1.Now when Jesus had been born How it came about that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Matthew does not say. The Spirit of God, who had appointed the Evangelists to be his clerks, appears purposely to have regulated their style in such a manner, that they all wrote one and the same history, with the most perfect agreement, but in different ways. It was intended, that the truth of God should more clearly and strikingly appear, when it was manifest that his witnesses did not speak by a preconcerted plan, but that each of them separately, without paying any attention to another, wrote freely and honestly what the Holy Spirit dictated.
This is a very remarkable narrative. God brought Magi from Chaldea, to come to the land of Judea, for the purpose of adoring Christ, in the stable where he lay, amidst the tokens, not of honor, but of contempt. It was a truly wonderful purpose of God, that he caused the entrance of his Son into the world to be attended by deep meanness, and yet bestowed upon him illustrious ornaments, both of commendation and of other outward signs, that our faith might be supplied with everything necessary to prove his Divine Majesty.
A beautiful instance of real harmony, amidst apparent contradiction, is here exhibited. A star from heaven announces that he is a king, to whom a manger, intended for cattle, serves for a throne, because he is refused admittance among the lowest of the people. His majesty shines in the East, while in Judea it is so far from being acknowledged, that it is visited by many marks of dishonor. Why is this? The heavenly Father chose to appoint the star and the Magi as our guides, to lead directly to his Son: while he stripped him of all earthly splendor, for the purpose of informing us that his kingdom is spiritual. This history conveys profitable instruction, not only because God brought the Magi to his Son, as the first-fruits of the Gentiles, but also because he appointed the kingdom of his Son to receive their commendation, and that of the star, for the confirmation of our faith; that the wicked and malignant contempt of his nation might not render him less estimable in our eyes.
Magi is well known to be the name given by the Persians and Chaldees to astrologers and philosophers: and hence it may readily be conjectured that those men came from Persia. As the Evangelist does not state what was their number, it is better to be ignorant of it, than to affirm as certain what is doubtful. Papists have been led into a childish error, of supposing that they were three in number: because Matthew says, that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, (Matthew 2:11.) But the historian does not say, that each of them separately presented his own gift. He rather says, that those three gifts were presented by them in common. That ancient author, whoever he may be, whose imperfect Commentary on Matthew bears the name of Chrysostom, and is reckoned among Chrysostom’s works, says that they were fourteen. This carries as little probability as the other. It may have come from a tradition of the Fathers, but has no solid foundation. But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings, because they found in another passage a prediction, that
the kings of Tarshish, and of the Isles, and of Sheba,
would offer gifts to the Lord, (Psalms 72:10.)
Ingenious workmen, truly, who, in order to present those men in a new shape, have begun with turning the world from one side to another: for they have changed the south and west into the east! Beyond all doubt, they have been stupified by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at the gross ignorance of those who have not scrupled to adulterate “and, change the truth of God into a lie,” (Romans 1:25.)
The first inquiry here is: Was this star one of those which the Lord created in the beginning (Genesis 1:1) to “garnish the heavens?” (Job 26:13.) Secondly, Were the magi led by their acquaintance with astrology to conclude that it pointed out the birth of Christ? On these points, there is no necessity for angry disputation: but it may be inferred from the words of Matthew, that it was not a natural, but an extraordinary star. It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.
This almost decides likewise the second question: for since astrology is undoubtedly confined within the limits of nature, its guidance alone could not have conducted the Magi to Christ; so that they must have been aided by a secret revelation of the Spirit. I do not go so far as to say, that they derived no assistance whatever from the art: but I affirm, that this would have been of no practical advantage, if they had not been aided by a new and extraordinary revelation.
2.Where is he who has been born King? The notion of some commentators, that he is said to have been born King, by indirect contrast with one who has been made or created a king, appears to me too trifling. I rather suppose the Magi to have simply meant, that this king had been recently born, and was still a child, by way of distinguishing him from a king who is of age, and who holds the reins of government: for they immediately add, that they had been drawn, not by the fame of his exploits, or by any present exhibitions of his greatness, but by a heavenly presage of his future reign. But if the sight of a star had so powerful an effect on the Magi, woe to our insensibility, who, now that Christ the King has been revealed to us, are so cold in our inquiries after him!
