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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 2

 

 

Other Authors
Verse 1

§ 13. — COMING OF THE MAGI, Matthew 2:1-10.

1. In Bethlehem of Judea — Called in the Old Testament Bethlehem-Judah, to distinguish it from Bethlehem of the tribe of Zebulun. The name Bethlehem anciently signified the town or house of bread; in modern Arabic it seems to signify the house or place of flesh.

Bethlehem was noted as the scene of the Book of Ruth; and at this day, as then, the fields of wheat abound, and the reaper is accustomed to leave a remnant for the gleaner, who is often a maiden like Ruth. It was still more noted as the birthplace of David, who here spent his boyhood, and from hunting the bear and the lion in the neighbouring caves and gorges, grew up to be a warrior against wicked men. But its chief note arises from its being the birthplace of David’s illustrious descendant, the Lord Jesus, whose birth the evangelist is now narrating.

Bethlehem is situated upon the summit of the hill country of Judea, from which it commands an extensive prospect eastward toward Jordan, and westward toward the Mediterranean. It is about six miles south of Jerusalem, on the road toward Hebron. It contains at the present time about 4,000 inhabitants, chiefly Christians of the Greek Church, who obtain much of their subsistence from the sale of relics to pilgrims and visitors. A cave is shown as the place in which the birth of the Saviour occurred. But there is little reason to suppose from the sacred narratives that the birthplace was a cave. The Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional spot, is a venerable piece of architecture, built probably by the Empress Helena.

Judea — Palestine, as lying between the Mediterranean on the west, and Jordan, with its lakes or seas, upon the east, was divided into three provinces, Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Of these three, Judea was the most southerly. It lay mainly between the Dead Sea and Mediterranean. The name Judea is derived from the patriarch Judah, to whose tribe a large share of the territory belonged. It is the scene of the most important events of old Jewish history. Most of our Saviour’s ministry transpired in Galilee. But points of intense interest in his ministry, as well as the solemn close of his earthly mission, took place at the celebrated capital of Judea, Jerusalem.

The surface of Judea is distinguished into hill-country, valley, and plain. The mountain, or hill-country of Judea, was that broad back of mountains which cuts the centre of the country from Hebron northward to beyond Jerusalem. The plain was the low country extending toward the coast of the Mediterranean. The vale is defined as extending from Engedi to Jericho, and appears to have included such parts of the Ghor, or great plain of the Jordan, as lay within the territory of Judea. That which is called the wilderness of Judea was the wild and inhospitable region lying eastward of Jerusalem, in the direction of the Jordan and Dead Sea.

Herod the king — In our note on Matthew 1:17, we slightly traced the history of the last fourteen generations of the Jewish nation to the time of Herod, called, or rather miscalled the Great, in the closing part of whose reign the Messiah was born. This Herod was the son of Antipater, a distinguished Idumean general, who, by his own bravery and the favour of the Romans, had obtained supreme power over his native Idumea, and great authority in Judea. At the early age of fifteen, Herod was placed in command in Galilee, where he distinguished himself by his bravery, talent, and personal popularity. By these same qualities and the favour of the Romans he became king of Judea, a term which embraced all Palestine. As he advanced in age he became suspicious, cruel, and extremely bloodthirsty. He put to death his beautiful wife, the celebrated Mariamne, the illustrious descendant of the line of Maccabean princes. His two sons also by Mariamne, the innocent and accomplished favourites of the nation, he sent to execution. His last son, Antipater, he ordered to be slain five days before his own death. As he saw his end approaching, he ordered a large number of the most illustrious citizens to be executed as soon as he had breathed his last, in order, as he said, that there might be mourning at his death. But the commands of a dead tyrant possess little authority, and this ferocious order was never executed. Amid the wholesale murders committed by this bloody despot, the slaughter of a few infants in Bethlehem would be but a drop in the ocean, too slight for general history to mention.

