually said we realise that there is an even greater significance in the words. So keeping these ideas in mind we will now consider these words cite in Matthew 2:15 in their original context. There we read, ‘This was to fulfil (or ‘bring to completion’) what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”.’ Here Matthew is undoubtedly referring to the fact that Jesus had been taken to Egypt, and would therefore return from there as the representative of Israel in accordance with God’s calling and purpose. But while at first it might seem as though Matthew has simply done this, he did not in fact do it by simply selecting a convenient prophecy, and then giving it a new meaning on the basis of the ideas described above. He did it as something which was to be seen as genuinely ‘completing’ the original prophecy.
Many fail to see this because they do not sufficiently consider the context in Hosea. They suggest that here Matthew (or whoever previously brought this citation to notice in connection with the coming of Jesus) has merely taken the words of Hosea 11:1 out of context, and has given them a meaning which has little to do with what Hosea prophesied or meant, and that he (or they) have done this in order to give the impression (to ignoramuses?) of ‘fulfilled prophecy’. They then speak of a list of such ‘prophecies’ as occurring in Matthew, which are all treated in the same way, that is simply as proof texts wrenched out of context, and they therefore look on Matthew also as naive. But the question that must be asked is, ‘is that really what Matthew was doing? Is that really what he saw himself as signifying?’
Having this in mind let us first consider the words of Hosea 11:1, and see them in context so as to understand what their significance wasto Hosea. Hosea 11:1 reads, ‘when Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son’. Now it cannot be doubted that this was in a sense a clear ‘prophecy’ about the past. That is, that initially it was looking back to the original calling of Israel out of Egypt. Hosea is here declaring that God had said that He had set His love on Israel, had seen them as His son and had ‘called them out of Egypt’ (see Exodus 4:22-23), and this with the purpose of delivering them from Egypt and all that it stood for. And not only was this so, but we should also note that the events that appear to demonstrate this are themselves recorded in Israel’s history, as Hosea was well aware. At first sight then it seems clear that this prophecy cannot strictly be applied to Jesus because it had already been fulfilled.
But before we come to too hasty a decision on that question there is something else that we ought to do. We ought to ask ourselves why Hosea said this? For when we do we will see that he makes it clear that it was not in fact just his intention to speak about something that happened in the past. He had a specific reason for saying it, a reason that applied to the future. And the reason for his declaration is in fact then made crystal clear. For these words are spoken in a context in which we discover that in Hosea’s eyes that ‘calling’ failed,it did not happen. For to him the problem was that although bodily the people of Israel had moved from Egypt, in their minds they had brought Egypt with them. Mentally and spiritually they were still in Egypt. Thus the point was that they had not truly responded to God’s call. God’s call had not been effective. It had not been fulfilled. Yes, he said, they had left Egypt in their bodies. But the problem was that they had brought Egypt with them. They were still indulging in the same old idolatries and spurning God’s love in the same old way. And thus, because he knew that God could not in the end fail in His calling, he recognised that that calling which had been made had not been fulfilled, and that as yet that calling had not proved effective. He saw that that calling was in fact still a continuous process, which was in process of fulfilment. It was something that went on and on, and would go on and on, until it was finally achieved. God had called His people out of Egypt, and out of Egypt therefore they would surely have to come, even though as yet they had not done so.
This is made clear in the verses which follow, for if we follow texts on which the Septuagint was probably based, he then says, ‘The more I called them the more they went from Me’ (Matthew 11:2 RSV, which takes into account LXX. LXX has here the 1st person singular). There the idea is quite clearly that up to this point the calling of God had been ineffective because their hearts had remained in Egypt. They had brought Egypt with them. He continued to call them, but the more He did so the more they rejected Him. They had not really been delivered from Egypt at all, because they still continued with the same old idolatry as they always had, and looked to other gods, spurning the love of the Lord (Matthew 11:2-4). They were still refusing to listen to His calling. It was a calling that had as yet not been made effective. Thus while He had called them out of Egypt, with the intention that they leave Egypt behind, they had not truly come. In their hearts ‘His son’ was still in Egypt.
Alternately if we go by the MT it says, ‘as they called them, so they went from them’. In this case there are two possibilities.
