Written in the Stars
Updated: Jan 19
This week, on January 6th, church calendars will tell you it’s Epiphany. Google “epiphany,” and you’ll probably see exquisite paintings of three kings holding gifts in front of a manger.
Beautiful, yes? But not accurate.
A couple of weeks ago, choirs across the nation sang “We Three Kings” along with “Angels We Have Heard on High.” A traditional and beloved hymn, yes, but not quite accurate.
Neither error of interpretation may seem a big deal, but to appreciate all of the wonder of the season, we may need to update our understanding of Epiphany.
First of all, the visitors from the Orient weren’t kings. They were “wise men” and there were probably more than three. When they arrived at their destination, they didn’t tie their camels outside a stable, and they didn’t find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. But that’s beside the point.
Really, who were they and what were they doing there?
The label “wise men” is a translation of the Greek word magi (singular: magus). Consult Merriam-Webster and you’ll find that one definition is indeed, “one of the traditionally three wise men from the East paying homage to the infant Jesus.” But the definition at the top of the list is “a member of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians,” and synonyms listed are “magician” and “sorcerer.” Dictionary.com adds the synonym “astrologer.” Egads! Who let them into the stable?
Well, it wasn’t actually a stable, but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, these men bearing gifts were magi: Eastern magicians, sorcerers, astrologers. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they were oh-so-much more.
They were scientists who studied the movement of the stars and planets, their patterns and cycles, their positions in the sky. When some strange phenomenon appeared, they interpreted it as a sign of something significant. They studied history and prophecy and the sacred writings to discern its meaning, and their research materials included the Hebrew scriptures.
As scholars, they were likely acquainted with the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah, and let’s not forget Balaam, an experienced “prophet” of Mesopotamia (placed in quotes because he prognosticated for money and, well, I’ll let you read it yourself):
“When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face toward the wilderness (Numbers 24:1)” The Spirit of the Lord came upon him and out of his mouth tumbled one of the most profound prophecies of the coming Messiah: “I shall see him but not now; I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.”
Wow. Although Balaam seemed to stumble between unadulterated prophecy and ungodly enchantments, the one true God let him deliver a powerful word about the King to come.
Magi also played a key role in the Persian government, much like the priests and prophets did in Israel. Because of their vast knowledge of things worldly and otherworldly, they were top advisors to the king: the king’s wise men. The “law of the Medes and Persians” mentioned in Daniel 6 was the magi’s code of scientific and religious discipline and was required knowledge for anyone wishing to be king; no one could become king if the magi did not approve.
In short, the magi were the king-makers. If they gave a candidate the nod, they served as his royal ambassadors, sent out to do such things as, say, pay homage to another ruler on behalf of the king.
Magi in the time of Matthew, with their knowledge of the skies and their study of the Scriptures, would have associated the star of Bethlehem with that “sceptre rising out of Jacob”— a ruler rising up out of Israel. So, naturally, they headed for the seat of Israel’s government, Jerusalem, to see what they would find. When they arrived, they asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).
And Jerusalem went crazy.
Why the uproar?
Because of who they were and the gold, frankincense and myrrh they carried, the magi were undoubtedly surrounded by a host of attendants and bodyguards and riding on magnificent Persian steeds (sorry, camel lovers). Historians estimate there could have been a thousand or more in the caravan.
“…when King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” (Matthew 2:3)
It’s most likely Herod wouldn’t have paid attention to three nomads riding on camels, but as it was, he was put into a panic, wishing now he had kept up with his “Through the Bible in a Year” reading. So he called his advisors and asked them what the prophets had to say. And there in the scroll of Micah, they found it: a ruler would come out of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2).
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:7-8)
King Herod was a paranoid tyrant, in constant fear that others would take his throne. Based on mere suspicion and rumor, he took out quite a few imagined contenders—including his favorite wife and three sons.
So when the magi arrived in Jerusalem asking about a new king, Herod was sure his fears were well-founded and he contrived a plan to remove this threat too. He told the magi what he’d learned from the scroll and sent them on their way.
“And the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:9-11)
So, how did the magi discern the significance of that star?
The answer to that goes back 600 years to the time of the Babylonian captivity. Babylonian rulers had a habit of skimming the cream off the top of the nations they invaded, and when Nebuchadnezzar’s troops stormed through Jerusalem, they took not only treasures from the temple but some of Israel’s finest. King Nebuchadnezzar was looking for “young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace” (Daniel 1:4). He found none equal to young Daniel and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds. (Daniel 1:17)
Well, that was handy.
When Nebuchadnezzar had troubling dreams, Daniel provided him with not only the dream’s interpretation but the details of the dream itself, while the Babylonian-bred magi stood clueless. Daniel’s exceptional abilities earned him a coveted spot in the ranks of the magi: Nebuchadnezzar “made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.” (Daniel 2:48)
In other words, Daniel became top magus.
While political power in Babylon continued to shift, Daniel’s place of influence didn’t. His role as the wisest of the wise men continued throughout the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belshazzar, Darius the Mede and the two Cyruses of Persia, and perhaps even into the reign of Ahasuerus. Daniel served at least seventy years as the mentor of the magi. And what do you suppose he taught them?
Balaam’s prophecy in the book of Numbers? The countless prophecies in the scrolls of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah? I’m sure his character, his gifting, and his devotion to the one true God spoke volumes, too.
Generations of magi had kept their eyes on the sky and continued counting on calendars because, well, that’s just what magi do. And as the prophesied time approached and the expected star arose, the magi of the day mounted their camels (sorry, their horses) and headed off to find the king.
Yet what did they find but a young boy in an ordinary house in an ordinary town. He didn’t look like a king, but they recognized him as a king because of the prophecies they had learned through the legacy of Daniel.
Imagine—some of the first to herald the arrival of the King of the Jews were Gentiles! The Jewish nation ended up missing their Messiah, but these foreigners fell down to worship him. Israel’s religious leaders didn’t receive him, Israel’s political rulers didn’t recognize him, but these king-makers from a pagan land followed a star and declared that this young boy named Jesus was the Anointed One, the King of kings.
And that, my friends, is the rest of the story.