Herod married ten wives, by five of whom there was posterity, including persons mentioned in the New Testament. The careless reader finds the name of Herod repeated in the Scriptures, and is apt to imagine that it is always the same person. He forgets that the first Herod died during the infancy of Jesus. The following diagram will show, so far as is necessary for our purpose, how they were connected with Herod the Great, and with each other:

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Wise men — In the original, Magi. The Magi, according to the best accounts, were, in a very early antiquity, a tribe among the ancient Medes, similar to the Levites among the Hebrews. That is, they were a priestly tribe, or learned class in the nation. The word is derived by some from the old Pehlvic term mog, which signifies priest. The word probably forms the root of our words magnates, magistrate, master, and even mister. It is found in the Latin, magnus, and the Greek, μεγας. After the union of the Median and Persian empire, the Magian class obtained great ascendancy in Persia. Subsequently they appear in great power in Babylon. The chief Magian is mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, under the title of Rab-Mag. The prophet Daniel probably filled the office of chief Magian in his day. It may be thence inferred that the true religion, with greater or less purity, may have existed with at least a part of this class. Hence we need not wonder that from this class there should come a number to Jerusalem, under divine inspiration and guidance, to seek the new-born Messiah.

After the time of Christ, Magianism, like the religions of Greece and Rome, waned and sunk into discredit. In this condition of decay we find Simon Magus, or Simon the Magian. From the word Magi is derived the word magic; and thus in process of time this illustrious class sunk to the rank of magicians, sorcerers, and wandering fortune-tellers. Their mode of divination was by astrology, dream interpretation, and soothsaying with cups. The books of sorcery burned at Ephesus by the converted Christians, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, doubtless contained the false science of these pretenders.

From the east — It is very probable that Matthew was not informed from what particular country the Magi came. The event was early in the history of our Lord, and great as was the excitement produced by their coming, the common people would but vaguely know from what region in the East they came; and when the transaction passed off, and seemed to come to nothing, it would be very much forgotten. The Jewish writers use the phrase the East very extensively and vaguely. Thus, “unto the sons of the concubines which Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the east country.”

Genesis 25:6. Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country. It seems probable that the wise men came from Persia. the primitive land of the Magi. We know that the Persian Magi believed in a Messiah or future Saviour, (whom they called Sosiosch,) who should in the latter day appear and renew the world in righteousness. These views they may have directly derived from the primitive promise in Eden by their own tradition; or they may have had original revelations from God; or they may have learned much from the Jews in the captivity. Who knows how much of a real, acceptable faith and piety there was among them?

Jerusalem — This is the first occurrence of the name of the Holy City in the New Testament. Jerusalem is not only one of the most celebrated, but one of the most ancient cities in the world. It is first mentioned in Genesis, under the name of Salem, with Melchisedek for its king, a type of the future Messiah. It was to this same spot that Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed, namely, upon the very mountain where Christ, the antitype of Isaac, was sacrificed ages afterward. When the land of Canaan was invaded under Joshua, the Jebusites held possession of Mount Zion in spite of every effort to dislodge them. David, however, at a later time, conquered Mount Zion from the Jebusites, and it became the City of David, the place of his palace, the abode of the Tabernacle, the capital of the monarchy. From that time it underwent the various fortunes of the Jewish state until the time of Christ. Here Christ was nationally rejected, and, according to prophecy, was put to death. About forty years afterward the city was taken after one of the severest struggles in history; the inhabitants were slaughtered, and the city destroyed. The Jewish state was overthrown; the sacrifices were abolished; the tribes were scattered, and still remain in dispersion among the various nations of the world. But, though scattered, they are not destroyed. Like the bush of Moses, they are burned, but not consumed.

Other nations rise and perish, but Israel seems indestructible. He is reserved through ages, for purposes known to God alone.


Verse 2

2. King of the Jews — If these Magi were indeed Gentiles, they were fully indoctrinated into the understanding that the future Saviour was to be a Jew, and a king of the Jews. They came in quest of a Jewish Messiah.

Have seen his star in the east — A close inspection of the words will, perhaps, disperse some gratuitous impressions: 1. The star did not stand over Jerusalem. Otherwise it would have been as visible to the Jews as to them; and they would not have said, “We have seen his star in the east;” that is, we in the east saw his star; but they would have said, “Yonder is his star in the firmament.” The star very plainly was not at that moment visible to the Magi, and for that reason they were inquiring his place. 2. There is no proof that the star guided them on their way from their own country to Jerusalem. At Jerusalem they only affirm that they saw his star when they were in the east, before they started; not that they were guided on the way, or see it now. 3. It is plain that this star is no ordinary member of the firmament. It is his star, and not a star that existed independently of him.