One is that ‘they’ here must refer to Moses, Aaron and Joshua and ultimately the later prophets. In that case it is saying that those who were appointed by God had continually called on them to truly fulfil God’s call out of Egypt, but that the people had turned away from them. They had continually refused in their hearts to obey ‘the call of God out of Egypt’. Here then this ‘they’ must seen as referring to the prophets as the voice of God, commencing with Moses.
Alternately it may be seen as referring to God Himself in an intensive plural (thus, ‘as He called them so they went from Him’). This might be seen as being made clear from the whole context which is largely in the first person singular. In this case it is saying the same as LXX.
So whichever way we take it Matthew here saw Hosea as declaring that God’s call from Egypt was a continuing process that had not yet been completed. God had called but as yet His people had not truly responded. And then he saw Hosea as going on to describe the continuation of that call as outlined in the following verses. For the idea all the way through Hosea 11 is that while Israel may have left Egypt physically, they had not done so spiritually. In their hearts they were still in Egypt, as was evidenced by their idolatry and lack of love for the Lord. And thus the call of God had not been inwardly effective. Their hearts still needed to be ‘called out of Egypt’. But because the call was the call of God it was still active, and would have to remain active until it came about.
Thus Hosea sees that there is only one solution to this problem. In order to achieve His purpose God would have to return His people to Egypt so that He might be able to call them out again, so that this time, hopefully, having learned their lesson, His previous call might be made effective, with the result that they would be wholly delivered from Egypt. Thus, (following RSV, again translated with LXX in mind), he says in Matthew 2:5, ‘they will return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria will be their king, because they refused to return to Me’. In other words, God is saying, the initial result of their calling out of Egypt will have to be temporarily reversed by their being returned to Egypt (and to Assyria) to await another deliverance. And that theologically there must be another deliverance comes out in the fact that, although the calling of God may be delayed, it cannot be cancelled. ‘The gifts and calling of God are without repentance’ (Romans 11:29). For the promises to Abraham must be fulfilled.
Alternatively, if we read in the text the negative as in MT, we must translate as, ‘Shall they not return to Egypt, and Assyria be their king, because they would not return to Me?’. (This is an equally possible translation of MT). That this translation is required is evidenced in Matthew 2:11 which again shows them as later being in both Egypt and Assyria. So whichever way the text is taken, whether as in LXX or as in MT, the same thing is in mind. The idea basically is that their particular calling has been reversed because of their disobedience, so that they are being returned to Egypt, and to its equivalent Assyria, but that that calling will then need to be ‘fulfilled’ or brought to completion at a later time. God had indeed called His son out of Egypt, but because as yet ‘he’ had not fully and completely come out, God will repeat His call, or ‘make it full’. For as God’s original call must finally be effective because of Who He is, there will have to be a further re-calling out so that His purposes are really fulfilled.
That this is so comes out in that in Matthew 2:11 Hosea once more sees Israel as again coming out of Egypt. ‘They will come trembling like birds from Egypt and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes (or ‘make them dwell in their houses’)’. The idea here is that God, having first removed them from their homes and having taken them back to Egypt and Assyria because their hearts had proved to be still there, would once again ‘bring them out of Egypt’, and this time would bring ‘home’ not only their bodies but their hearts, so that they would worship and serve Him only. His call out of Egypt would therefore at last be fully effective, it would be carried out to the full. It would be ‘fulfilled’.
So, to Hosea, God’s original call was seen to have failed, and was seen as something still in process of completion, and ‘out of Israel have I called My son’ was thus to be seen as still having to be fulfilled. This is not just Matthew’s view. This is Hosea’s view which Matthew accepts. But even then, as always, we must assume that its completion will depend on their final obedient response to Him. For if the calling is really God’s it must finally be effective. Until that was so the call of God could not be said to have been ‘fulfilled’. And the problem was, as Matthew saw clearly, that that kind of obedience had never really happened. Even in his own time he recognised that their hearts were still ‘in Egypt’,and that in fact over a million Jews literally were still there, largely in Alexandria..
So when Matthew cites this verse in respect of Jesus coming out of Egypt, having first represented Jesus as the expected seed of Abraham, and as thus the representative of Israel; as David’s son, the Messiah who was to be Israel’s representative before God (for the king always represented his people); and as the One who had in His ancestors previously been in Exile (Matthew 1:12), it is with these factors in mind. Matthew is saying, ‘as yet, while it is true that God did call His son Israel out of Egypt, this calling of Israel out of Egypt has not yet been fully consummated’, and we should note that this is not just what Matthew says, it is what Hosea had also declared. Indeed it was the whole point of what Hosea was saying. God did call with a call which must eventually be effective because it was His, but the problem was that in their hearts Israel had up to this point not fully responded to the call. So at the time of the birth of Jesus Israel was therefore still to be seen as ‘in Egypt’ in their hearts. And this could not have been more emphasised than by the fact that in the time of Jesus there were over a million Jews in Egypt just as Hosea had said.
