We are not yet done with the circumstances of the childhood of Christ. We must follow him in his babyhood to Egypt, in his boyhood to Jerusalem, before we stand with him in his manhood on the banks of Jordan, and follow him in his fully developed divine teacherhood, through the land of Israel for three years and-a half.
The enquiry of the wise men, on their arrival in Jerusalem, was, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? However strange such an enquiry appears in modern ears, after the long ascendancy of the artificial ideas of Christ that have become prevalent through ecclesiastical influences, it had no uncertain or inappropriate sound in Jerusalem, where the prophets were read every Sabbath day (Acts xiii. 27). The one foretold by the prophets, and of whose appearing many were now expectant, was to be "a king" (Jer. xviii. 5) sitting on the throne of David (Isaiah ix. 7) governing and dispensing justice from Jerusalem as a centre of universal law (Micah iv. 1-7), binding all nations in the bond of that political and social unity which all thinking men see to be so desirable, but to which none can suggest a practical attainment. The arrival of a band of men in Jerusalem with enquiry as to the whereabouts of this coming one, and the implied intimation that he had been actually born, was calculated to produce the agitation that followed their question. When it became generally known, all Jerusalem was troubled. The report came to Herod's ears. It particularly affected him. He was the actual king of the Jews for the time being; his jealousy was excited by the reported birth of one long looked for by the nation as their heaven-sent head and king, destined to rid the earth of all rivals. His natural impulse was to get hold of the new-born King if he could, for the purpose of his destruction. But how could he get hold of him? No one knew where he was. The enquiry of the wise men excited universal curiosity and surmise, but could find no answer. The wise men could only tell of the star which for the time had disappeared. They knew nothing of the locality where the mighty personage was, to whom it pointed. In the dilemma, Herod had recourse "to the chief priests and scribes of the people." He "demanded of them where Christ should be born." Why should he expect them to know? Because in their custody were the holy oracles which had been "committed" to Israel, and in which was "shewn beforehand the coming of the just one" (Acts vii. 52). Herod must have been aware of this, in a dim and traditionary way, before he would have applied to them for the information wanted. He would hear of it from time to time from his courtiers, or in his dealings with the people in various relations. It might be supposed that Herod's recognition of the prophetic character of the newly-born child would have withheld him from the attempt he made to destroy it. It would have had this effect on a fully informed and tractable mind. But this was not Herod's case. He was an enlightened and headstrong tyrant who would class Hebrew prophecy with Greek or Roman augury which could sometimes be circumvented.
"The chief priests and scribes of the people" were able to supply the information desired by Herod. The categorical question "where Christ should be born?" they met with the categorical answer, "In Bethlehem of Judea." They did so on the strength of Micah's prophecy: "Out of thee (Bethlehem in the land of Judah) shall come a governor that shall rule my people Israel." It is interesting to note this frank and ready application of the words of the prophets. It is in strong contrast to the cloudy and bewildering exegetics of modern commentators of the Jewish school, who inherit the demoralising effects of centuries of Rabbinical efforts to divert the indications of prophecy from Jesus of Nazareth. It is also a condemnation of the so-called "Christian" treatment of the prophets, which equally with the Jewish treatment, though in another way, nullifies of makes them void, by artificial and false canons of interpretation. Had Herod's question come before either the Jewish Rabbis or the Gentile ecclesiastics of the 19th century, it would have received no such direct and explicit answer. The said authorities would have peered critically at the etymology of the terms, and finding that Bethlehem meant "house of bread,' would doubtless have suggested, in long-drawn elegant sentences, that the term contained no geographical indication, but pointed to heaven as the great source of all life-sustenance, and, therefore, of the Messiah as the bread of life sent down from heaven; that, in fact, no one could tell where Christ was to be born, or, for the matter of that, that he was to be literally born at all, as the prophecy might be taken as the fore-shadowing, in a personified form, of the Messianic age, to have its origin from heaven. Had "the chief priests and scribes of the people" treated Herod's question in this way, they might have been in danger of being treated as Nebuchadnezzar's astrologers and magicians were treated when they professed their readiness to interpret the king's forgotten dream, but their inability to supply a knowledge of it. But they had not yet become so sophisticated. They boldly answered that, according to the prophets, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem -- which, as we have seen, he was -- a fact that supplies a clue for the reading of the prophets in matters not yet fulfilled.
Having obtained this information, Herod called for the wise men privately, and ordered them to go to Bethlehem, and "search diligently for the young child," and bring him word when they had found him. To veil the dark purpose that he had formed, he told them his reason for wanting to get at the child was that he might "worship him." The wise men, believing in their simplicity that Herod's statement was sincere, set out with all alacrity towards Bethlehem to find the object of their search. But how, after all, were they to get at it? They could easily enquire their way to Bethlehem, but how were they to identify one particular unknown child among hundreds, perhaps thousands, in Bethlehem? They might hear the report of it when they arrived; but they might not: and if they did, report might be conflicting. Their uncertainties were soon at an end. As they went along the road "lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them." We may understand why, on seeing this, "they rejoiced with exceeding great joy." They would now be able to identify the newly-born "King of the Jews" without any doubt. It may seem as if it were not necessary they should be able to do so. It might even seem as if it were expedient they should not be able to find him out, seeing that the aim of Herod, on whose business they came, was to destroy the child. A reconsideration may suggest other thoughts. In the wisdom of God, it was evidently necessary for the wise men themselves that they should discover Christ; and their homage, at his cradle, was a part of the situation that it pleased Him should attend the introduction of his Beloved into the world. Consequently, to have concealed Christ, would have marred His plan on these two points, and it would not, after all, have screened Christ from Herod's designs, as the wholesale slaughter of the sequel shows. Therefore "the star went before them till it came and stood over where the young child was." They entered the house indicated by the stoppage of the star; and "there they saw the young child and Mary his mother." They not only saw;they gave vent to the feelings which the sight was calculated to stir in them: "they fell down and worshipped him." They also unpacked the treasure they had brought with them, and "presented unto him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh."
To this, some demur as a sentimental extravagance out of keeping with the fact that Mary's child, though the son of God, was also the son of Adam, of a like nature with the rest of Adam's children. How little reason there is in this demur must appear on reflection. God said, centuries before, by Isaiah, "I have sworn by myself; the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that unto Me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear" (Is. xlv. 23). Now we learn from the Spirit in Paul that this homage was to be received by proxy, that is, in and through the son of His love, who is the image of the invisible God, the express image of His person: "At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow ... and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. ii. 10, 11). Hence also, in the Apocalypse, they are conjoined in the ascription joyfully offered by the company of the glorified saints, "To him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb." Now, was it not fitting that at the very commencement of the life of him who was to be the Father's representative and manifestation, there should be a recognition of the kingly majesty veiled and involved? The angels celebrated the event of his birth: and here we have the representatives of what was esteemed in that age the most honourable order of men upon earth, prostrating themselves in the presence of the child, and offering costly gifts. It is fitting; it is beautiful. The impulse of all hearts in genuine sympathy with the work of God, will be that if they had been there, they would have taken joyful part with the wise men's adoration of the babe in whom was fulfilled the heart-stirring prophecy, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called wonderful, counsellor, &c."
Meditating a return to Herod, they are "warned of God in a dream" not to do so, but to depart unto their own country another way. They hasten to comply, and are well on their road, when another message comes to Joseph, ordering him to leave Bethlehem at once, with "the young child and his mother, and to flee into Egypt," and to remain there till fresh word came to him. The reason of this became quickly apparent. When Herod had waited long enough to be sure that the wise men had no intention of returning, he issued an edict for the destruction of the entire babyhood of Bethlehem, under two years, in the hope of being able thus to compass the death of the object of his jealously. This barbarous edict was thoroughly carried out by the willing instruments always at the disposal of a despotic government. Thereupon arose a wail rarely heard upon earth -- the wail of a multitude of bereaved mothers. It is impossible to conceive acuter natural agony than that inflicted on the mothers of Bethlehem. As no human affection is stronger than that of a mother for her child, so no suffering could be greater than that caused by this cruel slaughter. Many have been the efforts of the pencil to depict the scene -- various the success -- tragic enough, all, but doubtless none of them coming up to the reality. It is one of the most harrowing episodes in the story of human suffering -- a long, dark, dreadful story. Then was indeed fulfilled, in its most literal and striking manner, that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying "In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation and weeping and great mourning." The primary application of this prophecy was to the removal of Israel in captivity from the land, but the richness and depth of the mind of God are often seen in two or more analogous coming events being covered in the same prophecy. Had Joseph and Mary and "the young child" been in Bethlehem at the time, nothing short of a miracle would have saved the child from Herod's executioners. A miracle, no doubt, would in that case have been performed; but God does not work miracles unless they are absolutely necessary. He shielded His Son from harm by having him removed beforehand. He has other sons who may hope for similar providential favour; for all His sons are precious to Him.
