13 Dec 2013 by Yeo Teck Thiam-
As Christmas comes around each year, we sing many carols about the birth of Jesus. We know also many signs accompanied Jesus’ birth, and we often reflect on these events. We think of the Star that was seen at His birth, for we are always amazed by the account.
It is the story of the Magi who had come to Jerusalem to find the One who was born King of the Jews, for they had seen His star in the east, and had come to worship Him. This is the account we have in the Gospel, Matthew 2:1-12.
Many will find the account brief, unexplained, or puzzling in many aspects. It may be easier to dismiss the story as unsubstantiated, as we acknowledge there is little secular evidence to support the events recorded.
Yet, the story describes many important events that relate to Old Testament prophecies, and so we wonder also how the Christian can find the threads that tie these events together with Scripture. This is something that God must open our eyes to see, for Scripture clearly hides many things, as it is written: “You shall seek me, and you shall find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jer 29:13
So then, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; and it is the glory of kings to search it out” Proverbs 25:2. So the Lord also encourages us, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but what is revealed belongs to God’s children, that we may follow all the words of the law.” Deut 29:29.
In the thoughts below, I have little to offer scholars and theologians to deliberate as I have built on common knowledge and not sought scholastic treatises to support what I have written. However, what I have done is share what I understand were in words given us in Scripture. To this end, I thought about what were recorded but seemed hidden in the account.
About Wise Men
To begin, these Magi were wise men that came from the rising of the sun, that is, from the east of Jerusalem. They were accepted and addressed as wise men for no one in Jerusalem dismissed them as fakes or rumor mongers. What they had to say were held with high esteem. The people and the court of Herod acknowledged this. Even Herod called them secretly to find out the details. Matthew 2:3,7.
Yet we must be surprised by this account of the Magi. For one thing, they came to proclaim that they were in Jerusalem to find the King of the Jews. Politically, this was suicidal because they did not acknowledge Herod was already king in Judea.
What the Magi had said was potentially treasonous for they were looking for another king of the Jews. Herod was not the chosen king. Neither did the Magi ask Herod if he had any sons born that could fit this bill. Yet Herod did not execute the Magi.
Religiously, this was alarming to the chief priests and scribes. The authorities in Jerusalem had no knowledge of this star. How could they be ignorant of such an important event that God has given? Where were the prophets and learned men in Jerusalem? Why should people of Judea and the priests listen to foreigners’ tales?
We wonder also, if other wise men of that time had anything to say or to refute the Magi. The centre of learning and scholarship for the Greco-Roman world at that time was Alexandria in Egypt. But this city was to the west of Judea, not from the east. Then also, Alexandrian scholarship was Greek. In particular, the acclaimed Grecian education began with poetry in Diosemia in Aratus’ Phaenomena and Homer’s Iliad.
With reference to the Diosemia, this was the Divine Signs text that Aratus of Cicilia composed so that the people would also be familiar with their heroes. From this poetry, we have today the familiar stories we know of the Zodiac and the Greek gods in the skies. But there was no mention of Alexandrian or Grecian knowledge about the Star of Bethlehem. The Magi hence could not be related to these men of learning.
Moreover, the Magi evidently spoke a common tongue with the people of Judea, for what they said was understood in the streets of Jerusalem. It was why the report was carried to Herod’s court for the Magi did not seek an audience with the king (Matthew 2:3).
These wise men hence could not be emissaries from another far flung country such as India, China or the north. They would also need an interpreter to begin with. We must expect that as foreigners, they would unlikely be received with this deferential respect accorded to wise men.
The Magi hence were wise men that Jerusalem was likely aware of. It spoke possibly of the courts from the Babylonian and Persian civilization. The Jews were exiled there before and many Jews still lived in those countries. They spoke the common language in the region which in Greco-Roman times was Aramaic, not Greek. The Babylonian-Persian heritage was also one of the wonders of human intellectual achievements, particularly in astrology and astronomy.
However, several facts do not seem to fit the picture of Babylonian and Persian wise men. For one thing, the route that people took from these Babylonian regions will come down from the north of Jerusalem. Then also, they would bring gifts from these regions. However, the Magi brought frankincense and myrrh which are not native to Babylonia. Thus it is possible the Magi were from Babylonian, but we must also look at other possibilities about their identity.
