The slaughter of the innocents Matthew chapter 2
Jeremy Gibson, Derby, England
The events of this chapter are not recorded anywhere else. No other Gospel writer mentions the visit of the magi, the slaughter of the innocents, nor the emergency flight into Egypt. And, to date, no secular document has verified Matthew’s account. But such corroboration is unnecessary. Everything rings true and slots perfectly into the design of this Gospel. Herod was infamous for his paranoia, his craftiness, and his lethal attacks against all challengers. The lack of interest of Israel’s religious leaders in Christ’s birth was an early premonition of what was to come. Eventually, after sustained and escalating opposition, they crucified Him, Matt. 27. 35. By way of contrast, the adoration of the Gentile magi anticipated Christ’s future worship by all nations in the millennial kingdom and, in so doing, confirmed His messiahship, Ps. 72; Isa. 60. Matthew’s skilfully constructed narrative over chapters 2 to 4 showed how Israel’s national history in Egypt and the wilderness looked forward to the experiences of the Lord Jesus. When Hosea wrote, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’, he was clearly referring to God’s mighty deliverance of the nation from slavery in Egypt, Hos. 11. 1. Unbeknown to Hosea, however, these words had a future fulfilment when Christ moved north into Galilee after finding refuge in Egypt, Matt 2. 15.
Herod was well into his sixties when ‘Jesus was born in Bethlehem’, v. 1. Lying six miles south-west of Jerusalem and so small that Joshua did not list it among Judah’s cities in Joshua chapter 16, Bethlehem was described by Micah as ‘little among the thousands of Judah’, Mic. 5. 2. But, under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, Matthew tweaked Micah’s prophecy, elevating Bethlehem. The city where David had been born, raised and then anointed as Israel’s shepherd-king 1 was ‘not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule [poimain?, shepherd] my people Israel’, v. 6.
Primed with a messianic hope, these eastern astrologers had spotted a new star, realized its significance and travelled west to Jerusalem. Entering the city, which remained oblivious to Christ’s birth, they asked, ‘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’, v. 2. Herod, who would tolerate no rival, ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him’, v. 3. With speed and guile, he began formulating a plan to eliminate the young child. ‘When he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born’, v. 4. Once these leaders affirmed that Bethlehem was Messiah’s predicted birthplace, vv. 5, 6, Herod quickly turned his attention to when He was born. ‘Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared’, v. 7. Feigning devotion, ‘he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go 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’, v. 8. How ‘a crafty hypocrite never means so ill, as when he speaketh fairest’. 2
The worship by these wise men was exemplary. Having been directed to Christ by the moving star, ‘they rejoiced with exceeding great joy’, vv. 9, 10. Unlike the Queen of Sheba, who travelled from the east to see the visible splendour of Solomon and his court, when these men entered the house all ‘they saw [was] the young child with Mary his mother’, v. 11. But, by faith, they viewed in that little frame the King of the Jews, the ‘Star out of Jacob’, Num. 24. 17, the ‘day star’, 2 Pet. 1. 19, ‘the bright and morning star’, Rev. 22. 16. Never has the expression multum in parvo (much in little) been so true. They ‘fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures [which they had carefully wrapped to protect for the journey], they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh’, v. 11. Their gold, one of the most valuable commodities, would support the poor family. Frankincense, a white, glittering vegetable resin from the bark of the Arbor Thuris tree, was burned on Jewish altars and used to make perfume. 3 Myrrh, the bitter antiseptic resin included in the Jewish priests’ anointing oil, Exod. 30. 23, was used in embalming the dead, John 19. 39, and purifying women in the Persian court, Esther 2. 12. These latter two gifts may have anticipated the Saviour’s death. Having worshipped and been warned by God of the threat posed by Herod, ‘they departed into their own country another way’, v. 12.
Likewise, our worship should be guided by God, joyful and humbly focused on Christ, whom, though we have never seen, we believe is altogether glorious, 1 Pet. 1. 8. We ought to give Him our best and worship intelligently, carefully guarding what precious thoughts we have of Him. Just as the magi ‘departed into their own country another way’, so our worship should change us.
