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,
Once on a time our Saviour warned persons of far inferior privilege to our own that men would come from the east, and west, and north, and south, who should rise up in the judgment against them. The present passage of sacred history tells us most emphatically how men from the East did arrive very early, to upbraid, not in word, but with all the force of deed, though without any direct intention of doing so, those among whom, unexpected, unwelcomed visitors as they were, they arrived. The passage is crowded with suggestions of practical use; and, far from being novelties, they rather waken the echoes of our deepest heart and long-past experience and observation. From lesson and suggestion and reminders of our own experiences, to suggestion and lesson and reminders of our own experiences again, do the contents of this history lead us, some lying on the very surface and others deeper down. Let us observe, then, a notable instance of how -
I. THOSE WHO LIVE FURTHEST OFF FROM ZION ARE OFTEN THE EARLIEST AND MOST PUNCTUAL TO ARRIVE THERE. NO city, town, or village church or school but has witnessed this phenomenon times without number. The very type of all these lesser instances, yet instances so deeply significant of spiritual fact and history, is here. Very little can be said to be known about these Wise Men of the East, of whom the passage speaks. It is not difficult to make more than one account of them, which might hold together very well and seem sufficiently consistent to pass for truth. We are reading well-attested inspired history, or we might imagine we had come across the path of the fable and entered the region, not of Eastern wisdom, but of Eastern myth. But it is not so. There were these men called wise indeed, likelier to have been really good, who ventured on the long fanatic pilgrimage, and who are the first to knock at Jerusalem's gates for the Messiah, at the temple doors - yes, and at the weaker, the trembling doors of King Herod's and many another heart of Jerusalem's regular inhabitants.
II. THE SPIRIT BLOWETH WHERE HE LISTETH. The impulse for these pilgrims from the East cannot be set down to anything less than the Divine. There are some things that are certainly known and that help to throw light on the substance, if not on the form, of what is here recorded. It is true that there was a rumour prevalent over the whole of the East, and not concentrated even as much as it should have been in Judaea, that the time was approaching for the appearance of a great King, a King of a small people - the Jews. He was to be One of whom great things should come to pass. There is nothing for a moment to hinder our supposing that the Wise Men had got hold of this vague rumour at least, and were working upon it. But were there not thousands of others into the hearing of whose ears the same things entered, yet to be powerless over their heart? By whom was this "thing secretly brought" to the Wise Men, and their "ear received a little thereof"? Perhaps "in thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men." It was brought by the Author of all good counsel.
III. THERE IS A CERTAIN HARMONY IN THE WORK OF THAT SPIRIT WHERE HIS PRESENCE REALLY IS, AND WHICH IS OFTEN VERY TRACEABLE. Perhaps we cannot say why the Spirit moved so remarkably those Wise Men of the East. It helps sustain our persuasion that he was the prime Mover when we observe the special guidance given to them. They were almost for certain Chaldeans, or Persians, or Arabians. Their very natural way of allusion to the star as "his star" receives accordingly all the easier explanation. They studied astrology, and thought divinely of their study. They were accustomed, in the course of the stars, to inquire for and investigate, as they thought, the course of human events. It was an ancient opinion, and one very widely spread, that great events on earth were portended often by corresponding appearances in the heavens. This need not be called a merely heathen fiction. It has been so, incontestably, at times and on occasions most solemn. Was it not so, above all, at the Crucifixion? and again on occasion of the destruction of Jerusalem? And if we were to ask whether it were altogether likely that as such things have nevertheless very often been turned to the purposes of superstition, God would have used a star by which to guide these men, and have so seemed to encourage an unreal science, however real at times the fact might be, we may venture to reply that it is very conceivable, very possible. Because what God looks at is not knowledge, but honesty. What he abhors is not human ignorance, but human dishonesty. There is to-day plenty of honest superstition in Chaldea, Persia, Arabia, India, China; while, alas! it is perhaps equally true that the pure eye of God surveys a far larger total of dishonest superstition of the Worst character in every country of enlightened Europe, in every county of noonday England. God's Spirit may often condescend to graft the sweetest, kindest of his light on very blear-eyed intellectual vision, so that the moral vision be to its possibilities single. And as true, at all events, as whatever else in this wonderful narration, is this - that from afar to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to "over where the young Child was," a star was the divinely given guide to the pilgrims. The Spirit that gave the impulse to good hearts used the method that very imperfect minds would follow and be able to appreciate while they followed it. Nor did the kind, the faithful Spirit desert "the work which he had begun."
