Mat_2:1. Now when Jesus was born. See chap. Mat_1:25. Further details are given in Luk_2:1-21. The visit of the shepherds had already taken place, the presentation in the temple was either shortly before or after this visit of the Magi.
Bethlehem of Judea. A small town situated on the crest of a small hill about six miles south of Jerusalem. The present inhabitants (about 5,000) all belong to the Greek church. The name means: house of bread, probably given on account of its great fertility. It is called Bethlehem Judah (Jdg_17:7-8; 1Sa_17:12) to distinguish it from another town in Galilee (tribe of Zebulon) of the same name; also Ephrath (Gen_35:19; Gen_48:7) and Ephrata (Mic_5:2); also ‘the city of David’ (Luk_2:4), because his birth-place (Rth_1:1-19; 1 Samuel 16). Its insignificance and its honor are contrasted in the prophecy (Mic_5:2) quoted by the scribes (Mat_2:6).
Herod the king, generally called in history Herod the Great, the son of the Edomite Antipater by an Arabian mother. Antipater, who was made procurator of Judea by Cæsar, appointed his son governor of Galilee at the age of fifteen. Herod was made tetrarch by Antony, but driven away by Antigonus, a Maccabæan prince. Fleeing to Rome, he was there crowned king of Judea by the Senate, through the favor of Antony, and by the help of the Romans actually obtained the throne. Securing the favor of Augustus he reigned thirty-seven years. A skilful ruler, fond of architectural embellishment, but extremely cruel and jealous, being charged with the murder of his wife and three sons. He died at the age of seventy, shortly after putting to death the third son, in the 750th year of Rome. This date shows that the birth of Christ must have taken place at least four years before the common era. For forty days before his death he was at Jericho and the baths of Calirrhoe, hence the events mentioned in this section must have occurred before that time. He was the first ruler of the Jews who did not acknowledge the rights of the Messiah. The Asmonean princes all did. Before the death of him who had been foisted on the throne by Roman enactment, one was ‘born King of the Jews,’ in accordance with Gen_49:10.
Magi, sages. Originally a class of priests among the Persians and Medes, who formed the king’s privy Council, and cultivated astrology, medicine, and occult natural science. They are frequently referred to by ancient authors. Afterwards the term was applied to all Eastern philosophers; and there were many in more Western countries who made astrology and the like their trade; for example, Simon Magus and Elymas the sorcerer. Hence the term ‘magician’ has a bad meaning, not implied in the word ‘magi,’ from which it is derived. The tradition that the Magi were three kings (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar) appears to have arisen from the number of their gifts, and from the prophecy in Isa_60:3. The earlier fathers speak of them as twelve and even fifteen in number. They are justly regarded as the first fruits and representatives of heathen converts to Christianity. Hence the festival of Epiphany Jan. 6), also called ‘the three kings,’ celebrating Christ’s manifestation to the Gentiles, though originally instituted for a wider purpose, was very early associated with this visit of the Magi, and celebrated as a missionary festival. The date of the visit was probably more than twelve days after the birth of Jesus.
From the east. Either: they came from the east, or: their home was in the east. The latter is the more probable meaning, and would imply the former. ‘The east’ may refer to Arabia, Persia, Chaldea, or more remote countries. In all these astrologers were found, and in all there was an expectation of some great deliverer to come about this time, derived, as is supposed, from the prophecy, Dan. 14:24. Comp. the Star of Jacob in Balaam’s prophecy, Num_24:17. Persia or Mesopotamia was probably their residence. The way was doubtless long, but they found Christ, while those nearer Him had not even looked for Him. The hope of a Saviour was given to the Jews as a chosen race, but the same hope was given to chosen individuals among the Gentiles. Comp. the many instances in Old Testament history.
To Jerusalem. At the capital they looked for the King, or for tidings of him. For a description of the city, see map and Bible dictionaries. The excavations of the Palestine Exploration Fund tend to alter the commonly received views in regard to some of the localities.
