Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,Matthew 2:1. Now when Jesus was born — It is matter of great doubt when the following remarkable occurrence happened. The received time of celebrating the Epiphany imports that it was within thirteen days of the birth of Christ. But as it is not likely that the star made its appearance till he was born, so it does not seem at all probable that the wise men could have prepared for and accomplished so long a journey in so short a space of time, especially as they tarried some days, at the least, at Jerusalem, on their way to Bethlehem. Add to this that immediately after their departure, (Matthew 2:13,) Joseph, with his wife and the child, are sent away into Egypt, which could not have been before the end of the forty days of Mary’s purification. But although this visit of the wise men did not happen so soon after the birth of Christ as the calendar supposes, it might happen before Jesus was presented in the temple. For it is certain, when they came to Bethlehem they found Jesus and his mother there; but according to Luke 2:22, when the days of Mary’s purification were ended, they brought the child Jesus to present him to the Lord; and we never read of their returning with him to Bethlehem. On the contrary, we are told, when they had performed all things according to the law, they returned together to their own city Nazareth. According to this hypothesis, Jesus was brought to Jerusalem while Herod was waiting for the return of the wise men, and the angel appeared to Joseph there to command him to flee into Egypt with the young child and his mother, which they might do the very night after Jesus was presented in the temple.
In Bethlehem of Judea — Judea here means the district so named from the tribe of Judah, under which, however, the tribe of Benjamin was comprehended; and it is distinguished from Samaria, Peræa, Trachonitis, and both Galilees. It must be observed, there was another Bethlehem in the tribe of Zabulon, in the lower Galilee. In the days of Herod the king — Viz., Herod the Great, the son of Antipater, born at Ascalon, about 70 years before Christ. According to some, he was a native Jew; according to others, an Idumean by the father’s side, and by the mother’s an Arabian. The most probable opinion is, that he was originally an Idumean; but that his ancestors had, for some ages, been proselytes to the Jewish religion. The Jews being at that time in subjection to the Romans, he was made king of Judea by the Roman senate. At his death, which happened soon after this, he divided his dominions by his last will among his sons, appointing Archelaus, mentioned Matthew 2:22, to succeed him as king of Judea; Herod Antipas, mentioned chap. 14., to be tetrarch of Galilee and Peræa; and Philip, mentioned Luke 3., to be tetrarch of Trachonitis and the neighbouring countries. Herod Agrippa, mentioned Acts 12., was his grandson. It is to be observed, that the history of the New Testament begins with Herod the Great, and ends with Agrippa, the last king of the Jews. Behold! The evangelist calls our attention by this word to the following very memorable occurrence. There came wise men — Probably Chaldean or Arabian astronomers, who, by divine grace, had been led from the knowledge of nature, to that of nature’s God. Although they are termed in the original, μαγοι, magi, we must not imagine that they were what we call magicians, or sorcerers; for the appellation was by no means appropriated in ancient times to such as practised wicked arts, but was frequently given to philosophers, or men of learning, particularly those that were curious in examining the works of nature, and observing the motions of the heavenly bodies. Came from the east — It is impossible to determine absolutely from what part of the East they came; although it is probable it was from Arabia, rather than Chaldea, for it lay east of Judea, and is mentioned by Tacitus as its boundary eastward, and certainly was famous for gold, frankincense, and myrrh, commodities which (see Matthew 2:11) they brought with them. Myrrh, according to Grotius, is not produced save in Arabia, where, if we may believe Pliny, it is found in such abundance, with other spices, that no other kinds of wood are in use, not even to make fires of, but such as are odoriferous. Neither is frankincense found save among the Sabæans, a part of Arabia. And as to gold, another commodity which they brought, this is well known to be produced in such great abundance in Arabia Felix, that the furniture of the whole nation shines with it. David and Solomon, to whom the promise of the land of Canaan was fully made good, extended their dominions over those countries, even to the Euphrates, and the inhabitants of them were chiefly the seed of Abraham. Now it is more likely that these first fruits of the Gentiles should be brought to do homage to the King of the Jews, from a country that had done as much to David and Solomon, the types of Christ, than from a foreign and more remote nation; and that they should be of the seed of Abraham rather than of another race. Add to this, that Arabia abounded with magi, and was anciently so famous for wisdom, that, according to Porphyry, Pythagoras himself travelled thither to acquire it. Nay, if we may credit the learned Dr. Alix, the Jews were of opinion that there were prophets in the kingdoms of Saba and Arabia, and that they prophesied or taught successively, in the name of God, what they had received by tradition from the mouth of Abraham, of whose posterity they were, by Keturah. In the Old Testament it is frequently called the East, as Jdg 6:3; Job 1:3; whereas Chaldea lay not so properly to the east as to the north of Judea, and is often spoken of in Scripture in that light. See Jeremiah 1:14-15; Jeremiah 6:22; Joel 2:20. Had these wise men been, as some have supposed, a deputation from all the magi in Persia, Media, Arabia, and Chaldea; or had they been kings, as the papists fancy; so grand a circumstance as either of these would, in all probability, have been expressly recorded. To Jerusalem — The capital of the kingdom, and the seat of learning. For it seems these wise men did not suppose that so illustrious a king would be born in an ignoble village, but that he must be sought for in the royal city, in the palace itself, and in the family which then reigned. It was, however, no doubt, by the divine providence that they were directed to Jerusalem, as well that the Jews might be left without excuse, as that the birth of Christ the King might be announced by the Gentiles before he was acknowledged by the Jews, lest the testimony of the Jews concerning their own King should come under suspicion.
