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THE WISE MEN FROM THE EAST.
BY THE REV. NEHEMIAH ADAMS, D.D.
PASTOR OF THE ESSEX STREET CHURCH, BOSTON.
"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that 13 born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the cast, and are come to worship hiin."-Matthew ii. 1, 2. Over those mountains and wastes divided by the Tigris and Euphrates, a caravan shaped its way toward Jerusalem.
Departing from Persia (according to the most approved opinion), we see it winding its way over and around the steep, rough places of Kurdistan, penetrating the fertile Assyrian plain, toiling through the parched places of Mesopotamia, and the deserts of Syria. It was a wearisome journey. Ezra, with a large company, and therefore travelling at a slow rate, was four months on his way from Persia to Jerusalem ; so that probably not far from three months were occupied by this caravan in a journey of about fifteen hundred miles.
It was a company of Magi. They were the learned class among the people of the East, employed chiefly with the study of religion, medicine, and astronomy, including the superstitious observance and worship of the heavenly bodies, to which were assigned special influences over the destinies of men. The evening sky was to these Magi their book of revelation. Each orb and constellation had a certain character and certain influences ascribed to it; and in advising kings, in going forth with them to battle, and in directing the movements of armies, the Magi noted carefully what constellations and planets were in the ascendant. The nearness of one of the planets to the earth at the birth of a royal personage was used to foretel his character, and that of his reign.
For some time previous to the Saviour's birth, there was a wide-spread expectation among the nations, that a king was soon to be born who would rulo the whole world. By means of the captivity of the Jews, their expectation of the Messiah, founded on the prophecies of their sacred books, was, of course, widely known ; and these prophecies represented that Judea would be his birthplace; that he would be a benevolent king, bringing abundance of peace to the whole human race, the author of a golden age, unparalleled blessings from heaven attending his reign ; so that he became, long before his birth, according to the prediction of one of the Hebrew prophets, “ the desire of all nations."
About the time of the Saviour's birth, it pleased God to publish the event in far distant Persia, by a method coinciding with the habits of the people in the East. Toward the west, the astrologers saw an unusual meteor; their books of science and their astronomical calculations had made no provision for such a sign, but, as the new king of the Jews was then expected, they hailed that strange orb as the announcement of his birth. We see the forbearance and kindness of God in thus falling in with the superstitions of these idolators.
Had this star been one of the regular heavenly bodies, it is plain that no such unusual impression would have been made by it as was made by this new sign in the heavens. The evening star had always been seen in the west without exciting any special attention; the special brightness of a fixed star, for several nights in succession, would not have roused the Magi in so extraordinary a manner,
It is well known that the celebrated mathematician Kepler, regarded the star of the wise men as the result of a conjunction between three heavenly bodies, such as occurred in the year of our Lord 1604, when Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars blended their rays, as he supposed; those planets being, at that time, in the sign of the Fishes, and a heavenly body then shedding forth a strange and wonderful light in that quarter. Kepler calculated the conjunetion of these planets as having taken place, with two of them, in the year of Rome 747, and with the three, in 748; in one of which years it is generally agreed that Christ was born. Some, who wish to reduce the number of miracles in the Bible, and the corresponding tax upon their faith, as low as possible, account in this manner for the star which the wise men saw. But even if the star had an orbit among the regular stars, its sudden appearance makes no great demand upon credulity, for he who "maketh peace in his bigh places” has, from the beginning, led forth, and has also taken away, heavenly bodies from the eyes of men.
An illustration of this is the celebrated star, first described by Tycho Brahe, which appeared on an evening of November 1372, in the sign of Cassiopēia. It surpassed in size and brilliancy the planet Jupiter, and was visible sometimes at noon, which is never the case with any other planet but Venus. When other heavenly bodies were hidden by clouds, this new and strange orb was frequently seen through them. Its colour was, at different times, white, yellow, red, grey, and leaden blue. In sixteen months from its first appearance it passed away, and has never since that time re-appeared. This may serve to help the faith of some with regard to the appearance of a new and singular heavenly body at the birth of Christ. But there is the strongest reason to believe that tho star which appeared to the wise unen was not a fixed, nor a regular planetary orb.