And have come that we may worship him The reason why the star had been exhibited was, to draw the Magi into Judea, that they might be witnesses and heralds of the new King. So far as respects themselves, they had not come to render to Christ such pious worship, as is due to the Son of God, but intended to salute him, according to the Persian custom, as a very eminent King. For their views, with regard to him, probably went no farther, than that his power and exalted rank would be so extraordinary as to impress all nations with just admiration and reverence. It is even possible, that they wished to gain his favor beforehand, that he might treat them favorably and kindly, if he should afterwards happen to possess dominion in the east.
3.Herod the king was troubled Herod was not unacquainted with the predictions, which promised to the Jews a King, who would restore their distressful and ruinous affairs to a prosperous condition. He had lived from a child among that nation, and was thoroughly acquainted with their affairs. Besides, the report was spread everywhere, and could not be unknown to the neighboring nations. Yet he is troubled, as if the matter had been new and unheard of; because he put no trust in God, and thought it idle to rely on the promises of a Redeemer; and particularly because, with the foolish confidence incident to proud men, he imagined that the kingdom was secure to himself and his descendants. But though, in the intoxication of prosperity, he was formerly accustomed to view the prophecies with scorn, the recollection of them now aroused him to sudden alarm. For he would not have been so strongly moved by the simple tale of the Magi, if he had not remembered the predictions, which he had formerly looked upon as harmless, and of no importance. Thus, when the Lord has permitted unbelievers to sleep, he suddenly breaks their rest.
And all Jerusalem with him This may be explained in two ways. Either the people were roused, in a tumultuous manner, by the novelty of the occurrence, though the glad tidings of a king who had been born to them were cordially welcomed. Or the people, accustomed to distresses, and rendered callous by long endurance, dreaded a change which might introduce still greater calamities. For they were so completely worn down, and almost wasted, by continued wars, that their wretched and cruel bondage appeared to them not only tolerable, but desirable, provided it were accompanied by peace. This shows how little they had profited under God’s chastisements: for they were so benumbed and stupified, that the promised redemption and salvation almost stank in their nostrils. Matthew intended, I have no doubt, to express their ingratitude, in being so entirely broken by the long continuance of their afflictions, as to throw away the hope and desire of the grace which had been promised to them.
4.Having assembled the priests Though deep silence prevailed respecting Christ in the Hall of Herod, yet, as soon as the Magi have thrown out the mention of a King, predictions are remembered, which formerly lay in oblivion. Herod instantly conjectures, that the King, about whom the Magi inquire, is the Messiah whom God had formerly promised, (Daniel 9:25.) Here again it appears, that Herod is seriously alarmed, when he puts such earnest inquiries; and no wonder. All tyrants are cowards, and their cruelty produces stronger alarm in their own breasts than in the breasts of others. Herod must have trembled more than others, because he perceived that he was reigning in opposition to God.
This new investigation shows, that the contempt of Christ, before the arrival of the Magi, must have been very deep. At a later period, the scribes and high priests labored with fury to corrupt the whole of the Scripture, that they might not give any countenance to Christ. But on the present occasion they reply honestly out of the Scripture, and for this reason, that Christ and his Gospel have not yet given them uneasiness. And so all ungodly persons find no difficulty in giving their assent to God on general principles; but when the truth of God begins to press them more closely, they throw out the venom of their rebellion.
We have a striking instance of this, in our own day, among the Papists. They freely own, that he is the only-begotten Son of God, clothed with our flesh, and acknowledge the one person of God-man, as subsisting in the two natures. But when we come to the power and office of Christ, a contest immediately breaks out; because they will not consent to take a lower rank, and much less to be reduced to nothing. In a word, so long as wicked men think that it is taking nothing from themselves, they will yield to God and to Scripture some degree of reverence. But when Christ comes into close conflict with ambition, covetousness, pride, misplaced confidence, hypocrisy, and deceit, they immediately forget all modesty, and break out into rage. Let us therefore learn, that the chief cause of blindness in the enemies of truth is to be found in their wicked affections, which change light into darkness.