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.Matthew 2:2. Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews — That is, their lawful and hereditary sovereign, Herod not being such. The wise men are under no kind of doubts in their inquiry; but being fully persuaded that he was born, and believing that this was known to all there, they only inquire where he was born. By this inquiry the birth of Christ was more publicly declared to the Jews, and more fully attested; the coming of these grave and understanding persons from a distant country in consequence of what they believed to be supernatural direction, being a very extraordinary occurrence. It is to be observed, that, according to Tacitus and Suetonius, historians of undoubted credit, it was expected through the whole East that about that time a king was to arise in Judea who should rule all the world. What gave birth to that expectation might be this: From the time of the Babylonish captivity, the Jews were dispersed through all the provinces of the Persian monarchy: and that in such numbers, that they were able to gather together and defend themselves against their enemies in those provinces. See Esther 3:8; Esther 8:17; Esther 9:2; Esther 9:16; and many of the people of the land became Jews. After their return into their own land they increased so mightily that they were soon dispersed over Asia, Africa, and many parts of Europe, and, as Josephus assures us, wherever they came they made proselytes to their religion. Now it was one principal article of their faith, and branch of their religion, to believe in and expect the appearance of the promised Messiah. Wherever they came, therefore, they would spread this faith and expectation; so that it is no wonder it became so general. Now these wise men, living at no very great distance from Judea, the seat of this prophecy, and conversing with the Jews among them, who were everywhere expecting the completion of it at that time; being also skilled in astronomy, and seeing this star or light appearing in Judea, might reasonably conjecture that it signified the completion of that celebrated prophecy touching the king of the Jews, over the centre of whose land, they, being in the east, saw it hang. For it is not at all probable that this star appeared to the eastward of them, in which case it would have denoted something among the Indians, or other eastern nations, rather than among the Jews; but that it was seen to the west of themselves, and over the very place where the king was to be born.
We have seen his star — Which points him out, and is the token of his nativity. These wise men, learned in astronomy, and curious in marking the rising and setting and other phenomena of the heavenly bodies, observed at this time a star which they had never seen before, and were amazed at it as at a new, portentous appearance which did certainly forebode something of great consequence to the world, and the Jews in particular, over whose country it seemed to hang. But how could they know that this was his star, or that it signified the birth of a king? Many of the ancient fathers answer, that they learned this from the words of Balaam, Numbers 24:17, There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre, &c. And though, it is certain, these words properly speak not of a star that should arise at any prince’s birth, but of a king who should be glorious and resplendent in his dominions, as stars are in the firmament, and should vanquish and possess these nations; yet considering that, according to the hieroglyphics of the East, and the figurative language of prophecy, stars are emblems of princes, it was very natural for them to consider the rising of a new star as foretelling the rise of a new king. And as Balaam’s prophecy signified that the king should arise in Judea, and the new and extraordinary star they had seen appeared over that country, it was quite natural for them to conclude, that the king whose rise was foretold, was now born there. And though we know of no record in which this prophecy was preserved but the books of Moses, yet are we not sure there was no other; nor is it certain the books of Moses were unknown in Arabia. It seems more probable, considering its bordering upon Judea, and David and Solomon’s extending their dominions over, at least, a part of it, as well as from the intercourse the Arabians had with the Jews, certainly greater than the Ethiopians had with them, to whom, nevertheless, it appears from Acts 8:26, &c. that the Old Testament was not unknown; it seems likely, from these considerations, that they were not unacquainted with the divine Oracles, and particularly with this delivered by one of their own country. But if, after all, this should seem improbable, then we need make no scruple at all of believing that they were favoured by a divine revelation touching this matter, by which it is plain they were guided in their return. To worship him — Or to do him homage by prostrating ourselves before him, an honour which the Eastern nations were accustomed to pay their monarchs.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.Matthew 2:3. When Herod heard, &c. — he was troubled — Or, alarmed, as Dr. Waterland renders εταραχθη. The word properly signifies a great emotion of mind, whatever the cause thereof be. Being a prince of a very suspicious temper, and his cruelties having rendered him obnoxious to his subjects, he feared losing his kingdom, especially as he had taken Jerusalem by force, and was settled on his throne by the aid of the Romans. Hence it is no wonder that he was concerned to hear of the birth of one that was to be king, and especially to have such an extraordinary confirmation of it, as that of persons coming from a far country, directed by an extraordinary impulse upon the sight of a new star, which pointed to Judea as the seat of his empire. And all Jerusalem with him — Fearing he should make it an occasion of renewing some of those tyrannical actions which had lately filled them with so much horror, as is related at large by Josephus. They dreaded likewise, it seems, a change of government, as knowing it does not usually happen without bloodshed, and that the Romans had great power, and would oppose any change in their affairs.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.Matthew 2:4. And when he had gathered all the chief priests — This expression must be intended to comprehend not only the high priest for the time being, and his deputy, with those who had formerly borne that office, but also the heads of the twenty-four courses, as well as any other persons of peculiar eminence in the priesthood, in which sense Josephus uses the word, Antiq. lib. 20. cap. 8. (al. 6,) § 8, p. 973. The scribes of the people — It would seem, from Ezra 7:11-12; 1 Chronicles 24:6; 2 Chronicles 34:13, that they were of the tribe of Levi only, and so were either priests or Levites. As their office was to transcribe and prepare fair copies of the law of Moses, and other parts of the Old Testament, (a very necessary work before printing was invented,) they became, of course, well acquainted with the Scriptures, and were ordinarily employed in explaining them to the people: whence the chief of them were called doctors of the law. They, or at least some of them, together with the chief priests and elders, constituted the sanhedrim, or great council of the nation. But in this place, when no public business was to be done, but only the predictions of the ancient prophets were to be searched into by those who were thought to excel others in the knowledge of them, it does not appear that any fixed and legal council was summoned; but only that an extraordinary meeting of learned men was called by the king, that they might judge of the question of the wise men. He demanded of them where Christ, i.e, the promised Messiah, was to be born. The wise men had said nothing about Christ, or the Messiah, but only about a king, or, the king of the Jews. But Herod presently conceived that this king of the Jews that was born must be the Messiah promised Psalms 2.; Daniel 9.; and therefore desired to know of them the place of his birth, according to their received traditions, and sense of the prophecies of Scripture. But it is to be well observed, that we must understand Herod as inquiring, not concerning an event considered by him as already come to pass, but concerning a matter yet future and uncertain. For although he understood from the wise men that the birth of the Messiah had even now taken place, yet he concealed his knowledge of this, and his whole design, from the Jews. It is easy to observe how strongly all this story implies that a general expectation of the Messiah now prevailed: and it is plain Herod, in a sense, both believed the Jewish Scriptures, and that the birth of the Messiah was foretold in them. And yet, which discovered the height of madness, as well as of impiety and cruelty, he was contriving to destroy him! to destroy him whose birth, and reign, and glory, God in his word, he believed, had infallibly foretold!