Now we are not informed how they learned the star was his. At any rate, some divine revelation must have been given with the star. The angels who appeared to the shepherds explained themselves verbally; the Divine giver of his star no doubt explained it by words, or by prophetic impulse, to be his.

And now what was the star? To this some have answered that it was a conjunction of planets, which astronomy shows to have taken place at that time; and which, to the eye, would appear as one very luminous star. The Magi saw this, and, influenced by the expectation derived from prophecy, then widely existing through the East, that Messiah was soon to be born, they started for Jerusalem to make inquiry. No commentator states this theory more plausibly than Alford. But it fails to meet the facts. How could such a star reappear (see comment on Matthew 2:9-10) on their way toward Bethlehem, go before them, and indicate the very “house” (Matthew 2:11) where the young child was?

There is then left us but one plain view of this star. It was a luminous orb, divinely and specially given, and divinely explained, as a signal of the Saviour’s birth. It is called a star from its visible form. Just as the angels are called men, because they were men by form though not by nature, so this orb is called a star, because though not so by nature, it is by form.

The submission of the Jews to Jesus was typified by the shepherds; the submission of the Gentiles by the Magi. The former were informed by angels; the latter by a star.

This was perhaps the star seen in prophetic vision by the Gentile Balaam, as being far distant from himself in time: “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.” Numbers 24:17. And by the coming of the Magi was fulfiled in type, “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Isaiah 60:3. These Magi were as the ambassadors of the Gentile nations. To worship him — As king and Saviour.


Verse 3

3. Herod… was troubled — It was a bold and alarming question put by these new comers. It would have been treason to the reigning king if there were not some superhuman authority in it. No wonder the reigning house is troubled by the rise of another king, armed with an omnipotent authority! All Jerusalem — It was strange that while the Messiah was born not six miles off, Jerusalem gets her first news from strangers coming from, perhaps, a thousand miles distance! And no wonder the city is excited through all its depths.


Verse 4

4. All the chief priests and scribes — The deep alarm of Herod is manifested by the greatness of the convocation he calls. The chief priest was properly but one; but the title is extended to include his deputy and the heads of the twenty-four courses. Scribes — The word scribe signifies a writer, and was originally used to designate one of the class in the tribe of Levi who performed the office of secretary, recorder, roll-keeper, or transcriber. Seraiah was scribe or secretary to King David. 2 Samuel 8:17. Elihoreph and Ahiah were secretaries to King Solomon. 1 Kings 4:3. Under Uzziah, king of Judah, Jeil, the scribe, kept the muster-roll of the army. 2 Chronicles 26:11. So Ezra was a ready scribe in the law of Moses. Ezra 7:6.

The scribes of the New Testament belonged to the class of which Ezra was the model. They were transcribers of the text of the Mosaic law, and students and doctors of its principles. They were the same as the lawyers.

A select number of these scribes, as well as of the Pharisees, was associated with the high priests to constitute the Sanhedrim, or supreme legislative body of the Jewish nation.

Where Christ should be born — By Christ here is meant not a proper name, but a title — the Christ or the Messiah. See note on Matthew 1:1. It is a profound, theological question, therefore, which King Herod puts to his spiritual advisers: Where, according to the prophecies of the Old Testament, is the Messiah to be born? In the answer then given by this illustrious body, we have the decision of the Jewish nation on this point. Hence Tacitus, the celebrated Pagan historian, says: “With the masses the opinion was prevalent that it was predicted IN THE BOOKS OF THE PRIESTS, that the East should at that time grow strong.” Which Suetonius, another Pagan Roman, confirms and makes even more pointed: “Through all the East there prevailed an ancient and constant opinion that it was contained in the fates that at that time those arising from Judea should become masters of human things.”

These testimonies prove, 1. That the expectations of an arising prodigy from Judea were then prevailing through the East. 2. That these expectations were founded on prophecy in the sacred books. 3. That the time for his coming was believed to be nigh at hand, the prophetic period being about accomplished. Finally, Herod, through his great Sanhedrim, has immediate access to these very sacred books which predict the very village where the Christ was to be born; just where our Jesus was born, in Bethlehem of Judea.

