“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, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:1-2).
An atheist recently declared to me that a cumulative reading of the Bible makes no sense, since the Bible is not a single book but an anthology. I agree, but this “anthology” is indeed a single work because it was compiled by God. Without that foundation, the significance of much of its detail appears redundant. A good example is the wise men from the east in Matthew 2.
One of James B. Jordan’s greatest contributions is his highlighting of the period from the exile to Christ as a unique period in Bible history. While most commentators see this half-millennium as a time of unfulfilled promises and oppression, Jordan observes that this was a time of preparation for the Gospel, and Israel was given a special ministry.
Due to the failure of Israel’s kings, God put the nation through a death-and-resurrection, elevating his people to a higher court, a Gentile one. The Jews served God as a nation of prophets throughout the oikoumene (a “household” of nations), teaching the Gentiles through the ministry of the synagogues (Acts 15:12).
This new “social architecture” is set up in the book of Daniel. The thrones of the ancient kings, including that of Solomon, were often surrounded by beasts (a theme we can trace back to Genesis 1-2). The four beast empires in Daniel 7 are earthly counterparts of the four cherubim guarding God’s throne in heaven, preparing the earth for the coming of the heavenly King. Just as the Bronze Altar symbolized the Land of Israel, these four beasts correspond to the “higher court” of the four-horned Golden Incense Altar in the court of heaven, the place where “the sons of God,” His courtly advisors, minister to Him.
These heavenly beasts are miraculous hybrids of earthly animals, picturing the ability of the Spirit to unite things which cannot be united naturally, such as Jew and Gentile. You might remember that Nebuchadnezzar himself was transformed into a combination of “bird and beast” as a symbol of the temporary Covenant curse sent to discipline him. These “heavenly” cherubim are all Land animals which walk on water. They ascend out of the sea as the Land does. Their role was to “surround” Israel, to guard God’s people until Messiah.
Daniel declared, “I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. (Daniel 7:2-3)
As Jordan observes, one by one, each of these guardian “bulldogs” turned bad and was replaced overnight. The final guardian was Rome, and we see Roman authorities protecting Christians from Jewish persecution in the book of Acts.
What does all of this background mean for Matthew 2?
This “Restoration Covenant” era began with young Jews taken as captives for training by the Chaldeans, the religious leaders of the Babylonian region. The book of Daniel sets them up as characters similar to those in Pharaoh’s court who opposed Moses. Daniel not only trumps their skill but ends up ruling them. He was taken captive to be taught, but rather than seeking their power, he humbled himself and became the teacher.
Since Daniel ruled the wise men, he redeemed them from pagan star gazing, a practice condemned by God because only He can interpret the stars, and He does so only to His prophets (Genesis 15:5; 22:17; 37:9, Deuteronomy 1:10; 4:19; 28:62, Judges 5:20; Isaiah 14:13; Jude 1:13; Revelation 1:16). Daniel was such a prophet, and he led these Gentiles to the truth concerning the stars. Stars are signs of the sons of God, those who are destined to ascend and rule the heavens.
Moreover, instead of seeking wisdom from the created heavens, the wise men now understood that “there is a God in heaven” who reveals such secrets. Daniel’s first resort after Nebuchadnezzar’s fury was the following advice to his brothers: “Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:17-18).
When summoned before the king, Daniel was as fearless concerning his testimony to the true God as he was in chapter 1: “Daniel answered the king and said, No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (Daniel 2:27-28).
It is unlikely that these events would have been forgotten, especially by the Chaldeans. This intervention by Daniel was a game changer. Indeed, it was remembered by the queen many decades later (Daniel 5:10-12), who advised that Daniel be called upon to interpret the handwriting on the wall for Belshazzar.
So, this era began with young Jews traveling to Babylon. Matthew begins with a delegation of wise men from the east who, it seems, were now far more enamored with the God of heaven than with the heavens themselves, and far more familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures than Herod and the rulers of Jerusalem. They would have known of Balaam’s prophecy concerning the star of Jacob (Numbers 24:15-19), and also the timing of the coming of the Messiah from Daniel’s “70 weeks” prophecy (Daniel 9). The irony of the fact that this infant king was a surprise to the rulers of Jerusalem, who seemed to have no reliable prophets in their employ, would not have been lost on Matthew’s first readers. It is also the arrival of the wise men which sets the kingdom of the Herods against the kingdom of heaven. It was their testimony to Herod which brought about the massacre of the innocents, an act which would have been a sign to all true Israelites that the redemption prefigured for many centuries was finally drawing near.
The wise men from the east understood the nature of true kingdom. It was not in the study of the stars but in the knowledge of the one who made the stars “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years,” to be “lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:14-15) Daniel is bookended by wise men, but the wise men at the beginning work for Nebuchadnezzar, and the wise men at the end work for God: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:3-4).
In Matthew, the time of the end, the last days (of Israel and the Old Covenant) was at hand, only one generation away. In Revelation, the book of Daniel is unsealed by the Lamb at His ascension, and the curses of Moses fall upon the Land for the last time. John’s prophecy describes the corruption of the fourth beast (under Nero), its “decommissioning,” and the destruction of the adulterous city of Jerusalem (Egypt, Sodom, Babylon) after the jealous inspection of the apostles’ cup (Numbers 5), all completed by AD70. The dominion of the “beasts” was superseded by the empire of The Man, following the pattern laid down on Day 6 in Genesis 1.
The appearance of the Chaldeans is thus the beginning of the end. While those from the east were bringing their glory into the kingdom, the Herods were behaving like the sons of Joktan, the Shemites who “journeyed from the east” but ended up compromising with Nimrod’s Babel project, seeking a name for themselves rather than seeking God (Genesis 10-11:9).
Matthew’s narrative begins with wise men who were “angels” from the courts of earthly kings, guardians who had protected Israel until she gave birth to the promised One. They remembered Daniel of the tribe of Judah, the man without a kingdom who was showered with gifts: “Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 1:48).
Thanks to Daniel, they were not like the wise men of Nebuchadnezzar: “The Chaldeans answered the king and said, ‘There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean. The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh'” (Daniel 2:10-11).
Now that they worshiped the God of heaven, He was not only pleased to speak to them in dreams as He did to Daniel, He was pleased to meet them in person, as a man on earth, a God who now dwelt in flesh.
Mike Bull is author, most recently, of The Shape of Galatians.