6.And thou, Bethlehem The scribes quoted faithfully, no doubt, the words of the passage in their own language, as it is found in the prophet. But Matthew reckoned it enough to point out the passage; and, as he wrote in Greek, he followed the ordinary reading. This passage, and others of the same kind, readily suggest the inference, that Matthew did not compose his Gospel in the Hebrew language. It ought always to be observed that, whenever any proof from Scripture is quoted by the apostles, though they do not translate word for word, and sometimes depart widely from the language, yet it is applied correctly and appropriately to their subject. Let the reader always consider the purpose for which passages of Scripture are brought forward by the Evangelists, so as not to stick too closely to the particular words, but to be satisfied with this, that the Evangelists never torture Scripture into a different meaning, but apply it correctly in its native meaning. But while it was their intention to supply with milk children and “novices” (1 Timothy 3:6) in faith, who were not yet able to endure “ strong meat,” (Hebrews 5:12,) there is nothing to prevent the children of God from making careful and diligent inquiry into the meaning of Scripture, and thus being led to the fountain by the taste which the apostles afford.
Let us now return to the prediction. Thus it stands literally in the Prophet:
“And thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little
among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall
he come forth to me, who is Ruler in Israel,” (Micah 5:2.)
For Ephratah Matthew has put Judeah, but the meaning is the same; for Micah only intended, by this mark, to distinguish the Bethlehem of which he speaks, from another Bethlehem, which was in the tribe of Zebulun. There is greater difficulty in what follows: for the Prophet says, that Bethlehem is little, when reckoned among the governments of Judah, while Matthew, on the contrary: speaks highly of its rank as one of the most distinguished: thou art by no means the least among the princes of Judah This reason has induced some commentators to read the passage in the prophet as a question, Art thou little among the thousands of Judah? But I rather agree with those who think that Matthew intended, by this change of the language, to magnify the grace of God in making an inconsiderable and unknown town the birth-place of the highest King. Although Bethlehem received this distinguished honor, it was of no advantage to its inhabitants, but brought upon them a heavier destruction: for there an unworthy reception was given to the Redeemer. For he is to be Ruler, Matthew has put he shall feed, ( ποιμανεῖ) But he has expressed both, when he says, that Christ is the leader, ( ἡγούμενος ,) and that to him is committed the office of feeding his people.
7.Then Herod, having secretly called the Magi The tyrant did not dare to avow his fear and uneasiness, lest he might give fresh courage to a people, by whom he knew that he was hated. In public, therefore, he pretends that this matter does not concern him, but inquires secretly, in order to meet immediate danger. Though a bad conscience made him timid, there can be no doubt that God struck his mind with an unusual fear, which for a time made him incapable of reflection, and almost deprived him of the use of reason. For nothing was more easy than to send one of his courtiers as an escort, under the pretense of courtesy, who would investigate the whole matter, and immediately return. Herod certainly was a man of no ordinary address, and of great courage. It is the more surprising that, in a case of extremity, and when the remedy is at hand, he remains in a state of amazement, and almost dead. Let us learn, that a miracle was effected, in rescuing the Son of God from the jaws of the lion. Not less at the present day does God infatuate his enemies, so that a thousand schemes of injuring and ruining his Church do not occur to their minds, and even the opportunities which are at hand are not embraced. The trick which Herod practiced on the Magi, by pretending that he also would come for the purpose of worshipping Christ, was avoided by the Lord, as we shall see, in another way. But as Herod’s dread of arousing the people against him deprived him of the use of his reason, so again he is driven by such madness, that he does not hesitate or shudder at the thought of provoking God. For he knew that, if a King were born, it was ordained by God, that he should raise up the throne “of David, which was fallen,” (Amos 9:11.) He does not therefore attack men, but furiously dares to fight with God. Two things claim our attention. He was seized with a spirit of giddiness, to attack God; and, on the other hand, his manner of acting was childish: for his design was frustrated, so that he was like a “blind man groping in darkness.”
9.But they, having heard the King, departed It is truly an instance of base sluggishness, that not one of the Jews offers himself as an escort to those foreigners, to go and see the King who had been promised to their own nation. The scribes show them the way, and point out the place where he was born; but they allow them to depart alone: not one moves a step. They were afraid, perhaps, of Herod’s cruelty: but it displayed wicked ingratitude that, for the sake of the salvation which had been offered to them, they were unwilling to undergo any risk, and cared less about the grace of God than about the frown of a tyrant. The whole nation, I have lately showed, was so degenerate, that they chose rather to be oppressed with the yoke of tyranny, than to submit to any inconvenience arising from a change. If God had not fortified the minds of the Magi by his Spirit, they might have been discouraged by this state of things. But the ardor of their zeal is unabated; they set out without a guide. And yet the means of confirming their faith are not wanting; for they hear that the King, who had been pointed out to them by a star, was long ago described, in glowing language, by divine predictions. It would seem that the star, which hitherto guided them in the way, had lately disappeared. The reason may easily be conjectured. It was, that they might make inquiry in Jerusalem about the new King, and might thus take away all excuse from the Jews, who, after having been instructed about the Redeemer who was sent to them, knowingly and willingly despise him.