As a singular illustration of this whole subject, we quote the following: “So vivid was their (the Chinese’s) expectation of the Messiah — ‘the Great Saint who,’ as Confucius says, ‘was to appear in the West’ — so fully sensible were they not only of the place of his birth, but of the TIME of his coming, that about sixty years after the birth of our Saviour they sent their envoys to hail the expected Redeemer. These envoys encountered on their way the missionaries of Boodhism coming from India — the latter announcing an incarnate God were taken to be the disciples of the true Christ, and were presented as such to their countrymen by the deluded ambassadors. Thus was this religion introduced into China.” (Schlegel’s Philosophy of History, 1:176.)


Verse 6

6. And thou Bethlehem — The New Testament quotations will often be found to vary from the passage in the Old. New Testament writers sometimes quoted the words of the Hebrew precisely; sometimes quoted the Septuagint or Greek translation, which was commonly read by the Jews of their day; and sometimes quoted substantially, with such variations as rendered the passage more clear, without misrepresenting the original divine mind in the passage.

This passage in the Old Testament reads thus: But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel. Micah 5:2. The evangelist leaves out Ephratah as a name now little known, and substitutes land of Judah as expressing the same limitation of the site of Bethlehem. Though thou be little, in the Hebrew, the evangelist changes to art not the least; for the smallness of the external size is mentioned by the Hebrew to imply its not being small in divine favour, as expressed by the evangelist. Matthew puts princes, or rulers of a thousand apiece, for the thousands themselves, which amounts to the same thing.

This is a most signal passage of prophecy, for many reasons, among which are the following:

1. It was the uniform practice of the ancient Jews, agreeing with Herod’s Sanhedrim, to apply it to the Messiah. “All the Jewish interpreters,” says Hengstenberg, “with the Chaldee at their head, (who paraphrase the closing part of the passage, ‘from thee shall the Messiah go forth to me, before me,’) maintain the application to the Messiah.” But so fatal to their own cause has this proved that the modern Jews have been obliged to abandon their ancient interpretation!

2. This prophecy brings to a point a whole series of converging prophecies. First we have the Edenic prediction of the seed of the woman; it is narrowed to the line of Shem; next to the line of Abraham, to that of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and finally to the city of David, Bethlehem.

3. This pointing to Bethlehem made more conspicuous the fact that Jesus was of the royal line of David. It pointed to the place where David spent his boyhood; and to the place where the record of the pedigree of Jesus was to be found, so completing the evidence presented in Matthew’s genealogy. Moreover, of the two cities of David, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the latter is selected as the starting place of both David and Jesus, each from a humble origin, the latter from the decayed line of the former.

4. And those who complain that the whole account of the Messiah’s birth seems an obscure and humble matter, in a narrow corner of the world, unlike what an incarnation should be, should take into consideration how clear are the predictions that God would fling the vail over that transaction. See note on Matthew 2:23.

5. The predicted birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, of the line of David, and so of the tribe of Judah, settles the point that the Messiah has come. Not only was it predicted that Messiah should appear during the second temple, (which is now no more,) but the tribeship of Judah and the lineage of David are lost. All traces of the royal line disappeared at the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of their race.

6. Finally, no infidel can say these prophecies were forged by Christians, or were made to suit the event, for the records are preserved by our opponents, the Jews. The Hebrews keep our library of proofs. Judaism furnishes the prophecy; Christianity furnishes the fulfilment; and how will infidelity explain the agreement?


Verse 7

7. Privily — Privately, because he wished the excitement to die, and to keep the matter under his own control. Called the wise men — Who plainly were waiting to learn the locality of the Messiah, being not now directed by the visible star. What time the star appeared — In order to know the precise time of the birth.


Verse 8

8. To Bethlehem — The narratives of Matthew and Luke are usually harmonized on the somewhat doubtful view that they actually went to Bethlehem. The discussion belongs to notes on Luke. Worship him also — In his cool measures of consulting the Sanhedrim, guarding against excitement, and using the Magi, under false professions, Herod shows the wily craft of a politician, combined with the folly of supposing he can defeat the plans of God.


Verse 9

9. Lo, the star — The star re-appears. What star? The star, namely, which they saw, not at Jerusalem, nor on their way thither, but while they were in the East. Went before them — The starry form came so lowly from the skies as to move horizontally before them, and guide their steps. Whether visible to any other than themselves is not said. Stood over — So specifically and directly as to individualize the very house.


