Monday, June 5th, 2023
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
The Church Pulpit Commentary Church Pulpit Commentary
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 2". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ cpc/ matthew-2.html. 1876.
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 2". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
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THE GOODNESS OF CHRIST
‘Behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.’
Let us try to see what the Story of the Magi is meant to teach us.
I. Christ’s condescension.—In the largeness of the plan of His salvation, Christ not only breaks over all the narrow notions of national, family, and social prejudice, but He permits every heart to come to Him, in spite of its imperfections and errors, by the best light and the best feeling it has. These astrologers were all wrong about the stars presiding over the destinies of men, and foretelling the birth of kings. Yet, condescending to them, taking them up at that low point of their childish superstition, this testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy, made use of their astrological credulity to guide them to Christian knowledge, shaping the miracle even to their mistake, by all means to bring them out into ‘the truth as it is in Jesus.’ This patience and condescension, beginning there at the cradle, ran through our Lord’s personal ministry among men. He always gains persons, just as He gains the world, by going down to them. If fishermen are to be converted, He gets into a boat, or sits down by them as they are mending their nets. When wicked women are to be purified, He allows them to come in the wild earnestness of their impulsive devotion, and lets them wash His feet with tears. If the cure of disease, or raising the dead, or stilling the sea, will turn men’s hearts to Him, He works the outward wonder for the inward blessing. The Gospel goes forward, becoming all things to all men, taking men as it finds them, suiting the manner and voice of its appeal to their culture, tastes, and aptitudes. Every careless, unchristian person is like these wandering Gentiles. Worse than that, he may be living in frivolity, or in pride and self-will. But the Spirit of God is constantly at work, trying and searching him, to see if there is any tender spot in his heart, any sacred memory, any purer attachment, any look toward the stars, any nobler aspiration, or at least any susceptibility to suffering, by which he can be touched and renewed.
II. Blessing according to faith.—At every step forward in the Christian life, each disciple’s amount of privilege or blessing is generally in proportion to the growth of his faith, up to that time. These Eastern Magi were the purest-minded and most spiritual religionists in the heathen world. There can hardly be a doubt that it was for that superior cleanness of heart that they were honoured with this heavenly illumination. We are not to carry the doctrine of Christ’s condescension to such a pitch of extremity as to hide from view the real differences in men’s hearts. There are laws in the economy of grace, as in the growth of the body and the mind. Blessings are according to faith. Faith is nothing but the soul’s willingness to receive Christ’s blessings, and to receive them in Him by Whom alone they can come.
III. Led to Christ.—After all, wherever the starting-point, whoever the travellers, whatever the gentleness that forbears to quench our feeble life, and however merciful the long-suffering that waits for us, there is an end of the whole way, at the feet of the Lord. All His patience, His diversities of working, the discipline of life, the dealings of the Spirit; all the gentleness and infinite charity in Christ, are for this. They lead us where He is. They guide to His manger and His cross. This is the unvarying doctrine of God’s whole Word, of His Providence in Christ, of the daily discipline of His Spirit. How can we help crying in thankful faith, O faithful and everlasting Shepherd, find us in our wilderness; let not the adversary have dominion over us; quench not, but rekindle by Thy Spirit, the dying embers of our repentance; bring us home, where the angels rejoice over every wanderer that was lost.
‘These Magi came from beyond the bounds of that chosen and favoured Israel whose were the covenants, the oracles, the fires of Sinai, the glory of Zion, and the faith of the fathers. They came, doubtless, from Persia. They were princes among pagans, or a priesthood of superstition. Their business was a vain attempt to read the fortunes of empires and of men by watching the changing positions and mutual attractions of the stars. No plainer revelation of God’s loving-kindness and wisdom stood before their eyes than in the cold splendours of the midnight sky. The heavenly commandments and promise they must spell out in the mystic syllables of the constellations, or else grope on in darkness. The sun was the burning eye of an Unknown Deity. With night-long solemn vigils, they strained their eyes into the heavens; but they saw no “Heaven of heavens,” because they saw no Father of forgiveness, and no heart of love, there. Astrology was their pursuit, and astrology was neither a true faith nor a true science. Their prophet was Zoroaster—a mysterious if not quite mythical person, ever vanishing in the shadows of an uncertain antiquity. These were the men that God was leading to Bethlehem, representatives of that whole pagan world that He would draw to the Saviour.’
