• Matthew 2 • by Dan Hayden •
When kings go to war, the world watches. The spectacle of international clashes is the stuff of history around which all of the other mundane events gather. The battle of kings tends to be the climax point in the chronicles of mankind.
Richard the Lionheart and Saladin the Magnificent were the principle adversaries of the Third Crusade (1187-1192 A.D.). It was a classic contest between east and west as the Muslim world sought to defend its holdings in the Middle East from the European Crusaders bent on holy war. The land of Palestine was the battlefield, and Jerusalem was the coveted prize.
On a hot day in early July, Saladin brilliantly defeated three divisions of the Crusader army at the battle of the Horns of Hattin, a high ridge overlooking the Sea of Galilee. As the supreme ruler of the Muslims, he had proven himself to be a superior commander, easily outmaneuvering the lesser kings and knights of the Crusader force. It was then, however, that King Richard arrived from England and things were different. Saladin had met his match.
It wasn’t long before Acre fell. King Richard overpowered the Muslim forces of Saladin to capture this key site just north of Haifa, in his ultimate crusade to liberate Jerusalem. Moving quickly down the coast, Richard added another major victory at Jaffa and then another at Ascalon, defeating the Muslims time and again. Richard was advancing and Saladin was retreating to the place of their final confrontation – Jerusalem.
Saladin had cloistered himself within the city walls and Richard was poised to lay siege upon the Holy City. “Suddenly,” writes James Reston, Jr., “inexplicably, disgracefully, the Lionheart became fainthearted. …he had concluded that the quest for Jerusalem was hopeless” (Warriors of God, by James Reston, Jr., p. 277). King Richard packed up and prepared to return to Europe, leaving Saladin as the supreme ruler of the Holy Lands. The Third Crusade had come to an end. It was an abrupt conclusion to a long war, and set the stage for 800 years of Muslim rule in Palestine.
The conflict between east and west over the land of Palestine is a common scenario in the annals of history. What may not be so well understood is that the Bible predicts a final conflict that repeats that scene. It is best known as the Battle of Armageddon, when the kings of the east are enticed to invade the king of the west (Antichrist ) for the prize of the Holy City of Jerusalem. The surprise ending to that conflict settles the east-west controversy forever, as both give way to the final conqueror – Jesus Christ, the King of Kings.
ROME’S WAR WITH PARTHIA
The Christmas story is a prelude to this ultimate battle of the kings. Jesus was born at a time when the Roman Empire was defending its eastern border against a group of people known as the Parthians. A millennium would transpire before King Richard and Saladin would walk across the stage of history. Nevertheless, it was the Roman west against the Parthian east and, again, the territory in question was the land of Palestine. Against that background, Matthew in his second chapter gives us an interesting story about wise men from the east who came to worship Jesus.
In the story, King Herod is Rome’s representative in Jerusalem and the Magi are royal visitors from the east. According to the account in Matthew 2, Herod became very upset when the wise men began asking questions about a baby who had been born King of the Jews. They actually made it known to Herod that the express reason for their visit was to worship this new Jewish King (Matt. 2:2). That of course infuriated Herod, who would naturally have been concerned about an alliance between the Parthians and the Jews, both of whom were his enemies. So, the text says, “he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). The city always became fearful when Herod was upset because of his erratic and unpredictable behavior. The story goes on to say that Herod reacted by killing all of the male toddlers in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, justifying the city’s fear (Matt. 2:16). Once again it was the story of east meets west, and this time Jesus was in the middle.
Herod, King of the West
King Herod was an Idumean, which means that he was an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. There was bad blood between Herod and the Jews, as there had been an adversarial spirit between the Edomites and the Israelites, carrying on the conflict between Esau and Jacob. The Jews didn’t like Herod, and the feeling was mutual.
The story of Herod’s kingship actually began when Julius Caesar appointed his father Antipater procurator of Judea. In due course, Antipater managed to have his son Herod put in charge of the territory known as Galilee. This territory had been a problem for the Romans because of Jewish guerilla bands who were constantly challenging Rome’s authority. Herod was successful in quelling the Jewish resistance and earned a reputation as an able commander and administrator.
It wasn’t long, however, before there was additional trouble on the Syrian front of Rome’s eastern border. The Parthians invaded and Herod had to flee for his life. Making his way to Egypt, he boarded a ship in Alexandria sailing for Rome. Herod was smarting from his defeat at the hands of the Parthians and he hoped that he could persuade Caesar to be sympathetic to his cause.
In 40 B.C., Octavian (soon to become Caesar Augustus) and Anthony, with the blessing of the Roman Senate, declared Herod to be the King of the Jews. Outfitted with a large force of the Roman Army, Herod invaded Palestine, seeking to dislodge the Parthian occupation. For two years there was bitter fighting between the Romans and the Parthians, but Herod finally prevailed. The Parthians were driven back to the eastern border and in 37 B.C. Herod established his kingdom in Palestine.