Verse 10

10. When they saw the star — Implying that it had before been unseen. Rejoiced with exceeding great joy — The strong terms show how great was the rapture at recovering sight of the lost star.


Verse 11

11. Worshipped him — Something more than human homage; for emphatically it was offered to him, and not to his mother, in whose arms he was. Gold and frankincense — The very sort of presents predicted in Isaiah 60:6 : “All they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and incense.” This is a sample and type of the conversion of the Gentile nations to Christ. “The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Isaiah 60:3.

Incense, or frankincense, is a resinous gum, flowing from a tree, gashed for the purpose, growing in Arabia and Lebanon. Myrrh is also a gum obtained from a tree similar to the Acacia, growing in Arabia.

From the nature of these presents it has been argued that the Magi came from Arabia, the land which abundantly produces them; but this sort of wealth abounded through all the East. They were the kind of presents which it was customary to bring when admitted into the presence of princes or gods.


Verse 13

§ 13. — RETURN OF MAGI AND FLIGHT INTO EGYPT, Matthew 2:12-15.

13. The young child and his mother — Not thy wife and child. They are to him a charge rather than relatives.


Verse 14

14. By night — That no informant may be able to indicate whither he has gone. Departed into Egypt — Colonies of Jews had for a long time existed and flourished in Egypt. A rival temple had there been built, and there the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, called the Septuagint, was made. It was, by the ordinary caravan road, but a few days’ journey; the gifts of the Magi would furnish ample provision for the expenses, and doubtless there were relatives or friends in Egypt willing to receive them.

The flight to Egypt had three purposes: 1. The security of the child from his enemies. 2. To show the divine care and valuation of the holy child. 3.

To make his childhood’s sufferings an antitype to the history of chosen Israel. As Israel went down into Egypt and tarried there under compulsion of Pharaoh until his restoration to Canaan, so Jesus went down into Egypt and tarried under compulsion of Herod until restored to the Holy Land. Twice, then, out of Egypt did God call his son; namely, his collective son, Israel, and his individual son, Christ.


Verse 15

15. By the prophet — Hosea 11:1. Out of Egypt… son — The passage quoted from the prophet is spoken of Israel, the people being personified as an individual. When Israel was a child then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt. A type is a person or object divinely designed to prefigure a future character or object to which it bears designed resemblance. The future object so prefigured is called the antitype. Type is therefore visible prediction, as prophecy is spoken prediction. Thus the sacrifices were divinely appointed types of the great atoning sacrifice of Christ. An entire set or combination of objects may be typical of an entire set of antitypical objects. The objects may resemble, and the principle which connects the objects of the combination may be the same in both sets. Thus here we have of type and antitype, then, two sets:

1. Pharaoh, Israel, Egypt, Canaan.

2. Herod, Christ, Egypt, Palestine.

The individuals of each couplet are similar or same, and the relation connecting the individuals of each set is the same. So Israel is a type of the Church, and Christ’s infantile history is a type of his Messianic history, as his Messianic history is a type of the Church. Thus: Adversary, Righteous One, Trial, Restoration.

1. Pharaoh, Israel, Egypt, Canaan.

2. Herod, Christ, Egypt, Palestine

3. Satan, Christ, World, Glory.

4. Satan, Church, World, Heaven.

When the Old Testament designedly uses words which describe the typical points in the type, those words will describe the future antitype. It thereby becomes prediction, which is fulfilled in the antitype. Thus the words, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” describe the typical point which Israel bears to Christ. It is therefore a prediction which is fulfilled in Christ.

So God’s dispensations do repeat and reproduce similar sets of types and antitypes in continuity. In printer’s phrase, the type continually produces the same set of words and paragraphs, through successive pages and editions. In the present case, Christ’s infant history was so framed as to be brought into antitypical relation; and the words of the prophet were so framed as to predict the antitype Christ in describing the type Israel. The inspiration that enabled the prophet to utter, enabled the evangelist to explain the prediction.

As Israel was God’s chosen among the nations, so Christ was God’s chosen among men. Reciprocally, as Christ was his Son, so Israel was his son. Both are his firstborn. So Exodus 4:22 : “Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” In Isaiah 49:3, the words, “Thou art my servant, O Israel,” are spoken of the Messiah. So the Jewish rabbis have recognized the Scripture doctrine that Israel is type of Messiah. This typeism between Israel and Christ and the Church arises from the fact of their sameness of relation to God, as being objects of divine favour, representatives of righteousness in a world of trial, under pressure of the adversary, yet destined to victory; as we have exhibited in the parallels above.


