11 This verse plainly alludes to Psalm 72:10–11 and Isaiah 60:6, passages that reinforce the emphasis on the Gentiles (see comments at v. 6). Nolan’s suggestion (Royal Son of God, 206–9) that the closest parallel is Isaiah 39:1–2 is linguistically attractive but contextually weak. The evidence that Hezekiah served as an eschatological figure is poor and fails to explain why he should be opening up his treasure store to his visitors. Some time had elapsed since Jesus’ birth (Mt 2:7, 16), and the family was settled in a house. While the Magi saw both the child and his mother, their worship (see comments at v. 2) was for him alone.
Bringing gifts was particularly important in the ancient East when approaching a superior (cf. Ge 43:11; 1 Sa 9:7–8; 1 Ki 10:2). Usually such gifts were reciprocated (Derrett, Studies in the New Testament, 2:28). That is not mentioned here, but a first-century reader might have assumed it and seen the Great Commission (28:18–20) as leading to its abundant fruition. Frankincense is a glittering, odorous gum obtained by making incisions in the bark of several trees; myrrh exudes from a tree found in Arabia and a few other places and was a much-valued spice and perfume (Ps 45:8; SS 3:6) used in embalming (Jn 19:39). Commentators, ancient (Origen, Cels. 1.60) and modern (Hendriksen), have found symbolic value in the three gifts—gold suggesting royalty, incense divinity, and myrrh the passion and burial. This interpretation demands too much insight from the Magi. The three gifts were simply expensive and not uncommon presents and may have helped finance the trip to Egypt. The word “treasures” probably means “coffers” or “treasure boxes” in this context.
11 The mention of a “house” is often supposed either to contradict Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth in a stable or to indicate a sufficient time-lapse to allow the family to relocate to better quarters in Bethlehem. It is, however, becoming increasingly recognized that the “stable” owes more to Western misunderstanding than to Luke, who speaks only of a “manger.” In a normal Palestinian home of the period the mangers would be found not in a separate building but on the edge of the raised family living area where the animals, who were brought into the lower section of the one-room house at night, could conveniently reach them. The point of Luke’s mention of the manger is not therefore that Jesus’ birth took place outside a normal house, but that in that particular house the “guest-room”61 was already occupied (by other census visitors?) so that the baby was placed in the most comfortable remaining area, a manger on the living-room floor. There is therefore no reason why they should not be in the same “house” when Matthew’s magi arrive.
In view of the prominence of Joseph throughout the rest of Matthew’s infancy stories, it is remarkable that here only Mary is mentioned as being with the child—indeed Joseph is not mentioned in the story of the magi at all. This suggests that this pericope does not come from the same source as 1:18–25 and 2:13–23, all of which is told as Joseph’s story, but from an independent tradition, even though it provides the essential basis for the family’s flight and Herod’s infanticide in the following pericopes. Note that the phrase “the child and his mother” will recur in 2:13, 14, 20, 21, in each case with the child mentioned first, as here, but in all those other cases they are the object of Joseph’s action, not mentioned independently of him as here.
We do not know what social position these magi held, but it was sufficient for them to have felt it appropriate to go to visit a new-born king, and to have been given an audience with the king in Jerusalem. For these foreign dignitaries to prostrate themselves in homage before a child in an ordinary house in Bethlehem is a remarkable illustration of the reversal of the world’s values which will become such a prominent feature of the Messiah’s proclamation of the kingdom of heaven (18:1–5; 20:25–28 etc.). Their gifts are those of the affluent: gold then as now the symbol of ultimate value, and exotic spices which would not normally come within the budget of an ordinary Jewish family. Frankincense (which came from Southern Arabia and Somalia) was an expensive perfume, and was burned not only in worship but at important social occasions; for its non-religious use (with myrrh) see Song 3:6; 4:6, 14; cf. Sir 24:15. Despite the symbolism traditionally discerned in the gifts of the magi since the time of Irenaeus (gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity and myrrh for death and burial—the latter based on John 19:39) myrrh too was primarily used as a luxurious cosmetic fragrance (Esth 2:12; Ps 45:8; Prov 7:17; Song 1:13; 5:1,5). These are luxury gifts, fit for a king. The reader who knows the OT stories cannot fail to be reminded of the visit of the Queen of Sheba with her gifts of “gold and a great quantity of spices” to the son of David in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 10:1–10), and of the imagery which that visit provided for subsequent depictions of the homage of the nations to the Jewish Messiah (Ps 72:10–11, 15; Isa 60:5–6).