THE MEN AND THEIR GUIDE
I. The men who made the inquiry are called ‘wise men.’ In the original they are denominated Magi. The title at first belonged exclusively to the priests of the Persian nation; but it gradually came to denote any class of men who applied themselves to learned and scientific pursuits. Astronomy was their favourite study. The Magi, therefore, were the learned caste of the East, and their journeying from their native land to Judæa to see the Kingly Child prefigured the gathering of all nations ultimately to Christ. Those Gentiles from the East came to Him at the beginning of His earthly life, and nearly at the end of it other Gentiles came to Him from the West (St. John 12:20). The Magi unhesitatingly designated Him ‘King of the Jews’; and the Jews themselves ought not to have been distressed by the inquiry of the Magi, though Herod was, inasmuch as the expectation of a ruler over them was now general. These Orientals were right in their affirmations. They said that Christ was a King, not by mere appointment as was Herod, but by hereditary right. He was ‘born’ so.
II. A supernatural guide.—Not a word is to be found in the Gospels defining the nature of the star. All that is certain is—God created that wonderful light, hung it in the cloudless skies of the Orient, directed the eyes of the Magi to it, and inspired them to follow its leading until they reached Bethlehem. To them it appeared as a star; they spoke of it as a star; and as a star it is described in the Gospel. What we know not now, we shall know hereafter.
III. Why these Magi sought the Infant Christ.—‘We are come to worship Him,’ said they in Jerusalem; and ‘when they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, they fell down and worshipped Him.’ They saw Him but an Infant, in poverty and humility, and yet they instantly acknowledged Him as their King, and worshipped Him as their Saviour. That Royal Babe was the answer to all their wistfulness—the satisfaction of all their desire. They felt in their inmost soul that He was a God-made King and a God-sent Redeemer. What faith was theirs! the sages of the world bend in adoration before a little Child! To believe and worship is infinitely better than to reason and dispute! To follow in the wake of these wise men is the highest policy of mankind. When the shepherds, in their simple Jewish gaberdines and high yellow caps, stood in the presence of their Messiah, they had neither gold, nor frankincense, nor myrrh to give to Him, and so they gave Him nothing, save their belief and worship; but when these star-gazing Magi, with their proud tiaras and flowing mantles of purple, rose up before Him, they presented to Him gifts worthy of being offered to a king ( Psalms 72:10-11).
IV. What about ourselves?—Jesus now reigns as King in glory. Have we done homage to Him? Are we His loyal subjects? If not, let us beseech Him to come and occupy the throne of our heart; let us make every use of all the divinely instituted ordinances of the Church, that, like the star of Bethlehem, they may lead us directly to Christ. Then shall we yearn and labour for the last glorious Epiphany of Him Who died to redeem us to Himself.
‘The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles is actually the second festival of the Church’s ecclesiastical year. Originally it was not a distinct celebration, but formed part of the festival of the Nativity, because both holy seasons related to the manifestation of Christ in the flesh; but in the latter part of the fourth century a distinction was made between them: the festival of the birth of Christ was celebrated at Christmas only, while that of the manifestation to the Gentiles was celebrated a little while afterward. The sanctity of this latter developed more and more in the estimation of the faithful, and even Christian emperors dignified it by frequently introducing into its services fresh signs of external reverence. On the vigil of this festival homilies were delivered, the Lord’s Supper was administered, the water was consecrated that was used at baptism throughout the year, and the meanest slaves were indulged with a holiday.’
LITTLE KNOWLEDGE, MUCH FAITH
‘We have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him.’
The Wise Men offered to the Lord Jesus Christ the very best they possibly could; they gave Him the homage of their hearts. They were sincere in worshipping Him, and they also offered gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. I would ask you all to do as the wise men did, and offer yourselves to Him.
I. True wisdom.—They were wise men, and the way in which they showed their wisdom was in going, at great trouble and expense, and perhaps peril, in order to give the homage of their hearts to Christ. They had the wisest wisdom, the spirit of the Holy Ghost, to guide them by means of the star to where Christ, the new-born King, was to be found.
II. Little knowledge.—The wise men had very little to help them, but they made the best use of what they had. When the extraordinary star appeared, which was always connected with the coming of a new king, they felt confident that the time had come, and they set forth upon that difficult and dangerous journey in order to go and worship Christ. They had no Gospel, and in this respect they put us to shame. Here we are, with our complete Bible, and Church services and meetings, and yet some of us have not even yet given our hearts to Christ.
