Matthew 2 Bible Commentary

B. W. Johnson’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Matthew 2)
The Wise Men and the Flight into Egypt.

SUMMARY.--The Wise Men. The Star in the East. The King of the Jews. Herod and Jerusalem Troubled. Christ to Be Born in Bethlehem. Herod's Demand of the Wise Men. The Star over the Young Child. Gifts Laid at His Feet. Joseph Warned in a Dream. Flight into Egypt. The Massacre of the Children. Rachel Weeping. Joseph Called to Return. The Home in Galilee. The City of Nazareth.

      1. When Jesus was born. Though the home of Joseph and Mary was Nazareth, prophecy had declared that Christ should be born at Bethlehem, the native place of David; and this was accomplished by the agency of the Roman emperor. See notes on Luke 2:1. The pride of the Jews in their genealogies would lead them to the head cities of their families; thus, Mary traversed with her husband the length of the land, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, to whose house they both belonged. In Bethlehem of Judea. Bethlehem was one of the oldest places in the land of Judea, and had been in existence at least 1,500 years before the Savior was born. It was the scene of events so touchingly related in the Book of Ruth. It was known as the city of David, because it was his birthplace. The little town has an imposing aspect and commanding site. It stands on the summit of a narrow ridge, which projects eastward from the central mountain chain of Judah. It is about six miles south of Jerusalem, on the road toward Hebron. It contains at the present time about four thousand inhabitants, chiefly Christians of the Greek Church, who obtain much of their sustenance from the sale of relics to pilgrims and visitors. In the days of Herod the king. This statement gives data for ascertaining the time of the birth of Jesus. It is conceded that it took place in the last year of Herod's reign. But it is known that Herod died about three years before the first year of our era. Therefore, if the Savior was born "in the days of king Herod," he must have been about four years earlier than the date assigned. Herod was only partly of Jewish blood, was a man of most bloody and unscrupulous character, a great tyrant, the murderer of even his own wife and sons. Seven of the Herods are named in the New Testament. (1) "Herod the king," here named, called by Josephus Herod the Great, the first of the Herodian kings, a man of great force of character, but a bloody tyrant. He held his royal authority by the appointment of the Romans. (2) Herod Archelaus, his son and successor in Judea (Matt. 2:22). The Romans deposed him and appointed a Roman governor in his stead. (3) Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, who slew John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1). Also a son of Herod the Great. (4) Herod Philip, a third son, the lawful husband of Herodias (Matt. 14:3). (5) Another son, also named Herod Philip. He is only referred to in the New Testament in Luke 3:1. (6) Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, named in Acts 12:1-3, 23. (7) Herod Agrippa, the son of the last, the King Agrippa before whom Paul made his famous defense (Acts 25:13, 23; 26:27). There came wise men from the east. The word rendered "wise men" is more correctly "Magi," a term which designates an order of priests and philosophers which belonged originally to Persia and Media, and who were extensively distributed over the region of the Euphrates. Those described in the book of Daniel as wise men, astrologers and magicians, belonged to this order. We can only conjecture where these "wise men" came from, but the probability is that they journeyed from the valley of the Euphrates.

      2. Where is he that is born King of the Jews? Their question shows two things: 1. That they partook of the general expectation that about this time there would appear in the East a Ruler divinely appointed to his mission. The works of profane writers of this period show that this expectation was general. 2. It is plain that the wise men misapprehended the mission of Christ, and expected him to be a secular king. We have seen his star in the east. No certain conclusion can be reached as to what this appearance in the heavens was, and it is useless to enter into the discussion. It seemed a part of God's plan that Gentiles as well as Jews should offer homage to the infant King.

      3. Herod . . . was troubled. The trouble of Herod is easily accounted for. He was a usurper. This news seemed to portend a legitimate king, a rival for the throne, around whom the Jewish nation would rally. All Jerusalem with him. The capital was in commotion. It was the seat of Herod's power, and his staunchest supporters were there.

      4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes together. Literally, "high priests." The high priests, and perhaps the heads of the twenty-four courses of priests, are included. See 1 Chron. 24:1-19. The "scribes" were the successors of Ezra, the official copyists of the Scripture, who naturally became its expounders, and were the theologians of the time of Christ. The priests, as the head of the Jewish religion, and the scribes, as the chief expounders of the Scriptures, were the proper persons to answer Herod's question. Where Christ should be born. This demand concedes: 1. That the Jews expected a Messiah; 2. That the Scriptures had foretold his coming; 3. That the very place of his birth had been pointed out.

      5. In Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet. The prophet here referred to is Micah, who lived about seven centuries before Christ. See Micah 5:1, 2.

      6. And thou Bethlehem. The quotation is made freely from the Septuagint version (Greek), which was in common use, and from which the Savior and his apostles constantly quoted. The Hebrew is literally, "But thou Bethlehem Ephrata, too small to be among the thousands of Judah (i. e., the towns where the heads of thousands resided, the chief towns in the distribution of the tribes), out of thee shall come forth one who is to be the ruler of Israel." Princes. Put for towns, where the princes or head of thousands lived.

      7. Then Herod privily called the wise men. The crafty and cruel king had gained one point: he now knew where the Christ was to be born. He therefore asks another question of the wise men, by which he hopes to ascertain the age of the royal child. What time the star appeared. The fact that, as stated below, he slew the children of two years and under, denotes that the star had been seen first about two years before.

      8. And he sent them to Bethlehem. Herod commanded them to search out the young child and bring him word, but lied as to his object, which was murder instead of worship.

      9. They went their way. They probably departed immediately after their interview with Herod, and as the appearance of the star as soon as they started indicates that it was night, they probably saw Herod in the evening. So the star . . . went before them. This language implies a miraculous appearance, like a star, which guided the steps of the wise men. Such a view is no less probable than that a pillar of fire should have guided Israel. This luminous appearance stood over where the young child was. Either over Bethlehem, or over the house where the young child was sheltered.