Verse 16-17

§ 13. — SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS, AND RETURN FROM EGYPT, 16-23.

16. Mocked — Slighted and deceived. Wroth — Angry. Slew — Herod believed the prophecy, for he ordered the sacred records to be consulted, with the expectation that they would tell, and tell truly, where the Messiah would be born. He believed the Scripture; he believed in the Messiah. But what a believer! He imagined that he could kill the predicted Messiah, and so defeat the God of ages! Such idiots may the most crafty men make of themselves, when blinded by ambition. All the children — Male children. Many imagine that the number was immense; but the number of male children under two years old in a small village and its adjacent country borders could not be large. Coasts — The original word signifies not sea coasts, but suburbs, land borders.

There is no force in the modern objection to the truth of the history of the massacre of the infants, derived from the fact that no secular historian of that day mentions it. Amid the enormous slaughters perpetrated by this monster, the killing of a few children in a country village would hardly be thought worthy of notice by any pagan author. See our remarks on Herod in our notes upon Matthew 2:1.


Verse 18

18. In Ramah — Rama was a village in the tribe of Benjamin, near Bethlehem. Rachel weeping — Rachel was the wife of Jacob, or Israel, and died “in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.” (See Genesis 35:19; Genesis 48:7.) When the Babylonian captivity took place, Rama was the rendezvous where the Jews were assembled to be carried away. The prophet describes this by the beautiful passage (Jeremiah 31:15-16) here quoted. Rachel, the ancestral mother of Israel, is represented as weeping over the loss of her captured and murdered children. In this the evangelist finds a typical resemblance to the martyrdom of the children by Herod.

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A beautiful illustration of this personification of captured Israel as a female is found in several ancient medals, still extant, in which a mourning female figure is stamped with the pathetic inscription, Judea capta.

The typical principles are the same as in Matthew 2:15. Only there it is paternal Israel, and here it is maternal. There the father of the nation represents the nation, and here, his wife, the mother of tribes. Israel, or Judea, is here a woman. And as in the prophetic passage in Jeremiah, when fully quoted, there is a promised restoration for the hapless national Rachel, so in this case a triumph is shadowed for the maternal mourner.

They are not — Equivalent to our phrase, They are no more. They are borne away into slavery. To their weeping mother they are to all intents and purposes dead.


Verse 20

20. They are dead — Words quoted from Exodus 4:19, where they are applied to Pharaoh the type of Herod. Our Lord’s stay in Egypt could have not been many months in duration.


Verse 22

22. When he heard that Archelaus did reign — He heard this first after he had reached the land of Israel, that is, the southwestern border of Palestine. He knew the death of Herod by revelation in Egypt.

Archelaus was the son of Herod the Great, by his fourth wife, Malthace. After Herod had slain his three sons, Aristobulus, Alexander, and Antipater, he left by will his dominions to Archelaus as king. Upon the death of Herod, Archelaus was proclaimed king by the populace, but did not dare assume the crown until his title should be confirmed by the Emperor of Rome. Thereupon the Jews sent a solemn embassy to the emperor, petitioning that they might be exempted from the reign of any of Herod’s family, and that Judea might be governed as a Roman province, under the governor of Syria. The emperor, having heard the representations of all parties, appointed Archelaus not king, but ethnarch, that is, (in the Greek language,) nation-ruler, promising him the title of king, provided he should prove a good ruler. But the cruelty of the father was inherited by the son. Archelaus, after a reign of nine years, was deposed by the emperor at the suit of the Jewish people, and banished to Vienna, in Gaul, where he died. It is therefore very consistent with history, that when the parents of Jesus learned that Archelaus reigned in the stead of his father Herod, they should avoid his dominions, turn aside to Galilee, and make their abode in Nazareth.

It seems singular that Matthew has not thus far alluded to Nazareth by name, although we plentifully know by Luke that Nazareth was the home of the Holy Family before the flight to Egypt. Some think Matthew was not aware of the fact, which is hardly possible. But as Matthew wrote for Jews, it is more probable that he omits it because it was so well known. See concluding remarks of chapter i, par. 2.