The journey of the wise men reaches its climax in verse 11. Having entered the house they saw the little child with Mary his mother, and they cast themselves to the ground and worshiped him. Nativity scenes depict the arrival of the wise men. Often, however, they are shown standing, or kneeling down, in the company of the shepherds, and in a stable. This is obviously incorrect. According to the evangelist Luke, when the shepherds arrive the babe is still “lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16). They come at once, that very night (Luke 2:8, 15). The little family, Joseph, Mary, and the child, continues to live in relative poverty for at least forty days, as is evident from Luke 2:22–24; cf. Lev. 12:2–8. If the wise men from the east, bringing precious gifts, had arrived within this period of forty days, then, on the fortieth day Mary’s purification offering would probably have been something better than “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.” It is clear that Joseph and his family had left the inn stable, perhaps very soon after the child’s birth, certainly before the arrival of the wise men. They are now no longer staying in an animal shelter but living in a building for human beings (with some relatives?). With well-nigh unanimity translators agree with the rendering, (the wise men) “having entered the house,” or something similar.175
Having entered, the wise men see “the little child with Mary his mother.” Note that whenever mother and infant are mentioned together (verses 11, 13, 14, 20, and 21) the infant is always mentioned first. It is that little child upon whom the main interest is concentrated. This is as it should be, for in this little one God has become incarnate:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’Incarnate Deity. (Charles Wesley)
How much of this truth the wise men understood we do not know. We do know, though, that on seeing him they cast themselves to the ground and worshiped him; literally, “and having fallen they prostrated themselves before them.” They revere him as the Messiah, the king of the Jews.
It is true that the verb used in the original and here rendered “worshiped” does not always indicate an act of reverence paid to God, the Creator and Redeemer. Sometimes it is the creature—Peter (Acts 10:25); or the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:9)—rather than the Creator, to whom homage is rendered. But when this is done these are regarded as standing in close relation to God, so that God speaks and operates through them. However, if, in such cases, the worshipper fails to draw this distinction, and begins to regard a mere man as if he were on a par with God, he may well receive a reprimand. Thus, when Cornelius falls down at Peter’s feet and worships him, he is told, “Get up; I myself am also but a man” (Acts 10:26). When John, the author of the book of Revelation, falls down in order to worship his angel-guide, he receives a similar warning (Rev. 22:8, 9; cf. 19:10). The magi, however, are not told to desist. They may have made more progress in the true faith than we realize. According to Matt. 2:12 God, who had previously spoken to them by means of a star and (indirectly) by means of Micah, also speaks to them in a dream. Besides, as has been pointed out previously, believers who lived on the very threshold of the new dispensation must have told them about the Messiah to come. Equipped with all this knowledge, sanctified to their hearts as is clear from the entire account, we may well think of them as men who rendered to the Christ-child the type of homage that was in a very real sense acceptable to God. In this child they somehow see God, and worship him!
They have rendered the proper homage. They now offer the appropriate gifts (cf. Ps. 72:10; cf. Isa. 60:3; Ps. 87). We read: Next, they opened their treasure-chests and presented him with gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. They are pictured here as not only wealthy but also warm-hearted and worshipful. These men offer their treasures to him: they are meant for the child to honor him.
In works of exposition one use is at times assigned to each of these presents. There is probably a good reason for this. Nevertheless, it may not be amiss to begin by showing that in general Scripture assigns more than one use to each of these articles.
For example, gold was used extensively in the construction of the tabernacle and its furniture (Exod. 25–31; 35–40) and of the temple and its contents (1 Kings 5–7; 2 Chron. 2–5). Yet, it was by no means limited to holy uses. It was also worn in the form of bracelets (Gen. 24:22), necklaces (Num. 31:50), and earrings (Exod. 32:2, 3). We read about “gods of gold” (Exod. 20:23), one of them being “the golden calf” which Aaron made (Exod. 32:4), though he denied that he “made” it: he merely cast the gold into the fire, “and there came out this calf!” (Exod. 32:24). James tells the stingy rich that their gold and their silver are rusted (5:3). In a vision which John saw gold serves the very unholy purpose of decorating the great harlot (Rev. 17:4, 5); Frequently the word gold is used in comparisons, to teach men that there are things that are far more precious than gold (Ps. 19:10; 119:72, 127; Prov. 8:10, 19).
As to frankincense (literally meaning pure incense), the Old Testament word is derived from a root meaning white. An incision is made in the bark of a certain tree of the genus Boswellia, growing on the limestone rocks of South Arabia and Somalia (E. Africa). The resulting fresh juice has a white or milky color; hence the name. Now frankincense, too, has various uses. It is mentioned in connection with meal offerings (Lev. 2:1, 2, 15, 16) and wedding processions (Song of Sol. 3:6). It also occurs in a list of articles of commerce (Rev. 18:13).
Myrrh was probably derived from a small tree with odoriferous wood, namely, the Balsamodendron of Arabia. It was used for the purpose of perfuming a bed (Prov. 7:17) or a garment (Ps. 45:8). It was prescribed for certain young ladies, to make them more desirable (Esther 2:12). It was also used lavishly in bridal processions (Song of Sol. 3:6). Mingled with wine it served as an anaesthetic (Mark 15:23). Finally, it was used in preparing a body for burial (John 19:39, 40).