‘And thus,’ says Matthew, ‘God has now acted in Jesus in such a way as to commence the final deliverance from Egypt that Hosea had spoken of so long ago.’ He has now brought out of Egypt the One Who represents in Himself the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the children of the Exile, He Who is the new Israel, the Messiah, the Servant, the One Who embodies in Himself the whole of Israel, so as to bring back Israel to Him and also in order to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:3; Isaiah 49:6). His heart will not be left in Egypt. He will come out totally, in body, soul and spirit. Nor will the hearts of those who follow Him remain in Egypt.
Through Jesus therefore this ‘prophecy’, says Matthew, which had never been fully completed, will come to its final consummation, so that the true Israel might finally be delivered from ‘Egypt’. By this means the prophecy is being ‘brought to completion’, it is ‘being filled full’. His return from exile is the beginning of a genuine ‘coming out of Egypt’ for the true Israel. In Jesus God’s purposes for Israel will now come into fulfilment. Thus far from Matthew’s quotation being naive, it is full of deep significance, and that by taking it in its true context. (Some may not like Matthew’s interpretation, but they have no right to despise it, for it is based firmly on what Hosea was saying, and it was an interpretation that would certainly have spoken quite clearly to his Jewish readers. They still very much saw Israel as not fully established in Palestine. This is a further indication of how much Matthew, in his Gospel, has in mind the Jews, both Christian and otherwise).
That Jesus did in fact see Himself as Israel in this way comes out in His description of Himself as the Son of Man (which in Daniel 7 represented both Israel and their king) and especially in John 15:1-6, where He depicts Himself as the true Vine. It is also found in His recognition that He Himself would need to found a new nation (‘My congregation’). This last comes out clearly later on in Matthew, for there He speaks of founding ‘My congregation’ (the new congregation of Israel - Matthew 16:18; Matthew 18:17-18) on the rock of His Messiahship. Furthermore He also speaks of the ‘bringing forth of a new nation’ in Matthew 21:43, which will replace the old. So the thought in Matthew’s words in Matthew 2:15 is to be seen as far more complicated than just a simplistic ‘fulfilling’ of some convenient words which have been misapplied. It is not an attempt to ‘prove’ anything by a rather conveniently worded prophecy. Rather it is indicating that Jesus is an essential part of Israel’s ongoing history and promised deliverance, and is evidence of the fact that the final fulfilling of that first call of God to His people is about to take place. God had called them out of Egypt, but the calling had not succeeded, and now therefore He will finally make that call effective so that they will never yearn to return there again, but will at last respond to God’s cords of love (Hosea 11:4), and this will be through Jesus Christ, just as Isaiah had in his own way promised (Matthew 19:23-25).
Rather therefore than being a naive claim to be a successful piece of fortune-telling, this is a declaration that God’s calling is always finally effective, even though its fulfilment might take over a thousand years.
End of EXCURSUS.
‘Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the Magi, was extremely angry, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had exactly learned of the Magi.’
Meanwhile Herod was livid with anger. The impossible had happened, and it had become apparent that those lily-livered Magi had deceived him. They had basically cocked a snook at him. And he immediately gave the command that all male children in Bethlehem and its surrounds who were of two years old and under should be put to death at once without delay. No quarter was to be shown. And in accordance with his command all male children within his definition were sought out, and were put to death. It was not, however, a large massacre by his standards, probably encompassing around twenty children. And the reason for his choice of age is then given. It was according to the time since the star had first appeared, in accord with the information he had been given by the Magi. How wise he had been not to leave anything to chance.
We can only cringe at the thought of the deaths of these children, but in ancient warfare children were killed indiscriminately without a second thought. It would not therefore have been looked at with quite the same eyes as we look at it, except by the people involved. People would simply have said when they heard of it, ‘How typical of Herod’. But a further thought needs to be born in mind. This purposeless killing was precisely because God was seeking to do good to the world. God did not cause the killing. It arose because He had sent His Son to die to save men and women. It was actually caused by a man who was so evil that God’s very act in sending a Saviour resulted in the killing.
