Blog #57: We Three “Kings” (!?!?)

By John Cline

An online article found at had this to say about some characters so familiar to the Christmas story: “They’re the three men in glittering velvet robes and fake beards in the living nativity at church. Sometimes they tow a live camel. Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, following yonder star through the back of the sanctuary in the grand crescendo of our beloved annual Christmas pageant. I’m speaking, of course, of the Magi. Or is it wise men? Wait, kings? Perhaps if Luke the historian had written about them in his Christmas account, we might have had precise details. But Matthew’s account is vague, shrouded in mystery: “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…” (Matt. 2:1).
Intrigue swirls around these festooned foreigners. Where did they come from? With a wink Matthew writes, “the East.”
How many were there? We don’t know, the bible doesn’t say: all it says is that they offered three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
What were their names? Again, who knows but almost certainly not what an old Armenian tradition identifies them as: Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India.
Were they “kings”? Probably not, though as early as the second century Tertullian considered the Magi to be kings for he argued their visit fulfilled Solomon’s prayer in Psalm 72—“May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts.” Isaiah 60 also speaks of how, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…and all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” But, most likely they were not kings.
Were they “wise men”? Now we are getting closer to the fact of the matter. Wise men is a perfectly acceptable translation of another word “magi” and the Roman historian Cicero described magi as being “wise and learned men among the Persians.” In fact, the Hebrew word for “wise men” is used much more frequently in the Old Testament to designate a class of astrological advisors. Gentile kings valued these men for their wisdom concerning the affairs of the kingdom.
So, the “kings” or “wise men” of the Christmas story were “magi”. The term magi is the precise Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel. His story demonstrates that the “magi” were astrologers and interpreters of omens—following a star and dreaming dreams. When they arrived in Jerusalem, their curt bluntness had King Herod spitting out his morning coffee: “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” (Matt. 2:2).
These visitors were like a blast from the Hebrews’ past. The book of Daniel chronicles how he and his companions spent 70 years exiled among magi in the East. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was in the habit of gathering the best and brightest from his vanquished foes into an advisory body of wise men, stargazers, and dreamers. When he captured Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he added them to his menagerie of magi, “and in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters (Greek magi) in his whole kingdom” (Dan. 1:20). In one episode from the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar had an ominous dream. Summoning his magi and enchanters, he demanded, “If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble” (2:5). When the magi only succeeded in coming up with excuses, Daniel rescued them all with the dream and interpretation from the Lord. In awestruck gratitude, “the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (2:48). Daniel became the “magi of magis”.
The whole episode with Daniel and the magi is similar to the stories of the Egyptian Pharaohs were kept their courts packed with wise men, astrologers, and magicians. Genesis tells of a young man named Joseph who was carted off to exile in Egypt. One night Pharaoh awoke from a terrifying dream. He found that none of his magicians could provide an interpretation. It was Joseph, the Hebrew exile in prison, who provided Pharaoh with God’s interpretation. In response, Pharaoh clothed Joseph like a king, “and they called out before him, ‘Bow the knee!’ Thus, Pharaoh set him over all the land of Egypt”. Similarly, at the time of Moses in the Book of Exodus, he did battle for God against that Pharaoh and his magi, the court magicians.
So, who were the “magi” who came to see Jesus? Most likely, court astrologers in Persia who had been influenced by the Hebrew Old Testament brought to them at the time of Daniel and which spoke of a coming newborn King of Israel. When these magi saw a bright saw in the east they concluded that it was the sign they had been watching for regarding the birth of a newborn King of the Jews. And, so they mounted up whatever animal it was they were riding (horses? camels? donkeys? – again, we don’t know) and they followed the star to Bethlehem. “And the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of (frank)incense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream (after all, they were magi – interpreting dreams was in their job description!) not to go back to (King) Herod (who planned to go and kill the child once the magi returned to him and gave him the exact location of the Christ Child), they returned to their country by another route.” (Matthew 2:9-12)
Whoever those visitors from the east were – kings, wise men, magi – they have become examples to people throughout the centuries of how people should enter into the presence of Jesus: in worship and awe, with reverence, and bearing gifts for him. The greatest gift we can gift to Him in this season is that of our devotion and obedience. This Christmas we would do well to follow the example of those mysterious visitors from the east.
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