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Matthew 2:3-8 "The King's Reception, Part 2b: The Search Continues"

The Magi’s Effect on Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s King (vv. 3-8)

It seems as if the magi’s inquiry regarding the born king of the Jews was designed to rattle Herod’s cage. At the very least, their question was impertinent but in a worst-case scenario, the magi could be Parthian agents sent to riddle the Levant with unrest and descension. In any case, the magi certainly had an ill-effect on Herod and all Jerusalem.

Emotionally Disturbed (v. 3)

But when king Herod heard this, he became disturbed and all Jerusalem with him

There are a few observations to be made from the start. First, the magi did not present their inquiry to Herod. There is no indication from the text that Herod and the magi had a face-to-face meeting until v. 7. This brings up several additional questions. Were the magi walking through the streets of Jerusalem shouting this question? Were they poking around more discreetly? How the magi went about asking their question is not stated because the effect of their question is more important than the method they used.

Second, Herod found out about it and the news unnerved him. It seems that little escaped Herod’s attention. When the text states that Herod “heard” (ἀκούσας δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς Ἡρῲδης) it is doubtful that Herod heard the magi ask the question himself. Rather, it is as if this news was reported to Herod. Parthian magi wandering about Jerusalem is newsworthy in of itself. But those who are seeking a king while making no attempt to receive and audience with the sitting king is downright conspiratorial. This news greatly disturbed Herod, as one might well imagine. “Disturbed” (ταράσσω) is not a mild term but rather indicates great confusion or even violence. If used literally of physical matter, the term describes water that is stirred up (Hab. 3:15; Jn. 5:7), physical trembling and shaking (Gen. 42:28), earthquakes (2 Sam. 22:8; Ps. 18:7; 46:2, 3, 6; Amos 8:8; Jer. 4:24) and withering of physical body and strength (Ps. 31:9, 10). A more metaphorical use of the term describes the emotional uneasiness or uncertainty of confusion (Ruth 3:8; Esth. 3:15; Dan. 2:1; Acts 17:13; Gal. 1:7; 5:10), grief or dismay (Gen. 43:30; 2 Sam. 18:33; Ps. 6:2, 3, 7, 10), and fear that stretches to sheer terror (Deut. 2:25; Ps. 2:5; Is. 13:8; Matt. 14:26). We may not know if the magi intended to rattle Herod’s cage, but it is sufficient to say that Herod’s cage is certainly rattled.

Third, the people are of the same mind as their king. Some understand this last phrase as an indication of Herod’s violent tendencies affecting the city. Because the city knew that Herod was disturbed, they also became disturbed.[1] Yet the text states that Jerusalem became disturbed with (μετά) him. The indication is that they were disturbed for the same reasons as Herod; i.e., the city feared a political coup and Parthian takeover as was attempted forty years prior which necessitated Herod’s flight to Rome and ended with Herod being granted the title “King of the Jews.” The point is not whether or not the city (and Herod) had a legitimate right to be disturbed. The point is that there were men who arrived in Jerusalem basically proclaiming the arrival of Messiah and the overall response was one of dread instead of joy. The appointed king over the Jews dreads the arrival of the born king from the Jews. Yet, ironically enough, the Jews also dread His arrival.

The concept of corporate solidarity is a major theme throughout the Bible. Adam’s fall indicates the fall of humanity (Rom. 5). Abraham’s submission to Melchizedek indicates the submission of all Israel (Heb. 7). Many other examples could be mentioned, but the point is simply this: Herod, even though he is no Israelite, is an accurate representative of Israel’s heart at this time. All Jerusalem dreads as he dreads and will plot as he plots.

Educationally Diligent (vv. 4-7)

We have already noted that the LXX uses “disturbed” (ταράσσω) to describe the state of Nebuchadnezzar when he awoke from his dream of the great statue (Dan. 2:1). Herod takes another page out of Nebuchadnezzar’s book when he meets this disturbed response with a quest for answers. It is now time to gather the experts and find out just what is going on. From these verses we observe that Herod knows at least three things: (1) The significance of the one whom the magi seek, (2) who to ask regarding this one’s location, and (3) how to establish a timeline regarding this one’s birth.

Herod Knew Who the Magi Sought (v. 4)

And gathering all the chief priests and scribes of the people he kept inquiring from them where the Christ was to be born

This is doubtfully a formal gathering of the Sanhedrin but a rushed gathering of the most pertinent people. Although, it is likely that many of the Sanhedrin’s members were present. The “chief priests” mentioned here doubtlessly come from the sect of the Sadducees while the “scribes” describe the lay scholars of the law as found among the Pharisees. The gospels tell of only two occasions where these theological and political opponents come together: here, to identify the birthplace of the king, and thirty years later to conspire how to kill Him.