III. Much faith.—These wise men triumphed over the difficulties which stood in their way. They had so little to guide them from the world’s point of view. They went in speculation, as it were; they might have been disappointed, and have had all their trouble in vain; but they were not to be deterred by any consideration of that kind. When they got to Jerusalem there came a very great difficulty and a disappointment. They were told there was no new king there, they were told that Herod was king; and, added to this very great disappointment, their guiding star had disappeared. They might have considered that they had made a mistake, and have turned back. But no, they were thoroughly in earnest. Even when the Wise Men saw the star again that did not finish their disappointment. The star went on to Bethlehem, and took them to an inn. But there was no Christ in the inn. And at length the star stood over a very humble building, a mere shed, a stable. Then surely they might have given up the search altogether, but faith enabled them to triumph over every difficulty.
IV. Whole-hearted adoration.—At once these men fell down before him, and they laid at His feet not only their hearts, but also the most expensive things they had brought with them. The best things they gave were their hearts. If you will only take Christ as your Saviour, and pray earnestly for the guiding of the Holy Ghost, then your path will indeed be prosperous and happy, and you will be able to triumph over every difficulty until at last in Heaven itself you are able to lay yourselves down at His feet and worship Him as King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Rev. H. L. James.
THE GUIDING STAR
‘The Star … went before them.’
When God would make an Epiphany of His Son to the Gentiles, there were evidently two ways in which He might do it. He might send Him to them, or draw them to Him. He chose the latter.
I. The guiding star.—Many persons are waiting and expecting that God will, some day, make some very wonderful demonstration to their souls. But that is not God’s usual method. There is truth, salvation, peace. It lies at a small distance; you must go to it; there must be a rising up, and an effort, and a determination, and a following, and a patience,—but there is something to rouse you,—there is enough to guide you, if you really wish to go,—Jesus is a very little way off,—but there is a ‘star,’—a thought, a conviction, a teaching, a leading, a luring,—sent for this very purpose, quite sufficient, certain to succeed, and bring you off safe, if you use it. These Magi were interested in astronomy, and the revelation from God came to them in the time of their ordinary pursuit. Religion generally does this; it meets a man according to the habit of his daily life. We all have a great amount of truth floating in our minds;—what we want is, to have it made definite, and brought to a focus. That, the ‘star’ did for them. That, some special act of the power of God will do for you. It is a great fact—and we cannot be too thankful to God for it—that truth, as such, is fascinating. This is true of all truth,—up to Him who embodied it into Himself,—‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.’
II. The light suspended.—Once they set out, the ‘star’ steadily went before them, probably at such a distance as at once to lead, and yet not discourage them,—just as all teaching, and all guidance, that is like God’s, must always be. For a little while, while they were at Jerusalem, we gather that it was not seen. That short suspension was not a small part of its faithfulness to the great Ante-type. For who that has ever been a follower of truth, does not know what those intervals are, when all that was just now so plain and bright, goes quite out,—and there is no token of being loved, or led, or remembered, at all? And who has not felt the exceeding great joy of the coming back of the light, and of the becoming conscious again of a presence, and of the unchangeableness of God, and of the reality and the progress of the work which is going on, and which now occupies all our interest? Every one that has ever lost, and then recovered, a Christian’s hope, will understand well that the sight of the ‘star’ again was the ‘rejoicing with exceeding great joy.’
III. Looking upward.—Meanwhile, and all along, as they went, where did they look? Not at the road, not at their feet, but at the ‘star,’ high up above them, in the sky. And oh! how many are going doubtingly, slowly, heavily, wearily, wrongly,—simply because they look at their feet, and not at the ‘star.’
IV. The Christ at last.—And at last, the ‘star,’ which had always moved before them, now “stood” still. It rested at Christ. For that, it had gone forth;—for that, it had shed its beam;—for that it had travelled all the way;—and now, a Christ reached, is a ‘star’ at rest. And you, you have thousands of feelings, and desires, and pursuits, of which,—whether you recognise it or not,—the real centre is Christ. Believe that,—that you are being borne on to something which will at last be satisfied. Do not stop, do not expect any end, till that end is a found, felt Saviour.
The Rev. James Vaughan.