But another purpose seems to have been served by the descent into Egypt. It had been written in the prophets: "Out of Egypt have I called my Son." On the face of them, these words seem to be a historical reference (exclusively) to the exodus of Israel under Moses; but by Matthew, we are instructed in a deeper additional meaning. He says that Christ's residence in Egypt occurred "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, Out of Egypt have I called my Son." At first sight, it is difficult to understand how a historical allusion to the exodus can be a prophecy with reference to Christ. So difficult is this felt to be, that many Bible students have, in all ages, refused to receive it; and, indeed, have made it a reason, along with others, for refusing to believe that Matthew wrote the chapter where the statement occurs. But we have seen that this mode of solving the difficulty is inadmissible. Matthew wrote the words undoubtedly, and that, too, by the inspiration of the Spirit of God, which rested on and guided all the apostles to the end, as Christ promised. The question is, on what principle can two meanings be conveyed in one form of words? It is not a question of two opposite meanings, or two dissimilar meanings, but of two cognate and related meanings in the terms employed by inspiration. There is a first and proximate meaning to all the facts and statements recorded in Moses and the Prophets, but was there not a secondary meaning, congruous to the first -- not apparent at the time of the first meaning, but latent and left for future elucidation? However repugnant such an idea may be to limited human intellect, it is impossible to deny that such is the teaching of the New Testament concerning the writings of inspiration. That teaching is not confined to isolated instances like the quotation about the exodus. It runs throughout the apostolic writings.
It is peculiarly a New Testament revelation that there was in the scope of Old Testament events, institutions, and statements, a meaning not obvious to those who stood immediately related to them. Of family incidents in the life of Abraham, Paul says, "which things are an allegory" (Gal. iv. 24.) We should not have known this otherwise. He tells us that in the law of Moses existed "the form of knowledge and of the truth" (Rom. ii. 18); that it was "a shadow of good things to come, whose substance was of Christ" (Col. ii. 16. 17.) We should not have known this had we listened only to Moses. Christ speaks in the same way. He says that not one jot or tittle could pass from the law till all was fulfilled (Matt. v. 18; Luke xvi. 17.) He said he had come to fulfil it, and that "all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses ... concerning him" (Luke xxiv. 44). We should not have known there was anything in the law of Moses to fulfil if Christ had not spoken thus, and Paul after him. There need be no difficulty about the fact when the fact is obvious. It is characteristic of high mentality even in its human manifestation, to delight in analogies and involved meanings: to hit off two significances in the same expression. That this should prove to be an attribute of the Eternal mind, not only need be no difficulty, but it is both to be expected and will excite admiration. Analogy and type and double entendre run through the whole history of divine doings upon earth. Thus "the seed of Abraham" covers the kernel of the seed -- Christ. Thus Israel, first-born nation, covers the first-born son (Jesus); and a prophecy of the one is often a prophecy of the other, e.g., Isaiah xlix., and others that will readily occur). Thus, also, in Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon, we deal with foreshadowings of Christ, and read a prophecy of him in them.
That Matthew should seem to strain prophecy is only an appearance. It is impossible to sympathise with those who would strive to remove this appearance by saying that Matthew did not write it, or that in writing it, Matthew was not inspired. The Spirit of God's own way is the best; and although its ways are often hard to see through, they improve with acquaintance, and, become more lucid and beautiful as we master them.
Israel was the Son of God, as Moses was commanded to say to Pharaoh: "Israel is my son, even my first-born.... let my son go that he may serve me" (Ex. iv. 22, 23). By this, Israel was a prophecy of Christ, as the plant is a prophecy of the flower. The two were connected. The one came out of the other. Israel became the son of God for the working out of God's purpose in Christ, the ultimate and real son; and one pattern running through the whole work made it possible to foreshadow the one in the other, and make the one a prophecy of the other. In calling the one out of Egypt, the fact became, and was intended to be, a prophecy of the other, coming out of Egypt as well; for the one was the other drawn to a focus as it were.