Joseph’s blend of obedience and patience is rarely seen. While he slept, ‘the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him’, v. 13. The repeated expression ‘the young child and his mother’ emphasized Christ’s apparent vulnerability and His mother’s tender care, while clarifying that Joseph was not His true father, vv. 11, 13, 14, 20, 21. The threat was so great that Joseph would not wait till morning. ‘When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt’, v. 14. Delay could have spelled disaster. And while ‘we cannot be too speedy in the execution of God’s commands; we may be too late’. 4 Then, having arrived in Egypt, Joseph patiently waited for a fresh appearance of the angel, when he was told, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life’, v. 20. Again, with prompt obedience, ‘he arose’, v. 21.
Outwitted by the magi, Herod ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under’, v. 16. The heartbreak of their mothers is encapsulated in Matthew’s quotation from Jeremiah, ‘In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not’, v. 18; Jer. 31. 15. Rama was the town, five miles north of Jerusalem, where Judah’s captives were briefly detained before being carried to Babylon, Jer. 40. 1. Being the mother of Joseph, from whom sprung two of the northern tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, and Benjamin, one of the two southern tribes, Rachel is viewed as the concerned mother of the whole nation. Having been buried near Bethlehem, she is visualized as rising from the dead to mourn for her exiled children, Gen. 35. 19; Jer. 31. 15. In the immediate context, Jeremiah was likely referring to the recent Assyrian deportation of the northern kingdom and the soon-to-take-place captivity of Judah. But Jeremiah’s promise of future restoration provided no comfort for the mothers of these murdered infants, ‘because they are not’, v. 18; Jer. 31. 16, 17.
God, who ‘is so infinitely wise to know the designs of his enemies before they are, could as easily prevent them that they might not be: but he lets them run on in their course, that he may fetch glory to himself out of their wickedness’. 5 Throughout time He has permitted Satan to repeatedly attack the messianic line, Gen. 3. 15. Cain slew Abel, 4. 18. Pharaoh murdered Jewish baby boys, Exod. 1. 16. Athaliah ‘arose and destroyed all the seed royal of the house of Judah’, 2 Chr. 22. 10. And Haman attempted to exterminate the whole nation under Persian rule, Esther 3. 6. But men reap what they sow, Gal. 6. 7. Within two years of massacring the young children, Herod died in agony, vv. 15, 19.
Travelling north, when Joseph ‘heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee’, where the family settled in Nazareth, vv. 22, 23. Their living in this despised northern town fulfilled the general tenor of Old Testament prophecies which foresaw Messiah’s humility. 6
Israel’s experiences in Egypt and the wilderness anticipated Christ
|Close relationship with God.||‘Israel is my son, even my firstborn’, Exod. 4. 22.||‘This is my beloved Son’, Matt. 3. 17.
|While in Egypt was the target of murderous intent.||Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill Jewish sons, Exod. 1. 16.||Herod ‘slew all the children that were in Bethlehem
. . . from two years old and under’, Matt. 2. 16.
|Water baptism on leaving Egypt.||‘All the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt . . . baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the [Red] sea’, Exod. 12. 41; 1 Cor. 10. 2.||‘Out of Egypt have I called my son . . . He was baptized’, Hos. 11. 1; Matt. 2. 15; 3. 16.
|Prolonged wilderness testing.||For forty years God ‘suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna
. . . that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live’, Deut. 8. 2, 3.
|After forty days ‘He was . . . an hungred . . . the tempter . . . said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread’. In response He quoted Deut. 8. 3; Matt. 4. 1-4.
|Failure versus victory in the wilderness.||
Committed idolatry and tempted Christ, 1 Cor. 10. 7, 9.
|Refused to worship the devil or tempt God, Matt. 4. 5-10.
1 1 Sam. 16. 4, 12, 13; 2 Sam. 7. 8; John 7. 42.
2 J. Hall, Contemplations on the historical passages of the Old and New Testaments, 3 vols., Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, Vol. 3, pg. 31.
3 See Exod. 30. 34-38; Lev. 2. 1, 2; S. of S. 3. 6.
4 Ibid, pg. 40.
5 Ibid, pg. 44.
6 See Ps. 22. 6-8, 13; 69. 8, 20, 21; Isa. 49. 7; 53. 2, 3.