2:3-6. Now, having heard this, king Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it has been written through the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who shall shepherd my people Israel.’”
Why is Herod so deeply troubled at the arrival of the magi in their search for the Child-Messiah? Obviously, it is because of who they claim this child to be: the king of the Jews. Herod, the acting king in Jerusalem, appointed by Rome to replace the collapsing priestly line in 40 B.C., was not even a Jew, but an Edomite, and thus greatly disliked by the Jews, if not for his actions at least for his spurious descent. He could not possibly claim to be a true son of David and rightful heir to the throne of the king in Jerusalem. But as we shall soon seen—and as extra-biblical witnesses testify—he was disliked also for his manner of ruling, marked by violent outbursts (most likely in the fear of losing his own power). Perhaps this is why “all Jerusalem” was troubled with him, for fear of what he would do in response to this threat (or supposed threat) to his own power and authority.
As the saying expresses it, and sadly often with great truth: those with power are afraid to lose it. And they use this very power to safeguard their power. But one thing that history teaches us is that power ultimately destroys itself. Power, however much it tries to protect itself, to exert its prerogatives, ultimately consumes itself, and proves to be its own downfall. On the other hand, however, the downfall of power does not mean the redemption of those in subjection to power, whether those who suffer under its oppression or those who wield it. No, something entirely other needs to enter upon the scene, a force that far surpasses power in its intimacy and its efficacy, and yet of an entirely different order: Love. If power destroys itself, the broken void left after the dissolution of power still needs to be filled, and not only filled but invigorated, brought to life from the ashes, like the phoenix, like the Risen One, like the universe re-created at the end of time. We have seen this, for example, after the horrors of the First and Second World Wars and the atrocities wrought by the atheistic ideological programs of the twentieth century (Nazism and Communism). The faith of many in the very goodness of humanity, indeed in the very existence of good and evil, light and darkness, was shattered. An end of warfare alone was not enough to restore what warfare had destroyed. So too the collapse of a secular, materialistic culture, imploding upon itself through its own lack of purpose, is not enough to give birth to a new order of existence. Rather, Love must come to meet us and renew us, through the ever-present gift of redemption flowing from the Heart of Jesus Christ, teaching us anew to believe in truth, goodness, and beauty, to believe in love, and to yield ourselves up to the God who alone can heal what is broken, repair what is shattered, and make all things new through the power of his love.
Let us return, however, to the question with which we began this reflection. Why is Herod so afraid at the announcement of the magi who come looking for the Child-King? There are other reasons that Herod feels so threatened by the arrival of these mysterious wise men from the east, claiming to have seen a star rising and having been led to search for the one who is king of the Jews. He fears to lose his power, yes, but why feel threatened by these strangers who come with no authority making an apparently outlanding claim about the birth of a king? The only answer is because the king was already long expected, and the people of Israel knew that he was coming. Yes, the first century A.D. was full of expectation of the immanent coming of the Messiah, and the magi who come touch this rapidly beating pulse with their words. Herod and all of Jerusalem feel it.
There are, in fact, two prophecies in this passage that indeed indicate very explicitly the removal of Herod from power and the rising of a new kign, the definitive King, who operates with authority of an entirely different kind. The first lies in the meaning of the “star having risen” to guide the magi, and the second lies in the location of the birth of the new king. We will look at both in turn.
In the book of Numbers, Balaam the son of Beor prophecies: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17). And then he goes on to recount the victories of this “star,” this “scepter,” this ruler and king, including the phrase so pertitent to Herod: “Edom shall be dispossessed” (24:18). How could he not think that this new king would supplant him, and, not understand the true nature of Christ’s kingship, he feared a true military conquest of the same sort as all those who hunger for power. But how different is Christ’s reign, the reign of God, than that of earthly rulers! He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, not the power-hungry monarch who sacrifices the lives of others in order to maintain his power.
And what about the prophecies of the location of the child’s birth. Herod hears this from the chief priests and the scribes, whom he consults: “In Bethlehem of Judea.” What is so threatening about Bethlehem, a small town situated a short distance to the south of the city of Jerusalem? Bethlehem, literally translated meaning “house of bread,” was the hometown of King David, where Samuel found him at the direction of God, and there also anointed him as king (see 1 Sam 16). And the future king is prophecied to arise from Bethlehem, as the quote from Matthew shows, a combined prophecy from two different texts: Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2. It will be worth our while to look more deeply at these texts. Micah writes:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are 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.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who has labor pains has brought forth;
then the rest of his brethren shall return to the sons of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth. (Mic 5:2-4)
What a rich text! Bethlehem Ephrathah, such a small and obscure place, hardly enough to be considered worthy of being among the clans of Judah, and yet home to the king who was born in the tribe of Benjamin—the littlest and youngest of Israel’s sons—shall also be the site of the coming of the new King. From you, from Bethlehem, shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel, and not a mere man, but one whose “origin is from of old, from ancient days.” Yes, as Christ says of himself, “Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (Jn 8:58). In the ancient days the partiarchs lived, but even before them lived Adam, alone with God. And before that? The Son lived alone with his Father in the unity of the Spirit, sharing together the everlasting bliss of a single divine life. The text does not specify how far back, how “ancient” this origin is, but it seems clear that something unique is being expressed, someone whose origin lies beyond the confines of ordinary history, since his origin lies outside of the normal flow of time.
In the light of the revelation given in Christ, we can understand the true depth of this prophecy. Looking back on it in the light of the One who said, “He who sees me sees the Father; for the Father and I are one” (Jn 14:9; 10:30), and who unveiled the inner life of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19), we can understand that this “origin” does not refer merely to an ancient act of creation long ago; rather, it refers to the Son’s eternal origin in the begetting love of the Father at the heart of the Trinity. And in this respect, it also indicates that the one who shall come as king has in fact already been present within the world, accompanying it with his wisdom and love from the beginning, even if only now, “at the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), he takes human flesh and becomes visible before human eyes, in order to “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”
And as we have seen before and will see more soon, the coming of this Promised One, this true King, will gather together the dispersed tribes of Israel—“the rest of his brethren shall return to the sons of Israel”—and unite them who were torn apart by sin and infidelity. And the turning point of all this: “when she who has labor pains has brought forth.” This indicates why the priests and scribes of Jesus’ day, when asked by Herod concerning the location of the Child-King’s birth, replied without hesitation: Bethlehem in the land of Judea. This king born in Bethlehem and gathering together the tribes of Israel shall bring peace, for his rule shall extend over the entire earth. But let us bring this together now by tying in the second half of the prophetic conjoining quoted by Matthew, namely the text from 2 Samuel. After the long conflict between David and saul, and immediately preceding the final battle against the Philistines and the bringing of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, the new holy city, the tribes of Israel approach king David:
Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you that led out and brought in Israel; and the LORD said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. (2 Sam 5:1-4)
Combining the words from Micah and Second Samuel makes clear that the one who shall come from Bethlehem is the true king of Israel, to “shepherd” in God’s place, as David once did. Indeed, there is even more expressed here, as the phrase “we are your bone and flesh” indicates that the tribes of Israel recognize the family identity that ties them to David, perhaps even a conjugal bond in which the king stands before the people who have been entrusted to him as a bridegroom caring for his bride: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of ‘man’” (Gen 2:23). And the tribes enter into a covenant—a sacred family bond—with David, and anoint him as their king, sealing and expanding his prior anointing by Samuel, thus acknowleding him as their true and only king. Yet the true One who becomes “bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh,” uniting himself to us as a Brother so that, through our union with him, we may be gathered back into the communion of a single family, is Jesus Christ, the one and everlasting King of the universe.