11.They found the young child So revolting a sight might naturally have created an additional prejudice; for Christ was so far from having aught of royalty surrounding him, that he was in a meaner and more despised condition than any peasant child. But they are convinced that he is divinely appointed to be a King. This thought alone, deeply rooted in their minds, procures their reverence. They contemplate in the purpose of God his exalted rank, which is still concealed from outward view. Holding it for certain, that he will one day be different from what he now appears, they are not at all ashamed to render to him the honors of royalty.
Their presents show whence they came: for there can be no doubt that they brought them as the choicest productions of their country. We are not to understand, that each of them presented his own offering, but that the three offerings, which are mentioned by Matthew, were presented by all of them in common. Almost all the commentators indulge in speculations about those gifts, as denoting the kingdom, priesthood, and burial of Christ. They make gold the symbol of his kingdom, — frankincense, of his priesthoods, — and myrrh, of his burial. I see no solid ground for such an opinion. It was customary, we know, among the Persians, when they offered homage to their kings, to bring a present in their hands. The Magi select those three for the produce of which Eastern countries are celebrated; just as Jacob sent into Egypt the choicest and most esteemed productions of the soil.
“Take of the best fruits in the land in your vessels, and carry down the man a present, a little balm, and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds,”
Again, in rendering homage, according to the custom of Persia, to him whom they still regarded as an earthly King, they offered the productions of the soil. Our duty is, to adore him in a spiritual manner: for the lawful and reasonable worship which he demands is, that we consecrate first ourselves, and then all that we have, to his service.
13.And when they had departed How many days elapsed from the departure of the Magi, till Joseph was ordered to flee into Egypt, is not known, nor is it of much importance to inquire: only it is probable that the Lord spared Mary, till she was so far recovered from childbirth as to be able to perform the journey. It was a wonderful purpose of God, that he chose to preserve his Son by flight. The mind of Joseph must have been harassed by dangerous temptations, when he came to see that there was no hope but in flight: for in flight there was no appearance of divine protection. Besides, it was very difficult to reconcile the statement, that he who was to be the Savior of all, could not be preserved without the exertion of a mortal man. But, in preserving the life of his Son, God maintained such reserve, as to give some indications of his heavenly power, and yet not to make it so manifest as to prevent it from being concealed under the appearance of weakness: for the full time of glorifying Christ openly was not yet come. The angel predicts an event which was hidden, and unknown to men. That is an evident proof of divine guidance. But the angel orders him to defend the life of the child by flight and exile. This belongs to the weakness of flesh, to which Christ was subjected.
We are here taught, that God has more than one way of preserving his own people. Sometimes he makes astonishing displays of his power; while at other times he employs dark coverings or shadows, from which feeble rays of it escape. This wonderful method of preserving the Son of God under the cross teaches us, that they act improperly who prescribe to God a fixed plan of action. Let us permit him to advance our salvation by a diversity of methods; and let us not refuse to be humbled, that he may more abundantly display his glory. Above all, let us never avoid the cross, by which the Son of God himself was trained from his earliest infancy. This flight is a part of the foolishness of the cross, but it surpasses all the wisdom of the world. That he may appear at his own time as the Savior of Judea, he is compelled to flee from it, and is nourished by Egypt, from which nothing but what was destructive to the Church of God had ever proceeded. Who would not have regarded with amazement such an unexpected work of God?
Joseph immediately complies with the injunction of the Angel. This is another proof of the certainty of the dream: for such promptitude of obedience plainly shows, that he had no doubt whatever, that it was God who had enjoined him to take flight. This eager haste may wear somewhat of the aspect of distrust: for the flight by night had some appearance of alarm. But it is not difficult to frame an excuse. He saw that God had appointed a method of safety which was low and mean: and he concludes that he is at liberty to take flight in such a state of alarm as is commonly produced by extreme danger. Our fear ought always to be regulated by the divine intimations. If it agrees with them, it will not be opposed to faith.
