Matthew Chapter Two
Events in the Childhood of Jesus, 2
Visit of the Wise Men, 1-12 1. Herod the king.—Matthew's nearest approach to giving the date of the birth of Jesus is the statement that it occurred "in the days of Herod the king." (See below on 19.) Herod is called "the king," to distinguish him from the other Herods who were his descendants, and especially from Herod the tetrarch, subsequently mentioned by Matthew. (14:1.) His history is given with great fullness of detail by Josephus, Ant., Books xiv to xvii.
in Bethlehem of Judea.—We learn from Luke that Joseph and Mary had resided previous to the birth of Jesus in Nazareth of Galilee, and that it was the decree of Augustus Cæsar concerning the enrollment which had brought them to Bethlehem. (Luke 1:26, 27; 2:1-4.) Matthew omits this, and begins his narrative as if Bethlehem was the permanent home of Joseph. This is accounted for by the fact that Joseph intended to make Bethlehem his home for the future. (See 21, 22.)
wise men from the east.—The Greek word here incorrectly rendered "wise men" (μάγοι) designates an order of priests and philosophers called magi, which had existed in the countries east of the Euphrates from a remote period. Various kind of superstition prevailed among them at different periods, but they possessed all the real learning and philosophy of those countries. The men called magicians in the book of Daniel belonged to this order. (Dan. 1:20; 4:9.) For a further account of them see Smith's Dictionary.
2. his star in the east.—Much learned labor has been expended in efforts to determine what star it was that guided the magi, and how they knew its significance. Without detailing any of the theories in reference to the first of these questions, it is enough to remark that one fact, almost universally overlooked by the commentators, demonstrates the truth of the old supposition that the star was a miraculous meteor which hung but a short distance above the earth. This fact is, that when the magi left Jerusalem the star "went before them, and came and stood over where the young child was." This could not be true of a real star, because a real star can not move on before men, and stand over a particular house so as to distinguish it from other houses. A child, looking at a star near the horizon, may imagine that it hangs over a certain house; but when it walks up to that house, it finds that the star is as far off as before and is hanging over another house. The star of the magi stood over the house where the child was until they came up and entered the house, thus preventing them from entering the wrong house and finding the wrong child.
As to their source of information concerning the significance of the star, it must have been such as not only revealed to them the birth of a king of the Jews, but also inspired them with the disposition to visit Judea for the purpose of doing him homage and presenting him with gifts. It is most in harmony with all of the known facts of the history to suppose that when the star appeared a direct revelation was made to the magi which led to all of their subsequent movements. The child was in this way revealed to the shepherds of Bethlehem, to Simeon and to Anna; and in this way the magi themselves were instructed not to return to Herod, but to go home by another route. (Verse 12.)
3. he was troubled.—The trouble of Herod, when he heard the inquiry of the strangers, was natural. Being near the close of his own reign, and naturally anxious concerning the succession to the throne, he could not hear with equanimity that the founder of a rival dynasty had been born. All Jerusalem was troubled with him because they dreaded a conflict between two claimants for the throne.
4. chief priests and scribes.—Hearing that one was born to be king of the Jews and heralded by the appearance of a star in the heavens, Herod assembles the chief priests and scribes, and inquires where the Christ should be born.
He inferred that the coming king was the Christ, because the Jews were looking for the Christ, and because no ordinary king would be heralded in this wonderful manner. The chief priests included both the high priest and the chiefs of the twenty-four courses or classes into which the priests were divided by David. (1 Ch. 24:1-19.) The scribes were men trained to penmanship, and occupied with transcribing the Scriptures, keeping public records, and all similar work. They naturally acquired familiarity with the contents of the Scriptures and skill in their interpretation. (Comp. 2 Sam. 8:17; 1 Ks. 4:3; Jer. 36:26; Ezra 7:6; Matt. 13:52; Mark 12:35.)
5, 6.—The promptness with which the priests and scribes answered that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, shows that the matter was well understood by the Jews. The prediction cited from Micah (Mi. 5:2) taken in connection with the fact that the Messiah was to be of the house of David whose landed patrimony was at Bethlehem, was conclusive. (1 Sam. 16:1.)
7, 8. bring me word.—Herod's careful inquiry as to the time when the star appeared, and his order that the magi, when they found him, should bring him word again, show that he had already conceived the purpose which he afterward attempted to execute.
9, 10. and lo, the star.—The star which they had seen in the east had evidently disappeared before they reached Jerusalem, but now it reappeared when its guidance was needed. Their exceeding joy at seeing it arose from the fact that without some guidance they might be unable to find the child they sought, and partly also from the fact that it was an assurance of God's presence and approbation. The star served another important purpose which was unperceived by the magi. It enabled them to find the child without making such inquiries in Bethlehem as would have directed public attention to him, and have interfered with his escape from a danger yet unforseen. The entrance of the magi into the city by night, which is clearly implied in the fact of the star being visible, contributed still further to the privacy which was so necessary to safety.
