Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Mt 2:1-12. Visit of the Magi to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
The Wise Men Reach Jerusalem—The Sanhedrim, on Herod's Demand, Pronounce Bethlehem to Be Messiah's Predicted Birthplace (Mt 2:1-6).
1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea—so called to distinguish it from another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zebulun, near the Sea of Galilee (Jos 19:15); called also Beth-lehem-judah, as being in that tribe (Jud 17:7); and Ephrath (Ge 35:16); and combining both, Beth-lehem Ephratah (Mic 5:2). It lay about six miles southwest of Jerusalem. But how came Joseph and Mary to remove thither from Nazareth, the place of their residence? Not of their own accord, and certainly not with the view of fulfilling the prophecy regarding Messiah's birthplace; nay, they stayed at Nazareth till it was almost too late for Mary to travel with safety; nor would they have stirred from it at all, had not an order which left them no choice forced them to the appointed place. A high hand was in all these movements. (See on Lu 2:1-6).
in the days of Herod the king—styled the Great; son of Antipater, an Edomite, made king by the Romans. Thus was "the sceptre departing from Judah" (Ge 49:10), a sign that Messiah was now at hand. As Herod is known to have died in the year of Rome 750, in the fourth year before the commencement of our Christian era, the birth of Christ must be dated four years before the date usually assigned to it, even if He was born within the year of Herod's death, as it is next to certain that He was.
there came wise men—literally, "Magi" or "Magians," probably of the learned class who cultivated astrology and kindred sciences. Balaam's prophecy (Nu 24:17), and perhaps Daniel's (Da 9:24, &c.), might have come down to them by tradition; but nothing definite is known of them.
from the east—but whether from Arabia, Persia, or Mesopotamia is uncertain.
to Jerusalem—as the Jewish metropolis.
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
2. Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews?—From this it would seem they were not themselves Jews. (Compare the language of the Roman governor, Joh 18:33, and of the Roman soldiers, Mt 27:29, with the very different language of the Jews themselves, Mt 27:42, &c.). The Roman historians, Suetonius and Tacitus, bear witness to an expectation, prevalent in the East, that out of Judea should arise a sovereign of the world.
for we have seen his star in the east—Much has been written on the subject of this star; but from all that is here said it is perhaps safest to regard it as simply a luminous meteor, which appeared under special laws and for a special purpose.
and are come to worship him—to do Him homage, as the word signifies; the nature of that homage depending on the circumstances of the case. That not civil but religious homage is meant here is plain from the whole strain of the narrative, and particularly Mt 2:11. Doubtless these simple strangers expected all Jerusalem to be full of its new-born King, and the time, place, and circumstances of His birth to be familiar to every one. Little would they think that the first announcement of His birth would come from themselves, and still less could they anticipate the startling, instead of transporting, effect which it would produce—else they would probably have sought their information regarding His birthplace in some other quarter. But God overruled it to draw forth a noble testimony to the predicted birthplace of Messiah from the highest ecclesiastical authority in the nation.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
3. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled—viewing this as a danger to his own throne: perhaps his guilty conscience also suggested other grounds of fear.
and all Jerusalem with him—from a dread of revolutionary commotions, and perhaps also of Herod's rage.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together—The class of the "chief priests" included the high priest for the time being, together with all who had previously filled this office; for though the then head of the Aaronic family was the only rightful high priest, the Romans removed them at pleasure, to make way for creatures of their own. In this class probably were included also the heads of the four and twenty courses of the priests. The "scribes" were at first merely transcribers of the law and synagogue readers; afterwards interpreters of the law, both civil and religious, and so both lawyers and divines. The first of these classes, a proportion of the second, and "the elders"—that is, as Lightfoot thinks, "those elders of the laity that were not of the Levitical tribe"—constituted the supreme council of the nation, called the Sanhedrim, the members of which, at their full complement, numbered seventy-two. That this was the council which Herod now convened is most probable, from the solemnity of the occasion; for though the elders are not mentioned, we find a similar omission where all three were certainly meant (compare Mt 26:59; 27:1). As Meyer says, it was all the theologians of the nation whom Herod convened, because it was a theological response that he wanted.
he demanded of them—as the authorized interpreters of Scripture.
where Christ—the Messiah.
should be born—according to prophecy.