The principle receives several illustrations. Topographical coincidences run through the whole plan. The offering of Isaac on Moriah required that Jesus should be offered there also. The birth of David at Bethlehem required the same thing of Jesus. David's flight up the face of the Mount of Olives from the presence of Israel's rebellion seems to find a counterpart in Christ's ascent from that Mount from a nation that said "We will not have this man to reign over us;" and David's return via that Mount, a counterpart in Christ's coming back to the Mount of Olives before his enthronement in Jerusalem. Israel's scattering among the nations finds Christ so scattered in his body during all the times of the Gentiles. The holy portion of the land in the age of glory covers the place of Abraham's sojourn in the land as a stranger, and David's flight among the rocks of Engedi; and Christ's trial, mockery, condemnation and death. The divine plan is full of such interesting and fitting coincidences, among which, we are bound to place the fact that not only the national but the personal Messiah, came out of Egypt in the beginning of his existence upon the earth.
Herod's death opened the way for that event. "The angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, arise, and take the young child and his mother and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead that sought the young child's life." In obedience to which, the little band return ed from Egypt and made for Judea. Why Joseph should purpose going to Judea, we are not told: it would probably be connected with the circumstances and acquaintances arising out of his previous visit to Bethlehem in connection with the family enrolment. At all events, on arriving in Judea, he found his way barred. Herod's son, Archelaus, was in power, and fearing that the son might retain the feelings of the father in reference to "the young child," he went northwards, and "turned aside" to Nazareth, "that it might be fulfilled," says Matthew, "which was spoken by the prophets, he shall be called a Nazarene." There is no prophecy in these terms to be found in any of the prophets. It is evident from the way it is introduced that it was not intended as a citation of express words. It is introduced as something "spoken by the prophets;" this is not the way an exact prophecy would be referred to. It is a way of alluding to some general sense of what the prophets have said. What have they said that would connect his name with Nazareth? This depends upon the meaning attached to Nazareth.
There are two meanings, both of which would yield some analogy to what is predicted of Christ "by the prophets." The first is that which is yielded by the Hebrew root of the name Nazareth, netzer. Though its primary meaning is to reserve, preserve, it comes by derivation, as a noun, to signify "a plant, sucker, or young tree springing from the old root and reserved or preserved when the tree is cut down," therefore, a branch, as translated in Is. xi. 1, and other places: "a branch shall grow out of his roots." Scholars suggest that the reason of Nazareth being called by a name having this meaning was the exuberance of its foliage. However this may be, there was a fitness in the man who was to be known as the Branch of David, being brought up in a city having that idea in its name, however derived. It would in that case be one of the many correspondences with which divine ways and things abound as we have seen; and Christ's transference to a place with such a name would be an incipient commencement of the fulfilment of the prediction that his name would be the Branch.
The second meaning would be found in the unfavourable impression conveyed to the popular mind in Matthew's day, by a man being known as one brought up at Nazareth. This sense is expressed in the question put by Nathaniel when he heard that the Messiah had been found in Jesus of Nazareth: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Nazareth was in poor repute; it was a despised place. To be a Nazarene was to be a despised man. Now this is what was "spoken by the prophets" that Jesus was to be -- a man despised and rejected -- a Nazarene in the sense attachable to the epithet at the time of Christ's birth.
There is a third meaning for which there is something to be said, though its fitness is not so apparently complete as in the other two cases, viz., the possible correspondence of the name of Nazareth with the Nazarite law which prefigured Christ as much as all other parts of the law which have their "substance" in him. He was to be a separated and holy one unto God after the type of the Nazarite; and this general prophecy may have been taken as corresponding with the name of the city where he was to be brought up; or, indeed, as required by the law of correspondences already glanced at, that he should be brought up in a city so named.
Finally, it is possible that in the far-reaching and richly involved operations of divine wisdom in the arrangement of these matters, the whole three meanings were intended to converge in the name of that particular spot upon earth which was to be honoured as the mortal home of Earth's Immortal Lord and Owner.