King of the Jews] A title unknown to the earlier history of Israel and applied to no one except the Messiah. It reappears in the inscription over the Cross (ch. Mat_27:37).
his star in the east] The simplest explanation of this is that a Star or Meteor appeared in the sky to guide the Magi on their way first to Jerusalem, then to Bethlehem. It is, however, quite possible that the Magi were divinely led to connect some calculated phenomenon with the birth of the “King of the Jews.” Among many conjectures may be mentioned one recently propounded by Prof. Lauth of Munich. It appears to be proved that the dog-star Sirius rose heliacally, i. e. appeared at sunrise, on the first of the Egyptian month Mesori, for four years in succession, viz. 5, 4, 3, 2 before our era. The rising of this star of special brilliance on the first of this special month (Mesori=birth of the prince) would have a marked significance. By the Magi it might well be connected with the prophecy of “the star of Jacob,” and become the cause of their journey to Jerusalem. This theory explains Herod’s edict, Mat_2:16, for the destruction of all male children “from two years old and under,” for, as according to the date assigned to the Nativity of Christ, the arrival of the Magi at Jerusalem would coincide with the year 3 before the Christian era, the star had appeared for two years.
The theory, supported by Alford, which identifies this “star” with a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forces the meaning of the word “star,” is inconsistent with the latest chronological results, and is shown to be scientifically impossible by Prof. Pritchard in Dict. of the Bible, sub voc. “Star of the Magi.”
The connection of the birth of the Messiah with the appearance of a Star is illustrated by the name Barchochab (“Son of a Star”), assumed by a false Messiah who appeared in the year 120 a. d. It has also been noticed that in the Cartouche or Egyptian royal symbol of Vespasian, the word “God” is for the first time expressed by a Star. (Dr Lauth, Trans. Bib. Arch. Soc. iv. 2.)
When; and when, Revised Version. There is a contrast (δέ) between the eager question of the Magi and the feelings of Herod. Herod the king. In the true text the emphasis is not on the person (as in Mat_2:1, where the date was all-important), but on the office as then exercised. Tile king visibly regnant is contrasted with him who was born to be King. Heard. Through some of his many sources of information, for “there were spies set everywhere” (Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ 15.10. 4).
These things; it, Revised Version. Nothing is expressed in the original.
He was troubled; perplexed, agitated (ἐταράχθη). Fully in accordance with his jealous and suspicious character. For he had already slain, as actual or possible candidates for the throne, five of the Maccabean princes and princesses, including his favourite wife Mariamne (thus extirpating the direct line) and also his two sons by Mariamne. Josephus (‘Ant.,’ 17.2. 4; cf. Holtzmann) mentions a prediction of the Pharisees towards the end of Herod’s life, that “God had decreed that Herod’s government should cease, and his posterity should be deprived of it.” This seems to have a Messianic reference, though used at the time for an intrigue in favour of Pheroras, Herod’s brother.
And all Jerusalem. The feminine (here only, πᾶσα Ἰεροσόλυμα) points to a Hebrew source. The reason for the inhabitants of Jerusalem feeling troubled is generally explained, by their fear, which was in fact only too well justified by experience, that the news would excite Herod to fresh crimes. It is also possible that many would shrink from the changes which the coming of Messiah could not but bring. Present ease, though only comparative, is with the unbelieving preferable to possibilities of the highest blessedness. Mat_21:10 affords both a parallel and a contrast. With him. In this respect Jerusalem was one with Herod (Joh_1:11).
He inquired of them where the Christ should be born (epunthaneto par’ autōn pou ho Christos gennātai). The prophetic present (gennātai) is given, the very words of Herod retained by Matthew’s report. The imperfect tense (epunthaneto) suggests that Herod inquired repeatedly, probably of one and another of the leaders gathered together, both Sadducees (chief priests) and Pharisees (scribes). McNeile doubts, like Holtzmann, if Herod actually called together all the Sanhedrin and probably “he could easily ask the question of a single scribe,” because he had begun his reign with a massacre of the Sanhedrin (Josephus, Ant. XIV. ix. 4). But that was thirty years ago and Herod was desperately in earnest to learn what the Jews really expected about the coming of “the Messiah.” Still Herod probably got together not the Sanhedrin since “elders” are not mentioned, but leaders among the chief priests and scribes, not a formal meeting but a free assembly for conference. He had evidently heard of this expected king and he would swallow plenty of pride to be able to compass the defeat of these hopes.
