Seeking A King Matthew 2:1-2

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. Matthew 2:1-2

Seeking a King

1. The wise men came from the East. They came from beyond the bounds of that chosen and favoured Israel whose were the covenants, the oracles, the fires of Sinai, the glory of Zion, and the faith of the fathers. They came, doubtless, from Persia. Their business was a vain attempt to read the fortunes of empires and of men by watching the changing positions and mutual attractions of the stars. No plainer revelation of God's loving-kindness and wisdom stood before their eyes than the cold splendours of the midnight sky. The heavenly commandment and promise they must spell out in the mystic syllables of the constellations, or else grope on in darkness. The sun was the burning eye of an Unknown Deity. With night-long solemn vigils, they strained their eyes into the heavens; but they saw no “Heaven of heavens,” because they saw no Father of forgiveness, and no heart of love. Their prophet was Zoroaster—a mysterious, if not quite mythical, person, ever vanishing in the shadows of an uncertain antiquity. These were the men whom God was leading to Bethlehem, representatives of that whole pagan world which He would draw to the Saviour.

Yet these disciples of Zoroaster held the best religion of their time, outside of Judaism. Their sacred books prove them to have been no degraded or sensual idolaters. When they fed their sacred fires with spices and fragrant wood, it was not the fire they worshipped, but a strange and unseen Light, of which the fire was a symbol. Their Ormuzd was an Infinite Spirit, and the star spirits were his bright subordinates. They believed in immortality, in judgment, in prayer, in the sacredness of marriage, in obedience, in honesty; they practised carefully most of the virtues of the Christian morality, including that foundation one of truthfulness, which is rare enough in both East and West, and which Christianity has found it so hard to establish in public and in private life, in all its centuries of discipline. To this day, when the traveller or the merchant meets among the native eastern cities a man more intelligent, more upright, of nobler manners and gentler hospitality than the rest, he is almost sure to find him a Parsi, a descendant of those Zoroastrian students of the stars, brethren or children of the wise men who offered their gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Messiah in the stable.

2. These wise men looked for a King. “Where is he,” they asked, “that is born King of the Jews?” Why did their expectations take this form? We could understand their longing for one who should give them bread; or, if they had bread enough, should give them more gold to buy whatever would minister to their comfort, and pride; or one who, since they cared for wisdom, should tell them hidden things that they desired to know; or one who should take away the sting of a guilty conscience, and set them at peace with any higher god whom they might have offended; or, better still, one who should cleanse their will, and strengthen their power to live a worthy life. But their hope, as we read of it, was simply in a king. The true King might indeed bestow all these benefits which we have been counting up; but that was not what came first to their minds. In hoping for a king, they hoped for one who would rule them, to whom they should do reverence, and whom, when the time came, they should obey. They felt that the first of all needs for themselves and for the whole distracted world was to be governed, to be bound together in a common work appointed by a common ruling head.

Man is always seeking a king, for he feels in the depths of his being that he is never so great as in the presence of his greater. Let a great man appear in the world, and smaller men spontaneously rally round him; for they feel they are never so great as in the presence of their greater, never so noble as in doing the work of obedience. “He that is great among you, let him be the servant of all.” That is an axiom engraved within us before Christ formulated it into words and committed it to the pages of inspiration. Mankind desire a king—one whose behests they deem it all honour to obey, and in whose presence they think it exaltation to bow. On what other principle can we account for the terrible despotisms that have crushed the world? How were they possible, a few tyrannizing over millions? They were possible only on one condition—that they were a response, or the semblance of one, to a deep craving implanted in our nature by the Creator. “Where is he that is born King?” The vast empires were only answers to the question—false ones if you like, but answers nevertheless—and the poor distracted heart of humanity deemed any answer better than none at all.1 [Note: J. C. Jones, Studies in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 44.]

As the magi seek a Redeemer, so Herod fears a successor. If His birth as an infant makes proud kings tremble, what will His tribunal as a judge do?2 [Note: St. Augustine.]

3. They sought one who was born king of the Jews. How they supposed at that time that this could be we know not; many thoughts were doubtless possible then which do not occur to us now. But the word assuredly meant at least thus much, that the expected king was not one raised to his throne by his own right hand, or by the voice of men, for his strength or courage or wisdom or riches, but one carrying a Divine title from his birth. That king was not to be a Saul, not even a David, but a David's son. There was another king in the land already, Herod the king, as the Bible calls him, a powerful ruler, cruel and unscrupulous, but magnificent in his doings—the very ruler to draw to him men of the East with the charm of awe. He was no true Jew, much less of David's line; there was nothing in him of the true Jew's heart, which was David's heart. Many of his own subjects might be dazzled by the one who promised to make them strong with earthly strength, because they were indifferent to his readiness to profane all that their fathers had kept holy. But to the wise men he could never be what they sought. They took no sort of account of him as they entered Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?”

4. Again, it was a king of the Jews that they looked for. How was this? They were not Jews themselves; they were strangers to the commonwealth of Israel. Yet there was much in that strange nation, so full as it seemed of undying life, again and again buffeted and crushed, but not yet destroyed, worshipping one unseen God at one holy place with psalm and sacrifice, which might well persuade men of the East that a wondrous future was in store for Israel and the ruler of Israel. This was not the first time that Gentile witness had been borne to the Divine mission of the Jewish people; twice, at two great moments of the history, a voice from the world without had done homage to the holy race. Before the Promised Land was entered, Balaam the prophet of Moab had confessed the new power that was growing in the East: “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn: he shall eat up the nations his enemies”; “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” Once again, the second birth of the people out of their long captivity was helped and blessed by a king of the Gentile East, when Cyrus proclaimed that the Lord God of heaven had charged him to build Him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and sent forth the summons, “Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him, and let him go up.”

The Messianic hope of the last half-century before Christ was the hope of a King, and the Psalms of Solomon see in the coming reign of Messiah the salvation of Israel: “Raise up unto them their King, the son of David … and there shall be no iniquity in his days in their midst, for all shall be holy, and their King is the Lord Messiah.” The charge laid against Jesus before the procurator was that, acting on these expectations, He had made Himself a king, and thus posed as a rival of Cæsar. As a matter of fact, He had withdrawn from the multitudes when they would have forced Him into that false position. Yet before Pilate He did not deny His kingly character, only affirming, “My kingdom is not of this world, or not from hence.” The title on the cross, therefore, though inexact, was not radically untrue; a king lay dying there, though not one who was in any exclusive or earthly sense “the King of the Jews.” The penitent robber came nearer to the truth when he said, “Jesus, remember me, when thou comest in thy kingdom.” It was borne in upon his mind that in some mysterious way the Kingdom was to be reached through the cross, and lay beyond it; and his words almost echo the Lord's description of Himself as about to go “into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom and to return.”1 [Note: H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ, 17.] 

to be continued