(1) ‘When Christ was born, He was revealed,—first to the Jews, and afterwards to the Gentiles,—to “the shepherds,” and then to “the wise men.” And observe that, as the Jews had the priority of time, so also they had a superiority in the manner of the declaration. It was animate life,—“an angel”—to the one; inanimate life,—“a star,”—to the other. And to the shepherds, it was done much more feelingly than to the Magi,—it was loving, joyous, confidential, minute,—“Fear not, for behold, etc. To the Gentile, the intimation was distinct, sufficient; but it was a silent finger,—they had one “star.” But to the shepherds,—“Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.” So, in every way, the Jew had the advantage, and will when He comes again in His Epiphany of glory.’
(2) ‘What trouble it must have cost these wise men to travel from their homes to the house where Jesus was born: how many weary miles they must have journeyed! The fatigues of an Eastern traveller are far greater than we in England can at all understand: the time that such a journey would occupy must necessarily have been very great; the dangers to be encountered were neither few nor small.—But none of these things moved them: they had set their hearts on seeing Him “that was born King of the Jews”; and they never rested till they saw Him. They prove to us the truth of the old saying, “Where there is a will there is a way.” ’
STARS AS TYPES
‘When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.’
A great many theories have been advanced to account for the appearance of the star, but what God tells us in the Bible is all that we need to know.
I. The leading of the star.—The star led the Wise Men to Jesus Christ, and so, too, may we be led to Him in some such way. Astronomy is a very fascinating study in itself, and it can hardly fail to make us realise something of the vastness of God. The distances from our earth to some of these stars are known to be inconceivably great. The light from the nearest star outside the system of our own sun and the planets is known to take some four years to reach our earth, and light can travel a distance of eight times round the world in a second. Surely facts like these may do something to lead us to know God’s infinite greatness and our own insignificance.
II. Stars as types.—The star was the sign that led the Wise Men to seek Jesus, and we may think too of the stars as types of some of those lights, as it were, in the darkness that may guide us if we will to His feet.
(a) Christian friendship shining like a beacon light in the darkness is often the star that has led to Christ. The Wise Men on their journey were a comfort one to another. Each one wanted to find Christ, each one had gifts to offer to Him, and so they cheered each other on their way.
(b) The quiet influence of some friends may have been very precious to us. A quiet, steady, gentle light shone from them as if from a star that told of powers hidden away that were the strength and force of their character. Their lives were to us an open Bible that told us of God’s laws. They were those whom we really loved and trusted. Let us take care that our own star is shining, that our lamps are alight to show others the way.
(c) The circumstances of life may be stars that lead us to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Wise Men left country, home, all that was dear to them. There were dangers and hardships on the road for them to bear, but when they found the child cradled in a manger stall, and had faith enough to see God’s plans through it all, they worshipped Christ and offered Him their gifts. Others besides the Wise Men have been led by hardship and disappointment to find joy and peace in Christ. Welcome whatever God may see fit to send. Let us look, then, for the stars that lead to Christ, and follow whither they lead. We give the incense of prayer, the gold of loyal obedience, and the myrrh of thanksgiving. There is still in Christ a welcome for all who turn to Him.
‘It has been calculated that a “conjunction” ( i.e. an apparent near approach) of Saturn and Jupiter occurred in b.c. 6, and some have thought to account in this way for the “star” seen by the Magi. But no planet could have “gone before them,” to the very spot; and if the narrative is to be taken literally, the meteor must have been sent miraculously. Alford makes out a strong case in favour of the natural “conjunction” being referred to, but Pritchard (in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible) seems clearly to disprove it. The Magi may have connected the appearance of the star at that particular time with the birth of the Messiah, through knowing Daniel’s prophecy, uttered in Chaldea, Daniel 9:24-26, or from a tradition of Balaam’s words (himself from the East), Numbers 24:17; or (through the Jews resident in Persia and Babylonia) from the Messianic predictions generally. Some curious prophecies in the sacred books of Persia, the “Zend-Avesta,” are also mentioned by Bp. Ellicott ( Huls. Lect., pp. 72, 77, notes). But a special revelation was probably given them, as afterwards ( Matthew 2:12). We are not to suppose that the star shone all the time. When they saw it, they went to Jerusalem as the natural place to find the “King of the Jews.” Then, on their starting for Bethlehem, the star re-appeared.’
