In Matthew 2, we find that the whole city was filled with an impending sense of dread and doom:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
The three wise men and their gifts to Jesus are an important part of the story that we have come to know and love by heart because of the significance they bring. Chances are they didn’t grasp the implication of their visit or the prophetic nature of their gifts, but nevertheless, they were some of the first to recognize the importance of the child. They are called magi, kings, and were probably important political advisors from the east. Through their study of astrology they had seen something to lead them to believe an event of great importance, a birth, was happening in Herod’s domain and so they came looking for a baby that was going to be the king of the Jews. That’s important in and of itself, but their coming had an unintended effect. Their coming signaled a season of uproar, fear and anxiety throughout the whole city? And why? It was because they came to Herod.
Here is a person who has gotten a bad reputation through the years. This person, Herod, had no rightful claim to the Davidic line of kingship over Israel. He had taken the throne through his friendship with the Roman emperor, and was given the title “king of the Jews” about 40 years earlier. He would later be called Herod the Great, and despite his reputation, he actually did some great things during his reign. He was the only ruler of Palestine who ever succeeded in keeping the peace and in bringing order. He was a great builder; he rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. He could be generous. In times of difficulty he remitted the taxes to make things easier for the people, and in the famine of 25 BC he actually melted down his own gold plate to buy corn for starving people.
Despite these good acts, there was a reason that the whole city went into panic when Herod was displeased. Herod was insanely suspicious. If anyone was suspected to be a rival to his power, that person was eliminated. He had killed many members of the Sanhedrin when he came to power. Later he slaughtered 300 court officers. He murdered his wife and her mother. He assassinated his oldest son and 2 others. The Roman Emperor Augustus said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son. When it came time for him to die later, he ordered that the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem should be arrested on trumped up chargers and imprisoned, and that the moment he died, they be executed. He was determined that someone would be crying when he died, even if not for him.
What made the situation even worse was that these three dignitaries came from the east. Herod was secure to the west; that’s where the support of Rome was. But in the east, there were enemies. In fact, Herod had spent the better part of his first years in office building fortress-palaces along the eastern border of the country to repel any attack which might someday come. And here, into his palace, come three high ranking officials from the suspicious east asking about a baby that was born who they were calling the king of the Jews. All in all, this was a recipe for disaster, and all of Jerusalem held their breath to see how Herod would handle it.
To be continued…