As we have already seen, Matthew ties his story of Jesus together with Israel’s past in a variety of ways in his account of Jesus. Clearly in today’s passage, we can see that, but he does so throughout the first two chapters in which no fewer than five human decisions are the result of a dream, reminiscent of many stories of Israel’s past events (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). Four times in chapter 2 alone, Matthew concludes a scene by telling his readers that it is a fulfillment of prophecy (2:6, 15, 18, 23) giving his readers the clear impression that after a long period of silence, God is once again busy at work in the midst of His people. The two parts of this chapter give us therefore, a deeper look at the whole character of Jesus’ messianic role as well as His relationship with the Father.
As the first scene opens, Matthew sets time and place as “after” Jesus’ birth and in Bethlehem once again reinforcing Jesus as son of David. By mentioning that this scene takes place during the reign of Herod, Matthew is giving his Jewish readers a clue that there is about to be trouble. Herod, half Jew, had gained power in 40 BC through shrewd political moves that enabled him to gain favor with the Romans. However, he was never accepted as a legitimate king by the Jews, and as time went on, he had become more and more paranoid about threats not only to his person but to his throne. He was known for wild fits of rage and anger and making rash or violent decisions, so receiving news that a true Davidic king had recently been born in Bethlehem was bound to set him off.
Most scholars agree that the “Magi” were likely astrologers from Persia or Arabia; they are Gentile, not Jewish, and we must not miss the irony that they are the ones who bring the news of the birth of the “king of the Jews” to Jerusalem. Their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and their worship at the scene also tells us that they obviously were aware of the universal implications of this birth, quite a contrast to the unbelief and complacence of Israel. When they told Herod about the birth, we might understand why he was “disturbed” but notice in verse 3 that “all Jerusalem” was disturbed along with him; shouldn’t there have been dancing in the streets?
They were “disturbed” instead.
Herod assembles the religious experts and asks where the messiah is to be born, and they tell him that it is to be in Bethlehem, quoting from Micah 5, sort of… Micah actually said:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth. (Micah 5:2, 4)
Matthew completely leaves out verse 3:
Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
I know that there are teachers and scholars who have explanations of exactly why verse 3 is omitted from Matthew’s text either by Matthew himself, or by the Jewish authorities when they quoted it to Herod. However, since as of the date of this writing, I have not had the opportunity to ask them myself, all I will say here is that this strikes me as a very interesting omission. In any event, you no doubt noticed that Matthew’s account includes a little change or two from Micah. First, Ephrathah becomes in the land of Judah which underscores once again that Jesus is from the tribe of Judah, which is the tribe David came from. Second, instead of describing Bethlehem as though you are small among the clans of Judah, it receives special attention as by no means least among the rulers of Judah. Finally, Matthew adds a line that comes from 2 Sam. 5:2 where the Lord tells David that he will “shepherd my people Israel”: All of these serve to highlight the messianic implications of this mysterious birth in Bethlehem.
After this, Herod’s plot begins to unfold. In a secret meeting, he seeks to trick the Magi by sending them on their way to Bethlehem, and asking them to provide him with the location of the child. They follow this very odd star, and from Matthew’s description, it would seem to be something that is not described by any natural phenomenon, and considering the intrigues and reactions we’ve already read about, I wonder if anyone else could see it at all. Whatever the explanation, they arrived at the “house” where they found Jesus and Mary; note that it isn’t a manger at this point, for it would have taken these men a considerable amount of time to arrive at the palace of Herod from Persia or Arabia. The story of what happened next is familiar to all, and the scene closes with one more twist; the men receive a dream in which they are told not to return to Jerusalem, and they return home by another route. Their obedient spirit along with their true worship leaves us with grave doubts about the religious leaders of Jerusalem.