IV. THE EARNESTNESS AND SINCERITY OF THE EARNEST AND SINCERE WILL OFTEN IN AN UNPREMEDITATED AND WONDERFUL WAY, CUTTING ACROSS THE PATHS AND VERY HIGH WAYS OF THE WORLD, SERVE TO STARTLE THAT WORLD AND INSPIRE IN IT THE DEEPEST ALARM. It was certainly so now (vers. 3-8). The simple journey and simple inquiries of these "men of love," whose steps were worship, lips peace, and hands adoring gifts, excite unparalleled commotion in the heart of the chiefest man of Jerusalem, and throughout the whole city. This is partly the very nature of truth, of whatever sort. It carries about with it a holy subtlety. And it is partly the gift of God's providence. And it is partly just one chosen method, in and of itself, of God's carrying on his work and reaching his ends, not by the power of might, but by that of goodness and simplicity. This excitement and commotion show at fewest six results here. First, in the fear wrought in King Herod and many others in Jerusalem. Secondly, in the ensuing summoning of the council. Thirdly, in the necessity entailed of searching the Scriptures. Fourthly, in the king's consulting of those Eastern pilgrims and forwarding them on their journey. Fifthly, in his committing himself to be beholden to them for what he considered vital information. And, sixthly, in clenching all by a profession of lying hypocrisy, the firstborn of his heart's stricken cowardice, when Herod lets out of his lips the words, "that I also may come and worship him." The one inquiry of the Wise Men was like a six-edged blade, or a six-bladed knife, for the work it did.
V. THE FINEST QUALITY OF FAITH, THE MOST PERSISTENT HOPE, AND ENERGY THE MOST ACTIVE AND ENTHUSIASTIC, HAVE BEEN FOUND TO COME OF THE KEENEST LONGING. It is astounding to observe the testimony which history bears to the amount of force of mind and force of achievement and triumph of every degree that follow strong longing, keenness of desire, impassioned wish. When these are, therefore, noble in sort and spiritual in their ends, earth has no grander heroisms to admire. So Jacob won the morning victory after the night-long wrestling against all the grandeur of the Man who would not tell his name, but who showed his own prerogative when "he blessed" Jacob (Genesis 32:24-30). So the Syro-phcenician woman won the victory in argument and in fact against the condescending, the merciful Jesus himself. And what have we here? Amid men's even superstitious inquirings of the heavens, upon such as do so inquire with honesty, with good motive, with intense anxiety, and for want of better opportunities of knowledge, a star of veritable meaning and calm brilliance may rise. It is in God's sight a better thing to see men inquiring m some mistaken manner than not at all. These were men longing, inquiring, and, at great pains and outlay, seeking for the true King of men, the one Saviour of the world. The notion which they had. of that King and Saviour must needs have been very inadequate. It stood ticklish too, resting on the thin soil of dim tradition, standing on the slender footing of vague rumour. But because the footing of such knowledge, faith, and hope as they had was so slender, a little scanty soil on the side of the rocks the only apparent nutriment (as you may so often see in Alpine heights to wonder's own perfection, with the splendid pines of the precipice), therefore did this good plant shoot down its roots with keener appetite, and clave to the rock itself. Granted that these men were heathen, and superstitious heathen; that with minds in large measure darkened, and with hearts undelivered into the freedom of the newest truth, "they worshipped the host of heaven," the sun and moon and stars, and "beholding the sun when it shined and the moon" walking in its chaste brightness, "their heart was secretly enticed," as Job describes the scene, "and their mouth kissed their hand;" that they belonged to the very company of "star-gazers, astrologers, and monthly prognosticators," whose weakness to save God had himself challenged, and of whose ways, as so utterly heathenish, God had at least warned his own people by the mouth of Jeremiah, saying, "Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of the heavens; for it is the heathen who are dismayed at them... the customs of the people are vain... be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good;" - let all this be granted, yet nevertheless let us not despise what, manifestly, God did not despise - the gropings of those in darkness, who longed for light, and inquired for it and travelled far to seek and to find it. Let us not despise the infant often falling and spreading trouble and consternation all around, but who is most sincerely striving to walk uprightly. We have but to centre attention on this - that through intense longing, with little to inform or to encourage it, they were inquiring and seeking, though they inquired not with the right instruments nor sought in the most chosen fashion. What symptoms these of better things to come! of highest life not expired, and of a tremendous advance for the better, for that life beyond the grave! The conduct of these Wise Men of the East was counted worthy to find a place, long as time should last, on the page of the New Testament. Persist in seeking, and the Lord will rise on you. He will send enlargement of heart, growth of intelligent earnestness, and the persuasion that, guided by him first, you shall find yourself at last guided safely to him.
VI. A TRUE FAITH IS A SIMPLE DEVOTION. When the Wise Men had found the young Child and his mother, they fell down and worshipped him; they opened their treasures, and presented their gifts to the Child - gold and frankincense and myrrh. And with this they are content. They do not, emphatically not, worship the mother, nor present to her gifts. They have longed, have sought, have found, what kings and prophets of ages and centuries had desired, and in vain - and they have found. A Divine contentment takes possession of them, and, still under the gracious guidance which had led them hitherto, "they depart into their own country another way," who can doubt, not merely gladder men, but gladder with good reason, holier men? They have found the right worship, and their hearts have worshipped. Misnomer for them in a hundred aspects is their title of Wise Men, yet in one aspect so true as to counterbalance all the rest; for no wisdom equals the wisdom of simple, fervent, seeking goodness. - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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,