And they said unto him (hoi de eipan autōi). Whether the ecclesiastics had to search their scriptures or not, they give the answer that is in accord with the common Jewish opinion that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem and of the seed of David (Joh_7:42). So they quote Mic_5:2, “a free paraphrase” Alford calls it, for it is not precisely like the Hebrew text or like the Septuagint. It may have come from a collection of testimonia with which J. Rendel Harris has made the world familiar. He had consulted the experts and now he has their answer. Bethlehem of Judah is the place. The use of the perfect passive indicative (gegraptai) is the common form in quoting scripture. It stands written.
Shall be shepherd (poimanei). The Authorized Version had “shall rule,” but “shepherd” is correct. “Homer calls kings ‘the shepherds of the people’”(Vincent). In Heb_13:20 Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep.” Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (Joh_10:11). Peter calls Christ “the chief shepherd” (1Pe_2:25). “The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd” (Rev_7:17). Jesus told Peter to “shepherd” the lambs (Joh_21:16). Our word pastor means shepherd.
Privily – Secretly, privately. He did this to ascertain the time when Jesus was born.
Diligently – Accurately, exactly. He took pains to learn the precise time when the star appeared. He did this because he naturally concluded that the star appeared just at the time of his birth, and he wished to know precisely how old the child was.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the Wise Men. Secrecy was doubly necessary. He would not publicly commit himself to acknowledging the rights of the new King, and he would give no opportunity for others to warn the Child’s parents of the dangerous interest that Herod was taking in him. Duplicity was very characteristic of Herod; cf. his assassination of Aristobulus the high priest (Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ 15.3. 3), and his alluring his son Antipater home to death (ibid., 17.5. 1).
Inquired of them diligently; learned of them carefully (Revised Version); “lerned of hem bisili” (Wickliffe); ἠκρίβωσεν παρ αὐτῶν. The stress is not upon Herod’s careful questioning, but on the exact information that he obtained.
What time the star appeared. Although this is not the literal translation, it may, perhaps, represent the sense of the original (τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος) , the participle characterizing the star in its most important relation—its appearance, and the words being treated as a compound expression (cf. Joh_12:9, Joh_12:12). Herod supposed that the birth of the Babe was synchronous with the first appearance of the star. The translation, however, of the Revised Version margin, “the time of the star that appeared,” better suits the exact wording (χρόνον, not καιρόν;φαινομένου, not φανέντος) , the phrase thus including both the first appearance and also the period of continuance (cf. Grotius, “non initium, sed continuitas”). But it is difficult to see What Herod would have learned from this latter particular. Some even think that the star was still visible (Plumptre; Weiss, ‘Matthew’), but in this case the joy of the Magi in Mat_2:10 is not satisfactorily explained.
And he sent them to Bethlehem. Thus answering their question (Mat_2:2).
And said, Go and search diligently for the young Child; and search out carefully concerning, Revised Version; ἐξετάσατε ἀκριβῶς περί. Herod bade them make precise inquiry as to all particulars about the Child. The more details he could obtain, the more easily he could make away with him.
And when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also; the Revised Version rightly joins, I also—I as well as you; I the king. It might well be at a secret conference with the Magi that Herod said this, for no Jew would have believed him. Worship; Mat_2:2, note.
When they had heard the king. There is a slight contrast in the Greek, but they [for their part] having heard the King. They departed; went their way (Revised Version). Took their journey (ἐπορεύθησαν)
And lo, the star, which they saw in the East. They would, in accordance with Eastern custom, probably travel by night. Observe that the joy they felt at seeing the star (Mat_2:10) implies that it had not continued visible (Mat_2:7, note). They had fully used all means; now they receive fresh Divine guidance. In the East (Mat_2:2, note).
Went before them. Continuously (τροῆγεν); “taking them by the hand and drawing them on” (Chrysostom). Not to show them the way to Bethlehem, for the road was easy, but to assure them of guidance to the Babe, over whose temporary home it stayed. The road to Bethlehem is, and from the nature of the valley must always have been, so nearly straight (until the last half-mile, when there is a sudden turn up the hill) that the star need have moved but slightly. Bethlehem itself is seen soon after passing Mar Elias, a monastery rather more than half-way from Jerusalem.
Till it came and stood over where the young Child was. Does the true reading (ἐστάθη) suggest the unseen hand by which this star was itself guided and stationed (Mat_27:11)? or is it used with a kind of reflexive force, indicating that it was by no chance that it stood still there—”took its stand” (cf. σταθείς, Luk_18:11, Luk_18:40; Luk_19:8; Act_2:14, et al.; cf. also Rev_8:3; 12:18)?