‘Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying,’
Again this suffering was seen as adding to the ‘filling full’ of the warnings that Scripture had given. For Scripture regularly emphasises the sufferings that Israel had yet to face, in the same way as they had at the Exile. For there it had included the loss of their children to exile, and prior to that the deaths of children in their own land in the face of the merciless invading armies. Large numbers had been slaughtered. Large numbers had gone into exile. And now it was to happen again, even if on a smaller scale. But the scale did not matter. The grief would be the same for those involved. One of their children would disappear into exile in Egypt, and others would be slain in the land. It was all part of the expected ‘Messianic sufferings’, the birth pangs that would introduce the last days.
Note how Matthew uses a special formula for introducing Jeremiah’s prophecies, which is only used of them. It is probably only a technicality, but it demonstrates what thought he had put into composing these formulae, and interestingly the formulae that introduce Jeremiah are the ones that have no stress on ‘in order that’ (hina or hopows). Perhaps it was because they were in a savage context.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she would not be comforted,
Because they are not.”
The prophecy is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. There Israel is seen in terms of Rachel, the mother of the clans of Joseph and Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh. But the sons of her slave would also be seen as hers, and apparently Leah’s children as well. For Rachel is seen as weeping for all Israel. And why is she weeping? In context it is because her children have gone. They are either dead or in exile. They ‘are not’. And now another child has gone into exile, and others are dead, slaughtered by man’s inhumanity to man
But why was she weeping in Ramah? The answer is that it was because Ramah is where she was buried. So she is seen as weeping in her grave at Ramah for her beloved children, both dead and exiled, originally at the time of Jeremiah, but continuing on to the present day. And her weeping is not just for them. It is a weeping that reaches out into the future because of what is yet to come on Israel. It is a weeping that will not cease until she sees all her children restored. For just prior to the words in Jeremiah is his description of the hoped for restoration of God’s people (Jeremiah 31:10-14). And her weeping is to precede this hope of theirs, a hope which will be fulfilled ‘in the latter end’ (Jeremiah 31:17), when her weeping will be rewarded by their restoration, when the new covenant will be made with them by God which will transform their hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
So, says Matthew, do not be surprised at this cause of weeping which results from Herod’s cruelty and slaughter, and at the need for the One Who represents Israel to go into exile. Such weeping is but a sign that God’s purposes are still going forward, even in the midst of suffering. And in this case it is a sign that Messiah is coming, indeed is almost here. Soon He will return from exile bringing with Him the hopes of Israel. Here Israel’s weeping is seen as being brought to its climax in view of the good time that is coming, which will result from the coming of Jesus, Who will bring them to God’s perfect rest. The experience is coming to its ‘filling full’, after which it will cease. (In future there will be weeping, but it will be because of the machinations of evil men, including many Jews, who will persecute God’s people. But it will no longer be a weeping of hopelessness).
EXCURSUS on Rachel’s Weeping.
We must apply similar methods of interpretation to Matthew 2:17-18 as we have done previously. Here we read, ‘Then was fulfilled (or ‘filled to the full’) that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted for they are not.” ’ It is then often asked, ‘what has Ramah to do with Bethlehem-judah?’ As we have already seen it need not have anything to do with it. It may simply be indicating where Rachel was to be found in her tomb at Ramah. However, other significant facts are that Ramah was on the way between Bethel and Bethlehem, and that Rachel’s death was also in fact connected with Bethlehem (Genesis 35:16-19). But that is clearly not the full answer, and again we must consider its context, this time in Jeremiah 31:15.
In Jeremiah’s prophecy these words in reality stand very much on their own, but the principle behind them is nevertheless clear and that is that it is Israel who are seen as weeping, and this in terms of their deceased ancestress Rachel. And she is weeping because many of their people are either dead or in exile, because ‘they are not’. As with the quotation from Hosea he has in mind those who are far from the land and ‘in exile’. This Ramah was presumably the Ramah near Gibeon (Joshua 18:25) some miles north of Jerusalem, in Benjamite territory. In contrast Bethlehem-judah was six miles south of Jerusalem in the territory of Judah. But Jeremiah’s words are not based on the association of the one with the other but almost certainly on the fact that Rachel was thought to be buried near Ramah.
