Drippings from the Honeycomb - Episode 2

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Did the children of Israel really know how to understand and interpret ancient prophecy?

Ancient People Understood Prophecy

Today we’re going to take a look at Matthew 2:5. That reads, “they told him in Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet.” There’s quite a story that surrounds this little statement made by the religious leaders of Israel to King Herod. This ties hand in hand with the well-known story of the foreign magi who came to visit Jesus sometime after His birth. These men were wise men, soothsayers, astrologers, who came from pagan lands, they were people who observe the sky. They were paid by foreign kings, by pagan kings, to interpret the future, and in their studies and their quest for seeking knowledge, they had clearly interacted with the ancient Scriptures, the Old Testament.


While looking through these Old Testament Scriptures, they had come across the stories of a Redeemer of a Messiah that was going to come for the nation of Israel. Through their reading and studying, they had identified this idea that an event was going to happen in the heavens, a star was going to appear that would announce the birth of this coming King. And you have to remember that, to see it through the eyes of the Wise Men, the ancient Magi, you have to see it from a Pagan perspective. They were not worshipers of the one true God, they did not follow the Scriptures, the Old Testament the way Israel did, they didn’t partake in that sacrificial system or do anything like that. They were looking at these prophecies as outsiders, but they saw from the prophecies even through their polytheistic approach, that in the religion of the Jews, at some point, this great Messiah was going to appear.


So, when the star Herald in Jesus’s birth showed up in the skies, they understood this as a marker that the Messiah had come. And they put a lot of confidence in their ability to read these prophecies because they took a long journey. This was not just some king, this was a big event in their opinion. They took a long journey, possibly as long as several years to journey from their homelands, to see this king that was foretold, that they had read about in the Hebrew Scriptures, and this scene in Matthew two picks it up where they enter the court of King Herod.


Understanding Judean Politics in the Time of Jesus

Now, you have to understand that King Herod is a puppet king for the Romans. He’s not a true Israelite. He’s actually what is called an Edomite. He’s a descendant of Esau. So according to God, he’s not even eligible to sit on the throne of Israel. He’s not a true Israelite king, he is just an extension of Roman power, and because of this, he’s very much disliked by the Israelite people.


However, if you’re a dignitary from another country, and you’ve traveled a long way, and you’re looking for a baby that was born that is going to be the king, it makes sense that you would start in the royal palace. Kings would have been born to kings, so, you would start with the king in the palace, and you would go from there, and so they come to King Herod, to his court. And of course, in our tradition, there are three wise men, because there were three gifts, but we don’t know how many there were, there could have been many more, but this entourage of wise men come into the court of King Herod and they asked him, “Where is this child who was born King of the Jews?”


Now, this is news to Herod. Herod has sons already. So, as far as he’s concerned, his line is preserved, but they seem to be talking about a different king, and Herod immediately understands that they are talking about something bigger, they are talking about a Messiah. So, he does what is most natural to do, he consults the religious leaders of the time, and he asks them, “where is this Messiah to be born?” Now, one of the greatest arguments for the truth of Jesus and His ministry is that through his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus fulfilled many prophecies, ancient prophecies, the newest of which would have been 400 to 500 years old, going all the way back to the very beginning, where God prophesied that the seed of the woman would conquer the serpent.


The Prophecy of the Messiah Goes Back Thousands of Years

All the way from Genesis 3, we immediately begin to see prophecy that there will be a coming Messiah and this prophetic line carries all the way through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the beginning of Israel; all the way through the Israelite kings, and through the promise that David would have a son that would eventually sit on the throne of Israel forever. It’s written About by the prophets, it’s looked forward to by the people, so, when a group of foreign wise man show up and ask, “where is he who was born King of the Jews,” immediately Herrod goes to the religious leaders.


Now, in order for the religious leaders to actually be able to answer this question, they would have had to understand prophecy. They would have had to been able to read it, to interpret it, to understand it, and to apply it to current events. Since we know that ultimately the Israelite nation at the time of Jesus rejected Him as their Messiah, it makes the question very relevant, “were they actually able to correctly identify critical details about the Messiah who was prophesied to come for Israel?” And Matthew, in his Gospel, Matthew in particular, focuses heavily on Jesus’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy. It’s really no surprise that Matthew started out with the genealogy of Jesus, because he was building this case for who Jesus was, and then immediately, here in the very beginning of chapter two, Matthew shows that the religious leadership of Israel had a firm grasp on the interpretation of prophecy.


What these religious leaders are pointing to is a prophecy that is found in Micha, and they are saying that Bethlehem, despite being a small town in Judah, is not going to be the least of the towns of Judah, because out of it will come a ruler that will shepherd the people of Israel. This is very Messianic language. The religious leaders of Israel definitely understood that this prophecy was pointing to the Messiah.


Ancient Israel was Committed to Seeking Truth

Now, ultimately, we today have the benefit of hindsight, and we can look back at the life of Jesus, and we can look back at the way the apostles applied the Scriptures and the prophecies to Jesus’s life. We can even look back at the way that Jesus applied some of the prophetic language of the Old Testament to His own life, and that gives us a really clear understanding that the religious leaders were not wrong; they actually had a very good grasp on what the prophets were talking about, on what the signs of the coming Messiah were going to be, and on what they should be looking for while they waited for the Messiah.


