After Jesus was born, and the human-shepherds went home singing the song-of-the-angels, and the census in Bethlehem began winding down, things were just starting to pick up in another part of the country. And the story is told in another book of the Bible.
We pick up the greatest-story-ever-told in Matthew. While the highest-top-of-the-tree-Immanuel slept – wrapped up tight in that crib-for-fodder in the city of David, foreign travelers made their way to Jerusalem. It was the days of Herod, the reigning king of He-Shall-Be-Praised-Judea. And an unknown number of men had just arrived.
wise men from the east
It was a geographical detail that made Herod’s blood run cold. And as word traveled of the travelers’ arrival, the rest of Jerusalem’s blood ran cold right along with Herod’s. These men from the East – they came from the same countries that had long-terrorized the Jewish people. In one historical account (arguably among the worst in Israel’s history), the Midianites, Amalekites, and other people from the East came against those chosen people of God. Oppressing them. Harassing them. Doing anything they could to make their lives miserable – to the point of absolute destruction. During this particular time in Judges 6, the oppression from the East had taken on the form of an annual invasion for seven consecutive years. Because of the consistent invasions, the Israelites built caves and dens within the mountains to hide in. And while they hid, the invaders-from-the-East destroyed all their produce. And killed all their sheep. And oxen. And donkeys. Leaving no sustenance for them – and no means to get it. They wreakd widespread havoc and returned to their countries with the Israelites entirely impoverished and left to pick up the pieces.
But the story doesn’t end there. He never lets it end there. Later in the chapter, God raises up Gideon, who then leads the charge against the armies of the East. And the oppressive and awful army of 130,000 men is defeated by a small and insignificant troop of 300.
Nevertheless, those men of the East? They struck fear in the hearts of the people. They were legendary. Ghost stories told of generations past. They couldn’t just come waltzing up to the capital of the kingdom of Judea and expect to be well-received. But they came anyway. Because they couldn’t not. The men were astrologers. They studied the stars for a living. And they had seen an unusual star recently. One that blazed hot and burned in their hearts as it rose alongside the sun in the eastern sky of their Eastern country. A star that sent them on a hasty journey to a country with whom their people had a notoriously difficult past.
But the most interesting part of the story? The star didn’t lead them. It intrigued them. And it caught their attention. But these men came from the East. After seeing a star in the East – a Greek phrase that describes the direction of the sun’s rising. And, incidentally, that star-in-the-east that was seen in the Eastern countries described in that Judges story? It was the opposite direction of Jerusalem.
Through the appearance of the mystery star, the men had (somehow) concluded the birth of the Messiah. And they turned around immediately to go in search of Him. In the opposite direction from which they had seen the star. Turning their bodies physically and their hearts spiritually. Sort of like those shepherds did. They, too, saw a blazing light of glory. And they, too, left in a hurry to seek Him out. The only difference is the wise men traveled blindly. They didn’t know where, exactly, the Messiah would be found. But they went anyway.
And here we find them, newly arrived in Jerusalem. Asking around for that Messiah-Babe.
they came to worship Him
These men – with ancestors that hated Him – had turned their hearts to worship Him. They came to find this Babe of superior rank and fall upon their knees before Him – touching the ground with their foreheads in an expression of profound reverence. But their very presence signified a threat of invasion to the Jewish people. And word quickly made its way to their reigning king.
“Um, excuse me sir,” a message-deliverer likely stammered to Herod. “I think you need to hear this: some men from the East just arrived and they are looking for the newly-born King of the Jews.” Herod’s heart was incensed. His spirit struck with fear. And dread. Not only from the possibility of a reprisal of an ancient invasion tradition, but of his throne being usurped. He feared the threat that his reign as king of that country would be replaced by this newly-born King of the entire Jewish race.
With fear and dread and anger now stirred up within, Herod acted quickly. He called the priests of priests together to find the King of kings. And, at the same time, he called the scribes. But not just any scribes. The cross-reference to the verse points to a particular scribe that is revealed within the tense of the Hebrew word: the numberers. It was a genius two-fold calling of people: the chief priests who knew the Word of God better than anyone (including those prophecies of the coming Messiah), and the scribes that were collecting all of the recent census information. With one, he could quickly cross-check the other. And he demanded answers. Urgently interrogating the men until they could narrow down the information he was looking for.
And the priests immediately quoted Micah’s words – the prophecy that out of a tiny town in which David-who-was-the-least-among-his-brothers grew up would come the Messiah:
But you, Bethlehem, though you are little among the thousands … yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel.
Though Bethlehem was small, out of it would come the King of kings. And though the army of Israel was small, out of it would come the victory over the kingdoms of the East. Because God gave that little-among-the-thousands-army favor.
And now, over a thousand years later, men came from the East that once entirely disregarded the God of the Jewish people. And they came to worship Him.