Gentile Wise Men Seek the Messiah

For a gospel message that many claim is only for the nation of Israel, Matthew the tax collector has an awful lot to say about Gentiles.  This passage may well be titled, “Gentile Wise Men Seek the Messiah while so-called Jewish Wise Men stay at home.”  The familiar story goes something like this.  Wise men from the east see a star in the sky.  They take this star, which must be some new spectacle in the heavens, to be a sign that the Messiah has been born somewhere in Israel.  Lo and behold, they are correct.  The star is a sign that the Messiah has been born.  They travel to Jerusalem expecting to find the Messiah there, but instead they find King Herod.  They boldly ask where the newborn King of the Jews is, pointing out that they have seen a star and are come to worship this newborn king.

One point of information here, the wise men did not follow the star into Israel or to Jerusalem.  The star was in the east, and the wise men were from the east.  They traveled west, moving away from the star.  They expected to find the Messiah somewhere in Israel, most likely Jerusalem since that was the capitol of Israel during the reign of David and so many prophecies portray the Messiah as ruling from Mount Zion.  But the star did not guide them to Jerusalem.  So the classic hymn We Three Kings is a bit misleading.  It states “westward leading” in reference to the star which is not the case.  Only after they depart from Jerusalem to Bethlehem does the star act as their guide.  Let’s not even mention that the magi are not kings.

The interesting thing about this prophecy from Micah is that Matthew does not insert this as a point of reference, but instead includes it in the narrative as the answer from the chief priests and scribes to King Herod.  It’s not like Matthew states, “The Messiah was born in Bethlehem that it might be fulfilled….”  Instead, the chief priests and scribes supply the point of information for us.  The chief priests and scribes knew exactly where the Messiah would be born, right there in David’s hometown, based on Micah’s prophecy.  The entire city of Jerusalem was troubled at the arrival of the wise men, therefore they understood why these wise men had arrived.  The city knew they were looking for a newborn Messiah.  Or at least people knew the tabloids were reporting it.  Many people probably wrote this off quickly, but initially these wise men did create quite a stir.

How did the Magi know about the birth of the Messiah?  This question has caused much speculation over the years.  My take is that because they were from the east, and because Daniel’s prophecies were originally given in the Babylonian kingdom in the east, the association most likely came through Daniel.  Daniel 4 is a letter from King Nebuchadnezzar unto the subjects of his entire kingdom.  It is obvious that Daniel’s prophecies had a wide reaching audience in his day.  The prophet Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of his, had already heard of Daniel and his wisdom, see Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3.  It only makes sense that Daniel’s prophecies were distributed amongst the Babylonian kingdom during a time when the Babylonians were known for their wisdom – and guess what?  The Babylonians were also known for their astrologers, see Daniel 2:2, 4:7, 5:7.

One of Daniel’s prophecies is the vision of 70 weeks.  This revelation from the angel Gabriel documents a period of time from the decree to rebuild Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince.  If the wise men had insight that had been passed down from Daniel concerning when the Messiah would appear, they would have counted the elapsed time and known roughly when the Messiah would be born.  Daniel had witnessed the transition from the Babylonian Empire to the Medo-Persian Empire.  He began reckoning the years according to the reign of Cyrus late in his prophecies.  He understood that Cyrus had given the decree according to the foreknowledge of the prophet Isaiah.  So even before Daniel finished writing his prophecies he understood that the seventy weeks had begun.

As these Babylonian wise men began counting the time until the Messiah would be born, they also watched the sky being astrologers.  Now, how did the Magi know that the star was a sign?  Is there any biblical justification?  Some have pointed  to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17, but I’ve always thought this was subjective.  The Scepter is figurative.  A Scepter will not literally rise out of Israel, only figuratively.  So why would the Star be literal?  The only explanation I have is one that would be extra-biblical.  These Magi understood something about the stars that we don’t understand.  Or perhaps since the 70 weeks began at the decree of Cyrus while Daniel was still living, he was able to pinpoint a precise ending point for the 69 weeks.  This ending point was passed down from generation to generation amongst the wisest astrologers in the world.  When the 69 weeks were expired, these astrologers could fully expect that the Messiah would be born.  As the time period expired, perhaps even on a specific day, a mysterious star appeared in the sky, prompting these wise men to plan a trip to Jerusalem.  They had counted the 69 weeks on faith.  The star appeared to confirm that their efforts were not in vain.  They planned a trip to Jerusalem to welcome this newborn king.

