Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’” (Matt 2:1-6)
The Little Drummer Boy has always been one of my very favorite Christmas carols to sing with my children. But, of course, we all hopefully know that there is no actual drummer boy in the Biblical narrative surrounding Jesus’ birth and early years. Thus, the best way to approach this song is through the lens of the who traveled from the East to visit the “king of the Jews” in Matthew 2.
Come they told me
A newborn King to see
Our finest gifts we bring
To lay before the King
Because we’ve all grown up with the Magi often presented as three kings from the Orient who appear beside the shepherds at the manger of Christ in every Nativity we’ve ever seen, before we do anything else, we need to unpack the actual Biblical narrative of the Magi and rewrite the story many of us have in our minds concerning these gift-bringers who travelled west to meet the King of kings. The most common misconceptions surrounding this event in Scripture are who these visitors were, where they came from, how many there were, when they met Jesus, and why they were important (so, yeah, pretty much everything about them).
First of all, these men were not necessarily kings themselves. Matthew does not use the language of kings or even wise men in the original text, even though some translations use those words. They were likely aristocrats or nobles because they were obviously very wealthy, given the gifts they brought and the resources it took for them to travel as they did. And they were probably also considered wise men in their time, particularly in a secular sense. But the Scripture calls them Magi, or the Greek word magoi, which means astrologers or sorcerers of a sacred (pagan) caste, and was the language often used for interpreters of astrological phenomenon or dreams at that point in history.
The Magi also weren’t from the “Orient,” as the popular Christmas song suggests. Matthew only describes them as coming “from the east,” but many believe that they came from the area of Babylonia, and were Parthian noblemen and Magi. Tradition and popular songs speak of exactly three Magi who visited Israel, probably because of the number of gifts mentioned, but Scripture doesn’t actually say how many there were in this company of men. Church history mostly disagrees with the number three; some say there were two, some say eight, and still others say up to twelve. Personally, I lean toward it being greater numbers like twelve, but the truth is that we just don’t know for sure because the Bible doesn’t make it clear.
Lastly, the Magi didn’t actually visit Jesus on the night of His birth, regardless of what the Nativity scene on your mantle or the Christmas play at your church suggests. Matthew 2:1 reads, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem… Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem,” and they asked, “Where is the King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” Then word reaches Herod, who assembles all of his advisers and consults with the Magi themselves, and sends them on to Bethlehem. All of this indicates a time gap that would be impossible to fit into the actual night of Jesus’ birth. What we know for sure from the text of Matthew is that it had to be sometime after Jesus was born and before He was two years old, because Herod eventually kills all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under (Mt 2:16-18).
So sometime after Jesus was born, whether weeks or months or even sometime within the first year or so, these wealthy interpreters of astrological phenomenon and kingmakers, who were also obviously familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and the promised Messiah to Israel, saw a star in the east and connected that star with the arrival of the King of the Jews. Thus, they packed up their entourage and expensive gifts, and they traveled to the land of Israel. Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for foreign dignitaries to travel far to visit new rulers and bestow gifts upon them. We know from historians that this happened with Herod the Great, and Magi were even noted in the group that visited Nero with gifts recognizing his leadership and authority.
The first place these Magi from the east visited was Jerusalem. There, they asked where this King of the Jews was, expecting that His people in Israel would have already recognized that their Messiah had been born unto them. Of course, they hadn’t, and this is why the Magi’s visit to Jerusalem caused such a stir. Matthew tells us that “all Jerusalem was troubled,” and we can’t miss the reality of the impact these men would have made there. Their visit was a huge deal because it was so overtly political in its implications. These wealthy, wise foreign dignitaries who were known to read and understand the signs of the times (and back then, astrological wonders were often connected to huge political shifts and realities) had come to say that the Promised King of Israel had arrived, and somehow everyone in Israel had missed it. Furthermore, Herod was already the king of that area, and this news would’ve meant that he and his entire family would be overthrown as its rulers. This is why Herod reacted with such fear and called the Magi, the other leaders in Israel, and his advisers together to try to figure out exactly what was going on, and ultimately why he later carried out such a profoundly evil act as killing all the infant males in Bethlehem.
After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their own country by another way. (Mt 2:9-12)
At last, the Magi followed the star and the words of the prophets all the way to Bethlehem and to the very home of Joseph, Mary, and the Child Christ. These wealthy, powerful pagan men saw Jesus and fell to the ground to worship Him, something the seraphim and angels of eternity past had always done, but no one else in Israel or on the earth, with the exception of the lowly shepherds, had realized they should do since His arrival. The Light was shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (Jn 1:5). He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, but the world did not recognize Him (Jn 1:10). He came to His own, and they did not receive Him (Jn 1:11).
And then, the Magi opened the riches of their treasures to Jesus and to His family, and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Don’t read past the richness and beauty of this narrative in Matthew 2 as though it’s just another ordinary detail surrounding Jesus’ birth that you’ve heard your entire life. It is profoundly significant. As these pagan dignitaries bowed before Jesus in worship and extravagance, we see, in one powerful scene, a devastating indictment of Israel’s dullness and blindness to the coming of the Lord and the Messiah, and a prophetic glimpse into the way the gospel would be received and welcomed by the nations of the earth.
These Magi were foreshadowing Jesus’ rightful inheritance in the nations as the King of kings and Lord of lords, and we are part of that inheritance. Not unlike the little drummer boy in this popular Christmas carol, we may not have what we believe to be “the finest gifts” to bring to Jesus. But Jesus isn’t looking for frankincense, gold, and myrrh anymore; He just wants you. He wants all of you. He wants your mind, your will, your emotions, your soul, and your strength. He wants your heart and all of your affections. He wants your time and devotion. He wants your gifts and your first fruits.
He wants us to choose the better part, the one necessary thing of beholding His face and hearing His words, so that we are willing to pour our very inheritance out at His feet for the sake of love and for the sake of His name. When we see Him rightly and when we recognize the love, the goodness, and the beauty of His heart revealed through the Incarnation, the Cross, and all of Creation, the only reasonable response we should have is to fall before Him in worship and open the treasure chest of our extravagant devotion at His feet. And that’s when we get to my favorite part of this particular song… His smile. When I imagine this scene in Matthew 2 with the Magi bowing low before Jesus as a child and offering Him their gifts, I always imagine Him laughing and smiling back at them.
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for Him
I played my best for Him
Then He smiled at me
When we come to the Lord through the gift of salvation, and beyond that, when we come to Him with the entirety of our worship and affections, we are stumbling into the “fullness of joy” that the Bible speaks of both in God’s heart and in our own. This Christmas, as you ponder the wonder and glory of the Incarnation, fall to your knees and worship Him. Bring all of your resources to His feet and pour out your love in worship and loving obedience in His presence. And then, look up and behold the smile of God over your life and love poured out. Know that He delights in you when you delight yourself in Him, and drink from the cup of the fullness of His joy.