God, who ordained it for a special purpose, disposed the minds of the Magi to fulfil that purpose, by creating among them an enthusiasm with regard to the wonderful sign in the west. Night after night, perhaps, they watched the stranger, till at length all doubt that it heralded a royal birth departed. It hung in the west toward Judea, the region where they had been expecting that a great king would soon appear; and their long-cherished interest in that event was greatly quickened by the special appointment, as it were, of a messenger which seemed to beckon them. They could not resist the Divine call. No more would they watch the Pleiades, till they had followed after that new star. Arcturus and his sons might, for a season, measure their zone, the crooked Serpent sweep through his orbit, and the sworded Orion lie along the sky, unheeded, as to any prophetic signs in their spheres. The star of Jacob was then in the ascendant, and filled the thoughts of the wise men; and so, impelled by an invisible hand, a company of them commenced a pilgrimage toward Jerusalem.
Interesting men! We love you as we follow your caravan in its dreary way along the beaten road or pathless wastes. None ever braved the desert for an object so great as that which excites your zeal.
The presence of a deputation of Magi from the Last, in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews !” moved the whole city. No doubt the Magi expected to find Jerusalem excited with joy at the birth of the new king. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him ;" to join with you in your joy, and bring you the congratulations of the castern world.
Herod the Great was now in the thirty-fifth year of his reign. The ap. pearance of a successor independently of him, of course, filled him with consternation; and whatever disturbed him, especially if it were the prospect of being supplanted, would fill Jerusalem with apprehensions of political disturbance, inasmuch as the Magi might prove to be the representatives of some combination iu behalf of a new civil
power. So far was Herod from knowing that Christ was born, that he called the Jewish scribes (for he was an Edomite), and inquired of them what place their sacred books named as the Messiah's birthplace. It appears strange, perhaps, that, having ascertained this, he did not take secret measures to find and slay the infant, instead of waiting, as he proposed, for the Magi to return, For though Ilerod was desperately wicked, all agree that he was a shrewd man, aud of no common ability in the management af affairs. His shrewdness and tact are seen in this very transaction. He called the wise men privily, that his interest in the object of their mission might not be generally known. The only inquiry which he made of them was one which indicated no hostile purpose ; while, bent as he was on finding and destroying the infant, he was employing the very best means to effect his object.
Had he sent forth messengers at once to find and slay the child, he could hardly hope to succeed, with nothing to point out which of the infants then in Bethlehem was the child sought, and with the risk, also, of giving alarm to the friends of the child in season to ensure its safety. Honourable men from the East, seeking the child “to worship him,” would be far more likely to find him. “Go," said he, "and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also." But this cunning and well-contrived arrangeinent, hiding a bloody purpose, enabled the wise men to fulfil the object for which God brought them from their far country.
And now the star which had beckoned them to Judea, and which, perhaps, they did not expect to see any more after their entrance into Jerusalem, came and stood over the place where the young child was." Words cannot express more intense feelings than the original of the passage which follows: "And when they saw the star, they joyed a great joy very much.” The morning star of their hope had become the evening star of their desire accomplished. That lost guide, in confidence of whose truthful promise they had trod the desert, perhaps in conflict with many doubts, lest, after all, some meteor had only shone io bewilder and deceive them-behold, that kind friend, that faithful lighthouse, shines forth again, and, instead of tracking a way for them into far distant regions, it comes and rests very low, no higher, perhaps, than the smoke which curls from our chimneys, over the place where the young child was. They need not go from street to street, and from house to house, nor tax their patience, nor exercise their faith any more. It was as though “ Immanuel” were emblazoned on the door, or King of kings and Lord of lords" were written on the wall.
The question whether this star were an orb of heaven, or a special sign created for this purpose, it would seem, must be removed, when we consider its position over the dwelling where the child was. It is plain that one of the regular heavenly bodies could not point to one dwelling more than to another.