At first he pretended to be a friend of the Jews. He married Mariamne, who was heiress to the Jewish Hasmonean house, and began many construction projects, including a total refurbishing of the Jewish Temple. Yet these attempts to placate the Jews by showing them favor were merely a thin veneer to cover his deep-seated hatred for the Jewish people. Herod was a cruel, ambitious and jealous ruler who was ruthless in his desire for position and power.
On one occasion Herod sensed a political threat from the High Priest of Israel, who happened to be Aristobulus, the brother of Herod’s wife, Meriamne. Herod had Aristobulus drowned, and then provided a magnificent funeral at which he pretended to weep. Then he had Mariamne herself killed, as well has her mother and two of his own sons. Five days before his own death, he had a third son executed. Then he gave orders to have most of the distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned with strict instructions that they should be executed at his death. He knew that no one would mourn his death, and so he took steps to assure that there would be tears of mourning in Jerusalem when he died.
With this brief psychological profile of Herod in mind, it should not surprise us that he would cold-heartedly slaughter all of the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem, simply to eliminate any threat to his throne. Yet Herod’s paranoia was concerned about much more than the birth of a rival Jewish King.
Magi From the East
Matthew begins his story of this conflict by saying,
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod, the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him (Matthew 2:1-2).
The Greek word for “wise men” in this text is “magoi” – from which we get the word Magi. The Magi were a class of scholar/politicians who were the principle advisors to the monarchs of the Middle East. First appearing in the 7th Century B.C. in eastern Mesopotamia, they soon became the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Babylonian and Medo-Persian empires.
There is no indication in Matthew’s account that these Magi were on a political mission to forge an alliance with the Jews against Rome. Nevertheless, Herod was disturbed by their presence in Jerusalem and immediately thought the worst. If such an alliance could be formed between the Parthians and the Jews, his ability to control Palestine would be in serious jeopardy. The eastern front had been quiet for over thirty years, but the memory of two years of bitter fighting with the Parthians was fresh in his memory.
Tradition assumes that there were three wise men because they brought three gifts to Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). The text doesn’t say how many there were, however. It could have been an entourage of ten or twenty royal visitors. The Syrians and Armenians, along with Chrysostom the church Father, thought there were at least twelve, but there is no proof of that, either. The point is that there were enough to cause Herod great concern.
Herod was of course, also concerned about the potential threat of a Jewish King born of the lineage of the once-powerful King David. He cleverly waited until the visitors from the east had left before unleashing his jealous fury against Bethlehem, the City of David. The Jewish scribes and priests had determined that the Jewish Messiah would be born in Bethlehem according to the prophet, Micah (Matthew 2:4-6). Therefore, when Herod determined to eliminate the Jewish threat by killing the babies in Bethlehem, he knew exactly what he was doing. At that moment he was Antichrist seeking to thwart the Kingdom of Christ on earth.
THE PROPHETIC CONNECTION
There is a dé jà vu-like phenomenon in biblical prophecy where we could imagine God saying, “Been there, done that.” What once was, is about to occur again. The historical scenario surrounding the birth of Christ is repeated at His Second Coming. There is an alignment of nations and a sequence of events that will be remarkably similar from then to now. It is as though the two advents of Christ are connected without the intervening years of two millennia of history.
This is the way John saw the vision in Revelation 12. The birth of Christ and the Kingdom of Christ were connecting events. He first of all saw a great wonder in heaven “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” (v. 1). This was the dream of Joseph in the days of the Patriarchs (Gen. 37:9-10), which pictures the nation of Israel as represented by the twelve sons of Jacob.
So the woman in Revelation 12:1 is Israel and “she, being with child, cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” (v. 2). The child of the woman is Jesus the Messiah. Israel was certainly in great tribulation as she gave birth to the Messiah. Rome ruled the land at the time of Jesus’ birth, and Israel knew the oppressive pangs of that Roman authority. Jesus was indeed born in the days of tribulation.
Satan was there, too, looking through the eyes of Herod. John saw him as a great red dragon when he said, “and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to be delivered, to devour her child as soon as it was born” (v. 4). We hear the thunder of hoofbeats as Herod’s demonic host descends upon the territory of Bethlehem with swords drawn in search of the child. The woman moans with the pangs of delivery and then gathers her child to escape from the clutches of the dragon. Herod is Antichrist, the messenger of Satan’s diabolical scheme as described in Revelation 12:3.
At that point in Revelation 12, the scene shifts to end-time events. John continues by saying:
And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days (Revelation 12:5,6).
John saw the child whom Herod sought to devour as the One who will rule the world. Yet that Kingdom would wait at least two thousand years as the child was “caught up unto God” in the ascension of Christ to await the timing of heaven. The remainder of chapter 12 describes the conditions faced by the woman (Israel) in the end of the age as she prepares for the coming Kingdom. There is a crescendo of excitement in v. 10 as John exclaims:
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ;
Now the thing to notice in all of this is that the circumstances of Christ’s first coming are contiguous with the scenario of His second coming. The entire Church Age is simply a parenthetical interlude between the two acts of Messiah’s coming. John saw it as one continuous story. The end of the age will pick up where the beginning of the age left off. Herod at the beginning of the age is the prototype of Antichrist at the end of the age. They are both motivated by Satan as the human instruments of his infernal scheme to thwart the Kingdom of Christ. The way it was is the way it will be.
