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In the Shadow of Herod’s Trouble

“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…” (Matthew 2: 1-3)

In the Scriptures, we find wise-men from the east searching for the Christ Child. They had studied the prophecies((The wise men most likely found familiarity with Old Testament prophecies via contact with Jews in living in Babylon. Jewish understanding of the Messianic advent included the occurrence of a star. See Num. 24:17.)) and plotted their course. They knew the time and place of His coming; they knew who He was and what their response to Him ought to be. What remained was to find Him. But wealthy as they were, their entrance into the province of Judea created a stir that caught the attention of its king. Of course, King Herod is the wildcard in the story; history’s madman, who spared his pigs but not his sons.((Herod scrupulously observed Mosiac dietary laws regarding the consumption of pork. Murder, however, was the merest bit of trivia. He brutally killed both his sons and his wives (and anyone else who got in his way) thus the saying, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” See “Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses,” by John Calvin.)) Is it any wonder that “all Jerusalem was troubled with him”? Still, it’s easy to separate ourselves from him; to see Herod as a sideline character — someone removed from the primary message of Christmas. The star, the angels, the shepherds with their gentle lambs — these are the things that fill our perception. But what if there is more to Herod than we’ve been willing to consider? What if a shadow of Herod’s trouble inhabits our hearts as well? Consider. Herod too, inquired of Messianic prophecies (Matthew 2:4-6). He too, knew the time and place of Christ’s coming. And he too, prepared the way in which he would acknowledge God’s descent to man. However, here is where the analogy breaks down, for while the wise-men expected a King and met Him as He was; Herod expected a rival and was overcome. Conversely, the visit of the wise-men was marked by patient, prepared seeking over hundreds of miles, and when they arrived, it was without biased expectation. This is what I find most astounding. They, powerful, rich, and learned in earth and sky, were not confounded by the incongruity of cosmic royalty toddling through a peasant’s home. Their faith had vision beyond their sight, but did not work against it. With their eyes they “saw the star” and by their faith they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). With their eyes they perceived His house, but in faith they entered. With the strength of their eyes they “saw the Child with Mary His mother,” and in the humility of their faith they “fell down and worshiped Him” (verse 11). “Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” The wise men brought their gifts, and what was more, they brought themselves. Herod never bothered, though he was a mere six miles from Bethlehem. Instead, he sent mercenaries with swords. Why? Supremacy.


Herod, himself a “king of the Jews,” saw the Savior as a threat to his own supremacy, so he fought for control of his territory and hunted the King who threatened his reign. But in the kingdom of Herod’s Antagonist it is not this way: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-8) The great application here is this: what do we hear in the invitation to worship the Incarnate One? Do we perceive an opportunity for surrender or do we hear a threat? The fact is that worship IS threatening—perhaps the single most threatening thing there is. It is costly in that it demands all. It is costly because it demands self. But as the self always strives for supremacy, it is possible at any moment for any of us to experience the shadow of Herod’s trouble. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “We cannot approach this manger as we approach the cradle of any other child. But who would go to this manger goes where something will happen. When he leaves the manger, he leaves either condemned or delivered. Here, he will be broken in pieces or know the compassion of God coming to him.”

“Who of us would want to celebrate Christmas correctly? Who will finally lay at the manger all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all pride and all selfishness? Who is content to be lowly and to let God alone be high? Who sees the glory of God in the humble state of the Child in the manger?”((Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 104 ))

Wise-men still seek Him, it’s true; men do too. We are all of us, at all times, mired in the traction of these two positions. Will we search out the Christ that we might worship, or will we hunt the illusion of our own supremacy. Either we will follow in the light of the path He has laid (Psalm 119:105) or we will hunt Him from the shadows of our sin. “… the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)

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