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
5. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea—a prompt and involuntary testimony from the highest tribunal; which yet at length condemned Him to die.
for thus it is written by the prophet—(Mic 5:2).
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
6. And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Juda—the "in" being familiarly left out, as we say, "London, Middlesex."
art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, &c.—This quotation, though differing verbally, agrees substantially with the Hebrew and the Septuagint. For says the prophet, "Though thou be little, yet out of thee shall come the Ruler"—this honor more than compensating for its natural insignificance; while our Evangelist, by a lively turn, makes him say, "Thou art not the least: for out of thee shall come a Governor"—this distinction lifting it from the lowest to the highest rank. The "thousands of Juda," in the prophet, mean the subordinate divisions of the tribe: our Evangelist, instead of these, merely names the "princes" or heads of these families, including the districts which they occupied.
that shall rule—or "feed," as in the Margin.
my people Israel—In the Old Testament, kings are, by a beautiful figure, styled "shepherds" (Eze 34:1-10, &c.). The classical writers use the same figure. The pastoral rule of Jehovah and Messiah over His people is a representation pervading all Scripture, and rich in import. (See Ps 23:1-6; Isa 40:11; Eze 37:24; Joh 10:11; Re 7:17). That this prophecy of Micah referred to the Messiah, was admitted by the ancient Rabbins.
The Wise Men Despatched to Bethlehem by Herod to See the Babe, and Bring Him Word, Make a Religious Offering to the Infant King, but Divinely Warned, Return Home by Another Way (Mt 2:7-12).
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men—Herod has so far succeeded in his murderous design: he has tracked the spot where lies his victim, an unconscious babe. But he has another point to fix—the date of His birth—without which he might still miss his mark. The one he had got from the Sanhedrim; the other he will have from the sages; but secretly, lest his object should be suspected and defeated. So he
inquired of them diligently—rather, "precisely."
what time the star appeared—presuming that this would be the best clue to the age of the child. The unsuspecting strangers tell him all. And now he thinks he is succeeding to a wish, and shall speedily clutch his victim; for at so early an age as they indicate, He would not likely have been removed from the place of His birth. Yet he is wary. He sends them as messengers from himself, and bids them come to him, that he may follow their pious example.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
8. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently—"Search out carefully."
for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also—The cunning and bloody hypocrite! Yet this royal mandate would meantime serve as a safe conduct to the strangers.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
9. When they had heard the king, they departed—But where were ye, O Jewish ecclesiastics, ye chief priests and scribes of the people? Ye could tell Herod where Christ should be born, and could hear of these strangers from the far East that the Desire of all nations had actually come; but I do not see you trooping to Bethlehem—I find these devout strangers journeying thither all alone. Yet God ordered this too, lest the news should be blabbed, and reach the tyrant's ears, before the Babe could be placed beyond his reach. Thus are the very errors and crimes and cold indifferences of men all overruled.
and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east—implying apparently that it had disappeared in the interval.
went before them, and stood over where the young child was—Surely this could hardly be but by a luminous meteor, and not very high.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
10. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy—The language is very strong, expressing exuberant transport.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
11. And when they were come into the house—not the stable; for as soon as Bethlehem was emptied of its strangers, they would have no difficulty in finding a dwelling-house.
they saw—The received text has "found"; but here our translators rightly depart from it, for it has no authority.
the young child with Mary his mother—The blessed Babe is naturally mentioned first, then the mother; but Joseph, though doubtless present, is not noticed, as being but the head of the house.