And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.Matthew 2:6. Thou Bethlehem, &c., art not the least among the princes of Juda — It is justly observed by Dr. Doddridge, after Erasmus, here, that “when this and several other quotations from the Old Testament, which we find in the New, come to be compared with the original, and even with the Septuagint, it plainly appears that the apostles did not always think it necessary to transcribe the passages they cited, but sometimes contented themselves with giving the general sense in some little diversity of language.” The words of Micah, which we render, Though thou be little, may be rendered, Art thou little? And his expression, thousands of Judah; and that of the evangelist here, princes, or governors of Judah, are in sense the same, the word thousands being used by the prophet, in allusion to the first division of the tribes of Israel into thousands, hundreds, and other subordinate divisions, over every one of which thousands was a prince or chief. But for a full explanation of both passages the reader is referred to the note on Micah 5:2.
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.Matthew 2:7. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, &c. — He thought it prudent to keep the matter as close as possible, lest the Jews, understanding the time of the birth of the Messiah, should, from thence, take occasion to rebel: for not having an hereditary right to the kingdom, and having been guilty of many acts of cruelty among them, he had no reason to presume upon their good-will toward him. He feared, likewise, lest, if it should be noised abroad that the Messiah was born, his purpose of destroying him should be prevented. But there is no wisdom or counsel against the Most High! He inquired of them diligently — Or, as the words ηκριβωσε παρ’ αυτων, more properly signify, inquired of them the exact time, or, got exact information from them, what time the star appeared — That is, at what time it began to appear, judging, as probably the fact was, that the star first appeared at the time the child was born. His view in this was, that he might thereby form some conjecture concerning the age of the child to whose birth it referred. For on the one hand, it seems, he did not wish to destroy more children than the accomplishment of his design appeared to require; and on the other, not to leave this child alive.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.Matthew 2:8. When ye have found him, bring me word again — Viz., concerning the young child, his condition, and that of his parents, and all circumstances. It seems probable that Herod did not believe he was born, otherwise it is amazing that so suspicious and artful a prince as he was should put this important affair on so precarious a footing. How easily might he, if he had not himself accompanied these learned strangers, under pretence of doing honour to them, have sent a guard of soldiers with them, who might, humanly speaking, without any difficulty have slaughtered the child and his parents on the spot. But, perhaps, he might be unwilling to commit such an act of cruelty in the presence of these sages, lest their report of it should render him infamous abroad. Or rather, we must refer his conduct, in this matter, to that secret influence with which God, whenever he pleases, can infatuate the most sagacious of mankind, and disappoint their designs. See Doddridge. That I may come and worship him also — That I also, who would permit no interest of mine to interfere with the decrees of Heaven, may come with my family and court to pay homage to this new-born king; a duty to which I look upon myself as peculiarly obliged. Mark the hypocrisy of this perfidious tyrant! We may observe here, it is a peculiar excellence in the sacred writers, that they often describe a person’s character in one sentence, or even in one word, and that, by the by, when they are pursuing another object. An instance of this we have in Matthew 2:3, where the evangelist mentions Herod’s being troubled at the tidings brought by the wise men, an expression which exactly marked his character. Here again his disposition is perfectly developed; deep, crafty, subtle; pretending one thing but intending another; professing to have a design of worshipping Jesus, when his purpose was to murder him! In like manner having, according to Josephus, lib. 15. cap. 3, out of pretended friendship invited Aristobulus to an entertainment at Jericho, he contrived after dinner to have him drowned in a fish-pond, in which he was persuaded to bathe along with several of Herod’s attendants. For they, by Herod’s direction, as if in play and sport, dipped him so often, and kept him so long under water, that he died in their hands. And then, as if his death had been an unfortunate accident, which had happened without any previous design, Herod pretended great sorrow for it, shed abundance of tears, and bestowed upon his body a very splendid and expensive funeral.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.Matthew 2:9. When they had heard the king, they departed — Viz., from Jerusalem, without the least suspicion, it seems, of his treacherous and cruel designs. As these sages came from a distant country into Judea upon such an important discovery, and Bethlehem was so near, it is matter of wonder that none of the Jews attended them on their journey. But it is probable they were afraid of Herod. Or, perhaps, the dismission of the wise men might be kept a secret in Jerusalem; so that if any of the Jews had had an inclination to have gone with them, they might not have had an opportunity. And Herod might avoid sending any one with them, lest he should raise suspicion in the minds of the parents or relations of the child; or lest the Jews suspecting a plot, should contrive to bring about a revolt, or raise sedition. Or rather, the whole matter is to be referred to the providence of God, so ordering it that they should go unaccompanied, that the child might not be discovered to Herod. The Lord, however, prepared these illustrious strangers a better guide. For, lo, the star which they saw in the east — In their own country, went before them — This intimates that it had not been their guide in their journey from their own country. Nor was it needful they should have a guide, Jerusalem being sufficiently known. It had shone, it seems, on the night of his nativity, and then had disappeared till the present time. By its not appearing for a time, occasion was given for their inquiries at Jerusalem, which gave notice to the Jews of the birth of Christ; an event of which, it is likely, they would have had no information, if the star had led the wise men first to Bethlehem. And the reappearance of the star was probably intended of God to prevent their being discouraged at their not only not