Be thou there until I have told thee By these words the Angel declares, that the life of the child will, even in future, be the object of the divine care. Joseph needed to be thus strengthened, so as to conclude with certainty, that God would not only conduct him in the journey, but that, during his banishment, God would be his constant protector. And in this way God was pleased to allay many anxieties, with which the heart of the good man must have been perplexed, so that he enjoyed serenity of mind during his sojourn in Egypt. But for this, not a moment would have passed without numerous temptations, when he saw himself excluded not only from the inheritance promised by God to all his saints, — but from the temple, from sacrifices, from a public profession of his faiths, — and was living among the worst enemies of God, and in a deep gulf of superstitions. He carried with him, indeed, in the person of the child, all the blessings which the Fathers had hoped to enjoy, or which the Lord had promised to them: but as he had not yet made such proficiency in faith, and in the knowledge of Christ, he needed to be restrained by this injunction, Be thou there until I have told thee, that he might not be displeased at languishing in banishment from his country among the Egyptians.
15.Out of Egypt have I called my Son Matthew says that a prediction was fulfilled. Some have thought, that the intention of the prophet was different from what is here stated, and have supposed the meaning to be, that the Jews act foolishly in opposing and endeavoring to oppress the Son of God, because the Father hath called him out of Egypt In this way, they grievously pervert the words of the prophet, (Hosea 11:1,) the design of which is, to establish a charge of ingratitude against the Jews, who, from their earliest infancy, and from the commencement of their history, had found God to be a kind and generous Father, and yet were provoking him by fresh offenses. Beyond all question, the passage ought not to be restricted to the person of Christ: and yet it is not tortured by Matthew, but skilfully applied to the matter in hand.
The words of the prophet ought to be thus interpreted: “When Israel was yet a child, I brought him out of that wretched bondage in which he had been plunged. He was formerly like a dead man, and Egypt served him for a grave; but I drew him out of it as from the womb, and brought him into the light of life.” And justly does the Lord speak in this manner; for that deliverance was a sort of birth of the nation. Then were openly produced letters of adoption, when, by the promulgation of the law, they became “the Lord’s portion,” (Deuteronomy 32:9,) “a royal priesthood, and a holy nation,” (1 Peter 2:9;) when they were separated from the other nations, and when, in short, God “set up his tabernacle” (Leviticus 26:11) to dwell in the midst of them. The words of the prophet import, that the nation was rescued from Egypt as from a deep whirlpool of death. Now, what was the redemption brought by Christ, but a resurrection from the dead, and the commencement of a new life? The light of salvation had been almost extinguished, when God begat the Church anew in the person of Christ. Then did the Church come out of Egypt in its head, as the whole body had been formerly brought out.
This analogy prevents us from thinking it strange, that any part of Christ’s childhood was passed in Egypt. The grace and power of God became more illustrious, and his wonderful purpose was more distinctly seen, when light came out of darkness, and life out of hell. Otherwise, the sense of the flesh might have broken out here in contemptuous language, “ Truly a Redeemer is to come out of Egypt!” Matthew therefore reminds us, that it is no strange or unwonted occurrence for God to call his Son out of that country; and that it serves rather to confirm our faith, that, as on a former occasion, so now again, the Church of God comes out of Egypt. There is this difference, however, between the two cases. The whole nation was formerly shut up in the prison of Egypt; while, in the second redemption, it was Christ, the head of the Church alone, who was concealed there, but who carried the salvation and life of all shut up in his own person.
16.Then Herod when he saw Matthew speaks according to what Herod felt and thought about the matter. He believed that the Magi had deceived him, because they did not choose to take part in his wicked cruelty. He was rather taken in his own trickery, — in his base pretense, that he too intended to pay homage to the new King.
Josephus makes no mention of this history. The only writer who mentions it is Macrobius, in the Second Book of his Saturnalia, where, relating the jokes and taunts of Augustus, he says: When he heard that, by Herod’s command, the children in Syria under two years of age had been slain, and that his own son had been slain among the crowd, “I would rather,” said he, “have been Herod’s hog than his son.” But the authority of Matthew alone is abundantly sufficient for us. Josephus certainly ought not to have passed over a crime so worthy of being put on record. But there is the less reason to wonder that he says nothing about the infants; for he passes lightly over, and expresses in obscure language, an instance of Herod’s cruelty not less shocking, which took place about the same time, when he put to death all the Judges, who were called the Sanhedrim, that hardly a remnant might remain of the stock of David. It was the same dread, I have no doubt, that impelled him to both of these murders.