Daniel’s 70 Weeks

I realize that this view of Daniel’s 70 weeks runs contrary to any given commentary that you have read.  Many scriptural gymnastics have been done to try to make the 69 weeks fit within the parameters of a certain decree and the life of Christ.  Most try to take a later decree such as that of Artaxerxes.  An extended study of Daniel’s 69 weeks is impractical for this post, but let me summarize the scriptures.  First, seventy weeks would have been understood against the backdrop of Leviticus 25:8, note especially the ESV.  These are seventy sevens of years.  So from the decree to the end of the 69th week which leads us to the Messiah, there would be 483 years with one seven year period remaining.

The decree that is most prominent in the scriptures is that of Cyrus in his first year.  This was the decree foretold by scripture in Isaiah 45.  Although it was foretold that Cyrus would accomplish many things, the decree itself was said to include three things.  #1- The decree would include Jerusalem being rebuilt, see Isaiah 44:28 with 45:13.  #2- The decree would include the rebuilding of the temple, Isaiah 44:28, see also Isaiah 45:3 which would refer to the sacred vessels of the temple, with Ezra 1:7-11.  #3- Perhaps overlooked at times, the decree would also include freeing the people of Israel from captivity allowing them to return to their homeland, Isaiah 45:13.  If you look at the way the decree is structured, the rebuilding of Jerusalem is factored most heavily into the original prophecy, notice Isaiah 44:26 showing the voice of the LORD proclaiming that Jerusalem will be inhabited, then the voice of Cyrus comes in at Isaiah 44:28 with his first proclamation being that Jerusalem would be rebuilt.  Some will be overly picky with II Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4 and say that there is no direct statement that Cyrus authorized Jerusalem to be rebuilt.  However, this is missing the entire point based on an argument from silence.  Both of those passages contain a decree by Cyrus for Israelites to return to their homeland and it specifies returning to Jerusalem in Ezra 1:3.  Both of these passages contain a decree by Cyrus for the temple to be rebuilt.  Then the following passages show that Israelites are returning to live in Jerusalem and surrounding cities, Ezra 2:1.

It should also be noted that Cyrus makes an official proclamation throughout his empire.  The decree of Darius (Hystaspes) is based upon the previous proclamation of Cyrus, see Ezra 6:1-12.  Darius sums it up this way, “Cyrus the king issued a decree.”  So far we only have one base decree, that of Cyrus.  When Nehemiah enters the story, we are on the second portion of the same narrative.  Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the Hebrew writings.  It is one continuous story.  So when Nehemiah is speaking to King Artaxerxes, Jerusalem is already inhabited, meaning it was rebuilt to some extent.  Nehemiah makes a personal request to the king who grants his request.  But there is no proclamation throughout the kingdom or any type of decree issued in Nehemiah 1-2.  Nehemiah asks to be excused from his job and is allowed to return to his homeland and rebuild the city of Jerusalem under the authority that Cyrus (upheld by Darius) granted to them when he issued his decree in the first year of his reign.

Darius the Mede (most likely the son of Astyages) and Cyrus the Persian took the kingdom together and began reigning at roughly the same time.  Toward the beginning of this joint reign, the Medes were more prominent, causing Daniel to date the prophecy of Daniel 9 according to the reign of Darius.  As time progressed, the Persian Empire became more prominent causing Daniel to date the prophecy of Daniel 10-12 according to the reign of Cyrus.  This was a fulfillment of Daniel 8:3, 20.  When Daniel received the vision of the 70 weeks, it was most likely the first year of the reign of Cyrus.  There was no doubt as to when the 70 year captivity had expired, because Daniel had clear understanding according to the prophecies of Jeremiah, Daniel 9:2.  The 70 year captivity is over, Cyrus issues his decree, and the 70 weeks of years begins immediately that very year.  There is no gap and no guessing as to when it begins.  From that point we count 483 years and then we can expect the Messiah to be here.

Some may point out that the decree of Cyrus occurred anywhere from 540-536 BC, depending on your source.  To arrive at the birth of Christ in 4-1 BC either means there is a gap in between the 7 weeks and the 62 weeks, or as many scholars have noted of late, the Persian Empire is not reckoned properly.  Two sources have stated that instead of 205 years, the Persian Empire was only 52 years.  Another source I read stated that it lasted 116 years, but that was assuming there were coregents which the author had not proven.  Alexander the Great began his reign in 331 BC which means that there needs to be 152 years to carry us from the decree of Cyrus to the reign of Alexander.  With history currently being reckoned in error calculating the Persian Empire as being 205 years, I would not be surprised if the wise men are not proven correct in their calculations.  More information can be gleaned from DL Cooper’s book, Messiah: His First Coming Scheduled.  Chapter 13 can be read at Ron Wallace’s website entitled Bible Fragrances, read it here.

