When all you have in life is what you can hold onto in this world, you’ve really not got much. And you might think, “Yep, I’m poor by most worldly standards, so, there isn’t much to grasp.” But the situation is actually worse for those who possess abundance, even those who seem to have it all – riches, power, and fame. Those poor folks have the problem of worrying about everyone gunning for them to take them down and steal all the accoutrements they believe define success and happiness in life.
This was the problem for King Herod. Everything he had he held onto only in the most tenuous fashion. His authority was only granted by the Romans. Herod had no true rights to be the king in Israel, as he was not even Jewish. Rather, he was descended from Esau and was therefore an Edomite. Though his accomplishments were commendable in terms of civic duties like construction projects, Herod’s soul was especially troubled.
The old phrase about paranoia – “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you” – was true of Herod. Such is a rather universal truth of those possessing earthly power. But Herod had it in spades – putting a couple of wives and a couple of children to death because he believed them to be conspiring against him. The Emperor Augustus is famously quoted to have said of Herod that it would be better to be his sow than his son, because the pig had a better chance of survival.
With this background we can see why the text in Matthew 2 says that he was troubled when hearing news from some truly wise guys from another place about a possibly legitimate king being born in Israel. Summoning the experts in Jewish law as to where such a legend would find fruition, he learned that it was in Bethlehem. So it is not surprising that a person who would kill his own family members would order the children in a second-rate hamlet to be executed.
The gifts of the Magi made it possible for Joseph to heed the dream of escape to Egypt. This second exodus back to the Promised Land after the demise of Herod gave a second meaning to the prophetic word of Hosea about God’s Son being called out of Egypt – first the nation, then the Messiah himself … all of which is loaded with redemptive tones, symbols and meanings.
Herod truly is an “exhibit A” of one who has no interest in the incarnation of Christ, being a person with investments only in this world. That is not a rare condition, as we sadly know of so many people.
But if you know and understand the eternal truth that this world is temporary and passing away, there is no need to hold tightly to the things associated with it. True life and true riches are beyond this mere flash of existence. And this incarnation story brings alive the meaning of Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he said, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Having thought about the incarnation story through the first-person eyes of Herod, read through this familiar second chapter of Matthew again …
Matthew 2:1 – After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ [from Micah 5:2,4]”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Escape to Egypt
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [from Hosea 11:1]
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [from Jeremiah 31:15]
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.