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where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” As this is a very remarkable and very important event, I shall employ the remaining part of this lecture in explaining it to you at large, subjoining such reflections as naturally arise from it.
The name of these persons whom our translation calls wise men, is in the original magoi, in the Latin language, magi, from whence is derived our English word, magicians. The magi were a set of ancient philosophers, living in the eastern part of the world, collected' together in colleges, addicted to the study of astronomy, and other parts of natural philosophy, and highly esteemed throughout the east, having juster sentiments of God and his worship than any of the ancient heathens: for they abhorred the adoration of images made in the form of men and animals, and though they did represent the Deity under the symbol of fire (the purest and most active of all material substances) yet they worshipped one only God; and so blameless did their studies and their religion appear to be, that the prophet Daniel, scrupulous as he was to the hazard of his life, with respect to the Jewish religion, did not refuse to accept the office which Nebuchadnezzar gave him, of being master of the magi, and chief governor over all the wise men of Babylon.* They were therefore evidently the fittest of all the ancient heathens to have the first knowledge of the Son of God, and of salvation by him imparted to them.
The country from whence they came is only described in St. Matthew as lying east from Judea, and therefore might be either Persia, where the principal residence of the magi was, or else Arabia, to which ancient authors say they did, and undoubtedly they easily might extend themselves; which it is well known abounded in the valuable things that their presents consisted of; and concerning which the seventy-second Psalm (plainly speaking of the Messiah) says, "The kings of Arabia and Saba, or Sabæ (an adjoining re
* Vid. Dan. v. 11.
gion) shall bring gifts ;" and again, "unto him shall be given of the gold of Arabia."
Supposing this prophecy of the Psalmist to point out the persons whose journey the evangelist relates, it will also determine what their station or rank in life was, namely kings, "the kings of Arabia and Saba." Of this circumstance St. Matthew says nothing directly, but their offerings are a sufficient evidence that their condition could not be a mean one: and though there is certainly no proof, there is, on the other hand, no improbability, of their being lords of small sovereignties, which might afford them a claim, according to the ancient usage of that part of the world, to the name of kings. For we read in Scripture not only of some small towns or tracts that had each of them their king, but of some also which could not be very large, that had each of them several.†
What number of the wise men, or magi, came to our Lord, is entirely unknown, and perhaps that of three was imagined for no other reason, than because the gifts which they brought were of three sorts. The occasion of their coming is expressed by St. Matthew in their own words: "Where is He that is born king of the Jews? for we are come to worship him."
That a very extraordinary person was to appear under this character about that time, was a very general persuasion throughout the east; as not only Jewish but heathen writers tell us, in conformity with the New Testament. And that this person was to have dominion over the whole earth, was part of that persuasion, founded on predictions of the clearest import. I need produce but one, from the abovementioned 72d Psalm, which, as I before observed, plainly relates to Christ. "All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service." There were Jews enough even in Persia, and much more in Arabia, to propagate this doctrine, and shew it to be contained in their sacred books; from whence therefore the wise men may well be supposed to have received it.
* Josh. x. 5.
Jerem. xxv. 20-26,
But their knowledge that he was actually born, must stand on some other foundation; and what that was, themselves declare, "We have seen his star in the east." This must plainly mean some new appearance in the sky, which they, whose profession (as is well known) led them peculiarly to the study of astronomy, had observed in the heavens. Now any appearance of a body of light in the air, is called by the Greek and Latin authors a star, though it be only a meteor, that is, a transient accidental luminous vapour, neither of considerable height, nor long continuance; in which sense also the Scripture speaks of stars falling from Heaven.† And such was that which the wise men saw, as will appear from a circumstance to be mentioned hereafter. Possibly indeed the first light which surprised them, might be that mentioned by St. Luke, when the glory. of the Lord descending from Heaven, shone round about the shepherds, and an angel came upon them, to bring them the news of our Saviour's nativity. For that glory, seen at a distance, might have the appearance of a star; and their seeing the star in the east, is not to be understood as if they saw it to the eastward of themselves; but means, that they being eastward of Judea, saw the star, seeming probably to hang over that country.
Now such an uncommon sight alone, supposing their expectation of him raised (as there was then a general expectation of him) might naturally incline them to think he was come; and especially as it was a current opinion amongst persons professing skill in these matters, that the shining forth of a new star denoted the rise of a new kingdom, or of a great and extraordinary prince; whence, as Pliny relates,|| Augustus the Roman emperor said, that the comet which appeared on Cæsar's death, whom he succeeded, was born for him, and that he was born in that comet; for so it seems he expressed himself.
This, I say, being a current opinion, the wise men
* Matth. ii. 2.
Matth. xxiv. 29. Mark, xiii. 25.
would be apt enough to conclude, that the present star betokened the birth of that prince, of whom (as they might easily have heard) it had been so very long foretold, "There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel."* And it is a very remarkable circumstance, that one of the ancient commentators on the Timæus of Plato,† alluding to this very star, expresses himself in these words: "There is a still more venerable and sacred tradition, which relates, that by the rising of a certain uncommon star, was foretold, not diseases or deaths, but the descent of an adorable God for the salvation of the human race, and the melioration of human affairs; which star, they say, was observed by the Chaldæans, who came to present their offerings to the new-born God."
On their arrival at Jerusalem, and making the enqui ry they come for, Herod, we find, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. That so jealous a tyrant as Herod should be troubled at this event is no wonder; and it is no less natural that the people also should be disturbed and alarmed, not knowing what the consequences of so extraordinary a birth might be. Herod, therefore, calls the chief priests and scribes together, and demands of them, whether it were known where THE CHRIST should be born; and having learnt from them, that, according to the prophet Micah, Bethlehem was the place appointed by Heaven, sends the wise men thither with a request that they would inform him when they had found the child, that he also might go and pay him due homage, intending all the while to destroy him, when he had obtained the requisite intelligence. Accordingly the wise men proceeded on their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; when the same luminous appearance, which they had observed in their own country, now attended them again to their very great joy, and conducted them at length to the very house where the child was; which probably (as is common in villages) had no other house contiguous to it, and
* Numb. xxiv. 17. *
† Chalcidius. See Brucker's History of Philosophy, v. iii. p. 472.
therefore might be easily marked by the situation of the
When the wise men came into the house and saw the child, they fell down and worshipped him, that is, bowed and prostrated themselves before him, in the eastern manner of doing obeisance to kings. Whether they designed also paying him religious adoration, or how distinct a knowledge had been given them of the nature and rank of the Saviour of the world, we cannot say; but may be sure, that what they believed and what they did, was at that time sufficient to procure them acceptance with God. Indeed, according to the opinion of some ancient fathers concerning their presents, their faith must have been very great. For they represent the incense, as offered to our Saviour as God; the gold to have been paid as tribute to a king; and the myrrh (a principal ingredient used in embalming) brought as an acknowledgement that he was to die for men. But others interpret the same gifts very differently, and take them to signify the three spiritual offerings, which we must all present to Heaven, through Jesus Christ; the incense to denote piety towards God; the gold, charity towards our fellow-creatures; and the myrrh, purity of soul and body; it being highly efficacious in preserving them from corruption. But though either or both these notions may be piously and innocently entertained, yet all we know with certainty is, that in those parts of the world no one did then or does now appear before a prince, without a suitable present, usually of the most valuable commodities of his country; and that three of the principal productions of the east, particularly of Arabia, were gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
How the wise men were affected with the sight of so unspeakably important a person, in such mean circumstances; or Joseph and Mary, and all that must flock around them, with so humble an address from strangers of such high dignity; and what further passed in consequence of this on either side, every one may in some degree imagine; but no one can undertake to