ARMAGEDDON, THE FINAL BATTLE
East and west will meet once again in the land of Palestine. Only this time the God of Heaven will intervene and the Son of God will reign supreme over both the east and the west. John called it “the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:14). We know it as the Battle of Armageddon.
Even now history seems to be repeating itself. Israel is back in the land and has established herself as a recognizable national entity. A European confederacy is emerging with its parliament in Rome that could quickly become the authoritative voice of the west. The Mediterranean rim is sympathetic to the west with Turkey hoping to join the European Union and with Egypt and Jordan having made bilateral treatise with Israel due to western influence. The Old Roman Empire is morphing before our very eyes. One day a strong charismatic leader of the western coalition will announce his plan to secure the borders of Israel against the marauding powers of the east. Syria, Iraq (Babylon), and Iran (Persia) are the old and new antagonists that will once again be poised to strike at the West for the prize of the Holy City. It is dé jà vu.
As with Herod, the Antichrist (whom Paul calls the “man of sin” – II Thess. 2:3) will set himself up as the king of Jerusalem by occupying the Temple of the Jews as a deity to be worshipped (II Thess. 2:4). Initially, in the likeness of Herod, he will pretend to be a friend of the Jews by promising them peace and safety (Dan. 9:27; I Thess. 5:3). Then, as with Herod, he will slaughter them in his scheme to rule over their land (Rev. 12:13-17). He is a ruler that represents the western imperial system as Herod represented the Roman Empire.
It is also apparent from the events of Revelation 16, that the kingdom of the Antichrist does not extend beyond the Middle East. Syria, the land west of the Euphrates river. appears to be the eastern border of his empire. In the sixth vial judgment at the end of the Age, it says:
And the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river, Euphrates, and its water was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared (Rev. 16:12).
Herod’s worst nightmare comes to fruition. Only this time it is not Magi on a mission to worship a Jewish baby, it is a full-blown invasion of the kings of the east. Saladin rides again and this time it is King Richard’s kingdom that is under siege.
The final battle of the kings is the next world war. Like all other wars it involves unbridled greed and a lust for power. The demons are out in full force spewing their venom through the veins of the kings of the earth, but in the end it is the God of Heaven and His Anointed One who reign supreme. John describes it like this:
And I saw three unclean spirits, like frogs, come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, that go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty (Rev. 16:13, 14).
The conclusion of this final battle between east and west has a surprise ending. Initially the conflict is the reverse image of the Third Crusade. There Saladin of the east retreated before King Richard of the west from the region of Har Megiddo (Armageddon) through the plains of Sharon along the Via Maris to the protection of the walls of Jerusalem. In the final battle, the sequence will be the same, beginning at Armageddon (Rev. 16:16) and ending in the siege of the Holy City. The difference this time will be that it is the east pursuing the west. Antichrist will cloister himself within the walls of Jerusalem as he retreats before the armies of the east.
Then the great surprise of history, as Jesus comes in great power and glory, riding on a magnificent white horse out of the clouds of heaven (Rev. 19:11-21). The armies of both the east and west will be decimated by the mere word of His mouth and “the kingdoms of this world” will “become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). It will be an unexpected conclusion to the final battle of the kings.
A FINAL SOLUTION
The Christmas story is a story of endings as well as beginnings. Matthew is the one who puts it all into perspective for us by introducing us to the battle of the kings. For him, Jesus is the King of the Jews, the rightful Heir to the throne of David. Jesus is the Messiah, not only of Israel’s hope but of the hope of the world. But in the context of Jesus’ birth, Matthew unfolds the intrigue between the king of the west and kings of the east. Yet in the end, it is not about them. It is about Him.
What is most unusual about this story, however, is that the Magi from the east came to worship Jesus as the anticipated ruler of the world. History confirms for us that the Magi were Babylonian Magi, which means that they were from Iraq. In a day of Muslim hatred for Israel, the irony of this story should not be missed! The world should sit up and notice that Iraqi wise men worshipped Jesus and acknowledged Him as the hope of humanity. It is the only wise thing to do.
Whether Arab, or Jew, or citizen of the west, we will only find peace in the child of Bethlehem. There is a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and there is relief from eastern terrorism inflicted upon the west. In the conflict between east and west, and the universal hope for eternal life, Jesus is the answer. There will only be lasting peace as all of us give our allegiance to the Prince of Peace.
For further study, see Beyond Wisemen.
First published in Zion’s Fire Magazine, December 2001.
Zion’s Fire is a publication of Zion’s Hope Ministries, Winter Garden, Florida