Arise and Shine
We will not be able to establish who the Magi are, since these men were not stated as to their origin in Scripture. Yet, we are also curious whether there is any prophecy about these men, since their presence in Jerusalem is unprecedented. Is there any mention of them in Scripture?
So also we look at some early church traditions. There is a tradition in the Middle East that the prophecy in Isaiah 60: 1-7 was fulfilled at Jesus’ birth. This speaks of the rising of the light and the glory of God shining.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD shall rise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings shall come to your rising…
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.
All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth will serve you;
they will be accepted as offerings on my altar,
and I will beautify my house.
The visit of the Magi would fulfil the prophecies of gold and frankincense. These men would come to worship, for God’s light has come and the glory of God has risen. Thus, in coming to Jesus because of the light of the Star of a King, the Magi were announcing good news of Jesus’ birth, worshipping and praising God as prophesied.
Gold and frankincense are for worship and praise since it is offered before the king. Although several translate frankincense as incense, the Hebrew word used is lebonah which is frankincense.
So, now where is myrrh?
It is in v 7 which summed up "to beautify". In Old Testament, myrrh is for beautifying and perfuming and listed as a choice spice for this purpose. You can see this meaning in Song of Solomon 3:6, 4:7, 12-16, and also Gen 37:25. Although some equate myrrh as meant for Jesus’ burial, I think this is a narrow idea because the Magi came to worship Jesus. Myrrh would relate to perfuming and beautifying purposes, as noted in Old Testament.
Thus, those who bore gold, frankincense, and myrrh would come from the east, indicating that the Magi might not be from Babylonia-Persia, but from lands to the east, in Arabia. If this is so, the Magi would be Semites, people related to the Jews as well, and spoke Aramaic. But Scripture did not specify, and we must leave this as unknown.
Gold and frankincense are native to the lands east of Judaea. We remember the gold from Sheba in the south that came to King Solomon. They would have crossed the Jordan River coming from the east, just as Israel did when they came to Canaan after the Exodus.
Then also, if the Magi were from Arabia, it makes sense that they returned home by another way, after being warned not to go back to Herod. This route will be to go south of Bethlehem through Hebron, towards the Way of the Sea, the Via Maris towards Egypt. This route was taken by Abraham, and then Jacob when they left Canaan to go down to Egypt.
If the Magi were from Babylonian, they would have to go back through Jerusalem and then journey northwards through Damascus. Hence wise men that came from Babylonia would be coming from the north, in this sense.
In the movie Ben Hur, many would remember Judah Ben Hur spoke to one Magi who was living in the oasis in the desert with the Arabs. The Magi was with the Arab ruler who was training horses for the Jerusalem race. Although this is from a novel, the idea is not farfetched.
This tradition cannot be dismissed but needs evidence. But whatever the evidence may ultimately turn out, we rejoice in the good news God gives us of Jesus’ birth. So, arise and shine, says the LORD.
There is only One King
Nevertheless, what the Magi said was more than learned dissertations because they had attached great importance to this star which they clearly identified as announcing the One who was born King of the Jews. It was hence not an ordinary message from the heavens for they had come to worship Him. Matthew 2:4.
Herod would have loved this worship. But Herod was only an earthly king and knew this was not possible. The Hebrews would never worship anyone except God. This was in the Law and covenant God gave them through Moses. It was the First Commandment of the chosen nation of God. Exodus 20:1,2.
Therefore the Magi were not looking for another earthly king was clear. Their quest was for the Christ who was born to be King. This King of the Jews had been consecrated at birth from on high. For the Hebrews, this was God revealing Himself to the people. This pronouncement therefore disturbed the people and the court of Herod. The credentials of the Magi as wise and learned men could not be dismissed.
Moreover, the Magi’s conviction about the significance of the star stood out. They had traveled from far, risking their lives against possible treason charges and the wrath of a religious people set apart for God, in order that they might worship the Anointed One.
Thus the chief priests and teachers of the law told Herod that the Anointed One from God would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:5. He was already prophesied in Micah 5:2. The Messiah would sit on David’s throne and reign forever.
This prophecy obviously did not go down well with Herod. It was bad enough that another was born to be King. But it was far worse to know that the Christ’s kingship is forever whereas Herod’s reign was only for his own brief lifetime.
Note: Mr Yeo Teck Thiam is a retireer who used to work as a chemical engineer, specializing in food and perfume chemistry for an international food company and perfumer. His other main interest is astronomy and other mathematical matters, relating to the Biblical passages.
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