(In 1 Samuel 10:2 it is said to have been at Selsah, on the border of Benjamin, which is not definitely identified, but must have been near Ramah, while Genesis 35:16; Genesis 35:19 says that it was ‘on the way to Ephrath’, the old name for Bethlehem, a road that passed through what would later be Benjamite territory by Ramah. It was thus on the approach to Bethlehem (see also Ruth 4:11). We must remember that in ancient days geography was not an exact science and places would therefore be identified by the nearest well known name).
But the vivid picture is not of the children of Ramah. It is of Rachel in her tomb at Ramah weeping because all her children, the whole of Israel, were suffering (we must remember that she was mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and therefore grandmother of Ephraim and Manasseh, and that the children of her maid would also be seen as hers, but she is probably to be seen as weeping for all Israel and Judah). And her weeping was because they were no longer before her eyes. Many were in Exile, others were dead. The verse is then followed by the promise that there is hope for their latter end (Jeremiah 31:17), hope following the Messianic feast (Jeremiah 31:13-14) when presumably Rachel (Israel) will be able to cease weeping, and when will be fulfilled the change of heart and mind in Israel that God requires (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Thus Rachel’s weeping is seen by Jeremiah as something that would carry on until the end times when through God’s activity it would cease because God’s work of restoration would begin. It was therefore very appropriate for what Matthew saw as the beginning of ‘the last days’, the times of the Messiah. For the Messiah would remove the necessity for this kind of weeping. And to Matthew this exiling of the One Who represented Israel, and the accompanying needless destruction of twenty or so male children by Herod, was therefore to be seen as the last throes of the old dispensation as Rachel (Israel) continued to weep for her children.
Rachel’s death was a tragic one, although not in an uncommon way, for she died in childbirth (Genesis 35:16-19) as did so many women in those days. Her tears would thus have been seen as very apt for a situation where children were involved. And the fact that she was depicted as weeping for children who were lost to her, and would continue to do so until they were brought home, made it very applicable to this case. Thus Matthew is simply pointing out that Rachel (as representative of mother Israel) wept whenever children who were born in Israel ‘were not’ as a result of man’s inhumanity. And that was why this slaughter of Israel’s children was to be seen as one of ‘her’ causes of weeping, and a very significant one because it heralded the coming of the Messiah. He is taking the verse as signifying the perpetual grief of the symbolic Rachel for Israel’s suffering, in whatever form that suffering takes, right up to the end times, and especially in such cases as this, until her children return to her. She is therefore also weeping for the return of the Exiled One. So the present generation are to be comforted by the thought of the past, and to see their suffering as part of the completion of the process whereby finally the good times would come through the appearance of the Messiah.
Each time Israel suffered, a partial fulfilment of these words was to be seen. At such times Rachel was to be seen as weeping in Ramah, especially when the problems related to children. And now when the coming of the Messiah seemed to be bringing hope to the world, it was not, says Matthew, to be seen as surprising that this weeping was intensified as a result of the sufferings that accompanied His birth. This weeping then represented and symbolised the birth pangs of the Messianic age which had been so clearly portended (Isaiah 13:8; Isaiah 26:17; Jeremiah 4:31; Jeremiah 6:24; Micah 4:9-10. See also 2 Esdras 16:38-39). And ‘Rachel’ therefore felt them most intensely. Who better to have in mind in view of how she died? Here at last Jeremiah’s words were being ‘filled to the full’
So Matthew clearly saw that the weeping for these children in Bethlehem was all part of the weeping of ‘Rachel’, a weeping that was expected in the end to result in the coming of the Messianic Banquet (Jeremiah 31:13-14). And he knew that it would speak to the hearts of those who were still weeping, awaiting His coming. He may well also have wanted the actual mothers of these slain sons to know that ‘Rachel’, as one who understood such situations, was weeping for them, something which would help to comfort all who were finding their suffering difficult to understand. It would make them aware that God was not insensitive to their cries, but knew what was happening (compare Luke 18:7). Matthew may even himself have known people who were still grieving over their lost sons in Bethlehem. But even more was he aware of unbelieving Israel’s constant weeping as they looked ahead in hope of deliverance. Thus again, far from being a naive application of words that were irrelevant, this is to be seen as something pregnant with meaning concerning the coming of Jesus, and as having a direct message at that time for his Jewish readers. The weeping of Israel was soon coming to an end. For Israel would finally be ‘called out of Egypt’ in Jesus, and true Israel would genuinely respond to Him in their hearts, and would no longer need to see themselves as ‘in Exile’ and away from where God could be worshipped (John 4:20-23), and this all because of the activity of Jesus.