There is some uncertainty about the date. Matthew says, that they were slain from two years old and under, according to the time which he had inquired at the Magi: from which we may infer that Christ had then reached that age, or at least was not far from being two years old. Some go farther, and conclude that Christ was about that age at the time when the Magi came. But I contend that the one does not follow from the other. With what terror Herod was seized when the report was widely spread about a new king who had been borne, we have lately seen. Fear prevented him at that time from employing a traitor, in a secret manner, to make an investigation. There is no reason to wonder that he was restrained, for some time, from the commission of a butchery so hateful and shocking, particularly while the report about the arrival of the Magi was still recent. It is certainly probable, that he revolved the crime in his mind, but delayed it till a convenient opportunity should occur. It is even possible, that he first murdered the Judges, in order to deprive the people of their leaders, and thus to compel them to look upon the crime as one for which there was no remedy.
We may now conclude it to be a frivolous argument, on which those persons rest, who argue, that Christ was two years old when he was worshipped by the Magi, because, according to the time when the star appeared, Herod slew the children who were a little below two years old. Such persons take for granted, without any proper ground, that the star did not appear till after that the Virgin had brought forth her child. It is far more probable, that they had been warned early, and that they undertook the journey close upon the time of the birth of Christ, that they might see the child when lately born, in the cradle, or in his mother’s lap. It is a very childish imagination that, because they came from an unknown country, and almost from another world, they had spent about two years on the road. The conjectures stated by Osiander are too absurd to need refutation.
But there is no inconsistency in the thread of the story which I propose, — that the Magi came when the period of child-bearing was not yet over, and inquired after a king who had been born, not after one who was already two years old; that, after they had returned to their own country, Joseph fled by night, but still in passing discharged a pious duty at Jerusalem, (for in so populous a city, where there was a constant influx of strangers from every quarter, he might be secure from danger;) that, after he had departed to Egypt, Herod began to think seriously about his own danger, and the ulcer of revenge, which he had nourished in his heart for more than a year and half, at length broke out. The adverb then ( τότε) does not always denote in Scripture uninterrupted time, but frequently occurs, when there is a great distance between the events.
18.A voice was heard in Ramah It is certain that the prophet describes (Jeremiah 31:15) the destruction of the tribe of Benjamin, which took place in his time: for he had foretold that the tribe of Judah would be cut off, to which was added the half of the tribe of Benjamin. He puts the mourning into the mouth of Rachel, who had been long dead. This is a personification, ( προσωποποιϊα ,) which has a powerful influence in moving the affections. It was not for the mere purpose of ornamenting his style, that Jeremiah employed rhetorical embellishments. There was no other way of correcting the hardness and stupidity of the living, than by arousing the dead, as it were, from their graves, to bewail those divine chastisements, which were commonly treated with derision. The prediction of Jeremiah having been accomplished at that time, Matthew does not mean that it foretold what Herod would do, but that the coming of Christ occasioned a renewal of that mourning, which had been experienced, many centuries before, by the tribe of Benjamin.
He intended thus to meet a prejudice which might disturb and shake pious minds. It might be supposed, that no salvation could be expected from him, on whose account, as soon as he was born, infants were murdered; nay more, that it was an unfavorable and disastrous omen, that the birth of Christ kindled a stronger flame of cruelty than usually burns amidst the most inveterate wars. But as Jeremiah promises a restoration, where a nation has been cut off, down to their little children, so Matthew reminds his readers, that this massacre would not prevent Christ from appearing shortly afterwards as the Redeemer of the whole nation: for we know that the whole chapter in Jeremiah, in which those words occur, is filled with the most delightful consolations. Immediately after the mournful complaint, he adds,
“Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to thine own border,” (Jeremiah 31:16.)
Such was the resemblance between the former calamity which the tribe of Benjamin had sustained, and the second calamity, which is here recorded. Both were a prelude of the salvation which was shortly to arrive.