This list of various uses is somewhat incomplete as any Concordance will indicate. However, it establishes the point to be noted, namely, that according to Scripture (both Old and New Testament) each of the three gifts brought by the wise men serves more than one purpose. Now if this is true, what justification did Origen (and many after him) have for saying that the magi brought “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to God”? Does not this representation amount to oversimplification? On the surface it would seem that it does. However, another look at the entire list of passages in which these three items are mentioned proves that, to say the least, there is an important element of truth in Origen’s observation. To begin with gold, it is striking how often in Scripture this precious metal is indeed associated with royalty: with the king, the queen, the vice-gerent, and the prince. Joseph, a vice-gerent, wears a gold neck-chain (Gen. 41:42). So does Daniel as third ruler (Dan. 5:7, 29). King Nebuchadnezzar, as the first and greatest in a list of earthly rulers, is represented by a head of gold (Dan. 2:32, 38). Rabbah’s king wears a crown of gold (2 Sam. 12:30). So does the author of Ps. 21, in the superscription identified with David. Princes own gold (Job 3:15). Ps. 45:9 speaks about “the queen, in gold of Ophir.” The one who calls himself “king in Jerusalem” is a collector of gold and silver (Eccl. 2:8). And King Ahasuerus holds out his golden scepter to Queen Esther (Esther 4:11, 5:2; 8:4). As if this were not enough, it can be added that King Solomon not only had drinking vessels of gold and an ivory throne overlaid with gold, but was hemmed in by gold to such an extent that in seven verses descriptive of his wealth (1 Kings 10:14–18, 21, 22) gold is mentioned no less than ten times! We see, therefore, that to anyone acquainted with the books of the Old Testament gold would amost immediately suggest royalty.
As to frankincense, in by far the most of the cases in which this word occurs in the Old Testament it is mentioned in connection with the service of Jehovah. It was stored in a chamber of the sanctuary (1 Chron. 9:29; Neh. 13:5), and is frequently mentioned in connection with meal offerings, as an additive (Lev. 2:1, 2, 15, 16; 6:15). According to Exod. 30:34 it entered as an ingredient into the composition of incense, with respect to which it is specifically stated that it is not for the people but only for Jehovah (Exod. 30:37). In the Old Testament the basic word incense occurs more than one hundred times. In the New Testament it is found in Luke 1:9–11 and Rev. 8:3, 4. Whenever it occurs it has to do with the service of God. In offering incense, burning coals were taken from the altar of burnt offering and placed on the altar of incense, the golden altar that stood in the holy place immediately in front of the holy of holies. On these coals the incense was then sprinkled. The fragrant smoke rising heavenward was symbolical of the prayers and thanksgivings of the people and the priests. The incense was definitely an offering made to God (see Luke 1:9 f.; Rev. 5:8; 8:3). Frankincense, and also incense in general, immediately suggests God, therefore. It belongs to him, to him alone. Even when it is offered to idols, God still calls it “my incense” (Ezek. 16:18). It is clear, therefore, that just as gold and king go together, so do also incense and God.
As to myrrh, in the more than a dozen Old Testament passages where the word occurs it is mentioned in connection with the service of Jehovah in only one instance. It enters into the composition of anointing oil (Exod. 30:22–33). For the rest, as has already been indicated, it was a perfume used by and in the interest of mortal man, to make his life more pleasant, his pain less dreadful, and his burial less repulsive.
It has been established, therefore, that Origen had good reason to say that the magi brought “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to God.”
A famous poet said:
Not what we give, but what we share,—
For the gift without the giver is bare. (Lowell)
Here in Matt. 2 we have an illustration of genuine givers. They did not hesitate to make a long and arduous journey (probably more than a thousand miles) to render homage to him who by most people must have been regarded as merely a little child. He was, moreover, a child of humble birth, belonging to a nation that had lost its freedom. Yet, these important men not only prostrated themselves before him but presented him with gifts that were not only lavish but also definitely appropriate; gold, for he was and is indeed a king—yes, “King of kings and Lord of lords”—frankincense, for he is indeed God—the fulness of the godhead dwells in him—and myrrh, for he is also man, destined for death, and this by his own choice.
How much of this the wise men understood we do not know. Let it suffice to say that their coming, the homage they rendered, and the gifts they offered were acceptable in the eyes of God. Matthew’s main lesson for the Jews who were the first to read his Gospel, or to hear it read to them, must have been to remind them of the fact that salvation, though beginning with the Jews, does not end there. The Gentiles, too, must be won for Christ. The coming of the wise men was indeed a lesson for Jews … and for men of every nationality and race, a lesson to be taken to heart: if even the magi, with their limited knowledge, did this for Christ, then why do we, so highly privileged, fall short?