finding the king they sought in the royal city, but not being able to learn that any thing was known there concerning his birth, and especially in perceiving that when they had brought intelligence of it, all ranks seemed to be troubled, and not a single person of those whose native king he was offered himself as a companion to them, though come from a foreign land to worship him. Thus, also, their taking offence at the low condition in which they found Christ and his parents, was prevented. At the same time, it was a great confirmation of their faith, to be thus miraculously conducted to the very town pointed out in the Scriptures as the place of the birth of the Messiah. It left them not till it came and stood over where the young child was — Thus pointing out the very house, lest if they should have been obliged to make anxious inquiry concerning the child, there should be some who might have carried the matter to Herod, and have discovered him and his parents. Here, therefore, the star stopped, and proceeded no further, and not long after, viz., as soon as the wise men arrived at the place, as is most probable, entirely vanished. Hence it appears, that this star was not in the higher heavens, but in the lower regions of the air; for no star in the heavens could have exactly pointed out a particular house. Nothing is said here concerning a ray descending from the star to the top of the house, or concerning the descent of the body of the star. It is therefore probable it was a meteor, which to them had the appearance of a star, as meteors frequently have. This appears, further, from its moving by intervals, sometimes moving and sometimes standing still, which the stars, properly so called, never do. Dr. Whitby conjectures that what the wise men saw in the east might be that very light which shone upon the shepherds at Bethlehem, when the angel came to impart unto them the tidings of our Saviour’s birth. This light certainly was exceeding great, as is clear from its being styled the glory of the Lord, and it was a light from heaven, hanging over their heads, and shining round about them. Now such a light, at a great distance, would appear as a star: or, as it ascended up from the shepherds it might be formed into the likeness of a star. A similar body of light, when they journeyed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, was formed into the same likeness in which it had formerly appeared, and went before them in the air to the latter city, and then sunk down so low as to point out the very house where the babe lay. In this case the star must have been seen by the wise men on the very day of Christ’s nativity.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.Matthew 2:10-11. When they saw the star — Thus standing over where the child was, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy — The original expression, εχαρησαν χαραν μεγαλην σφοδρα, is remarkably emphatical, and might be rendered, They joyed a great joy, very much, a translation which, though very bad English, as Dr. Doddridge observes, comes near to a literal version. They thus rejoiced because they were now confirmed in the certainty of the child’s being born, and also because they saw themselves in so remarkable a manner under the divine direction, and conducted with such certainty to the glorious person whom they came to seek. And when they were come into the house — Mary, it seems, was now better accommodated than at the time of her delivery: she was now in a house, (though probably a poor one,) and not in a stable. Some think that Joseph had now changed the place of his abode, and taken up his residence at Bethlehem, but this is not clear from the story. They saw the young child with Mary his mother — And how different soever the condition in which they found them might be from what they had expected, they were not offended at its meanness, but, falling down on their faces before him, they worshipped him — That is, they did him honour after the manner of the East, whose inhabitants were wont to prostrate themselves before their kings. They wisely considered, that such miraculous honours as the star gave him were far beyond any external circumstance, and therefore paid him, though a child in a poor cottage, without attendants, or any mark of royal descent, their homage, as readily as if they had found him in the most splendid palace, surrounded with servants and guards. “An amiable example this, of that humble, ingenuous temper, which fits a man for the reception of the gospel!” And when they had opened their treasures — Which they had brought along with them for this purpose, they presented to him gifts — It was customary in those countries for persons to offer some present to any illustrious personage whom they came to visit, as appears from many passages of the Old Testament; and Maundrell, Chardin, and many other modern writers of the best credit assure us, that the custom is yet retained, and that no person of rank is approached without a present. In this instance the gifts, consisting of the most valuable productions of their country, constituted a present very proper to the occasion. Perhaps this was all that these wise men intended by their offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and that there is no need to have recourse to allegory. “Nevertheless, if we will have it,” says Grotius,
“that the Divine Wisdom intended something mysterious here, it would not displease me to hear it intimated, that those three things, which we now offer to God through Christ, in consequence of the abolition of the ancient sacrifices, may be signified by these gifts, viz., works of mercy, Php 4:18; bodily purity, Romans 12:1; and prayers, Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8. The two texts last quoted manifestly show that prayers may be signified by frankincense; gold is, as it were, the common measure of the good things of this life, wherewith we relieve the wants of others. And, as we learn from Pliny, and St. John 19:39, there is hardly any other use of myrrh than to preserve bodies from corruption.” But if we may believe the ancient fathers, the wise men, by these gifts which they offered, showed who he was that was worshipped by them; offering myrrh, says Irenæus, because he was to die for mankind; gold, because he was a king, whose kingdom should have no end; thus, as it were, paying him tribute; and frankincense, because he was God, and God was wont to be honoured with the smoke of incense. To the same purpose speak Tertullian and Origen. Perhaps, however, there is more of fancy than truth in this doctrine. Be this as it may, we cannot but acknowledge the providence of God in sending the holy family such a seasonable supply in their low circumstances, especially as they were to take so long and expensive a journey as that into Egypt; a country where they were entirely strangers, and were to stay for a considerable time.