11. and worshiped him.—The homage which the magi paid to the child was something more than that which was due to royalty, for the miraculous manner in which they had been guided to the spot must have taught them that the child was more than mortal. These Gentiles, for such we suppose them to be, were the first to pay homage to Jesus, a token of the yet undeveloped purpose of God concerning the Gentile world. The gifts which they presented in compliance with an eastern custom constituted a timely provision for the unexpected sojourn in Egypt.
12. warned of God in a dream.—That the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, shows that they retired to sleep after presenting their gifts; being thus aroused from slumber they departed at once, and thus again avoided giving publicity in Bethlehem to the startling facts connected with their visit.
Flight into Egypt, 13-15 13, 14. when they were departed.—It appears from the text that immediately after the departure of the magi the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, warned him of the danger, and commanded him to flee; and that he started while it was yet night. Neither the arrival of the magi, nor their departure, nor the flight of Joseph and Mary, was known to the people of Bethlehem. To Joseph and Mary that was a night of conflicting emotions. Equally surprised and delighted by the congratulations and presents of the Gentile strangers, they had gone to sleep only to be terrified by the announcement that Herod would seek to kill the child whom the magi had worshiped; and now they are oppressed by the excitement attending an instantaneous flight, and by the sadness with which they anticipate an indefinite sojourn in a foreign land. They find, as they had found from the beginning, that the high honor of being the earthly parents of the Lord of glory, like every other God-given honor, must be attended by sorrow and self-sacrifice. To protect and rear at all hazards that child was the work to which God had called them, and faithfully they fulfilled the heavenly trust. Mary and Joseph, however, are not the only parents who have been thus situated; often it is that parents perform their greatest work in life by bringing into being and properly rearing a single child.
15. Out of Egypt.—The words here quoted from Hosea and applied to Jesus were originally spoken concerning Israel: "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt." (Hos. 11:1.) In applying these words to Jesus Matthew makes Israel's entrance into Egypt and departure therefrom typical of the same movements on the part of Jesus.
Slaughter of the Infants, 16-18 16. mocked of the wise men.—The departure of the magi without returning to Herod was taken by him as a mockery of his authority. It tended both to enrage him and to magnify his conception of the danger which threatened his dynasty.
all the children.—The Greek word rendered children (τοὺς παῖδας) is masculine, and means male children. As it was a male child that he was seeking to destroy, he could have no reason for destroying the female infants. At this point the reason why both the visit of the magi and the flight of Joseph and Mary had been kept so secret becomes apparent. If these events had been known in Bethlehem the people could have saved their own infants by sending swift messengers to bring back the real object of Herod's jealousy. The infants of Bethlehem died for the safety of him who was destined to die for the safety of all.
two years old and under.—Herod's plan was to slay so many children, and of such an age, as to certainly include the young king. He had ascertained the time at which the star appeared, but he could not know from this the exact time of the child's birth; for the star might have appeared either before or after the birth. His plan, therefore, required him to give himself a margin on both sides—that is, to include children of such an age that if the star appeared either a few months after or a few months before the birth of Jesus, Jesus would be included. As he went back to two years, and came forward to the last male child born in Bethlehem, it is probable that the star had appeared within the previous year.
17, 18. spoken by Jeremy the prophet.—The words here quoted wore originally written concerning the Babylonish captivity. (Jer. 31:15.) Kama was a town of Benjamin. (Josh. 18:25.) Jeremiah was carried thither in chains with the other captives, but was there released by order of Nebuchadnezzar. (Jer. 40:1; 39:11, 12.) Here he saw the captives depart for Babylon, and heard the weeping of the poor who were left in the land (39:10); hence the mention of Rama as the place of the lamentations. He represents Rachel as weeping, because the Benjamites were descendants of Rachel, and, perhaps, because the tomb of Rachel was "in the border of Benjamin," and not far away. (1 Sam. 10:2.) The image of the ancient mother of the tribe rising from her tomb to weep, and refusing to be comforted because her children were not around her, is inimitably beautiful; and this image so strikingly portrayed the weeping in Bethlehem that Matthew adopts the words of the prophet, and says they were here fulfilled. It was the fulfillment, not of a prediction, properly speaking, but of certain words spoken by the prophet.
The three quotations from the prophets contained in this chapter (6, 15, 18) belong to and illustrate three distinct classes of such quotations which are found in the New Testament, and which especially abound in Matthew. The first, concerning the birthplace of Jesus, is strictly a prediction, for it refers directly to the event. The second, concerning the call out of Egypt, is an example of words used with a double reference, having both a primary and secondary reference and fulfillment. Such predictions are sometimes called typical, because they are originally spoken concerning a type and find another fulfillment in the antitype. (See Lange, Matt. 2:15.) The third, concerning the weeping at Bethlehem, is an example in which the event fulfills the meaning of words used by a prophet, though the words had originally no reference at all to this event. It is a verbal fulfillment, and not a real fulfillment, as in the other two causes.