Archelaus had as great a reputation for oppression as his cruel father. Herod Antipas, his brother, was ruler in Galilee. Thereby our Saviour’s residence was transferred to a scene predicted by the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Afraid to go thither — Some think that they would have gone thither because they had a residence in Bethlehem. This is disproved from the fact that Mary had not even an acquaintance to afford her a lodging at an exigency when any friend would have made a sacrifice to accommodate her. But they had relatives in Judea, (Luke 1:36; Luke 1:39-40;) Judah was their hereditary tribe, and Jerusalem might seem the suitable place for the young heir of David. These facts can surely explain their apparent disposition to settle in Judea. Galilee — Was the northern one of the three great divisions of Palestine. The word signifies circuit. The province consisted of a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, and so was much despised by the purer Jews of Judea.


Verse 23

23. A city called Nazareth — Though Matthew wrote for Jewish readers, familiar with Nazareth, his words seem to imply the contrary. This we shall soon explain. Nazareth — A small village embosomed in a valley in the southwestern part of Galilee. It was very obscure; it is not mentioned in the Old Testament. According to Hengstenberg, its name is derived from the Hebrew word Netzer, signifying a branch; or rather sprout, or germ; the place being so called from its insignificance. Its fame has solely risen from the residence of the Saviour there. Indeed, the place is a fit emblem of him. Beginning from a germ, it has risen to a tree in fame, and will fill the earth.

Stanley gives the following account of Nazareth:

“It is one peculiarity of the Galilean hills, as distinct from those of Ephraim or Judah, that they contain or sustain green basins of table-land just below their topmost ridges. Such above all is NAZARETH. Fifteen gently rounded hills ‘seem as if they had met to form an enclosure’ for this peaceful basin; ‘they rise round it like the edge of a shell to guard it from intrusion. It is a rich and beautiful field’ in the midst of these green hills, abounding in gay flowers, in fig-trees, small gardens, hedges of the prickly pear; and the dense, rich grass affords an abundant pasture. The village stands on the steep slope of the southwestern side of the valley.

“From the crest of the hills which thus screen it, especially from that called ‘Nebi-Said,’ or ‘Ismail,’ on the western side, is one of the most striking views in Palestine. There are Tabor, with its rounded dome, on the northeast, Hermon’s white top in the distant north, Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, a conjunction of those three famous mountains, probably unique in the views of Palestine. And in the nearer prospect, there are the uplands in which Nazareth itself stands, its own circular basin behind it; on the west, enclosed by similar hills overhanging the plain of Acre, lies the town of Sepphorieh, the Roman capital. On the south and southeast lies the broad plain of Esdraelon, overhung by the high pyramidal hill which, as the highest point of the Nazareth range, and thus the most conspicuous to travelers approaching from the plain, has received, though without any historical ground, the name of the ‘Mount of Precipitation.’ These are the natural features which for nearly thirty years met the almost daily view of Him who increased in wisdom and stature’ within this beautiful seclusion. It is the seclusion which constitutes its peculiarity and its fitness for these scenes of the Gospel history. Unknown and unnamed in the Old Testament, Nazareth first appears as the retired abode of the humble carpenter. Its separation from the busy world may be the ground, as it certainly is an illustration, of the evangelist’s play on the word, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ Its wild character, high up in the Galilean hills, may account both for the roughness of its population, unable to appreciate their own Prophet; and for the evil reputation which it had acquired even in the neighbouring villages, one of whose inhabitants, Nathaniel of Cana, said, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ There, secured within the natural barrier of the hills, was passed that youth, of which the most remarkable characteristic is its absolute obscurity; and thence came the name of NAZARENE, used of old by the Jews, and used still by Mussulmans, as the appellation of that despised sect which has now embraced the civilized world.”

Spoken by the prophets — Not by any one prophet in express terms, but by several of the prophets, in general substance.

He shall be called a Nazarene — The name of Nazarene was but another word for despised one. Hence, although no prophet has ever said anything of the word Nazarene, yet all those prophecies describing the Messiah as a despised one are fulfilled in his being a Nazarene.