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.Matthew 2:12. And being warned of God in a dream, that they should not return to Herod — Which, it is probable, in the simplicity of their hearts, they were preparing to do, they departed into their own country another way — Not at all solicitous as to the consequences of Herod’s resentment. Thus did the providence of God watch over these devout Gentiles, as well as over Jesus and his parents, and would not suffer their honest simplicity to be abused, and made a prey of by the crafty designs of Herod. For into what grief and perplexity would they have been brought, had they been made even the innocent instruments of an assault on the holy child! But God delivered them, and guided their way. For while he was waiting for their return, they had time to get out of his reach, before his passion rose, which might have been fatal to them.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.Matthew 2:13. And when they were departed — Probably very soon after; for Bethlehem being only about two hours’ journey from Jerusalem, no doubt Herod would have speedy intelligence of the motions of the wise men: the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, take the young child, &c. — How watchful was the providence of God over this holy child and his righteous parents: while Joseph and Mary slept secure, enriched by the presents of the wise men, God watches for their safety, and makes them acquainted with the danger which hung over them. They are commanded to flee into Egypt, which was situated so near to Bethlehem, that they could easily arrive there in a few days. And the same divine providence also superintends and preserves all that have an eye thereto, and confide therein, and are God’s true people. Only they must obey his voice, and use the means he has appointed for their preservation. Even Jesus, the only begotten and beloved Son of the Father is not preserved without being taken into a foreign country. The command given by the angel to Joseph and Mary, to flee into Egypt, shows, that this vision happened before their return to Nazareth. For otherwise, it is much more probable they would have been ordered to flee into Syria, which was much nearer to Nazareth than Egypt; to which they could not have passed from thence without going through the very heart of Herod’s dominions, unless they had taken a very large circuit with great expense and danger. For Herod will seek the young child to destroy him — Being alarmed by the extraordinary circumstances which had lately taken place, and fearing lest this child should, in time, be a formidable rival to his family. For when the wise men had come so far to pay their homage to a new-born prince, the several reports of what had lately happened would, upon this occasion, be revived; and the behaviour of two such celebrated persons as Simeon and Anna, on the presentation of Christ in the temple, which might at first be only taken notice of by a few pious persons, would, probably, be now reported to Herod, and must add to the alarm which the inquiry of the sages gave him. Respecting Egypt, to which the holy family was commanded to flee, we may here observe, that after the death of Antony and Cleopatra it became a Roman province, and many Jews fixed their abode there, who, speaking the Greek language, made use of the Greek version of the Scriptures, and had even a temple there, which Onias had built them. These circumstances, doubtless, would make the abode of Joseph and Mary in that country more comfortable to them than it otherwise would have been; yet it is natural to suppose, that this information and command from the angel would be a great trial of their faith. To say nothing of the concern it must give them to learn that the life of this divine child was threatened by so crafty, powerful, and bloody a prince as Herod. Joseph was but a carpenter, and therefore, we may suppose, in low circumstances; and Egypt was a strange land, and a land where, it is likely, he had few, if any, acquaintances, and no visible way of subsistence. But, no doubt, he was able to trust that God whose beloved Son was given him in charge, and who had appeared in so signal and manifest a manner for the redemption of his people, and for the child’s protection.
When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:Matthew 2:14-15. When he arose — Viz., from his bed, he took the young child, &c. — He immediately obeyed the heavenly vision, and departed into Egypt — With as hasty a flight as their circumstances would allow. And was there until the death of Herod — Which happened a few months after. That it might be fulfilled — That is, fulfilled again, which was spoken by the prophet — Viz., Hosea, on another occasion, Out of Egypt have I called my son — These words of Hosea, without doubt, were primarily spoken of God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt under the conduct of Moses, the prophet referring to God’s message to Pharaoh, recorded Exodus 4:22-23, Israel is my son, even my firstborn; let my son go that he may serve me. Now this deliverance of the Israelites, God’s adopted son, was a type of his bringing Christ his real son from thence, and the meaning here is, that the words were now, as it were, fulfilled anew, and more eminently than before, Christ being in a far higher sense the son of God than Israel, of whom the words were originally spoken. For as a prophetical prediction is then fulfilled when what was foretold has come to pass, so a type is fulfilled when that is accomplished in the antitype, which was done in the type before. If the reader will consult the note on Hosea 11:1, he will find this passage fully, and, it is hoped, satisfactorily explained and vindicated; and the consistency of the evangelist’s words with those of the prophet clearly shown. It may not, however, be improper to add here to what is there advanced, that the lot of the Messiah in Egypt was now afflictive, like that of his ancestors formerly in the same country. And the same love of God which induced him to deliver Israel out of Egyptian bondage, was the cause also why he would not leave Christ in Egypt, but bring him back to his own people, whom he was about to enlighten with his heavenly doctrine, and redeem by his sufferings and death. Nor would it be absurd to carry the allegory still further, and to compare Herod to Pharaoh. For, as by the just judgment of God, both the firstborn of Pharaoh, the enemy of the Jews, was slain, and a little after Pharaoh himself perished; so Herod, not long after he had formed the wicked but vain design of putting Christ to death, in a fit of diabolical rage killed his firstborn son, and afterward himself perished, suffering the greatest tortures. — Wetstein.