and fell down and worshipped him—Clearly this was no civil homage to a petty Jewish king, whom these star-guided strangers came so far, and inquired so eagerly, and rejoiced with such exceeding joy, to pay, but a lofty spiritual homage. The next clause confirms this.
and when they had opened their treasures they presented—rather, "offered."
unto him gifts—This expression, used frequently in the Old Testament of the oblations presented to God, is in the New Testament employed seven times, and always in a religious sense of offerings to God. Beyond doubt, therefore, we are to understand the presentation of these gifts by the Magi as a religious offering.
gold, frankincense, and myrrh—Visits were seldom paid to sovereigns without a present (1Ki 10:2, &c.; compare Ps 72:10, 11, 15; Isa 60:3, 6). "Frankincense" was an aromatic used in sacrificial offerings; "myrrh" was used in perfuming ointments. These, with the "gold" which they presented, seem to show that the offerers were persons in affluent circumstances. That the gold was presented to the infant King in token of His royalty; the frankincense in token of His divinity, and the myrrh, of His sufferings; or that they were designed to express His divine and human natures; or that the prophetical, priestly, and kingly offices of Christ are to be seen in these gifts; or that they were the offerings of three individuals respectively, each of them kings, the very names of whom tradition has handed down—all these are, at the best, precarious suppositions. But that the feelings of these devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay there—that much at least admits of no dispute.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
12. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed—or, "withdrew."
to their own country another way—What a surprise would this vision be to the sages, just as they were preparing to carry the glad news of what they had seen to the pious king! But the Lord knew the bloody old tyrant better than to let him see their face again.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
Mt 2:13-23. The Flight into Egypt—The Massacre at Bethlehem—The Return of Joseph and Mary with the Babe, after Herod's Death, and Their Settlement at Nazareth. ( = Lu 2:39).
The Flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13-15).
13. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother—Observe this form of expression, repeated in Mt 2:14—another indirect hint that Joseph was no more than the Child's guardian. Indeed, personally considered, Joseph has no spiritual significance, and very little place at all, in the Gospel history.
and flee into Egypt—which, being near, as Alford says, and a Roman province independent of Herod, and much inhabited by Jews, was an easy and convenient refuge. Ah! blessed Saviour, on what a checkered career hast Thou entered here below! At Thy birth there was no room for Thee in the inn; and now all Judea is too hot for Thee. How soon has the sword begun to pierce through the Virgin's soul (Lu 2:35)! How early does she taste the reception which this mysterious Child of hers is to meet with in the world! And whither is He sent? To "the house of bondage?" Well, it once was that. But Egypt was a house of refuge before it was a house of bondage, and now it has but returned to its first use.
and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him—Herod's murderous purpose was formed before the Magi had reached Bethlehem.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
14. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt—doubtless the same night.
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
15. And was there until the death of Herod—which took place not very long after this of a horrible disease; the details of which will be found in Josephus [Antiquities, 17.6.1,5,7,8].
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying—(Ho 11:1).
Out of Egypt have I called my son—Our Evangelist here quotes directly from the Hebrew, warily departing from the Septuagint, which renders the words, "From Egypt have I recalled his children," meaning Israel's children. The prophet is reminding his people how dear Israel was to God in the days of his youth; how Moses was bidden to say to Pharaoh, "Thus saith the Lord, Israel is My son, My first-born; and I say unto thee, Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy first-born" (Ex 4:22, 23); how, when Pharaoh refused, God having slain all his first-born, "called His own son out of Egypt," by a stroke of high-handed power and love. Viewing the words in this light, even if our Evangelist had not applied them to the recall from Egypt of God's own beloved, Only-begotten Son, the application would have been irresistibly made by all who have learnt to pierce beneath the surface to the deeper relations which Christ bears to His people, and both to God; and who are accustomed to trace the analogy of God's treatment of each respectively.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
16. Then Herod, &c.—As Deborah sang of the mother of Sisera: "She looked out at a window, and cried through the lattice, Why is his chariot so long in coming? why tarry the wheels of his chariots? Have they not sped?" so Herod wonders that his messengers, with pious zeal, are not hastening with the news that all is ready to receive him as a worshipper. What can be keeping them? Have they missed their way? Has any disaster befallen them? At length his patience is exhausted. He makes his inquiries and finds they are already far beyond his reach on their way home.