This then links his use of this prophecy, with the previous one. When God ‘called His son out of Egypt’ it followed a time when Rachel truly had been weeping for her children, for the Gentile world had been seeking to destroy them in the form of Pharaoh’s annihilation of the sons of Israel (Exodus 1:15-22), a destruction that Herod was now imitating. But one son survived that annihilation and led Israel out of Egypt. Now Rachel is weeping for her children again, but again one child will survive the annihilation, and will ‘lead His people out of Egypt’. It is to be the end of Rachel’s weeping.
End of EXCURSUS.
‘But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying,’
This comment contains within it the idea of the inevitability of Herod’s death. It was to be expected in view of what he had done. For death comes to all who sin. And immediately after it God sprang into action. The angel of the Lord again appears to Joseph, this time in a dream in Egypt. God was about to effectively call His Son out of Egypt, the next stage in His process of salvation.
“Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for they are dead who sought the young child’s life.”
Joseph is told to arise and take the young child, with His mother, and go into ‘the land of Israel’. Note again the reference to His mother as an added extra. All attention is on Jesus. She is mentioned in order to emphasise Jesus youthfulness. He is still a ‘young child’.
The description ‘the land of Israel’ (repeated in the next verse, and nowhere else in the New Testament), deliberately takes the mind back to the time of early Israel when Israel was a newish nation in the time of the Judges, and even more to Ezekiel’s vision of the return from exile. It was a reminder of the land that was available to them but which for a time they had lost. ‘And you will know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for the which I lifted up my hand to give it to your fathers’ (Ezekiel 20:42, compare Matthew 11:17). Now Jesus is entering in to possess ‘the land of Israel’.
‘For they are dead who sought the young child’s life.’ Compare Exodus 4:19. They had tried to kill Him, just as another once had Moses, but now it was they who were dead. The plural suggests that it was not only Herod who was unhappy about the prospective alteration to the status quo. The ‘they’ probably has in mind Herod’s commanders and his sycophants, whose influence would be dead even if they were not. However, it may well also have arisen because the Exodus 4:19 parallel is in mind. But whoever they were, His enemies were all known to God, and for the time at least they had been seen off.
The loose use of the phrase from Exodus 4:19 draws our attention to the parallels between Jesus and Moses. Moses had been delivered when children around him had been slaughtered, and he had also fled from a king to a place of safety, and had been called back once that king was dead. But that had been in a foreign land. In Jesus’ case it had been in His own land, and by a supposed King of the Jews. He is as it were rejected even before He begins His mission, but like Moses enjoys God’s protection. In the back of Matthew’s mind may also have been the thought that while Moses returned to Egypt, Jesus was, on behalf of His people, leaving Egypt behind for ever. Here was a greater than Moses, taking the final stage in the deliverance of God’s people. (In general there are no real grounds, apart from here, for thinking that Matthew was trying to portray Jesus as a new Moses. Elsewhere He is seen as representing the whole of Israel).
‘And he arose and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.’
And Joseph did precisely as God had commanded. Note the repetition of the phraseology in order to bring out the point. They ‘came into the land of Israel’. God’s will and purpose from the beginning was going forward through full obedience in the face of hardship.
a ‘But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned of God in a dream, he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.’
However, when he learned that Archelaus was now ruling Judaea, knowing the quality of the man he was afraid to go there, and his fears were confirmed by another dream. This time no angel is mentioned (as with the Magi). Perhaps no special information had to be given. All that was needed was an awareness of the danger. So instead he moved into Galilee to his wife’s home town of Nazareth. At least there they would be among friends, and, where it nestled in the mountains, away from prying eyes.
We should note that when Herod the Great had died his kingdom was divided into three. Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea were given to Archelaus; Galilee and Peraea to Herod Antipas; and the remainder to Herod Philip. Archelaus was made Ethnarch, with the promise of kingship if he proved his worth. But his rule was cruel and inefficient and in the end he was deposed around 6 AD, and it was then that a Roman official was introduced in order to take charge of his section of Herod’s former kingdom.
‘That it might be fulfilled which was spoken through the prophets, that he should be called a Nazarene.’