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.Matthew 2:16. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men — The word ενεπαιχθη, here rendered, was mocked, “properly signifies was played with, and well expresses the view in which the pride of Herod taught him to regard this action, as if it were intended to expose him to the derision of his subjects, and to treat him as a child, rather than as a prince of so great experience and renown.” Dr. Campbell reads, deceived, observing, that, “in the Jewish style, any treatment which appeared disrespectful, came under the general appellation of mockery. Thus, Potiphar’s wife, in the false accusation she preferred against Joseph, of making an attempt upon her chastity, says, that he came in to mock her, Genesis 39:17;” where the same word is employed by the LXX. which is here used. “Balaam accused his ass of mocking him, when she would not yield to his direction, Numbers 22:29. And Delilah said to Samson, Jdg 16:10, Thou hast mocked (i.e., deceived) me, and told me lies. As one who deceived them appeared to treat them contemptuously, they were naturally led to express the former by the latter.” Was exceeding wroth — Very highly incensed and enraged; and in order to make the destruction of this unknown infant as pure as possible, sent forth — Not immediately, it seems, but a little time after the departure of the wise men, a party of soldiers, and slew all the children — The male children, as τους παιδας properly signifies. From two years old and under — Or, as the words απο διετους και κατωτερω are rendered by the last-mentioned writer, From those entering the second year, down to the time whereof he had procured exact information from the magians. “There can be no doubt,” as the doctor observes, “that in this direction, Herod intended to specify both the age above which and the age under which infants were not to be involved in this massacre. But there is some scope for inquiry into the import of the description given. Were those of the second year included or excluded by it? By the common translation they are included, by the other excluded. Plausible things may be advanced on each side.” Dr. Campbell, however, for divers reasons, which he assigns, adopts the latter, and thinks that the import of the direction was, “that they should kill none above twelve months old, or under six.” It is probable that Herod, in his passion, ordered the slaughter of the infants as soon as he perceived that he was disappointed in his expectation of the return of the wise men, lest otherwise the child he was so jealous of should be removed. Some have inferred from hence, that it was not till some considerable time after the birth of Christ, that he was visited by the wise men. But there is little account to be given of the actions of a tyrant who slew three of his own sons, and who, it is reasonable to suppose, would wish to make sure work in this case, and therefore would, no doubt, extend the slaughter to those born before the first appearance of the star, thinking, perhaps, that it might not appear immediately upon the conception or birth of the child, but some time after. Accordingly, though the scribes told him the child was to be born in Bethlehem, he is not content to slay the infants there, but added thereto the slaughter of those in all the coasts. Who can avoid reflecting here on the horrible wickedness manifested in slaying these infants, who could neither hurt others nor defend themselves, and whom the king, as the guardian of the laws, was bound to have defended against the injuries of all lawless persons? But the wrath of wicked princes is usually extravagant and destructive. Thus Saul, when David had escaped, not only commanded Abimelech, with eighty-five priests, to be slaughtered, but also all the people of the city, not excepting even the women and children. This action of Herod was no less impious than unjust and cruel; for, to endeavour to make void the counsel of the Almighty God, declared by prophecies, by the appearance of a star, and by the consent of scribes and priests; what was it else but directly and designedly to oppose and fight against God? What cause we have to be “thankful that we are not under the arbitrary power of a tyrant, whose sallies of distracted fury might spread desolation through houses and provinces. Let us not say, Where was the great Regent of the universe when such horrible butchery was transacted? His all-wise counsels knew how to bring good out of all the evil of it. The agony of a few moments transmitted these oppressed innocents to peace and joy, while the impotent rage of Herod only heaped on his own head guilt, infamy, and horror.” — Doddridge.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,Matthew 2:17. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy — The words of Jeremiah here referred to (Jeremiah 31:15, where see the notes) were primarily meant of the Jews carried captive by Nebuchadnezzar, Ramah being the place where they were assembled to be led away to Babylon. But, as this cruel execution here related by the evangelist, extended itself to all the neighbouring places, and in particular to this same Ramah, a town of Benjamin, which lay near to Bethlehem, the prophet’s words are, with great propriety, applied to this melancholy event likewise, and are represented as receiving a second accomplishment in the bloody slaughter of these infants. And when it is considered that the Jews who were carried captive were not slain, but lived many of them to return again, as the Prophet Jeremiah foretold, to their own border, it must be allowed, that the prediction was much more literally fulfilled on this latter than on the former occasion. This application of the prophecy by the evangelist affords a sure proof that a passage of Scripture, whether prophetical, historical, or poetical, may, in the language of the New Testament, be said to be fulfilled, when an event happens to which it may with great propriety be accommodated.