From the three kinds of gifts which they presented, many have supposed that the number of the Magi was three. The Nestorian Church generally taught that it was twelve. Three was the number ascribed to thein in the prevailing traditions ; names also being given to them, as, among others, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. They were held to be kings, representing the grand divisions of men-Melchior being put for Shem, Gaspar for Ham, and Balthazar for Japhet. This explains the Ethiopian complexion given to one of them in the pictures of the “ Adoration.” The passages which are 80 uniformly regarded as being fulfilled by them, " And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 1x. 3.) and “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents, the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. (Ps. Ixxi. 10,) have given rise to the belief that they were kings; and accordingly the Feast of Epiphany was, in the middle ages, most commonly called the Feast of the Three Kings. The literature which has been connected with this brief account by Matthew, of the wise men, is hardly exceeded in variety by that of any other part of the New Testament. Cologne, upon the Rhine, the “City of the Three Kings,” claims to possess their relics, and has given them a splendid shrine. But it is needless to say that all this lore is probably the fruit of the imagination. If they were only sheiks, or emirs, the word “ kings,” in the prophetic passages just quoted, would be proper. Whether the Apostle Thomas baptized them, and whether they helped him to evangelise India, and whether they died as martyrs, or what became of them upon their return from Judea, are questions upon which the Bible gives us no information. But the brief, inspired record respecting them is full of interest and instruction.
1. The coming of the wise men to the infant Jesus was an act of adoration.
The word rendered “worshipped,” in the passage which speaks of the prostration of the wise men, it is said, does not necessarily imply anything more than an act of respectful salutation, the same word being used in speaking of acts of courtesy between man and man. But
as Peter refused to receive the worship expressed by this same word, from Cornelius, saying “I myself also am a man,” and as the angel said to the evangelist John, who fell down before him, with the same worship, " See thou do it not; worship God," we cannot conclude, from the word itself, that adoration was not intended by the wise men. Let us look, then, at the probabilities of the case.
Had the wise men regarded the Messiah merely as an earthly king, it would have been a most contemptuous and daring act to have proclaimed in Herod's dominions, nay, in the metropolis itself, “We have come to worship him.” This would not be an act of “ wise men.” While they called the Messiah “King of the Jews,” they must have regarded him as having a kingdom which did not conflict with that of Herod-of a heavenly nature, warranting, as the birth of an heir to no earthly kingdom would warrant, such a journey, and such respect as theirs.
Here let it be considered, that the wise men may not have known, to its full extent, the intention of an overruling Providence in their coming to the feet of Christ ; nor may they have understood their enthusiasm, with regard to this new-born personage, which brought them so far. Their habits and customs as astrologers made this act natural to them, while they may have been, and we believe that they were, like the prophets, under the excitement of inspiration, who did not fully know the vast import of many of their predictions.
We cannot believe-indeed, it is too great a tax on our credulity to ask 118 to believe-that God appointed this miraculous star to bring those sages from their distant land merely to pay their respects to a remarkable child. There is an air about the narrative which conveys something more to the mind than this. Self.interest did not prompt them. They had no favours to ask or expect of that child; they would be dead or far away when he should be old enough to ascend a throne; but they laded their camels with gifts for him evidently from a disinterested desire to pay some homage to him. What, then, was the nature of that homage?
Let us read this narrative, and learn to read the Bible in the same way-not with the unbeliever's eyes and heart, but with our own eyes, and our own believing hearts. It is one of the pernicious effects of sceptical opinions, that we subject the Bible in our own thoughts, even when we read it for devotional purposes, to the criticisms made by unbelievers; we are injuriously affected by the doubts and cavils of others. These may help us to examine marrowly the evidences of our faith, but let them not have the effect upon us, if we can help it, to make our faith timid. As those who honour the Son even as they honour the Father; as those who need not still to be laying the foundations of their faith in the Saviour; as those who have learned to say to him, My Lord and my God, let us contemplate this coming of the wise men to Christ, and see if there be not every probability of its being intended by the Divine Spirit as an act of adoration.
That young child, then, whoin we see in his mother's arms, while Persian wise men fall before him on the humble floor, who is he? whom do we believe him to be? It is he of whom we read, “In the beginving was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It is the great“ mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh." It is he who afterward stilled the tempest, opened the eyes of the blind, raised the dead. It is he who came to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself; “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." It is he before whom the heavenly hosts were afterward seen prostrate, crying, “ Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” That scene between the wise men and the child Jesus is more than a mere act of respect to a remarkable infant. In their imperfect state of knowledge, as was just before observed, these wise men pro bably did not know the full extent and meaning of their worsbip. We, to whom Christ is more fully revealed, can see in that prostration of the wise men an act of religious devotion intended by the Divine Spirit, though the wise men may not fully have comprehended the meaning of their own act. Our souls join with those Gentiles to worship that babe who was God manifest in the flesh, having then those attributes of Deity which he will have when he comes in his glory and all his holy angels with him, and before him are gathered all nations.