      10. And when they saw the star. This language shows that for a time, at least, they had not seen the star until they left Jerusalem for Bethlehem. Its reappearance caused them great rejoicing, because it showed them that their quest was not in vain.

      11. And they came into the house. Not, probably, the stable where the Lord was born, but a temporary home obtained after the crowd had left Jerusalem. Many suppose that Joseph and Mary remained at Bethlehem until the forty days of purification were passed; that the young child was presented in the temple as recorded in Luke 2:22; that then they returned to Bethlehem; were visited shortly after by the wise man, and thence fled into Egypt. If this is correct, the young child must have been six or seven weeks old at the time of the visit. With Mary his mother. The child was probably in the mother's arms. They fell down and worshipped him. Observe that no adoration is offered his mother. When they had opened their treasures. They had brought these all the way from the East as an offering. They offer to him gifts such as were offered to kings by embassadors or vassals. Gold. A usual offering to kings. Frankincense. A costly and fragrant gum distilled from a tree in India and Arabia. Myrrh. An aromatic gum produced from a thorn-bush that grew in Arabia and Ethiopia. The providence of God is seen in these gifts. It provided the means necessary for the flight to Egypt that was to follow at once, and to sustain the holy family in a foreign land.

      12. Being warned of God in a dream. Probably they were suspicious of Herod, for they could not fail to know his character, and asked God to guide them. He did so by a dream, and hence they avoided Jerusalem on their return.

      13. And when they were departed. It is probable that the Magi were led by the star to Bethlehem, offered their homage, departed, Joseph was warned, and the holy family started to Egypt, all the same night. Flee into Egypt. Egypt has a very intimate connection with Bible history. It was the nearest of Roman provinces independent of Herod, was the home of thousands of Joseph's countrymen, was the home of thousands of Joseph's countrymen, and was convenient for a return at the proper time.

      14. When he arose, he took the young child. The message came while he was sleeping; as soon as he arose from his bed he took the Child and his mother and departed at once. There was prompt obedience, as there should always be, to the divine commands.

      15. That it might be fulfilled, . . . Out of Egypt have I called my Son. The prophecy here quoted is found in Hosea 11:1. Israel, which was called out of Egypt, is spoken of a son. Israel, however, was a type, and the events portrayed in Israelitish history were typical prophecies. That was the dispensation of types and shadows. Hence, the great outlines were prophetic, and the calling of Israel out of Egypt a prophecy of the Leader of the true Israel being called out of that land.

      16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked. He had directed the wise men to report to him after their visit to Bethlehem. Their return to their own country without complying with his wishes seemed to Herod a mockery of his authority, and excited his rage. Sent forth, and slew. A band of his murderous satellites were sent, and not only slew the male children of Bethlehem, but those of that vicinity.

      17. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet. The saying is found in Jer. 31:15, and was first spoken with reference to the desolation of Israel by Nebuchadnezzar. The survivors of the Israelites were gathered by their conquerors as captives at Ramah. There the voice of lamentation was heard from the mothers bereft of their offspring. The prophet describes Rachel, the mother of two great tribes, as weeping and refusing to be comforted. It was still more appropriate to the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem. Within half a mile of that city was the tomb of Rachel, and hence the pathetic language of the prophet is again applied to the inconsolable mothers of Bethlehem, as though the Rachel that slept in the tomb were a mourner over her slain offspring. On the site of the tomb Rachel is now a Mahometan mosque. For the burial of Rachel, see Gen. 35:19.

      18. In Ramah was a voice heard. Ramah was a border fortress of Judah, where the captives were collected by the generals of Nebuchadnezzar after the fall of Jerusalem.

      19. But when Herod was dead. This event was the signal for the return to Judea. He died in the spring of the year 750 after the building of Rome, just before the passover. This would place his death nearly four years before the Christian era, the date from which we reckon our time. That was not fixed upon until five hundred years after the birth of Christ, and was fixed erroneously.

      20. Arise . . . go into the land of Israel. Notice that Joseph is not required to return to Bethlehem or to Judea, but simply to the land of Israel. They are dead which sought the young child's life. As "they" is plural, there must have been the death of more than one of those who sought the death of the Lord. Five days before the death of Herod he slew his son Antipater, a prince of dark, cruel, treacherous character, whom he expected to succeed him. Nothing could be more likely than that he had fully sympathized in the scheme of child-murder at Bethlehem. Now both, "they that sought the young child's life," were dead.

      21. And arose and took the young child. He obeyed as promptly as before, waiting obediently upon the Divine will. Came into the land of Israel. This included not only Judea, but Samaria, Galilee and the country beyond the Jordan. The part first reached by Joseph on his return would be Judea.

      22. When he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea. Archelaus is one of the four sons of Herod, who are named in the New Testament. See note on verse 1. Was afraid to go thither. This implies that he had designed to return thither.

      23. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth. Matthew makes no mention of the previous residence at Nazareth, and he now names it first when it becomes the home of Christ. It was an obscure village, nestled in the hills about five hundred feet above the plain of Esdraelon, on the side of Galilee. It is not named in the Old Testament, was probably a small town in the time of Christ, but now has about 6,000 inhabitants. That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets. Not by one prophet, but the summing up of a number of prophecies. No prophet had declared in express terms that he should be called a Nazarene. They, however, did apply to Christ the term Nezer, from which Nazareth is derived; the Nazarites, of whom Samson was one, were typical of Christ; the meanness and contempt in which Nazareth was held was itself a prophecy of one who "was despised and rejected." See Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12.