One phrase from Matthew’s Christmas story stands out to me as I meditate on the Christmas story this year. Matthew says of the Magi’s appearance and words with Herod that, not only Herod, but “all of Jerusalem” was “troubled.” At first glance, this strikes me as odd. Certainly it is understandable that King Herod should be upset about the possibility of a rival to his throne, but all of Jerusalem? Weren’t they waiting for a Messiah, someone who would deliver them from Rome and also Herod, Rome’s puppet-king? For our family devotions, we have recently been reading through the prophet Jeremiah and a scenario that he describes came to mind and brought illumination to this passage in Matthew’s gospel.
In the story found in Jeremiah (Chapter 40-42), Judah is facing judgment for their idolatry and refusal to repent. Israel (the ten northern tribes) had already been taken into captivity for their idolatry. But now their sister Judah (and the tribe of Benjamin) was facing judgement because she had worship the gods of the pagan nations as well and now those gods have come to take them and make them slaves in their own lands. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, was on his way to sack the city and take away all the royalty and nobles of the land and to leave nothing but the poorest of the poor behind to keep the land from growing wild. This was a devastating scenario for a nation who believed that God had called them to be the “light of the world” and the “city set on a hill”. Their father Abraham was told that, in his family, “all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” And their father, King David, was told by God that all nations will be placed underneath his feet (Psalm 110). But if Judah has become the slave and the whipping boy of the nations, even risking being swallowed up entirely by a pagan culture, how was God going to make good on His promises? Judah being made slaves by pagans in a foreign land was simply not an acceptable scenario. However, while many prophets had said that God would not allow Judah to be surrendered to Babylon, Jeremiah and a few other prophets had been saying that was not the case. God was very angry with Judah and they were going to head into exile to atone for their sins. Therefore, Jeremiah counseled the people not to rebel against the king of Babylon but rather to surrender to him and it would go much easier for them. The trouble for the Judeans at this time was deciding which prophet to believe. The promises made to the fathers was that they would be a great nation with all the other nations bowing down to them (see Psalm 2). How could God now be sending them into exile? Then again, the difference between Judah and the nations around them was getting thinner all the time. Judah was not faithful to the one true God. Why should Judah imagine that God wouldn’t punish her? Naturally, the prophet who suffered for his message was Jeremiah. The other prophets predicted that God would “break the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:11) and Israel would be delivered. The prophet who suffers for his message is likely the prophet who speaks with integrity. But the difficulty of the situation for a devote Judean (if there was one at the time, of which Jeremiah testifies that there was not! Jeremiah 5:1-6) was the fact that Jeremiah recommended surrender and even commanded it as the Word of the Lord. This a message that was likely to be seen as disloyal pacifism or even treason, as well as also running against the grain of the prophetic expectation of the Messiah. Judah was supposed to set the world right, not be dragged into exile by pagan nations! In the end, Jeremiah’s words went unheeded but ultimately were vindicated. Jerusalem was crushed by Babylon and the survivors were dragged off to Babylon and thrown in dungeons. The Judean King Zedekiah suffered a humiliating punishment for his disobedience to Jeremiah’s prophetic words and the nation as a whole was humiliated. Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar sets up his own puppet-King to rule over the poorest of the poor who remained in Jerusalem. Gedaliah was placed as the governor of Judah. Gedaliah told the people of Jerusalem saying, “Do not be afraid of serving the Chaldeans; stay in the land and serve the king of Babylon, that it may go well with you.” Jeremiah 40:9. (Here is a great article about Gedaliah)
