In their 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme American artists Simon and Garfunkel made a profound comment on the turbulent nature of the 1960’s. In their song “Silent Night/7 O' Clock News”, they juxtaposed the classic Christmas hymn against a summery of headlines highlighting the societal unrest rampant in the United States of the 1960’s. It’s a poignant piece of art. After all, Silent Night is the personification of a better, simpler, more peaceful day, right? I actually don’t think so. In fact, Jesus wasn’t born into a silent night. He was born into a world in turmoil full or perverse leaders, societal unrest, and rampant injustice. In fact, Jesus’ birth directly caused a travesty of its own affecting the most innocent citizens of first century Judea, the Israelite children.
Rather than a lengthy scholarly article filled with quotes from Josephus and the like, I would like to tell you a story. It starts long ago and far away in ancient Babylon.
Long before the birth of Christ and before Rome ruled the world an far away from their home, Israel, God’s chosen people, was in captivity in the land of Babylon. The Babylonian captivity was God’s punishment upon His people but even then He did not abandon them. Even within the rebellious nation of Israel, righteousness endured. A young man named Daniel was kidnapped and forced into the service of the king Nebuchadnezzar. Even under the tutelage of Babylonian teachers, Daniel stood his ground. He learned all he could about Babylonian philosophy and literature but remained true to his God. God blessed Daniel’s efforts and Nebuchadnezzar placed him over the Babylonian sorcerers. Daniel passed down his wisdom and shared Jewish philosophy and religious beliefs with the Babylonian philosophers and wise men.
Despite the rise and fall of empires, Jewish teachings were still taught at the school of philosophy that Daniel founded including a prophesy of a King to come. A sect of this school endured for over a hundred and fifty years. After over a century, the eastern magi (wise men) still watched and waited for the Jewish prophesy to come to pass. Three astrologers, in particular, Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, pored over the ancient wisdom from Daniel and awaited the coming King. One day, a vibrant star appeared in the West. The trio was overjoyed at this appearance and immediately realized that it heralded the arrival of this Jewish King. Hurriedly they packed their bags and began the long trek across the mighty Roman Empire. This trek would take them over a year but they knew their destination. This King would be King of the Jews. This king must be born in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel.
The “King” of the Jews
On the throne of Israel, Herod the Great sat. He was nearing the end of his reign. In poor health, he knew that his life was coming to a close. As known for his cruelty as his allegiance to the Roman Empire, he was an unpopular king with his people. He was once popular for renovating the Jewish temple but this popularity was quickly lost when he had the audacity to place a golden eagle (the symbol of imperial Rome) on top. When two Jewish scholars removed and destroyed the eagle, he showed no mercy and executed them both. When a group of Jews attacked a group of Roman soldiers in protest, the military response was swift and brutal. The Roman cavalry killed 3000 Jewish men and the remaining crowd retreated to their homes. Even the boldest Jews dared not venture outside their homes to celebrate their sacred holiday.
Notorious for his paranoid and vengeful nature, he murdered his own wife, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother in an act of rage. At the end of his life, what mattered most to Herod was that his son should succeed Him to the throne.
It was on to this stage that Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior unwittingly stepped. Nearing the end of their journey, they hoped that, of all people, Herod and his advisors would be aware of the coming King. The Magi’s words cut Herod to the quick, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” With this question, Herod saw his life’s goals flash before his eyes. What of his sons? If this child was really the Messiah, destined to be the King of the Jews, his regime was threatened. He did, however, know that there were Jewish prophecies concerning this coming child.
Desperately, he demanded that the chief priests and scribes (experts in the Jewish law) discover where this Messiah was to be born. Finally, they returned with an answer, Bethlehem in Judah. Herod began to spin a devious web. He shared this location with the three magi and told them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” The wise men joyfully departed for Bethlehem and Herod waited for their return.
The Sleeping Messiah
Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph had settled in Bethlehem with their young son as Joseph had been able to eek out a modest living as a carpenter. The events of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth had begun to fade into distant memory. Aside from an unusually healthy and obedient child, the last year had been mundane.
One day, as the small family sat in their home, a knock sounded at the door. Joseph opened it to find three foreign men in regal clothes. Melchior smiled down at Joseph, “Good sir, where is the child who is born King of the Jews? We have come far and the star has led us to this home.” Joseph was dumbfounded but let the trio into his home. When Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior saw Baby Jesus, sleeping soundly in Mary’s arms, they fell to their knees and began to worship Him with much joy. Each produced a package and presented it to Jesus. Caspar presented a jar of gold, “A gift fit for a king” he said. Balthazar brought forward a box of the spice frankincense, “A gift for the greatest priest” he whispered. Melchior laid before Jesus a small package of myrrh, “An embalming spice, for the King who has come to die for his people,” he sorrowfully explained.
Mary and Joseph bowed before the trio and thanked them for their generosity and invited them to spend the night. The Magi, exhausted from their long journey, gladly accepted the family’s hospitality. They planned to return to Herod in the morning and bring him news of the child King. However, that night, all three had a vivid dream. An angel came to each of the magi and warned them not to return to Herod. When they woke up and compared dreams, the wisely decided to return to the east by another route.
Flight to Egypt
Soon thereafter an angel came to Joseph in a dream, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you,” he warned, “for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph woke up Mary and told her of his dream. Quickly, they packed their meager possessions and fled to Egypt with their young son.
The King Strikes Back
Back in Jerusalem Herod learned of the magi’s betrayal, he was enraged. He summoned the captain of his guards and dispatched a vile order. “Go to Bethlehem. Kill all the male children two years and younger.” Herod would stop at no lengths to preserve his lineage. That night, Bethlehem was filled with tears as the soldiers carried out their orders. While God’s son slept peacefully on his journey to Egypt, many other mothers and fathers lost their sons and sisters and brothers lost their siblings as innocent children lost their hands at the hands of Roman soldiers. The cry of their voices echoed into the sky and reverberated in the cathedrals of Heaven as a mighty lament flew heavenward as Bethlehem mourned for her children.
A Not-So Silent Night
As Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt and the cries of Bethlehem shook the heavens, the hope of creation slept soundly in Mary’s arms. This is the story of the Wisemen, pieced together from Scripture, legends, scholarly pursuits, and my own imagination. The events surrounding the magi’s visit to Jesus was not a silent night. Jesus was born into a world filled with pain and suffering, atrocities and murders, evil and sorrow. The world into which the Savior of the world was born wasn’t too different from our own. This small child would live a perfect life, teach for several years, and be killed unjustly by the hands of those He came to save.
But, like so many moments in the story of the magi, the story didn’t end there! As He died on the cross, Jesus took upon Him the punishment for the sins of humanity. Jesus, fully God and fully man, holy and righteous, Creator and sustainer of the world, died for the sins of Herod and the Wisemen and his earthly parents. Jesus died so that you and I can be saved from ourselves. But the story kept going! Jesus rose again, defeating death and claiming the keys to death, Hell, and the grave. That tiny baby saved from death by God, saved the world by His death on the cross. This is the story of Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t a silent night. It was a night leading up to pain and suffering, agony and death. But it was a Holy night that set in motion God’s plan to save humanity. Marry Christmas everyone! God has and will bless us, every one!
Special thanks to pastor John Piper for writing this poem which inspired this blog article.