It is necessary to note that Herod immediately understood that the magi referred to the prophesied Messiah when they were asking about the born king of the Jews. This is no ordinary king, but THE King of kings. He doesn’t bother asking the experts unnecessary questions but demands to know where the Scriptures dictate the Christ is to be born (ποῦ ὁ χριστὸς γεννᾶται). The use of the imperfect “kept asking” (ἐπυνθάνετο) indicates that Herod did not ask once or twice but continued to ask until he received positive confirmation. It’s interesting that Herod knew who to ask and where they would look to find the answers, but his own familiarity with the Scriptures was so inadequate that he did not even bother to search for himself.

Herod Knew Who to Ask Regarding Christ’s Location (vv. 5-6)

So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judah. For thus it is written through the prophet: And you Bethlehem of the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. For out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’”:

The true miracle in this paragraph is not so much the star or magi’s knowledge so much as it is that these two factions agreed on a very specific theological topic. With one voice the chief priests and the scribes stated that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. Why such an affirmative answer? Because the prophet Micah states so quite plainly.

The chief priests and the scribes both understand Micah 5:2 as a Messianic text that plainly reveals the location of Messiah’s birth. Contextually, Micah’s prophecy is advocating for a Davidic ruler and king yet also maintains the prophetic trajectory of a necessary restart for the rebellious nation. Therefore, Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, the place where David was born, and not in Jerusalem, the place where every other king was born.[2] This concept fits Matthew’s trajectory perfectly. Jesus is not simply within the Davidic line and therefore eligible to be Israel’s king. Rather, as Messiah Jesus is a new beginning and a signal of a fresh start. For this reason, Messiah is not born in the capital of Israel, nor in the king’s palace. Messiah is born in relative obscurity just as Israel’s first king was.

The final line of this prophecy is a mighty clue for the reader. The fact that Messiah is expected to shepherd Israel is dripping with implications and Old Testament references. Two of the biggest names in the Old Testament are Moses and David. Both men began as shepherds (Ex. 3:1; 1 Sam. 16:11) and both men are forerunners of the messianic expectation (Deut. 18:15; 2 Sam. 7:12-16). The various worthless leaders of Israel in the days between David and the exile are called worthless shepherds (Zech. 11:17; Jer. 22:22; 23:2; Ezek. 34:10) while Yhwh, His Messiah, and His servants are referred to as a good and caring shepherd(s) (Is. 40:11; Jer. 23:4; Ezek. 34:23). If Israel’s shepherd has come, is there not also an expectation that (1) Israel will be protected against the nations as the repent (Zech. 12:1-10), (2) they will understand the magnificence of Yhwh and trust in Him (Is. 40:18-31), (3) the righteous Davidic branch will be raised up and Judah will be saved (Jer. 23:5-6), and that (4) Yhwh will be Israel’s God and David a prince among them (Ezek. 34:24)? Though Matthew has made it clear that Jesus being born in Bethlehem (v. 1) is fulfillment of the Messianic expectation, he also makes it clear that the national response to Messiah is not what was advertised.

As the agent of God the Holy Spirit (διὰ τοῦ προφήτου) Micah made it clear that the tiny village of Bethlehem would be the birthplace of Messiah. It is interesting that no one was looking for Messiah in Bethlehem at this time. Daniel had provided a very specific countdown to Messiah’s death (Dan. 9:24-27). If Daniel already pointed to 33 AD as the year Messiah would be “cut off”,[3] then it stands to reason that beginning sometime around 20 BC, Israel should have been keeping a longing eye upon the sleepy town of Bethlehem. Nobody in Jerusalem doubted Micah’s words. They knew them by heart and could answer Herod’s question without looking through a single scroll. Yet they did not believe it to be true. They knew where to find Messiah and roughly when they could expect to find Him. But they did not care enough to bother looking. The magi had nothing but an unaccounted-for star, and God revealed to them that Messiah had come. Israel had the detailed account of Old Testament Scripture, and yet God concealed from them the reality that Messiah was now among His people.

Once again, Matthew clearly affirms that Jesus is certainly the Christ but that this is not the time of Israel’s restoration. Messiah must be coming for a different purpose. In any case, Herod now knows something that the magi do not: the location of the born king of the Jews.

