Just before God’s people, Israel, entered the Promised Land a wicked king (Balak) hired a magi from the east (Balaam) to come and put a curse on God’s people. Instead of fulfilling the king’s plan, Balaam was given a word from God about how God would send a rising star, a king from Israel who would rule the nations.
500 years later Solomon, son of David, ruled the surrounding nations seemingly in fulfilment of Balaam’s prophecy. Having great wisdom from God, the Queen of Sheba along with kings from the east, came to Jerusalem seeking God’s word spoken by Solomon and bringing gifts of tribute of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The latter prophets in Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60 described a future time when once again the kings of the east and the nations from Arabia would bring tribute of gold, frankincense and myrrh to a son of David, a king even greater than Solomon.
In Matthew’s gospel we are told that after the birth of Jesus Magi came from the east bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. One can easily see how the magi seeking Jesus were viewed as being the fulfilment of Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60 – and why later tradition turned the magi into kings. Except they weren’t kings and they weren’t the fulfilment of the prophets despite their coming from the east to a son of David and bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Magi weren’t kings from the east, they were servants of kings. Magi were into divination. They used animal intestines, astrology and weird rituals to try to discern the future. In Deuteronomy 18 God has said that anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. Magi in the Bible were fools and opposed God’s purposes – e.g. the magi of Egypt and Babylon could not interpret Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Balaam had less insight than his donekey (even though dreams and animal behaviour was suppose to be their thing)! The reader’s of Matthew’s gospel would not have been impressed by magi coming, they would have been disgusted by them.
And yet isn’t this what the gospel of Jesus is about … the most unexpected people coming to Christ. What is surprising in Matthew’s gospel is that instead of the prophesied kings from the east, we have their servants – the magi. Where are the kings? The only king in this story is Herod who seeks to kill Jesus and the only wise men are the scribes who have God’s word but do not seek Jesus.
Herod is like Balak planning on using the magi to destroy Jesus – but God overrules by revealing his true word to the magi even as he had done earlier to Balaam.
In the meantime in a surprising turn of events these magi find Christ and prostrate themselves before the great king, the son of David of which Solomon was a type.
But in their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh one cannot help but recall Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60. While the magi were not the fulfilment of the prophets, their coming frm the east and bringing such gifts clearly foreshadow the future fillment of the prophecies. Indeed Revelation 21 describes the fulfilment in the new earth following the return of Jesus when the redeemed nations and kings bring their tribute to Jesus. The magi’s coming points to that Day. For now though we can marvel that God in his grace spoke to these magi (using a star and later the word of God spoken by the prophet Micah). We can thank God that he calls the most unexpected people by grace to enter into his kingdom. As we continue to read Matthew’s gospel we will see this theme of God’s grace to tax-collectors and sinners.
We like to identify with wise kings from the Orient but closer to reality is our identifying with foolish ungodly heathens to whom God has shown his grace. Call him ‘Jesus’ because he saves his people fro their sins.