To be ‘called a Nazarene’ was to be looked down on as backward and insignificant, for Nazareth was an obscure hill town in Galilee, and even Galilee was spoken of contemptuously by the people of Judaea as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’, unorthodox and tainted by association with the Gentiles. So to be a Nazarene was to be a nonentity, living in an obscure town in despised Galilee. It was to be like a root struggling to survive in dry ground (Isaiah 53:2). For while Galilean Jews were accepted as being full Jews, (although many of their fathers had been forced to become so by compulsory circumcision), they were seen as somewhat unorthodox, and even their Rabbis were not considered to be quite as orthodox as they should be. And they were intermingled with Gentiles. Thus they were ‘looked down on’ by their more orthodox brethren in Judaea and Jerusalem (see for example John 7:41; John 7:52). But even more looked down on were the residents of Nazareth in Galilee. For Nazareth was a smallish out of the way town in the hills, away from the main thoroughfares, which it overlooked from a height, a town which had somehow gained a reputation for being a backward nonentity. Thus if Galilee was despised, Nazareth was even more despised, for it was despised even by those who lived in Galilee. It was the lowest of the low. That was why Nathaniel could say, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46). And even at the time that Matthew was written, (whenever it was), the Jews looked down on Christians and called them ‘the sect of the Nazarenes’, which was intended to be insulting indicating these backward people living in obscurity (Acts 24:5).
Note that this ‘quotation’ is not said to be a direct citation. His statement is not referred to ‘a prophet’. It is referred to ‘the prophets’ as a whole. It is thus to be seen as representing a general principle spoken of by the prophets which was to be ‘filled to the full’.
So Matthew’s point here is that quite deliberately Joseph and Mary have gone back to live in that unpretentious town in the hills where Mary at least had once had her home, thus fulfilling all the Old Testament prophecies which spoke of the Coming One as being the lowliest of men (see especially Psalms 22:6; Isaiah 53:1-5; Zechariah 9:12; Zechariah 11:7-14). Here therefore ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’ indicates that He would be seen as the lowest of the low, as the Scriptures had declared would be the case.
Matthew has previously not mentioned any connection of Mary and Joseph with Nazareth, and that has been deliberate. For he had been concerned to emphasise the Davidic connection of Jesus, and His royal birth and treatment by the Magi, but now he also seeks to draw attention to His lowliness as He ‘returns from Exile’, thus filling in both aspects of Zechariah 9:12. The One Who was the Son of David, born in royal Bethlehem and honoured by the Magi, had like Israel of old fled to Egypt, and had now descended in status to lowly Nazareth. It was fitting for One Who would later have nowhere to lay His head, and was to be depicted as the humble Servant of the Lord.
Other have connected the words with Isaiah 11:1, where the ‘branch’ is a ‘netser’. Thus ‘He will be called a netser’. But the connection of this with the name of Nazareth is tenuous, and if Matthew had intended that he would surely have drawn attention to the fact, for it is not obvious in the Greek. The same is true of interpretations that seek to connect the idea with Nazirites, which is spelled differently and comes from a different root. All also founder on the fact that Matthew referred it to ‘the prophets’ not ‘the prophet’. Thus the probability is that we are to see Matthew as reading into the words ‘He will be called a Nazarene’ all the contempt that was intrinsic in the idea of being an inhabitant of Nazareth.
Note on Galilee.
That Galileans were despised by the Judeans is unquestionable, but this should not hide from us the fact that Galilee was a flourishing country, with a large population for its size (it was fifty miles by twenty five miles), with many populous ‘cities’, and very fertile, rich soil and pasturage. Indeed its fertility was proverbial. The Galileans were innovative, courageous, and ‘disposed to change and delighting in seditions’. They were ever ready for a fight. But they were also brave, true and honourable. Many of them were fanatical Jews, even though looked on by Judeans as a little unorthodox, although their Jewishness was not in question. Furthermore the trade routes all passed though Galilee. It thus had far greater contact with the Gentile world than did out of the way Judaea. Indeed it was surrounded by Gentiles, with Samaritans to the South, and many Gentiles lived among them. It had in fact been largely Gentile, and 100 or so years earlier Aristobulus had conquered Galilee for the Jewish nation, with the result that many Gentiles had been forced to be circumcised and become Jews. So it was not for nothing that it was called ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’.
End of note.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 2". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany