This brief synopsis of the Wisemen’s journey may be imaginary but it does summarize the events recorded in Mt. 2:1-23. The Biblical account, in its succinct and direct way, also accurately portrays what history has revealed of Herod’s leadership and the reputation he held in the ancient world. Herod took on the role of governor in Galilee in 47 B. C. at the age of 25. By 37 B. C. after murdering several rivals, a wife and two sons, surviving a bloody civil war and using his ability to ingratiate himself with all the right Roman rulers, Herod was appointed kingship. He did this by demonstrating unfailing loyalty to the interests of Rome.
His position was always precarious; not with Rome but with the people he ruled. Herod was an Idumean, technically a “half-Jew, half Edomite”. In the eyes of the Jewish people and according to Scripture, he was unfit to rule in Jerusalem because of this lineage. As a client king of Rome, he also symbolized foreign domination, especially to those who were descendants of the Hasmoneans, the ruling class he had all but eliminated to gain his position. In an effort to gain support and favor in the eyes of the Jews he had divorced his Idumean wife and married Miramne, woman of Hasmonean royalty, but the plan failed miserably.
During the years of 25-14 B. C. a time of unmatched prosperity took place in Judea. During this time Herod made his mark as one the greatest builders in the ancient world. Ancient Samaria was rebuilt, a harbor port was constructed at Caesarea Maritima, luxury vacation palaces were constructed at Jericho and Masada, and a massive fortress/burial ground was built just outside of Bethlehem for him. But Herod’s greatest attempt at placating the Jewish people was also his greatest blunder in winning their favor. He undertook renovation of Zerubbabel’s Temple which was first dedicated in 515 B. C. Begun in 19 B. C. the project was not completed until 64 A. D., long after Herod’s death in 4 B. C. Although the general improvements were probably needed, the Roman insignia Herod placed over the door frame which led into the Holy Place and Holy of Holies was offensive to everyone who worshipped there.
While Herod may have been a talented builder, he was horrible person. Overly suspicious, ruthless, and paranoid, no one was safe from his murderous hands. Days before his death he murdered his third son even though he had been designated as Herod’s successor. One of his most notorious acts of murder was connected to the visit of the Wisemen. These astronomer/astrologists had come to him for information concerning a king they determined was the reason for the celestial phenomena they’d been tracking through the desert. When they did not return to tell him where they’d found the “king”, but knowing they’d gone to Bethlehem, he ordered the execution of any male child under the age of two in that area (Mt. 2:16) to protect his legacy. However, just like the Wisemen who were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, Joseph had also been warned to leave Bethlehem and to take his family to Egypt (Mt. 2:13-15), which he did.
Herod’s paranoia drove him to do unthinkable things. He ordered the murder of those innocent children thinking that he could stop something that was ultimately God’s plan (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Matthew notes that even though Herod intended to eliminate the child, his command actually brought about the fulfillment of a prophecy about the Messiah (Mt. 2:14; Jer. 31:15; 40:1). Herod’s kingship was not only illegitimate, it was one marked by death. Matthew’s exhaustive list of Jesus’ ancestors proved His kingship was indeed legal. But more importantly, Jesus as David’s descendant gives life to all who put their trust in Him (Mt. 20:25-28; Jn. 5:21; 17:1-3). The Wisemen knew who to trust. But the question must also be asked you. Who do you trust- earthly “kings” like Herod or the King of Kings, Jesus Christ?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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