Such is the ordinary interpretation, and we concur in it; and the reader is welcome to consider it sufficient. But we are convinced, in spite of the denial of most commentators, that, as Hengstenberg has shown, something more than this is intended. The Hebrew word for Nazareth was Netzer, a branch, or rather germ. Matthew wrote for Hebrews, and in his Hebrew the sentence would read thus: He dwelt in a city called Germ, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, saying, he shall be called a Germ, or Germinal One. Thereby would be fulfilled all that cluster of prophecies in which the Hebrew name Netzer, Branch or Germ, or its near synonym, is applied to Messiah. Thus, Zechariah 6:12 : Behold the man whose name is Branch, or Germ. The term in prophecy is expressive of the slender origin of the Messiah. This whole circle of prophecies, indeed, is embraced in this of Isaiah 11:1 : There shall come forth a rod from the fallen stem of Jesse and (Netzer,) a branch (germ) from his roots shall bear fruit. That is, from the decayed family stock of David, a feeble sprout shall put forth and grow to great final power. A prophecy this by which the evangelical history is wonderfully confirmed. Humble, obscure, and, as it seems to some, mean as the Gospel origin appears, it is by that very fact a fulfilment of stupendous prophecies. In support of this view we may remark:

1. There is a class of name-predictions in Scripture, of which this is a just specimen. Thus Isaiah gives his sons predictive names, (Isaiah 8:3; Isaiah 8:18; Isaiah 7:3,) which are fulfilled. Melchisedek is a type of Christ by being “King of Salem, that is, King of Peace.” This last is a precisely similar case. Salem, signifying peace, is, like Netzer, a topographical divine name-prediction of Christ’s prophetic character.

2. This interpretation makes the evangelist affirm that there was a divinely intended correspondence in name between the name of the city Netzer and Christ’s prophetic appellative Netzer; and that to mark this correspondence, Providence directed that the living Netzer should have his residence in the village Netzer. Thus would the popular attention be drawn to the prophecy and to its fulfilment.

3. The fulfilment does not stop at the mere name. Nazareth is called a germ from its insignificance; yet it shall, through him, fill the earth with its importance. So it is an emblem of Him, the living Nazareth, who at first is but a Germ, but shall fill the earth with his glory. And as there is a correspondence in the name and thing, so they both continue to fulfil the prophetic predictions of the Netzer, so that there is a triple prophetic cord.

4. By this wise plan of combining an external and audible fulfilment (so customary in prophecy) with the written one, a broad publicity is given to the great fact. It is transferred from the hidden books to the open land, and infused into the common speech. Providence has written a notice of the prophecy on the surface of the earth, as on a map, by the name of Nazareth, and has noted its fulfilment by placing Jesus, the germinal Netzer, there. And he has so contrived that every time a Jew speaks of Jesus as the Netzer, or Nazarene, he reminds himself of a fulfilled prophecy.

5. This view confirms the interpretation which finds in the name Nazarene a symbol of humble origin. Nathaniel’s question, Can any good come out of Nazareth? shows that as Galilee was the odium of Palestine, so Nazareth was the odium even of Galilee.

6. We now may see the true import of the phrase beginning this verse, a city called Nazareth. It implies not that the city was new to Matthew’s readers, for that was not the fact. It implies that Jesus was divinely directed to inhabit a city called by that name, in order that a name-prediction might be fulfilled. It so demonstrates our interpretation. The meaning, then, would be: He came to a city called Netzer that by being himself called a Netzer, the prophecies which predict him as a Netzer might be evidently verified. Or: He came to a city called Germ, that the prophecies which, for substance, predict him as a Germ, may be fulfilled in his very name, as well as condition.

Finally, it is worthy to be observed what a number of name-predictions concur in our Lord, as threads to a common knot. As his name Jesus asserts that he is a predicted Saviour, and antitype to Joshua, the bringer of his people to Canaan; as his appellative, Christ, declares him the end of all the Messianic prophecies; as his name Emmanuel proclaims him the Incarnate One of the Edenic prophecy and all ancient expectation, so his civic appellation Netzer, Nazarene, Branch, Germ, reminds us of a whole cluster of germinal prophecies, while the very spot in which he dwells is a type of the very points which the name designates. And finally, the prevalence of that appellation compels men, Jew or Gentile, the world over, to utter a perpetual reminder to themselves of the prophetic fulfilment. Pity if commentators should take much pains to obscure the reminder.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Matthew 2:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/matthew-2.html. 1874-1909.

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Sunday, December 8th, 2019
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