In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.Matthew 2:18. In Rama was a voice heard — Rachel weeping for her children — Benjamin, it is well known, was the son of Rachel: his posterity, therefore, who inhabited Ramah and the parts adjacent, sprung from her, and, according to the Scripture language, were her children. The slaughter of the inhabitants of Bethlehem, also, might with propriety enough be termed the slaughter of her children; she being buried there, Genesis 35:19, and the Bethlehemites being the offspring of her husband and sister. It is by a very striking and beautiful figure of speech, by which she is here represented as awaked by the cries of the infants, and as rising out of her grave, and bitterly bewailing her little ones, who lie slaughtered in heaps around her. Because they are not — That is, are not among men, are taken away from the land of the living, are dead. The same phrase is frequently used in the same sense in the Old Testament. Now, as it was not true of those that were carried into captivity in Jeremiah’s days, that they were not, in this sense, why should it be thought strange that so literal a completion of the prophecy as took place in the days of Herod, should be referred to by the Holy Ghost? Here observe, The first crown of martyrdom for Jesus was won by these infant sufferers, and the honour to which they are advanced infinitely repays the short pains they endured. Some have questioned the authenticity of the evangelist’s narrative of the slaughter of these infants, on account of the diabolical wickedness of the action; but the following account, given by Prideaux, of Herod’s last deed and purpose, will convince any one that there was nothing too bad for that miserable man to perpetrate: — “Knowing the hatred the Jews had for him, he concluded aright, that there would be no lamentations at his death, but rather gladness and rejoicing all the country over. To prevent this, he framed a project and resolution in his mind, which was one of the most horrid and wicked, perchance, that ever entered into the heart of man. For, having issued out a summons to all the principal Jews of his kingdom, commanding their appearance at Jericho, (where he then lay,) on pain of death, at a day appointed; on their arrival thither, he shut them all up in the circus, and then, sending for Salerno his sister, and Alexas her husband, commanded them that, as soon as he was dead, they should send in the soldiers upon them, and put them all to the sword. ‘For this,’ said he, ‘will provide mourning for my funeral all over the land, and make the Jews in every family lament my death, whether they will or not:’ and when he had adjured them hereto, some hours after, he died. But they, not being wicked enough to do what they had been solemnly made to promise, rather chose to break their obligation, than to make themselves the executioners of so bloody and horrid a design.”
Since Josephus, who has given us the history of Herod’s transactions at large, has taken no notice of the slaughter of these children, some have been ready to suspect his fidelity as an historian, or, which is worse, that of St. Matthew. But there is no need to do either. For surely it is not to be supposed, that an historian lessens his credibility as often as he relates the facts omitted by another; or passes over those recorded by another. For it is hardly possible it should be otherwise, unless one should exactly copy from another. Besides, Josephus has so many instances exactly similar to this, and those so remarkable, that he might think it needless to add this. For, as Is. Vossius, a man by no means superstitious or credulous, has observed, after so many examples of Herod’s cruelty at Jerusalem and through all Judea, after so many sons, so many wives, relations, and friends, cut off by a variety of torments, it does not seem to have been a great thing to have also put to death the infants of a town or village, with the territory belonging to it, the slaughter of which could not have been very great in so small a place, especially since not all, but only the male infants were destroyed, and of these only such as were under two years old. What Tacitus has observed, Anal. Matthew 6:7, is very applicable here: “I am not ignorant,” says he, “that the dangers and punishments undergone by many have been omitted by most writers, either because they were tired of relating such a multitude of instances, or feared that the things which had been wearisome and disagreeable to them would be equally so to their readers.” — Wetstein. Indeed, Josephus was not old enough to remember it himself, and if he did not find it in the Memoirs of Nicholas of Damascus, (that flattering historian, of whom we know he made great use in compiling the life of Herod,) he might be unwilling to introduce it, even if he were particularly acquainted with it; lest the occasion might have led him to mention what, generally, at least, he is solicitous to decline — I mean, Christian affairs. It is sufficient that this cruelty of Herod is preserved in Macrobius, who, in a chapter “concerning the jests of Augustus upon others, and of others upon him,” says, “When he heard that among those male infants about two years old, which Herod the king of the Jews ordered to be slain in Syria, one of his sons was also murdered, he said, ‘It is better to be Herod’s hog than his son.’” The saying alludes to his professing Judaism, which forbade his killing swine, or eating their flesh; therefore, his hog would have been safe where his son lost his life.
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,Matthew 2:19. When Herod was dead — His death, of which Josephus has given us a very affecting account, happened, according to some, within three or four months of his perpetrating the above-mentioned bloody act, and was a fearful instance of that vengeance which God, even in this world, sometimes takes on his enemies, and those of his people. He died eaten with worms, at the age of seventy-one, after a reign of forty years, having endured such excruciating, lingering, and loathsome diseases, as rendered him intolerable to himself and others also. And his innate cruelty being thus exasperated, he became more barbarous than ever, and just before his death caused Antipater, his son and the heir apparent of his kingdom, to be executed on some groundless suspicion. God, it seems, made him, in a remarkable manner, a terror to himself and to all round about him. Eusebius, the ancient ecclesiastical historian, thought his death so great an illustration of the gospel history, that he has inserted it at large in his work. An angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt —
Probably the same angel which had appeared to him before, and directed him to flee into Egypt, and abide there till he should bring him word again. That word is now brought him, and in obedience to it he returns with the child and his mother into the land of Israel. Let us, in like manner, remember, it is God’s part to direct, and ours to obey. Nor can we be out of the way of safety and comfort while we are in the way of duty, following his directions, and steering our course by the intimations of his pleasure. For, “the preservation of the holy child Jesus may be considered as a figure of God’s care over his Church and people, in their greatest dangers. He doth not often, as he easily could, strike their persecutors with immediate destruction, but he provides a hiding place for his children, and by methods not less effectual, though less pompous, preserves them from being swept away even when the enemy comes in like a flood. Egypt, that was once the seat of persecution and oppression to the Israel of God, is now a refuge to his Son: and thus all places will be to us what Divine Providence will be pleased to make them. When, like Joseph and Mary, we are cut off from the worship of his temple, and, perhaps, removed into a strange land, he can be a little sanctuary to us, and give us, in his gracious presence, a rich equivalent for all we have lost.” — Doddridge.
Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.Matthew 2:20. They are dead which sought the young child’s life — It has been conjectured by some, that Antipater, the son of Herod, who died but five days before his father, might also be referred to in these words, They are dead, &c. At the time when Christ was born, he was heir apparent to the crown, and was a prince so cruel and ambitious, that he had procured the death of his two elder brothers, to clear his way to the succession, and no doubt he would be an active counsellor and instrument in seeking the destruction of the new-born Jesus, and in advising the slaughter of the infants.
And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.Matthew 2:21-22. And he arose — Joseph obeyed the angel, and, it appears, would gladly have gone to Judea, probably to Bethlehem, because from his own knowledge of the prophecies, as well as from the decision of the scribes, an account of which he might have received from the magi, he fancied his son’s education in Bethlehem was as necessary to his being acknowledged the Messiah, as his birth, which had been so providentially ordered to happen there. Nevertheless, when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea, he was afraid to go thither, knowing the jealous and cruel disposition of that prince. Archelaus was the sixth son of Herod, and the most cruel of all those that survived him. His father appointed him his successor, with regal authority, but Augustus gave him only the title of ethnarch, or ruler of the nation, annexing to his government Samaria and Idumæa. In the very beginning of his reign, he massacred 3,000 Jews at once in the temple, and was afterward, viz., in the tenth year of his government, banished by Augustus to Vienna in Gaul, on a complaint brought against him by the chief of the Jews, for his various cruelties. Joseph, therefore, might well be afraid to settle in a country that was under the government of such a cruel tyrant. Being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee — which was under the government of Herod Antipas, (see note on Matthew 2:2,) a prince of a milder character than Archelaus, and then on such hostile terms with him, that there was no danger of his giving up Joseph and Mary into his power. Add to this, that, being intent upon building the cities of Julias and Tiberias, he endeavoured, by promises and immunities, as well as by a mild government, to allure strangers to come and settle there. We may observe here, that although Joseph’s near relation to Jesus exposed him to many difficulties and dangers, such as he had been a stranger to till it commenced, yet it made him ample amends for that inconvenience, by placing him and his under the peculiar care of a watchful Providence, ever attentive to his safety, and that of his little family; and by procuring him the favour of so many extraordinary visitations and supernatural discoveries of the divine will. This is no less than the fourth message sent him from the court of heaven since he became the husband of Mary!
But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.Matthew 2:23. He dwelt in a city called Nazareth — Where he had formerly resided before he went to Bethlehem. Nazareth, as appears from Luke 4:29, was built upon a rock, not far from mount Tabor. The country about it, according to Antoninus the martyr, was like a paradise, abounding in wheat and fruits of all kinds. Wine, oil, and honey, of the best kind, were produced there: but it was a place so very contemptible among the Jews, that it was grown into a proverb with them, That no good thing could be expected from thence; so that by Jesus’s returning to Nazareth, and being brought up and educated in it, a way was further opened by the providence of God, for the fulfilment of the many Scriptures which foretold that he should appear in mean and despicable circumstances, and be set up as a mark of public contempt and reproach. This seems to be the most probable solution of this difficult text. He shall be called a Nazarene — That is, he shall be reputed vile and abject, and shall be despised and rejected of men, an event which many of the prophets had particularly foretold. And it is to be observed, that St. Matthew does not cite any particular prophet for these words, as he had done before, Matthew 1:22; and here, Matthew 2:15; Matthew 2:17, and in other places, but only says, this was spoken by the prophets, viz., in general, whereby, as Jerome observes, he shows that he took not the words from the prophets, but only the sense. See Psalm 69:9-10; Isaiah 53:3. Now it is certain the Nazarene was a term of contempt and infamy put upon Christ, both by the unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, and that because he was supposed to come out of this very city. There was, among the Jews, a celebrated thief, called Ben-Nezer, and in allusion to him, they gave the name to Christ. His very going to dwell at Nazareth, was an occasion of his being despised and rejected by the Jews. Thus, when Philip said to Nathanael, We have found Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Moses spake, Nathanael answered, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? And when Nicodemus seemed to favour him, the rest of the council said to him, Search and look, for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet. Here then we have a plain sense of these words. He was sent to this contemptible place that he might there have a name of infamy and contempt put upon him, according to the frequent intimations of the prophets. If, after all, this interpretation is not acquiesced in, we may, with many of the ancient Christians, particularly Chrysostom, suppose, that the evangelist may refer to some writings of the prophets, which were then extant, but are now lost, or to some writings not put into the Sacred Canon, or to some paraphrases upon the writings. As to the interpretations which refer this to Christ’s being called Netzer, the Branch, Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; or Nazir, one Separated, or, the Holy One, they all fail in this, that they give no account how this was fulfilled by Christ’s living at Nazareth, he being as much the Branch, the Holy One, when he was born at Bethlehem, and before he went to Nazareth, as after.