19.But when Herod was dead These words show the perseverance of Joseph’s faith. He kept his feet firm in Egypt, till he was recalled to his native country by a command of God. We see, at the same time, that the Lord never disappoints his own people, but renders them seasonable aid. It is probable that Joseph returned from Egypt immediately after the death of Herod, before Augustus Caesar had issued his decree, appointing Archelaus to be governor of Judea. Having been declared by his father’s will to be successor to the throne, he undertook the whole charge of the government, but abstained from taking the title of king, saying that this depended on the will and pleasure of Caesar. He afterwards went to Rome, and obtained confirmation; only the name of king was refused, until he had merited it by his actions. The governor of Galilee was Philip, a man of gentle disposition, and almost like a private individual. Joseph complied with the suggestion of the angel, because, under a prince who had no delight in shedding blood, and who treated his subjects with mildness, there was less danger.
We must always bear in mind the purpose of God, in training his Son, from the commencement, under the discipline of the cross, because this was the way in which he was to redeem his Church. He bore our infirmities, and was exposed to dangers and to fears, that he might deliver his Church from them by his divine power, and might bestow upon it everlasting peace. His danger was our safety: his fear was our confidence. Not that he ever in his life felt alarm; but as he was surrounded, on every hand, by the fear of Joseph and Mary, he may be justly said to have taken upon him our fears, that he might procure for us assured confidence.
23.He shall be called a Nazarene Matthew does not derive Nazarene from Nazareth, as if this were its strict and proper etymology, but only makes an allusion. The word נזיר, or Nazarite, signifies holy and devoted to God, and is derived from נזר, to separate. The noun נזר, indeed, signifies a flower: but Matthew refers, beyond all doubt, to the former meaning. For we nowhere read that Nazarites meant blooming or flourishing, but persons who were consecrated to God, according to the directions given by the Law, (Numbers 6:1) The meaning is: though it was by fear that Joseph was driven into a corner of Galilee, yet God had a higher design, and appointed the city of Nazareth as the place of Christ’s residence, that he might justly be called a Nazarite But it is asked, who are the prophets that gave this name to Christ? for there is no passage to be found that answers to the quotation. Some think it a sufficient answer, that Scripture frequently calls him Holy: but that is a very poor explanation. For Matthew, as we perceive, makes an express reference to the very word, and to the ancient Nazarites, whose holiness was of a peculiar character. He tells us, that what was then shadowed out in the Nazarites, who were, in some sense, selected as the first-fruits to God, must have been fulfilled in the person of Christ.
But it remains to be seen, in what part of Scripture the prophets have stated that this name would be given to Christ. Chrysostom, finding himself unable to loose the knot, cuts it by saying, that many books of the prophets have perished. But this answer has no probability: for, though the Lord, in order to punish the indifference of his ancient people, deprived them of some part of Scripture, or left out what was less necessary, yet, since the coming of Christ, no part of it has been lost. In support of that view, a strange blunder has been made, by quoting a passage of Josephus, in which he states that Ezekiel left two books: for Ezekiel’s prophecy of a new temple and kingdom is manifestly distinct from his other predictions, and may be said to form a new work. But if all the books of Scripture which were extant in the time of Matthew, remain entire to the present day, we must find somewhere the passage quoted from the prophets.
Bucer has explained it, I think, more correctly than any other writer. He thinks that the reference is to a passage in the Book of Judges: The child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb, (Jude 13:5.) These words, no doubt, were spoken with regard to Samson. But Samson is called the “Redeemer” or “Deliverer” of the people, only because he was a figure of Christ, and because the salvation, which was accomplished by his instrumentality, was a sort of prelude of the full salvation, which was at length exhibited to the world by the Son of God. All that Scripture predicts, in a favorable manner, about Samson, may justly be applied to Christ. To express it more clearly, Christ is the original model: Samson is the inferior antitype. When he assumed the character of a Redeemer, we ought to understand, that none of the titles bestowed on that illustrious and truly divine office apply so strictly to himself as to Christ: for the fathers did but taste the grace of redemption, which we have been permitted to receive fully in Christ.
Matthew uses the word prophets in the plural number. This may easily be excused: for the Book of Judges was composed by many prophets. But I think that what is here said about the prophets has a still wider reference. For Joseph, who was a temporal Savior of the Church, and was, in many respects, a figure, or rather a lively image of Christ, is called a Nazarite of his brethren, (Genesis 49:26; Deuteronomy 33:16.) God determined that the distinguished honor, of which he had given a specimen in Joseph, should shine again in Samson, and gave him the name of Nazarite, that believers, having received those early instructions, might look more earnestly at the Redeemer who was to come, who was to be separated from all,
“That he might be the first-born among many brethren,”
From John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible.
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