While many see nothing in the visit of the wise men to Christ but superstition, oriental reverence for royalty, and the zeal of courtly men to find or inake occasion for acts of condescending respect, he who sees dwelling in Christ all the fulness of the Godhead bodily will not ask the lexicographer nor the unregenerate commentator whether the passage imports real worship. “When he bringeth in his first begotten into the world, he saith, Let all the angels of God worship him." He who believes that by the Son all things were created that are in heaven or in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers, has no question what worship the angels, bis creatures, paid him when he assumed mau's nature.
It may truly be said ihat a large part of the "comfort of the Scriptures," as the apostle expresses it, to a pious heart, is derived from comparing
spiritual things with spiritual, from the confirmatory influence of the several parts of the Bible in their relation to each other, and from the discovery of probable allusions and intended coincidences, as well as from the more explicit fulfilment of types and prophecies, and truths directly asserted. Over this source of spiritual enjoyment in reading the Bible a sound discretion should, of course, preside.
Believing, then, that the babe at Bethlehem was Immanuel, God with us, we believe that the visit of the wise men was intended by the Divine Spirit to be an act of adoration in honour of the incarnate Word, and also for the comfort and encouragement of all who at that time were waiting for the Messiah. As a choir may sing a piece which some more spiritual aud devout hearers will enjoy far more than they, and adopt it as their own offer. ing of praise to God, so this act of the wise men, no doubt, was received and seconded, by many a pious heart in Jerusalem and elsewhere, as a sacrifice to the Saviour. Many a heart that had waited long for the consolation of Israel would see in the coming of the wise men a strong confirmation of their faith and hope. In that Jerusalem which is said to be “troubled" at the arrival of these men from the East, there was a hidden Israel, the Simeons and Annas, who did not share in the consternation of the king and the unbelieving world. God visited this his chosen people in the coming of the wise men, and gave them a glimpse of the way in which the prophetic Psalms and the visions of Isaiah and of the minor prophets would be fulfilled. God will not leave his people comfortless who wait for him. Were nothing else effected by the visit of the wise men, this warranted their mis. sion, that their coming fulfilled the hopes of the devout men and women who were longing and waiting for the promised Saviour.
Nor did the friends and worshippers of Christ at that day alone receive comfort and joy from the act of the wise men. All of every age who love him and espouse his cause, and are praying and waiting for his final triumph in the earth, may see in this adoration by the wise men a prophecy and illustra. tion of the future glory of Christ, when he shall be King of nations as he is now King of saints. “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall serve him." P's. lxxii. 10, 11. This act of the wise men we adopt as ours, the future homage of the nations we make our own, and our personal gratitude and thanksgiving take the form of earnest prayer that ihe Saviour may soon receive the love and adoration of all the earth. The cause of foreign missions rises in majesty and beauty, and affords us ways in which to express, by the consecration of ourselves and our children to Christ, our love and thankfulness, while our full hearts find relief in those assemblies for prayer and praise which have regard to the universal extension of the Redeemer's conquests in the earth.
II. The history of the wise men is an instance of the increase and the rewards of earnest faith.
Though we may need nothing to persuade us of the power of God to fulfil those promises which relate to the conversion of the world, yet when we see the eastern world aroused by a meteor, and turning their eyes to the birthplace of Christ, we are furnished with an illustration of the infinite ease with which God can and will, in the fulness of time, make ration after nation bow to the sceptre of the Redeemer. By some events of Providence, no less interesting in their kind than the appearance of the star to the Persian sages, and falling in with the habits or circumstances of the different nations as that star coincided with the thoughts and pursuits of the Magi, revolutions of popular opinion will occur which will fulfil the prediction, A nation shall be born in a day. Happy will those missionaries, and ministers, and Christians be, who, with long patience, shall be found labouring and praying for those days, and shall have their faith rewarded, when, by the great outpouring of his Spirit, the Lord, whom they seek, shall suddenly come to his temple.
Not merely to the Simeons and Annas of Jerusalem, nor to those who already love and worship him, but to every soul for whom Christ came to be a Saviour, dues this act of the wise men speak encouragement. The object of these discourses is, to present the Saviour as an object of faith, and love, and worship; to excite those feelings which sinners should have to their Saviour ; and if any are ashamed of Christ, to show them in what ways some of our fellow-inen, from every rank and in every condition, have expressed their love and worship; and to make it appear that all things are but loss compared with the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our