GOD’S DEALINGS WITH MEN
Whoever these wise men known as the Magi were, they certainly were ‘afar off,’—a long way from Christ—when the first impulse to go to Him awoke in their hearts. They were found and drawn in the line of their own special vocation. These Magi were doubtless astronomers, and it was therefore very fitting,—and very like God’s method,—that they were led by ‘a star.’ From which fact take two lessons: Be in your proper duty, and you could not be more advantageously placed for all good and holy things. Do not change old things for new, as put new affections into old works: and then expect the blessing.
I. What is ‘the star’?—It is not, of course, Christ, though sometimes Christ is called ‘The Bright and Morning Star.’ But it must shadow out something which leads us to Christ, as that ‘star’ conducted the Magi to Bethlehem. What is it?
( a) An aspiration, a fine aspiration of the soul, is always a ‘star.’ Who has not felt it? Never trifle with an aspiration!
( b) A conviction,—a strong conviction in the mind,—is ‘a star.’ It may be a conviction of sin: it may be a conviction of some new truth: it may be a conviction of the need and value of Christ. Those convictions are direct emanations from God.
( c) A scriptural thought is a ‘star’ in the soul. It may come in a book; it may come in a sermon; it may come from a friend’s lips; it may come in no apparent channel at all. Receive it. Use it. And it will flood into greater and greater light. It will make and mark a path,—a path to heaven!
( d) A pious thought that darts into the mind may bring a gleam of light. Go with it: go with it all the way; and it will land you in glory!
II. The final resting-place of ‘the star’ was the Lord Jesus Christ,—the centre of light,—the fountain of truth,—the heart’s home,—the goal of life,—the cradle of our eternity. Do not let any seeker in the school of knowledge,—do not let any real enquirer,—do not let any traveller truth-wards,—think that his journey is done, and his quest finished, till he has found the answer to the question of his mind,—the solution of the problem of life,—the quiet refuge from himself, from his sins, and his sorrows, and the world,—in Jesus only!
—The Rev. James Vaughan.
‘When Leonardo da Vinci had finished his celebrated picture of the Last Supper, he introduced a friend to inspect the work privately, and give his judgment regarding it. “Exquisite!” exclaimed his friend; “that wine-cup seems to stand out from the table as solid glittering. silver.” Thereupon the artist quietly took a brush and blotted out the cup, saying: “I meant that the Figure of Christ should first and mainly attract the observer’s eye, and whatever diverts attention from Him must be blotted out.” ’
THE THREEFOLD GIFT
‘And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.’
Let us put ourselves in the place of the Magi. What gold have we to give? What frankincense? What myrrh? Of these shall our offerings be.
I. The offering of wealth.—Gold may be taken as representing our substance, our goods, our material wealth. It may be taken as the symbol of what we have to give in alms or charity. But it stands for more: for talents, for power, for ability, for whatever may be turned to account in the Lord’s service. All work, all material, have their worth in gold. This first oblation, then, represents the offering of that which is external to us.
II. The offering of the soul.—Next in order comes the frankincense; of what is that the symbol? It is a substance which, once kindled, sends up sweet clouds to the sky. It is the symbol of religious thought directing itself lovingly and longingly towards God. As the gold stands for what is outward, so the frankincense typifies what is inward. There is the life of contemplation, as well as the life of action, and in every full character these run together.
III. The offering of penitence.—What more remains? The last offering, completing the rest—the offering of the myrrh. This stands evermore for sorrows. There is one thing which we can all give to God. To lay our sorrows upon Him; to offer to Him the pain, the heart-sickness, the penitence; to lift the hands to Him when the iron enters the soul; that is to make to Him the offering of the myrrh which symbolises the sorrow of the world.
The Rev. Morgan Dix.
‘The claims of our Lord upon a Christian include His sovereign right to all we are, and to all we possess. We “are not our own.” If “the life be more than meat,” and if it be not our own, how can we claim as our own that which is, under the most prevalent conditions of possession, the resultant or product of life? If the Psalmist could say, “It is God that girdeth me with strength,” surely the Christian may say the same; and if acquisition be amongst the results of the exercise of God-given strength, then these results are traceable to their Source, and, finally, they belong to Him. No man may reasonably or justly claim a higher authority over his wealth than the authority to administer it. Even this authority is to be subject to the still higher authority of the moral governor of the universe. “God in all things is to be glorified.” ’
CALLED OUT OF EGYPT
‘Out of Egypt have I called My Son.’
