In the days of the Roman Empire, there was a conundrum. The Empire stretched from Britain to India. How do you, as Caesar, rule a people that are thousands of miles away? If someone in modern day Pakistan rebelled, what do you do? It takes weeks just to get there… Here is where Caesar established authorities over the various regions of his empire. Over Judea was Herod, who was half Edomite and half ‘Jew’ (some debate this).
In the recent history of the Jews, they would have Antiochus Epiphanes oppressing them, and the Maccabees rising up in rebellion during this time. God was with the Maccabees, and they were victorious to throw off the oppression of Antiochus. This was when Greece ruled the world. After Greece came Rome, and with Rome came more oppression upon Israel and the Jews. This time, there is no deliverer… yet. The people are wondering if there would be a messiah, the promised one like Moses, who would rescue the people from their oppression and rule as King of the Jews, as all the prophets declared should come.
When we enter Matthew 2, we read of these “wise men” or “magi” who come up to Herod and ask, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” At this time, Herod was ‘king of the Jews’. Rome had put him in that authority. As any good psychopathic and paranoid ruler would think (name me one ruler who wasn’t…), I’m certain that the question running through Herod’s mind was, “Who is this person that is now on the top of my death list?”
For this reason, you have the very next verse speaking of Herod being troubled. But, here is the kicker: so is all of Jerusalem with him. Jerusalem, the city of God, where God put His name, chosen out of all of the world for the Tabernacle and Temple to dwell, where the King of the Jews rules, and where God sends forth His light into all the world, and all the nations are around about this one central place… THAT Jerusalem is now “troubled” or “vexed” at the coming of her king? How can this be? What kind of Jerusalem is it that so identifies with Herod that it despises the day of her true King’s coming?
In this day, Herod taxed the people about 80-90% of their income. I blanket Herod as the one who taxes the people so harshly, but be assured, Jerusalem has a lot to do with it. You’re either rich in Jerusalem, or you’re homeless. Only the religious elite could afford to be there, who were at the Temple, and who were getting wealthy off of the severe taxes that the Temple now began to enforce on the people. Herod taxed you. Herod’s workers taxed you. You had to tithe to the Temple. You had to buy your offerings. You then had to pay tax on those offerings. You had to pay taxes to Caesar. You had to pay taxes because Caesar is God, and Herod is his authority over you. By the time that you get through the dozens of taxes each person and family had to pay, you end up with almost nothing for yourself and your family. People were losing their family homes. They were taking up occupation that they had never known in towns they had never known.
While the people continue to get poorer and poorer, they in Jerusalem are getting richer and richer. The Pharisees were getting rich off of all of the taxes, but what might surprise you is that the Pharisees were not the ones who were employed by the State. You see, every year, the High Priest was chosen by Herod or some other Roman official, and every time it was given to a Sadducee. The Sadducees were Roman officials, paying tribute and homage to Rome above and beyond anyone else. This is why you find mention of the Pharisees at the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, but not before Pilate. The Pharisees were too pious, and wouldn’t have ever entered into the court of a Gentile.
These peoples were things that at the time of Matthew being written would have been understood. 2000 years later, we think that Jesus despised the Pharisees, because they were religious bigots who crucified Him. This is not entirely true. The Pharisees were devout to God, and desired to see the coming of Messiah, but what caused their downfall (mostly) was their tedious and meticulous analysis of the Scripture, and their unbearable weight that they put upon the people to follow that Scripture. It says in Deuteronomy that we should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk. Therefore, don’t eat cheese with meat. No cheeseburgers. No pizza. No salad with meat and cheese. No chili cheese dogs.
Jesus comes and begins to speak a message entirely contrary to this. You see, it is interesting to me that it isn’t just the words of Jesus, but even His birth that is at utter enmity with the world and its kingdoms. We find here that everything that Herod’s kingdom represents is being cast aside. Herod is known for his great monuments and accomplishments. He rebuilt the mountains in the desert so that when a rain occurs, the water would flow directly to his house on top of the mountain that he built for it to sit upon. Within this house, archaeologists in the 60’s discovered some canned dates. They opened the can and ate them… and then visited the royal bathroom. (That last part was a joke.)
Everything that Herod did was massive and incredibly technologically advanced. He built a stadium that has over 500,000 seats in it, and more of it is still being dug up. And here is the whole point. What is it that you’re world revolves around? Are you the people in Jerusalem making it rich, because you’re the elite of your field, and you work for the guy who is doing everything huge and in massive ways? Is your world revolving around the monuments and money that can be achieved? What is your king? Is it money? Prestige? Monuments? Palaces with pools so big that you have to take a boat across? Who rules you?
For the people outside of Jerusalem, who aren’t making the big bucks, they are being taxed more and more and more. They are being robbed of their family homes, inherited from Joshua. Generations have lived on this family land, and now it comes to you, or your father, and suddenly you can’t keep the land. Can you imagine the shame? Can you imagine the hurt? Does that sound like “the Gospel” to you? Does that sound like freedom? Does that sound like peace, hope, and love?
With the coming of Jesus, and the magi even mentioning that His star has risen, we find that what God is proclaiming is an end to Herod’s system. This kingdom that builds its empire off of oppression and slavery, is about to collapse. The real King has come, which means that Herod is not.
In Numbers 24:17, Balaam prophesied of a “star” that is “not now” and “not near”, but shall come from Judah, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. It is possible that this is what Matthew is alluding to, and also possible that this is an actual occurrence (a star moving across the sky in an abnormal way, which is actually what caused for people to believe that Julius Caesar was ‘ascending to the gods’). It doesn’t have to be either or, by the way.
Thus, Herod seeks counsel from they who are supposed to know where the “King of the Jews” is to be born. The answer is a quotation of Micah 5:2, which says specifically that the Messiah shall come from Bethlehem. Yet, notice that when you go back to Micah 5, you have this statement continuing in verse 3: “Therefore he (messiah) shall give them (Israel) up, until the time that she who is in labor has given birth (Isa 66:8, Rev 12:1-5); then the remnant of his brethren (Israel that has been cast off) shall return to the children of Israel.” If you have a different way of interpreting Micah 5:1-3, please let me know, but it seems like this is the most plain translation that I can give.
Matthew is using this verse specifically. It might have been that the religious leaders used this verse, but what Matthew is pointing out to us is that there is something going on beyond just that verse. It isn’t merely that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. No, Matthew wants us to catch the context, because it answers for us a lot of questions we’re going to be faced with later. Why is it that Jesus would say that “the kingdom shall be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”? Because the tax collectors and prostitutes are believing, but the Pharisees and Sadducees are not. But, the point needs to be remembered, they who are believing in Matthew’s Gospel are all ‘Jews’, and the quotation here of Micah 5:2 should remind us that they shall not be cast off forever, but ‘until’.
It is interesting to note that Matthew, most likely writing to Jews, mentions the Gentiles coming to honor Jesus’ birth. Yet, Luke, most likely writing to Gentiles, mentions the Jewish shepherds coming. What they bring before Jesus has been prophesied in Psalm 72:10-12, 15, and in Isaiah 60:6. I don’t believe that Isaiah 49:23 is fulfilled here, because there are a couple things not mentioned by Matthew, and the context of Isaiah 49 doesn’t permit it. However, there is no reason to doubt the allusion to the psalm and Isaiah 60:6 mentioned above.