Matthew's account of this slaughter has been objected to as highly improbable, if not incredible, for three reasons: First, Because of the absence of a sufficient motive to induce so great a crime; Second, Because of the silence of Josephus, who details very fully the crimes of Herod, but says nothing of this; Third, Because of the silence of Mark, Luke and John in reference to it. The last reason has no force whatever, for Mark and John omit all mention of the birth and childhood of Jesus; and Luke, though he writes more on this part of the history than Matthew does, chooses to repeat nothing which Matthew records. The second is without force, because Josephus was an unbeliever, and studiously avoided the recital of such facts as would furnish evidence in favor of Jesus. A faithful record of this event would have proved that Jesus was an object of special divine protection. The first reason is equally untenable, for the motive presented was abundantly sufficient to excite such a man as Herod to commit the crime in question. He had previously been moved by jealousy to murder two high priests, his uncle Joseph, his favorite wife Marianne, and three of his own sons, besides many other innocent persons. When about to die, knowing that his subjects would be inclined to rejoice at his death, he determined to make them mourn, and, to this end, he shut up a large number of prominent men in a hippodrome and ordered them to be massacred the moment he should breathe his last. (Josephus, Ant., books xiv-xvii.) It is in perfect keeping with this career of jealousy and bloodshed that when the birth of a new king not of his family was so mysteriously announced, he should adopt the most desperate measures for putting him out of the way. True, it was not very likely that the child just born would demand the throne during Herod's lifetime, but his jealousy had refence to the perpetuity of his dynasty, as well as to his own personal reign. There is strong confirmation both of this view of the subject and of the principal fact itself found in the writing of Macrobius, a heathen author who lived at the close of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, and who says:
"Augustus, having been informed that Herod had ordered a son of his own to be killed among the male infants about two years old whom he had put to death in Syria, said, It is better to be Herod's hog than his son." (Horne's Int., Part 11., book ii, chap. vii, § 7.) The marked difference between this account and that of Matthew, and the introduction of the emperor's remark, show that Macrobius did not obtain his information from Matthew's narrative, but from some independent source. He makes the same mistake made by the magi—that of supposing that the newborn king was Herod's Bon. He further supposes, as Herod and his friends did, that the child whose destruction was sought actually perished am one the infants. The remark quoted from the emperor Augustus has reference to the fact that Herod, being a Jew, would not kill a hog; and it shows that the massacre was a well-known fact and a subject of public remark at the time, as far away from Bethlehem as the imperial palace in Rome.
Return from Egypt and Residence in Nazareth, 19-23 19. when Herod was dead.—According to the received chronology Jesus was born in the last year of Herod, and he was, therefore, less than a year old when Herod died. His birth occurred four years previous to our common era, the era having been erroneously fixed by Dyonisius Exiguus in the sixth century. (For a statement of the facts and figures on this subject see Smith's Dictionary, Art. Jesus Christ.) By remaining in Egypt until the Lord brought him word.
Joseph obeyed the command of God. (Comp. 13.)
22. afraid to go thither.—The statement that Joseph, when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea, was afraid to go thither, implies that he had intended to return to Judea, and doubtless to Bethlehem. This intention explains the fact that after the presentation of the child in the temple (Luke 2:22) he returned to Bethlehem and was found there by the magi. When he came from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of the child he intended to make the latter place his permanent residence; and now, although he was afraid to return thither, he did not change his purpose until God warned him in another dream to go into Galilee. His prompt compliance with all these heavenly directions, and this in behalf of a child that was not his own, shows how fit a man he was for the momentous trust committed to his hands.
23. spoken by the prophets.—The words "He shall be called a Nazarene," here said to have been spoken by the prophets, are not found in any of the extant prophetic writings. It should be observed that Matthew's expression concerning them is peculiar. He does not say, as is usual with him, "spoken by the prophet," but "spoken by the prophets." This expression may mean either that the prophets generally had used this language, or that they had said what is equivalent to this. The latter is doubtless the real meaning. Many of the prophets had predicted the lowly life of the Savior, and this is proverbially expressed when he is called a Nazarene. Such was the reputation of Nazareth that even the guileless Nathaniel, when told that the Christ had been found, and that he was of Nazareth of Galilee, exclaimed, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:45, 46.) Matthew says not that he shall be a Nazarene, but that he shall be called a Nazarene. It was the circumstance of his residence in Nazareth that led to his being called a Nazarene when he was really a Bethlehemite. It afterward furnished his enemies with an opprobrious epithet, and all this is summed up in the words into which Matthew condenses the prophetic utterances.
Argument of Section 3 The preceding section furnishes three more arguments in favor of the claims of Jesus; First, It proves that God acknowledged him as the predicted king of the Jews by miraculously guiding the magi; Second, It shows, that after having been thus acknowledged he was miraculously protected from the machinations of Herod, as we would expect the Christ to be; Third, It shows, that in the place of his birth, in the attempt to murder him, in his flight into Egypt, and in his residence at Nazareth, utterances of the prophets were fulfilled. Such a combination of miraculous events in the first year's history of the child goes far to prove him to be the Son of God; and when these events are considered in connection with the arguments of the first and second sections, the proof must appear conclusive.
The New Testament Commentary: Vol. I - Matthew and Mark.