At first we are surprised at the use to which the Evangelist puts these words of the prophet. We turn to Hosea 2:1, and it is evident that in their primary intention they do not refer to the child Jesus, but to the children of Israel collectively regarded as God’s dear Son; and the calling out of Egypt is their deliverance by the mighty power of God from their house of bondage there, and from the yoke of their Egyptian taskmasters.
I. Prophecy and Christ.—Yet when Matthew speaks of the infant Christ’s return out of Egypt as the fulfilment of a prophecy, we ought not so to interpret his words as to find in them merely the adaptation or accommodation of a prophecy, and of one spoken originally in quite another sense, and having properly no allusion to Him at all. What then? Words of Scripture being the words of God look many ways, have many aspects, may have one fulfilment, then another, and another, and at last a crowning fulfilment. No doubt the words of Hosea did look back to the calling of the children of Israel; but they were so overruled by the Holy Ghost that, while they thus looked back to one signal mercy of God to His Church, they looked on to a far greater mercy, but one of exactly the same kind.
II. The reason of the call.—Why were the children of Israel called out of Egypt? That they might be bearers of God’s Word, witnesses of God’s truth to the nations, that they might declare His name to the world, that they might be a light to lighten the Gentiles. And why was Christ preserved from Herod’s sword and all the perils of His infancy, sheltered for a while in Egypt, and brought back again to the Holy Land? Why, but for this same reason—that, growing in grace and favour with God and man, He might indeed be that which the natural Israel ought to have been and was not,—the Light of the World, the true and faithful Witness, Who should declare the name and worship of the true God to the ends of the earth. In Christ were gathered up and fulfilled all the purposes of God, all the intentions with which the Jewish people were constituted from the beginning.
III. Yet a further fulfilment.—The words had thus a double fulfilment, the second more glorious than the first. There is yet one fulfilment more. That which was on these two occasions literally fulfilled, “Out of Egypt have I called My Son,” is evermore finding its spiritual fulfilment in the Church of the redeemed. It collectively is God’s Son. Egypt is always represented to us in Scripture as a land of darkness, a land of superstition, of low grovelling idolatry, of slavery and oppression at once for the bodies and the spirits of men. What wonder, then, that when God calls us with a holy calling, from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from the worship of the idols of sense to the worship of Himself, it should be styled a calling out of Egypt! Such, indeed, it is. It is a coming out of Egypt; and it is a coming out in obedience to a heavenly calling. We shall never leave our Egypt, if God did not quicken our spirits, did not summon us to a nobler life, to something better than a slavish bondage to our fleshly appetites and grovelling desires. And God calls us as His sons.
‘We might not unfitly compare that people to the aloe-plant, which is said, and I believe rightly, to flower once during its lifetime, and that after a long lapse of years; and having put forth its single flower once for all, that indeed a flower of exquisite beauty and richness, then, as having lived but for this, to droop and wither and die. Christ, the fairer than the children of men, the One among ten thousand, the Virgin-born, was in some sort the one glorious and perfect flower which the rough and hard aloe-stem of the Jewish Church and nation, barren so long, at length bore; and, having borne thus, having fulfilled the purpose of its existence in that wondrous birth, it also drooped and died. Thus, as gathering up and concentrating all the life, strength, beauty of that stalk and stem in Himself, as the consummation of all that went before, Christ was Israel; He is often so called the Prophets. He, a Jew, at once embodied and represented the Jewish nation before His heavenly Father in their noblest aspect, in their highest fulfilment of that great mission which was theirs, namely, to declare the name of the Lord to the world; and every gracious dealing of God with His people had reference and respect to that one crowning act for which the nation existed, namely, that a child might be born out of the bosom of the people, a son of Abraham, a son of David, in whom all the nations of the world should be blest. With good right, therefore, could Matthew claim all the promises which were made to Israel, as having been made to Him Who by best right was Israel, all past deliverance of the people as typical and prophetical of that mightier deliverance with which God would deliver His elect, in whom His soul delighted, from every danger and from every fear, saying to Him, “Thou art My servant, O Israel, by whom I will be glorified.” ’
SLAIN FOR CHRIST’S SAKE
‘Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth.’
The Festival of the Innocents dates as far back as the third century. Its celebration has been universally observed from the first. Dying so early, these little ones are called Innocentes, or Innocui—harmless babes. They were slain for Christ’s sake.