I’m not an expert in Biblical chronology or secular chronology, but let me put forth two items for your consideration.  First, secular history has reckoned that King Artaxerxes ruled for 41 years and that reign is after Xerxes I.  But if you look at the scriptural record, this King Artaxerxes is stated to be king even before Darius Hystaspes, see Ezra 4:7, since he is the one who stopped the building of the temple which Darius later reinstituted.  Then this same Artaxerxes is seen as king after the reign of Darius, see Ezra 6:14, 7:1, 11-28, Nehemiah 2:1.  So we can trust Ptolemy who compiled his writings in the second century AD, not being a witness to the actual events, or we can trust the biblical record which states that Artaxerxes ruled before and after Darius most likely as some type of coregent.  If he indeed ruled for 41 years, that reign is to be reckoned during the same time as the reign of Darius which secular history has a guess that he reigned for 36 years.  (Note: subtract 36 years from the 205 years right off the bat.  We are a whole lot closer to the 152 years which the wise men counted already.)  There is no other Artaxerxes around this period of time that could be considered as a candidate for this person mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah as Artaxerxes II does not come on the scene until after Darius II.  If you look at secular history, their information identifies this person as the biblical figure gleaning most of their information from the scriptures, but fails to recognize the clear contradiction.  Many Bible commentaries suggest that what Ezra meant was not really Artaxerxes, but Cambyses II.  That doesn’t reflect well on the belief that scripture is inspired.  Some would point to the idea that Artaxerxes could be a title, but secular history didn’t use the name that way so why would Ezra?  The second issue is that Daniel 11:2 clearly revealed that 3 significant kings would stand up after Cyrus.  Now we could include the false Smerdis, but this seems unlikely.  So our list goes like this according to secular history:  Cambyses II, (false Smerdis which history has given us fables), Darius Hystaspes, then Xerxes I who is the fulfillment of the fourth king described in Daniel 11:2.  If Daniel’s prophecy recognized an imposter who ruled less than one year, problem solved.  However, if this imposter is not to be reckoned, we have a serious problem which would only be resolved by admitting that secular history is just plain wrong.  Perhaps Artaxerxes did rule before Xerxes I.  This Xerxes I is the one who stirred up the Grecians leading into the conflict [which Daniel 11:3 describes the rise to power of Alexander the Great].  Granted, there were most likely several rulers in between this fourth king (Xerxes I) and the defeat of the Persian Empire, but the details of the Persian kingdom at this point become sketchy, riddled with assassinations, and in constant turmoil.  This makes for a very untrustworthy chronology, but secular history has staked their claim on this shaky documentation.

Let me suggest something novel, that perhaps the Bible is correct and secular history is wrong.  The kings should be listed as follows:  Cyrus II (commonly called Cyrus the Great), Cambyses II (also referred to as Ahasuerus in Ezra4:6), Artaxerxes I (Longimanus), Darius I, Xerxes I.  Whether Artaxerxes I or Darius I should be listed first in the order is irrelevant since they had some type of co-regency.  This would give three kings and the fourth being Xerxes I who fulfilled the prophecies of Daniel in stirring up the Greeks leading into the conflict whereby Alexander the Great would take the kingdom.  This brings the Biblical narrative into a more cohesive order, shortens the chronology by at least 36 years, and reconciles what secular history has as a contradiction to the Bible.  Now back to King Herod.

King Herod

King Herod could not have been ignorant about the prophecies concerning a Davidic Messiah.  I’m certain he heard of the belief of the common people that their “Savior and Deliverer” would arise and save them from their enemies.  But a significant number of Gentile Magi traveling a considerable distance to welcome this newborn king was another matter altogether.  Now King Herod was confronted with an uncomfortable reality within what he felt was his kingdom.  King Herod was not stupid.  He demonstrates intelligence in calling the chief priests and scribes together and demanding from them the information he wanted.  Was there a specific place where it stated that the Messiah would be born?  After all, these wise men seem to know that he is already born.  Perhaps someone (an Israelite prophet?) knows where.  The chief priests don’t bat an eye.  They know full well that Micah, the prophet who accurately predicted that Jerusalem would be plowed like a field, foretold also that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the same town in which King David was born.  This leads us to a brief examination of Micah’s prophecy.