The little group of Judeans began to recover and fellow Judeans who had fled to neighboring nations began to trickle back to Jerusalem. Among those who came back was one “Ishmael” of the house (family) of Zedekiah, the rightful king of Israel who was taken captive by the Babylonians. Ishmael was very lucky to have escaped the sword of Nebuchadnezzar, being of the royal family, and he was not a fan of the new king and, commissioned by the rival king of Ammon, plotted to kill Gedaliah. Along with ten other men, Ishmael succeeded in assassinating Babylon’s puppet-king. Ishmael also slew all the other influential men in the community and then made a mad dash for the land of Ammon to hide from the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar. But Gedaliah’s right hand man, Johanan, who managed to escape the slaughter, pursued Ishmael, struck him down, and recovered the captives. Johanan then stops to assess the situation. How would the King of Babylon respond to these goings on? Would Johanan and the remaining Judeans face charges of conspiracy against Gedaliah or would Nebuchadnezzar believe their story of avenging Gedaliah’s blood and being loyal to Babylon? Johanan and the remaining Israelites consult the prophet Jeremiah on the matter and Jeremiah flatly says, “Don’t seek refuge in Egypt. That will be a disaster for you. Rather, trust that it will go well with you in the eyes of the king of Babylon.” But Johanan and the rest of the Judeans say “no thank you” and flee to Egypt. In a short amount of time, as Jeremiah predicted, Nebuchadnezzar invades Egypt and the Judeans who sought refuge there are once again caught and punished by the King of Babylon. In Matthew’s day, King Herod was ruling over Judea. Herod was a Jew but not from the royal family of David. Herod was given his position because he was a successful war-lord and Rome supported him. He was puppet-king, a Rome governor with Jewish blood, an imposter to the throne of David in the eyes of many. But he was also stability of a sort. There were many varied opinions in the day of Jesus’ birth concerning the navigation of Israel’s future and well-being. There were those who clung to the promises made to Abraham and who longed for the Messiah to come and set the world right. But there were also those who wanted to keep “well-enough” alone. Israel was in their land, they had a Temple again and they even had a “king of the Jews”, maybe they should be content and maybe, some even fooled themselves, Herod is actually the King we have been waiting for. It is my understanding that Herod spent a great deal of time and money dressing up the Temple in an effort to legitimate his claim to the throne in the eyes of devote Jews and maybe even in his own eyes. The prophets did say that one day Israel would return to Jerusalem and the proper worship in the Temple would be restored. So, if Herod could restore the Temple, maybe he really was what Israel was waiting for? But seemingly out of left field, foreign astrologers or magicians arrive claiming that the stars had told them about the birth of a new King of the Jews. Naturally, they went to the royal palace to find this child, but there was no child there to match the description. Naturally, this would make “all of Jerusalem troubled”. The birth of a new would-be king of the Jews meant upheaval, it meant conspiracy, it meant possible retribution from Rome. This is dynamite. By the standards of the times, maybe you wouldn’t blame Herod for the action he takes in slaughtering all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, in the same line of the thought as the High Priest Caiaphas would articulate a few decades later: better a few children die than the whole nation perish with the retribution of Rome. These times were dynamite in the land of Judah. Matthew has an interesting way of putting all these events in context with the use of the prophets. And this again throws us back to Jeremiah and the story of Israel. Joseph and Mary are told in a dream to flee to Egypt and to hide there. Whereas before God warned Israel (or Judah) NOT to flee to Egypt, this time Joseph and Mary are commanded to go! Matthew says that this happened to fulfill what the Lord said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Matthew 2:15, Hosea 11:1) And the slaughter of the boys in Bethlehem throws Matthew again back onto the prophet Jeremiah who spoke about the invasion of Babylon into Judah in these terms: “There was heard a voice in Rama, Crying and loud lamentation. Rachel is weeping for her children, And will not let anyone comfort her; Because they are no more.” Matthew seems to be saying that Jesus, the Messiah, the one who represents the entire nation of Israel, will begin His work of redemption and of rescue right from the first breaths of His life as he shares in the long and suffering story of Israel by heading into exile and sharing in the plight of Israel’s early days in Egypt and of their nightmare of exile into Babylon. Jesus is driven at sword point into Egypt because of the power of a pagan nation’s puppet-king, so that God could call Him out of Egypt to complete the work for which Abraham was called out of the land of Ur to do in the first place. Jesus early days in the world are just a hint of the storm that was about to break. And here comes Jesus, walking out on it’s waves possessing a quiet but powerful authority to say “be still.” This is what Christmas is all about.