But there’s more to the story than just that! It’s important to remember that in 586 BC, the final conquest of Judah and Jerusalem take place, and Babylon carries off the bulk of the people into exile, and Israel as a nation, this nation that had been set up by God in this place, that had seen the glorious reigns of David and Solomon, is now no more. The splendor of the temple that Solomon built and had coated in gold, and all the beautiful vessels that the priests had served with, where the offerings had taken place every day to the Lord; it’s over, it’s destroyed, and the nation of Israel is taken away from its homeland.


And some of the prophets especially Isaiah had prophesied about this coming ruin because Israel was serving the Lord with their hands, but not with their heart. In other words, they were carrying out a very legalistic form of ritual religion. They were not serving God with their hearts, they were sinful, even though they were living according to the ceremonial law, so that God was very angry with them, and He took them off the land, and He put them in exile in Babylon. Then, after about 75 to 100 years, He brought them back slowly to the land of Israel, and that post-exilic Israel is where Jesus came to, and in the writings of the prophets, they talked a lot about this coming Messiah who was going to come and liberate the nation of Israel. They weren’t going to need to rely on foreign allies, they weren’t going to need to fear foreign conquest anymore, because they were going to have this permanent, eternal King, who was going to sit on the throne forever, and rule over them and bring peace, and they were going to be the envy of the whole world.


And the contingent of people that came back, led by people like Zerubbabel, and Nehemiah, and they rebuilt the temple, and they rebuilt the walls; they were very strict in their commitment to following God. They said, “This is how we got here, we ended up getting taken off the land and put in captivity because we sinned against God, and so we need to covenant that we’re going to follow the laws of God, and we’re going to hope in the words of the prophets that have told us that this great Savior is coming. This great king is coming, and He’s going to shepherd us and take care of us and restore our nation.”


Vigilant holy living was the goal! The people of Israel had been pursuing the Lord pursuing righteous living, now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they were doing this without sin. There were definitely sin issues, and Jesus pointed this out during His ministry. However, it’s important to put that in the back of your mind, and remember, that when the people of Israel finally come back around 500 BC to the land of Israel, they are determined to get it right this time. They want to wait for their Messiah, they want to be faithful to Him until He comes to rule over them. In fact, the way they were looking forward to their Messiah is not unlike the way committed Christians look forward to the return of Jesus Christ. It was very much the same thing.


Because of this, the nation of Israel was very much inspired to seek the Scriptures to understand the prophecies, and so different sects of religious Israelites formed. These groups committed their lives to the ritual and dedicated study of the Scriptures, they copied the scriptures, they studied the scriptures, they prayed, they worshiped, they followed God’s law with their whole heart, and they sought the Lord constantly. Some of these groups you even know about if you’ve heard about things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, that particular religious sect was at a place called Qumran and they were looking forward to God’s return so much so that they committed themselves wholeheartedly their entire lives, forsaking all other earthly pursuits, to the study of the prophecies and the Scriptures, so it’s not difficult to see that the nation of Israel was very much looking forward to the Messiah.


The Human Sin Condition Overwhelms Human-centered Efforts of Righteous Living

Now as time went on, of course, the human heart is wicked, and if it’s focused only on works, sin begins to creep in. So, when Jesus comes on the scene, he finds Pharisees that are shepherding the people for their own gain, that have made laws that are very oppressive and are not part of Scripture. They are not really fulfilling their true calling as shepherds.


In addition to that, Jesus also came to find a nation that was completely under the thumb of Roman rule. Rome was oppressing them, the Israelites had been very rebellious under the Roman culture, for obvious reasons, they had rejected the polytheistic worship of the Romans, including refusing to worship the Caesar as a god, and this had caused constant friction between Rome and Judea. This was a very trying time. The people of Israel were desperate for a second type of Moses to come and rescue them, and so, yes, they had a very solid understanding of the prophecies, they were looking at the prophecies, they were researching the prophecies, they were hoping in these prophecies; this was an all-encompassing passion for the nation of Israel, because they had no way out from under the thumb of Rome. They couldn’t compete with them militarily. They couldn’t compete with them economically. They were being held down by what we would refer to today as economic sanctions; heavy taxes by the Roman government, and they were being ruled by people who were supposedly Jews, connected to the nation of Israel but were really just puppets of Roman authority, like Herod, or like even people like the tax collectors, who Matthew used to be, and who sold out their people to collect taxes for the Roman crown.


And so, the nation of Israel is harried, they’re harassed, they’re discouraged, they’re torn down, and they are clinging to the Old Testament Scriptures, desperately seeking for their Messiah, looking for a sign of Him. So, when these foreigners ride into town, and they are asking where the Messiah is to be born, this should have been an immediate clue to the religious leadership that the Messiah had come.


The Human Heart is Predisposed to Reject God

It wasn’t like the star was hard to see, they found it in the heavens, and it says that when they left the palace, the star moved and went ahead of them and stood over the house where Jesus was. This is not something that was concealed. The Israelite religious leadership should have seen this. They were intimately acquainted with the prophecies, they knew what to look for, and they should have noticed what was happening around them, they should have seen the fulfillments, they should have known what was going to take place.


And so, this little verse tucked here in the very beginning of Matthew 2 is extremely important, because it sets the tone that the Jewish leaders knew that their Messiah was coming. They knew how to understand and interpret the prophecies. They knew what to look for and to identify the Messiah. Yet, in spite of all of that, they missed the signs that were identified by the pagan wise men, and when the pagan wise men brought these signs to their attention, they ignored them.