1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,
2 saying, “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.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
was born (v.1) = lit. “having been born” — about two years prior to the events in this chapter, probably around 4 B.C.
Bethlehem (v.1) = “house of bread” — also called Ephrath. It was five miles south of Jerusalem — birthplace of David
Herod (v.1) — Herod the Great, an Edomite, made king by the Romans in 43 B.C.
wise men (v.1) — The Bible doesn’t give us much information. They were called magi, they came from another country, and that country was in the east. They were probably astrologers from the Parthian Empire, which included Persia. They were pagan priests, educated in secret knowledge, who specialized in prophesying about future events based on what they saw in the stars and planets. When Daniel was carried off to captivity in Babylon (which later became part of the Parthian Empire, he and his Jewish friends proved themselves superior to men of this sort. And in all matters of wisdom and understanding about which the king examined them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and astrologers who were in all his realm (Daniel 1:20).
In some cases, and probably in Matthew, magi were seekers of genuine knowledge from the night sky without any attempt at fraud. They may have been part of the political council whose job it was to select the kings of the Parthian Empire. Parthians had conquered Judea earlier in Herod’s lifetime and forced him to flee to Rome. Herod needed three years and a Roman army to reconquer his throne. The Jews, who resented Roman rule, had gained a measure of self government under the Parthians and were ready to grab the opportunity again.
Herod died a few years after Christ was born and was probably already sick when the magi visited. The Romans also had an old emperor (Augustus) and no great military leaders. The situation was ripe for another Parthian invasion, except that their king had recently been deposed.
The magi might have been aware of Old Testament prophecies about the king of the Jews who would rule the world, and that may have been what drew them to follow the star. In the past, Jews had held high office in Persia (Daniel, for example) and some of their kings may have had Jewish blood. The magi might have been looking for a successor strong enough to withstand Rome, and they might not have minded traveling to Bethlehem to find him.
The star may not have been intended specifically by God as a sign to the magi. It may have been a general sign that the King was born, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies like the one in Numbers 24:17: … A Star shall come out of Jacob; a Scepter shall rise out of Israel …
We can’t know for sure, but it is very unlikely that the star was a natural phenomenon, since it stopped above the village. — from a lesson I wrote for work
We are informed by Tacitus, by Suetonius, and by Josephus, that there prevailed throughout the entire East at this time an intense conviction, derived from ancient prophecies, that ere long a powerful monarch would arise in Judaea, and gain dominion over the world. It has, indeed, been conjectured that the Roman historians may simply be echoing an assertion, for which Josephus was in reality their sole authority: but even if we accept this uncertain supposition, there is still ample proof, both in Jewish and in Pagan writings, that a guilty and weary world was dimly expecting the advent of its Deliverer. — Pentecost, page 67.
Herod was greatly troubled and filled with alarm when he heard the report of the Magi. The “whole city was disturbed with him.” The reason for this agitation of the people was not far to seek. Only a little while before this, filled with rage of family rivalries and jealous of anyone who might supplant him on the throne of Palestine which he, an Idumean, had usurped, he had secured the murder of his own beautiful princess of the Asmonean line and his two favorite sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Though he had sought by every means to secure the favor of the Roman Emperor, Augustus about this time had said he would prefer to be Herod’s hog (hus) than to be his son (huios), for he would then have a better chance of life. The city feared now the revenge of this cruel and cunning king, who had in the beginning of his reign destroyed the Sanhedrin, and now in the last years of his bloody reign, might seize and execute the chief Jews. — Pentecost, page 68.
So long as any one lived, who was born in Bethlehem between the earliest appearance of this “star” and the time of the arrival of the Magi, he was not safe. The subsequent conduct of Herod shows, that the Magi must have told him, that their earliest observation of the sidereal phenomenon had taken place two years before their arrival in Jerusalem. — Pentecost, page 68.
scribes (v.4) — professional students and defenders of the law, mainly Pharisees
prophet (v.5) — Micah 5:2 — Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah
The quote (v.6) differs from the Hebrew and the Septuagint. The scribes may have been quoting from another translation or paraphrase, of just adding bits from other Scriptures.
Ruler (v.6) — Isaiah 9:6
This second chapter of the Gospel is at once historic and prophetic. All the stories gather round four prophecies, and indicate the fulfillment of their deepest intention in history.
The first prophecy is from Micah: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall One come forth unto Me that is the Ruler in Israel.”
The second is from Hosea: “I … called My Son out of Egypt.”
The third is from Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah; lamentation , and bitter weeping , Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted for her children, because they are not.”
The fourth is a truth uttered by many of the prophets in some form; “That He should be called a Nazarene.”
Thus the chapter shows us that the coming of the King was the fulfillment of the prophecies of the past. — Morgan, page 15