I. Herod’s disappointment.—Herod, surnamed the Great, was reigning as king over Judæa when Christ was born in Bethlehem; but he had often to struggle hard, both by craft and sword, to keep his throne; so that when he heard of the Magi from the Orient inquiring in Jerusalem for the new King of the Jews, the sceptre seemed already to have fallen from his aged hands. Warned of God in a dream, the Magi went back to their own country without revisiting Jerusalem; and when Herod heard they had done so, his wrath burned like fire, and he felt more determined and vengeful than ever.
II. His merciless edict.—Strange that he could find any one to execute his fiat, for it was a barbarous piece of work; but his soldiers were Romans, who hated the Jews. Inhuman monsters these men! but he was the greatest of them all who was their chief. So all the centuries have regarded him.
III. The bitter sorrow caused by Herod.—This is forcibly expressed by three touching words—‘lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning’—which had original fulfilment when Nebuzaradan, after destroying Jerusalem, brought all the prisoners to Ramah, and there disposed of them for the sword or captivity ( Jeremiah 40:1). The prophecy had its complete fulfilment in connection with the slaughter of the Innocents; the lamentation, however, in this latter case was not borne from Ramah to Bethlehem, but from Bethlehem to Ramah.
(1) ‘The Massacre of the Innocents is profoundly in accordance with all that we know of Herod’s character. The master-passions of that able but wicked prince were an unbounded ambition and an excruciating jealousy. His whole career was red with the blood of murder. He had massacred priests and nobles; he had decimated the Sanhedrin; he had caused the High Priest, his brother-in-law, the young and noble Aristobulus, to be drowned in pretended sport before his eyes; he had ordered the strangulation of his favourite wife. Deaths by strangulation, deaths by burning, deaths by being cleft asunder, deaths by secret assassination, confessions forced by unutterable torture, acts of insolent and inhuman lust, mark the annals of a reign which was so cruel that, in the energetic language of the Jewish ambassadors to the Emperor Augustus, “the survivors during his lifetime were even more miserable than the sufferers.” And as in the case of Henry VIII., every dark and brutal instinct of his character seemed to acquire fresh intensity as his life drew towards its close.’
(2) ‘A great painter still living has painted a grand picture representing Joseph’s flight in the night time. Joseph is turning to look at the watch-fires of Herod’s soldiers; Mary is arranging her Babe’s garments. The infant Jesus sees what Mary and Joseph do not see—the souls of the little ones whom Herod’s men had slain marching in triumphal procession as angel children around Him. Is not this a beautiful fancy of the great painter? he tells us in his touching picture—the abundant reward of those who suffer with Christ.’
SIN AND SUFFERING
The sight before us is that of suffering falling on those who have done nothing whatever to deserve it. These suffering Innocents suffered because of another’s Sin:—because of a Sin they could have no share in. What was that Sin? Herod ordered their death. Why? Solely because of his selfish fears.
I. Herod’s sin.—Herod was afraid that his throne might be endangered by the child of whose birth the Magi spoke. The one only thing that Herod cared about was his throne. In all probability he neither knew nor cared anything about the hopes of a Messiah, or the nature of the Messiah. He regarded the Jewish Religion with utter indifference. Selfish aggrandisement was his one aim—his ruling passion. The very thought of a possible rival to his throne roused all his passions. His whole character was licentious, cruel, and impetuous. And so, this ruling passion of selfishness once touched, he acted as we see. Thus we learn how a sin spreads out, and works misery to other people. The Holy Innocents had to suffer because of Herod’s selfishness.
II. Not peace, but a sword.—Look at another consideration, namely, that the very first fruit of Christ’s Coming into the World was this sad history of the Mothers weeping for their children. Christ came into the World to bring peace and happiness and goodness. But the existence of Evil in the World brings sorrows out of blessings. Truly our Lord says, ‘Think ye that I am come to bring Peace into the World? I tell you nay, but rather Division.’ So long as there is Evil in the World, this will be so ever. The wicked naturally reject what is good. They hate it instinctively. Even without stopping to know anything about it, they hate it, they kick against it, they strive to get rid of it. Herod knew little or nothing about Christ. He was an unbeliever. But no sooner did Christ come into the World than he tried to get rid of Him. So always.
