Matthew 2:9 NASB
After hearing the king, they went their way;
and the star, which they had seen in the east,
went on before them
until it came and stood over the place
where the Child was.
Both Matthew 2:7 (‘had shone’) and a comparison of Matthew 2:2 with Matthew 2:9 (‘had seen’, ‘and behold’) show that they had seen the star at home, and that they saw it again as they departed from Jerusalem.
The first chapter of Matthew shows that Jesus is the rightful heir to the throne of David. He has royal dignity and has the right to be honored as king.
The second chapter then describes how people respond to this dignity.
Luke relates that poor shepherds from the regions of Bethlehem have come to honor and worship Him, while Matthew describes a situation of contrasts: the secular and religious authorities in Israel show indifference or enmity towards Jesus from the first moment, while there are pagans, who came from the East to pay homage to Jesus as the King of the Jews, and as the Messiah.
This already shows what later proves to be repeated again and again: the Jewish leaders reject Jesus, while many Gentiles accept Him (cf. Matthew 8:10-12; Romans 11:11-15
“The wise” is a translation of the Greek “hoi magoi”.
Who these “magoi” were and where they came from is not entirely certain.
Originally “magoi” were priests from a Medo-Persian caste.
Because these priests were also concerned with the teaching of religion and science, especially astrology and medicine, the word later took on the more general meaning of “possessor and user of supernatural knowledge and power”. As a result, the term is no longer exclusively associated with Persia and the presumption is justifiable that Babylonian astrologers are meant here.
In that case, they may have obtained their knowledge of Jewish Messianic expectations from the deported Israelites, who lived in their midst for many hundreds of years after the fall of the Two-Tribe Empire (587 BCE).
They can then be compared with the Chaldean sages of the time of Daniel (cf. Daniel 2:1-4). Incidentally, there was lively communication between Babylon and Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth, and the Jews exercised quite a large influence towards the East.
Roman historians report that at this time there was a widespread expectation that a great world ruler would rise.
Also, several writers believed that the birth of a mighty ruler was heralded by special celestial phenomena.
In the rabbinical literature it is said that special heavenly phenomena also took place at the birth of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. Also, Numbers 24:17 (“A star rises out of Jacob”) was considered a prophecy about the Messiah.
The question of what celestial phenomenon the wise men in the East saw has been speculated through the ages. The most popular is Keppler’s view from 1606: that a certain position of the planets Jupiter (= the king star) and Saturn (= the star of the Sabbath and thus the star of Palestine) would have led the sages to believe that the King of the Jews had been born.
However this may be, Matthew does not tell us another word about this.
He merely reports that the wise men made the long, tiring journey to find the King of the Jews in full confidence.
Their zeal and faith are a wonderful contrast to the indifference that characterized the Jewish scribes.
They didn’t even bother going the short way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find out if the Messiah had been born.
Remarkably, while Matthew does not deny the truth of astrological science, he nevertheless makes it clear, that it is the scriptures that should set the wise on the right track (Matthew 2:5-6).
In Jerusalem it seems that Herod was the only one who really believed what the wise men had to say.
He immediately understood that the King of the Jews, whom the wise men spoke of, could only be the Messiah, and that filled him with horror. He saw in this King a competitor and the historians leave no doubt about what Herod the Great did with competitors (see, among others, Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates, XVI, 235-240).
He immediately made the decision to get rid of the Messiah child.
Therefore he carefully heard the wise men about the time when the star appeared to them. In this way he was able to find out the age of the child quite precisely.
In order to find out the place where the Messiah would be born, he gathered together all the chief priests and scribes (The Sanhedrin). They provided him with the desired information. They testified in this way that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5).
The message of the sages should have greatly interested the Supreme Court, and it would have been expected that the Council had at least taken steps to investigate the matter and do something to receive the Messiah.
The wise men must have heard from the Jews about the hope of Israel and now they could inform the Jews that their hope had been fulfilled. The Messiah was born! That was a message from God to the leaders of the people.
But the wise met incredulity and indifference.
Would they, Gentiles of course, have a message from God, which they had also received through sinful means (astrology!)?
Compare to this the statement of Rabbi Rab (died 247 AD): “Whoever learns a single word from a magician is guilty of death.” (SB,1.76).
All the Council did was give Herod the information that might have led to Jesus being killed had not God intervened.
Thus in this section we see three reactions to the birth of the King of the Jews:
▪︎ the cunning Herod as an open enemy;
▪︎ the religious leaders in their disbelief and indifference;
▪︎ the wise from abroad, who have come to worship the divine Child.
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