The passages surrounding this prediction in Micah tell of destruction, pain, and your general doom and gloom that was typical for your average prophet of God.  Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, so the destruction brought by the Assyrian kingdom foretold by Isaiah is something that Micah also proclaims in advance.  In spite of this awful destruction, there is hope.  Micah foretells that in the last days that the mountain of the house of the LORD would be established in the top of the mountains, Micah 4:1-8.  Also, even in spite of this destruction upon larger cities and smaller cities, out of one of the smallest cities, Bethlehem in the way of Ephratah, would come forth the ruler of Israel.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

There really is not much that the original context in Micah will add or subtract from the way Matthew includes the prophecy.  Yes, Micah predicts judgment sweeping over the areas around Israel; and Jerusalem itself will be destroyed.  Yet in spite of all this, there is hope beyond this destruction.  Out of Bethlehem will come forth the Messiah, Micah 5:2.  The mountain of the temple will be exalted, Micah 4:1.  All nations will want to travel to the temple to learn the ways of God because His law will go forth from Zion, Micah 4:2.  Ultimately God will have compassion upon His people and cast their sins into the depths of the sea, Micah 7:19.  Really this prophecy in Micah 5 serves to tell us the birthplace of the Messiah and not a whole lot more.

Matthew does not reinterpret Micah 5.  In fact, the chief priests and scribes demonstrate that the prophecy would be fulfilled literally.  It was literal Bethlehem where they expected the Messiah would be born, and literal Bethlehem it turned out to be.  Matthew arranges his gospel to show that the chief priests have all of the facts in front of them, yet they completely miss the birth of the Messiah.  None of them bothered to travel to Bethlehem even though they said they believed the scriptures which stated he would be born there.  The wise men had showed up interrupting the daily life of Jerusalem, creating a stir which left the whole city troubled, yet the religious authorities of God’s chosen people remained completely uninterested in fulfilled prophecy.

Each gospel writer arranges their material with a specific goal in mind.  Different stories are included for different reasons.  Matthew the tax collector includes this story to demonstrate how Gentiles were more zealous in their pursuit of the Messiah than the Jews.  After all, the Gentile wise men had done the work of tracking the timeline, noting the star in the sky, and making the long trek from a foreign land.  The Gentiles did all the work and the Jews could have benefited from their studies.  All those in Jerusalem had to do was to travel the insignificant distance to Bethlehem.  Plus, the star now did the guiding work of leading the wise men directly to the house where the child was.  Perhaps some in Jerusalem thought they would be looking for a needle in a haystack.  The LORD provided the means to quickly find the Messiah for these Gentiles.  Jews, on the other hand, oblivious of the supernatural work that the LORD was doing amongst these Gentiles, remained content to sit there and do nothing.  Matthew the tax collector makes another stinging point.

As if this is not enough, Matthew concludes this portion by showing the relationship that God had with these Gentile wise men.  They fall down in worship of the Messiah of Israel.  They worship Him by believing the prophecies of Daniel, by traveling to Jerusalem, by following the star on faith to a house they had never been to, by falling prostrate before Him, and by giving of their treasures.  Now Matthew records that God Himself speaks to these wise men in a dream.  Their predecessor Daniel had received dreams and visions from God.  Now they too were privileged to receive a dream from the LORD warning them not to return to Herod.  The casual reader may have missed the point up until now.  But here it is in black and white.  Here are Gentiles that God is in communion with, while the Jews remain blind to God’s covenant plan.  So far, The Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy contains some fairly scandalous material.

Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13

-The Orange Mailman

This entry was posted in Bible, Eschatology, Fulfilled Prophecy, Prophecy, The Gospel of Matthew. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Gentile Wise Men Seek the Messiah

  1. Hi, it’s me from over at Prewrath Only. 😀
    I’ve had some of these same thoughts about the magi myself. I didn’t even know about the assumed Balaam prophecy connection until last Christmas and had always thought they had access to some sort of extra-Biblical info that we aren’t given. Never thought about the star “being” in the East rather than leading them from the East.

    Love the idea of them being aware of Daniel’s 70 weeks to watch for. Fits in beautifully.

    “Let me suggest something novel, that perhaps the Bible is correct and secular history is wrong.” LOL Great point, you wouldn’t be the first to be right to stick to the inspired Word!

  2. Thanks Cheri. Sometimes I wonder how many actually read the substance of what I write. I wish I knew more about secular history so I could adequately engage other views, but for now this will have to do.

  3. Pingback: I Will Send My Messenger | The Orange Mailman

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