when he saw that he was mocked—was trifled with.
of the wise men—No, Herod, thou art not mocked of the wise men, but of a Higher than they. He that sitteth in the heavens doth laugh at thee; the Lord hath thee in derision. He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness, and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong (Ps 2:4; Job 5:12, 13). That blessed Babe shall die indeed, but not by thy hand. As He afterwards told that son of thine—as cunning and as unscrupulous as thyself—when the Pharisees warned Him to depart, for Herod would seek to kill Him—"Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem" (Lu 13:32, 33). Bitter satire!
was exceeding wroth—To be made a fool of is what none like, and proud kings cannot stand. Herod burns with rage and is like a wild bull in a net. So he
sent forth—a band of hired murderers.
and slew all the children—male children.
that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof—environs.
from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently—carefully.
inquired of the wise men—In this ferocious step Herod was like himself—as crafty as cruel. He takes a large sweep, not to miss his mark. He thinks this will surely embrace his victim. And so it had, if He had been there. But He is gone. Heaven and earth shall sooner pass away than thou shalt have that Babe into thy hands. Therefore, Herod, thou must be content to want Him: to fill up the cup of thy bitter mortifications, already full enough—until thou die not less of a broken heart than of a loathsome and excruciating disease. Why, ask skeptics and skeptical critics, is not this massacre, if it really occurred, recorded by Josephus, who is minute enough in detailing the cruelties of Herod? To this the answer is not difficult. If we consider how small a town Bethlehem was, it is not likely there would be many male children in it from two years old and under; and when we think of the number of fouler atrocities which Josephus has recorded of him, it is unreasonable to make anything of his silence on this.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
17. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying—(Jer 31:15, from which the quotation differs but verbally).
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
18. In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not—These words, as they stand in Jeremiah, undoubtedly relate to the Babylonish captivity. Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, was buried in the neighborhood of Bethlehem (Ge 35:19), where her sepulchre is still shown. She is figuratively represented as rising from the tomb and uttering a double lament for the loss of her children—first, by a bitter captivity, and now by a bloody death. And a foul deed it was. O ye mothers of Bethlehem! methinks I hear you asking why your innocent babes should be the ram caught in the thicket, while Isaac escapes. I cannot tell you, but one thing I know, that ye shall, some of you, live to see a day when that Babe of Bethlehem shall be Himself the Ram, caught in another sort of thicket, in order that your babes may escape a worse doom than they now endure. And if these babes of yours be now in glory, through the dear might of that blessed Babe, will they not deem it their honor that the tyrant's rage was exhausted upon themselves instead of their infant Lord?
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
19. But when Herod was dead—Miserable Herod! Thou thoughtest thyself safe from a dreaded Rival; but it was He only that was safe from thee; and thou hast not long enjoyed even this fancied security. See on Mt 2:15.
behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt—Our translators, somewhat capriciously, render the same expression "the angel of the Lord," Mt 1:20; 2:13; and "an angel of the Lord," as here. As the same angel appears to have been employed on all these high occasions—and most likely he to whom in Luke is given the name of "Gabriel," Lu 1:19, 26—perhaps it should in every instance except the first, be rendered "the angel."
Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.
20. Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel—not to the land of Judea, for he was afterward expressly warned not to settle there, nor to Galilee, for he only went thither when he found it unsafe to settle in Judea but to "the land of Israel," in its most general sense; meaning the Holy Land at large—the particular province being not as yet indicated. So Joseph and the Virgin had, like Abraham, to "go out, not knowing whither they went," till they should receive further direction.
for they are dead which sought the young child's life—a common expression in most languages where only one is meant, who here is Herod. But the words are taken from the strikingly analogous case in Ex 4:19, which probably suggested the plural here; and where the command is given to Moses to return to Egypt for the same reason that the greater than Moses was now ordered to be brought back from it—the death of him who sought his life. Herod died in the seventieth year of his age, and thirty-seventh of his reign.
And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
21. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel—intending, as is plain from what follows, to return to Bethlehem of Judea, there, no doubt, to rear the Infant King, as at His own royal city, until the time should come when they would expect Him to occupy Jerusalem, "the city of the Great King."
But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
22. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod—Archelaus succeeded to Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; but Augustus refused him the title of king till it should be seen how he conducted himself; giving him only the title of ethnarch [Josephus, Antiquities, 17.11,4]. Above this, however, he never rose. The people, indeed, recognized him as his father's successor; and so it is here said that he "reigned in the room of his father Herod." But, after ten years' defiance of the Jewish law and cruel tyranny, the people lodged heavy complaints against him, and the emperor banished him to Vienne in Gaul, reducing Judea again to a Roman province. Then the "scepter" clean "departed from Judah."
he was afraid to go thither—and no wonder, for the reason just mentioned.
notwithstanding—or more simply, "but."
being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside—withdrew.
into the parts of Galilee—or the Galilean parts. The whole country west of the Jordan was at this time, as is well known, divided into three provinces—Galilee being the northern, Judea the southern, and Samaria the central province. The province of Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, the brother of Archelaus, his father having left him that and Perea, on the east side of the Jordan, as his share of the kingdom, with the title of tetrarch, which Augustus confirmed. Though crafty and licentious, according to Josephus—precisely what the Gospel history shows him to be (see on Mr 6:14-30; Lu 13:31-35)—he was of a less cruel disposition than Archelaus; and Nazareth being a good way off from the seat of government, and considerably secluded, it was safer to settle there.
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
23. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth—a small town in Lower Galilee, lying in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun, and about equally distant from the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Sea of Galilee on the east. Note—If, from Lu 2:39, one would conclude that the parents of Jesus brought Him straight back to Nazareth after His presentation in the temple—as if there had been no visit of the Magi, no flight to Egypt, no stay there, and no purpose on returning to settle again at Bethlehem—one might, from our Evangelist's way of speaking here, equally conclude that the parents of our Lord had never been at Nazareth until now. Did we know exactly the sources from which the matter of each of the Gospels was drawn up, or the mode in which these were used, this apparent discrepancy would probably disappear at once. In neither case is there any inaccuracy. At the same time it is difficult, with these facts before us, to conceive that either of these two Evangelists wrote his Gospel with that of the other before him—though many think this a precarious inference.
that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene—better, perhaps, "Nazarene." The best explanation of the origin of this name appears to be that which traces it to the word netzer in Isa 11:1—the small twig, sprout, or sucker, which the prophet there says, "shall come forth from the stem (or rather, 'stump') of Jesse, the branch which should fructify from his roots." The little town of Nazareth, mentioned neither in the Old Testament nor in Josephus, was probably so called from its insignificance: a weak twig in contrast to a stately tree; and a special contempt seemed to rest upon it—"Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (Joh 1:46)—over and above the general contempt in which all Galilee was held, from the number of Gentiles that settled in the upper territories of it, and, in the estimation of the Jews, debased it. Thus, in the providential arrangement by which our Lord was brought up at the insignificant and opprobrious town called Nazareth, there was involved, first, a local humiliation; next, an allusion to Isaiah's prediction of His lowly, twig-like upspringing from the branchless, dried-up stump of Jesse; and yet further, a standing memorial of that humiliation which "the prophets," in a number of the most striking predictions, had attached to the Messiah.