Herod Knew How to Establish a Timeline (v. 7)

Then Herod, after secretly calling the magi, carefully inquired from them the time of the star’s appearing

This is the first time that Herod and the magi have met face-to-face. It is also worth noting that this meeting is not going to be on the public record. Herod called for a private audience in order to establish when the magi first sighted the star that launched this expedition. It’s important to once again remind ourselves that the magi did not follow this star from Parthia to Jerusalem because (a) the text never says they followed the star, (b) a timeline would be irrelevant because Herod would be able to follow the star as easily as the magi, and (c) a secret council would be redundant for the same reason. Herod knows where this “messiah” is supposed to be, but he doesn’t know who he’s looking for.

It was commonly believed that any abnormality of the night sky (comet, meteor shower, etc.) indicated either the death or the birth of a great king or significant person. The thought behind Herod’s question is to establish the approximate age of this born king. It is only at this point that Herod truly realizes that he is looking for a child.

Explorational Directive (v. 8)

Then sending them to Bethlehem he said, ‘Go and make an accurate search for the child, but as soon as you find him, report to me so that I too might come worship Him.’

There are several things about this verse that are obvious and yet others that require more meditation and less assumption from tradition. First, it is obvious that Herod intends for the magi to function as his spies. He sends them to Bethlehem in order to search for the child. With this observation comes several less obvious clues that require our attention. (1) Herod shares his privileged information that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Apparently, the magi did not connect the dots as quickly as the chief priests and scribes did, for they were looking in the wrong place. They assumed that Israel’s king would be in Israel’s capitol rather than in Israel’s pasture lands. (2) Herod did not anticipate the reappearance of the star. He ordered the magi to make a careful search for the child, not to follow the star as it indicates the precise location of the child. He assumed that this quest would take some time. Bethlehem was not a large city at the close of the first century BC, likely boasting a population of less than 1,000 people. Even so, it would take some time to thorough search the village and knock on every door.

A second observation is that Herod is being less than truthful. By reading ahead (and acknowledging that we are slaves to traditional teaching) we know that Herod is using the magi to locate the child so that he can kill Him. Yet there are again several insights that accompany this obvious reflection. (1) Herod did not desire the magi to make physical contact with the child. He clearly states to discover the child’s location and then to report back to him. The indication of Herod’s limp excuse that he too would like to worship implies that Herod intended for the magi to delay their worship until Herod could join them. When the magi enter the house and bow down to the child (v. 11), they’re going rogue. (2) It seems that Herod wanted all of the major players in the same place at the same time. By desiring the magi to wait until they report to him, he would be able to cut off every loose thread. Not only would there be no more rival to the throne, but neither would there be any foreign dignitaries telling the world about it. Herod’s throne would remain secure.

A third observation is necessary at this point. Most suggest that the magi are somehow naive enough to go along with Herod’s plan. Many wonder why anyone would trust Herod of all people. Yet the text leaves a gaping hole where the magi’s response should be. We are not told that they agreed to anything, only that Herod called them secretly into his confidence only to dismiss them with a specific charge. What they did is recorded for us. But we would do well to remember that these are not Judaean subjects, but Parthian dignitaries. They do not answer to Herod and are thus not obligated to fulfill his wishes. They are certainly aware of his reputation and are thus likely on high alert. But to call them naïve is a bit of a stretch.

The rest of the narrative will have to wait until next week, but there are at least two reflections worth meditating upon. (1) “These verses teach us that it is not always those who have the most religious privileges who give Christ the most honor.”[4] It is interesting that the nation of Israel, who have been given the Scriptures and live within the very location where all things will take place did not care a wit about the coming Messiah. They knew where to look and when to expect Him, yet they moved not a finger to meet Him. (2) “These verses teach us that there may be knowledge of Scripture in the head while there is no grace in the heart.”[5] This observation piggybacks onto the first. The point is that there was no lack of knowledge in Israel yet there was a tremendous lack of faith. One might make a similar observation regarding modern evangelicalism. While it is true that there is a blight in our land, a famine of biblical literacy, the answer is not simply to teach but to teach in conjunction with a call for obedience. In other words, one must know before one can believe. But it does no good to only know and never believe.

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 61. [2] Abner Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers: Learning to Interpret Scripture from the Prophets and Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2018), p. 79. [3] Harold Hoehner, “Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ Part VI: Daniel’s Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, January 1975. [4] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2007), p. 10. [5] Ibid, p. 11.


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