III. Suffering for God.—Learn again from this history to take it patiently when the World’s blows and persecutions fall apparently so wide of the mark, and others are involved in the sorrows which the World tries to bring on those who assault its supremacy. It is a blessed thing to suffer with Good. No doubt, it is still more blessed to suffer for Good. Most blessed of all, no doubt, are they who, like Stephen, know the cause for which they strive, know the danger which they run, and suffer to the last in full consciousness of all, feeling every blow, until at last Death carries them into His longed-for Presence. What are we to say to those who are thus wounded in what we may call the chance medley of the warfare of Evil against Good?—those who had taken no part in the strife, and yet are wounded, so to speak, by misadventure? The bare fact of the Church’s Commemoration of the Holy Innocents next after St. Stephen and St. John seems to give the answer. It has a message to all such. For what does this Commemoration do but testify that all such overflowings of Christ’s sufferings are guided by a Providence, and sanctify those they touch. The blows which fell upon the Holy Innocents were aimed at Christ. What an honour to those unconscious infants! What an honour to any one now to bear the like hostility to good!
(1) ‘What we see in Herod’s case we see every day in our own world and in our own times. You cannot indulge in any sin without spreading mischief. A man is guilty of selfish extravagance, or of selfish desire to grow rapidly rich; he becomes involved in speculation either to make up for his extravagance, or to hasten his fortune; and what is the consequence? In nine times out of ten he involves everybody connected with him in misfortune. They were innocent. But they suffer for his selfishness. Or a man is guilty of self-indulgence, and becomes a drunkard, or otherwise licentious. Everybody knows how the sins of the fathers are destructive of the children’s lives and prospects. In fact, it is a proverb that the innocent suffer for the guilty. But the reason is not that the guilty go unpunished, but that every sin committed has effects which go on widening and widening like the circles of the waves when you throw a stone into still water. Sin cannot help scattering misery all round it, and it breaks out where you would least expect it. There is no sin that you can commit that ends with you. You may never know in this life, you never can know in this life, how far the effects of your sins spread out. But they do spread.’
(2) ‘Years and years had to pass before our Lord was to begin His Ministry, but the powers of Evil were on the alert before He was well out of His cradle; and so it is now and ever will be until all Evil is overthrown. Yes, the Herods of this world understand their business, and they try always to stamp out the first beginnings of whatever is good, while it is yet only in the beginning. It is no reproach to what is Good that it always stirs up strife on its first entrance. The reproach is all the other way. If there had been no Herod there would have been no mourning at Bethlehem.’
THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN
‘In Rama was there a voice heard.’
These little victims were but the first sacrificed by the powers of evil to retard the progress of the kingdom of light. Cruelty and hatred compassed the death of the King Himself, and since then saints have suffered, blood has been shed, tears have flowed, and martyrs have witnessed by their deaths.
I. The tragedy of child-suffering.—It reminds us, too, of the ever-present tragedy of child-suffering—the suffering which results from the misdoing, cruelty, or neglect of adult people. How sad it all is, and we realise that, like the tragedy of old, it is all the fruit of sin! How many victims are sacrificed, year by year, by the neglect or positive ill-treatment of vicious and cruel parents! Parents so sodden by drink and other demoralising indulgence that natural affection has died within them, or only shines fitfully, making the periods of neglect, violence, and cruelty all the more horrible by contrast.
II. What can be done.—Thank God, much is now being done to alleviate the suffering of little children. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does much to prevent the grosser forms of cruelty and ill-treatment. Our Waifs and Strays Society rescues children from the streets and their demoralising influences; and all over the land orphanages, founded by God-fearing Christian people, have been erected that little ones left unprovided for may not be without homes. We may do much to alleviate this suffering, to stop this continual moral and actual slaying of little innocents, by supporting by every means in our power the carrying of the Gospel, the work of our Church, in the dark places in our cities.
III. The true remedy.—This is the true remedy: to lift up Jesus, the Friend for little children; to reach parents by our Temperance Societies and other reforming parish agencies; and so sweeten and make wholesome the home influences. And this is work which we can do much to aid, both by personal service and by giving of our means. There is, too, the work of the Sunday schools, and other parish agencies for directly influencing the little child-lives, and preventing the soul-slaying which is even more terrible than cruelty and death to the body. Very much is done in this way for the young mind by filling it with the beautiful story of the Gospel, to prevent its poisoning by the vitiated atmosphere of a vicious home-life.
—The Rev. H. G. Wheeler.