And when they were come into the house. For after the enrolment the caravanserai would not be so crowded (Luk_2:7). But whether it was now the caravanserai or a private house, we have no evidence to show.
They saw (εἶδον, with the uncials and most of the versions). The translators in this case followed the text of the Complutensian and of Colinaeus’ edition, rejecting the false εὗρον of the Vulgate and the Received Text.
The young Child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him (Mat_2:2, note). In this latter clause Mary is not mentioned. And when they had opened. Neither the Authorized Version nor the Revised Version brings out the exact correlation of the six aorists in this verse.
Their treasures (so the Revised Version); perhaps, more strictly, treasuries, coffers. There is the same ambiguity about “treasure” in old English (cf. Jer_10:13; Jer_51:16; Eeclus. 43:14) as in the Greek.
They presented unto him gifts. Thus fulfilling in germ the predictions of offerings being made to Messiah and Messiah’s people by the Gentile nations (Isa_60:1-22.; Hag_2:7; Psa_72:10).
Presented; offered (Revised Version). The verb used (προσφέρω) seems to lay stress on the persons to whom and by whom the offering is made, the personal relation in which they stand to each other; ἀναφέρω (cf. Bishop Westcott, on Heb_7:27) and παρίστημι on the destination and use of the offering (Jas_2:21; Rom_6:13). Observe the three stages in this verse—vision, submission, consecration. Gifts; without which one does not approach an Eastern monarch (cf. 1Ki_10:2). Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Wealth and delights, the material and the aesthetic.
The house – The place where he was born, or the place where they lived at that time.
Fell down – This was the usual way of showing respect or homage among the Jews, Est_8:3; Job_1:20; Dan_3:7; Psa_72:11; Isa_46:6.
Worshipped him – Did him homage as King of the Jews. See the notes at Mat_2:2.
Had opened their treasures – The treasures which they had brought, or the boxes, etc., in which they had brought their gold, etc.
They presented unto him gifts – These were presented to him as King of the Jews, because they supposed he was to be a distinguished prince and conqueror. It was customary in the East to show respect for persons of distinction by making presents or offerings of this kind. See Gen_32:14; Gen_43:11; 1Sa_10:27; 1Ki_10:2; Psa_72:10-15. This custom is still common in the East, and it is everywhere there unusual to approach a person of distinguished rank without a valuable present.
Frankincense – Frankincense is a white resin or gum. It is obtained from a tree by making incisions in the bark, and suffering the gum to flow out. It is highly odoriferous or fragrant when burned, and was therefore used in worship, where it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. See Exo_30:8; Lev_16:12. It is found in the East Indies, but chiefly in Arabia; and hence it has been supposed probable that the wise men came from Arabia.
Myrrh – This was also a production of Arabia, and was obtained from a tree in the same manner as frankincense. The name denotes bitterness, and was given to it on account of its great bitterness. It was used chiefly in embalming the dead, because it had the property of preserving dead bodies from putrefaction. Compare Joh_19:39, it was much used in Egypt and in Judea. It was obtained from a thorny tree, which grows 8 or 9 feet high. It was at an early period an article of commerce Gen_37:25, and was an ingredient of the holy ointment, Exo_30:23. It was also used as an agreeable perfume, Est_2:12; Psa_45:8; Pro_7:17. It was also sometimes mingled with wine to form an article of drink. Such a drink was given to our Saviour, when about to be crucified, as a stupefying potion, Mar_15:23; compare Mat_27:34.
The offerings here referred to were made because they were the most valuable which the country of the Magi or wise men produced. They were tokens of respect and homage which they paid to the new-born King of the Jews. They evinced their high regard for him, and their belief that he was to be an illustrious prince; and the fact that their deed is recorded with approbation shows us that we should offer our most valuable possessions, our all, to the Lord Jesus Christ. Wise men came from far to do him homage, and bowed down, and presented their best gifts and offerings. It is right that we give to him also our hearts, our property, our all.
Warned in a dream (chrēmatisthentes kat’ onar). The verb means to transact business (chrēmatizō from chrēma, and that from chraomai, to use. Then to consult, to deliberate, to make answer as of magistrates or an oracle, to instruct, to admonish. In the Septuagint and the New Testament it occurs with the idea of being warned by God and also in the papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 122). Wycliff puts it here: “An answer taken in sleep.”