Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible Volume V (Matthew to John)
Matthew Chapter 2
In this chapter, we have the history of our Saviour's infancy, where we find how early he began to suffer, and that in him the word of righteousness was fulfilled, before he himself began to fulfill all righteousness. Here is, I. The wise men's solicitous enquiry after Christ, ver. 1-8. II. Their devout attendance on him, when they found out where he was, ver. 9-12. III. Christ's flight into Egypt, to avoid the cruelty of Herod, ver. 13-15. IV. The barbarous murder of the infants of Bethlehem, ver. 16-18. V. Christ's return out of Egypt into the land of Israel again, ver. 19-23.
The Wise Men Worship Christ.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
We have here the wise men's humble attendance upon this new-born King of the Jews, and the honours they paid him. From Jerusalem they went to Bethlehem, resolving to seek till they should find; but it is very strange that they went alone; that not one person of the court, church, or city, should accompany them, if not in conscience, yet in civility to them, or touched with a curiosity to see this young prince. As the queen of the south, so the wise men of the east, will rise up in judgment against the men of that generation, and of this too, and will condemn them; for they came from a far country, to worship Christ; while the Jews, his kinsmen, would not stir a step, would not go to the next town to bid him welcome. It might have been a discouragement to these wise men to find him whom they sought thus neglected at home. Are we come so far to honour the King of the Jews, and do the Jews themselves put such a slight upon him and us? Yet they persist in their resolution. Note, We must continue our attendance upon Christ, though we be alone in it; whatever others do, we must serve the Lord; if they will not go to heaven with us, yet we must not go to hell with them. Now,
I. See how they found out Christ by the same star that they had seen in their own country, v. 9, 10. Observe, 1. How graciously God directed them. By the first appearance of the star they were given to understand where they might enquire for this King, and then it disappeared, and they were left to take the usual methods for such an enquiry. Note, Extraordinary helps are not to be expected where ordinary means are to be had. Well, they had traced the matter as far as they could; they were upon their journey to Bethlehem, but that is a populous town, where shall they find him when they come thither? Here they were at a loss, at their wit's end, but not at their faith's end; they believed that God, who had brought them thither by his word, would not leave them there; nor did he; for, behold, the star which they saw in the east went before them. Note, If we go on as far as we can in the way of duty, God will direct and enable us to do that which of ourselves we cannot do; Up, and be doing, and the Lord will be with thee. Vigilantibus, non dormientibus, succurit lex—The law affords its aid, not to the idle, but to the active. The star had left them a great while, yet now returns. They who follow God in the dark shall find that light is sown, is reserved, for them. Israel was led by a pillar of fire to the promised land, the wise men by a star to the promised Seed, who is himself the bright and morning Star, Rev. xxii. 16. God would rather create a new thing than leave those at a loss who diligently and faithfully sought him. This star was the token of God's presence with them; for he is light, and goes before his people as their Guide. Note, If we by faith eye God in all our ways, we may see ourselves under his conduct; he guides with his eye (Ps. xxxii. 8), and said to them, This is the way, walk in it: and there is a day-star that arises in the hearts of those that enquire after Christ, 2 Pet. i. 19. 2. Observe how joyfully they followed God's direction (v. 10). When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. Now they saw they were not deceived, and had not taken this long journey in vain. When the desire cometh, it is a tree of life. Now they were sure that God was with them, and the tokens of his presence and favour cannot but fill with joy unspeakable the souls of those that know how to value them. Now they could laugh at the Jews in Jerusalem, who, probably, had laughed at them as coming on a fool's errand. The watchmen can give the spouse no tidings of her beloved; yet it is but a little that she passes from them, and she finds him, Cant. iii. 3, 4. We cannot expect too little from man, nor too much from God. What a transport of joy these wise men were in upon this sight of the star; none know so well as those who, after a long and melancholy night of temptation and desertion, under the power of a Spirit of bondage, at length receive the spirit of adoption, witnessing with their spirits that they are the children of God; this is light out of darkness; it is life from the dead. Now they had reason to hope for a sight of the Lord's Christ speedily, of the Sun of righteousness, for they see the Morning Star. Note, We should be glad of every thing that will show us the way to Christ. This star was sent to meet the wise men, and to conduct them into the presence chamber of the King; by this master of ceremonies they were introduced, to have their audience. Now God fulfills his promise of meeting those that are disposed to rejoice and work righteousness (Isa. lxiv. 5), and they fulfill his precept. Let the hearts of those rejoice that seek the Lord, Ps. cv. 3. Note, God is pleased sometimes to favour young converts with such tokens of his love as are very encouraging to them, in reference to the difficulties they meet with at their setting out of the ways of God.
II. See how they made their address to him when they had found him, v. 11. We may well imagine their expectations were raised to find this royal babe, though slighted by the nation, yet honourably attended at home; and what a disappointment it was to them when they found a cottage was his palace, and his own poor mother all the retinue he had! Is this the Saviour of the world? Is this the King of the Jews, nay, and the Prince of the kings of the earth? Yes, this is he, who, though he was rich, yet, for our sakes, became thus poor. However, these wise men were so wise as to see through this veil, and in this despised babe to discern the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father; they did not think themselves balked or baffled in their enquiry; but, as having found the King they sought, they presented themselves first, and then their gifts, to him.
1. They presented themselves to him: they fell down, and worshipped him. We do not read that they gave such honour to Herod, though he was in the height of his royal grandeur; but to this babe they gave this honour, not only as to a king (then they would have done the same to Herod), but as to a God. Note, All that have found Christ fall down before him; they adore him, and submit themselves to him. He is thy Lord, and worship thou him. It will be the wisdom of the wisest of men, and by this it will appear they know Christ, and understand themselves and their true interests, if they be humble, faithful worshippers of the Lord Jesus.
2. They presented their gifts to him. In the eastern nations, when they did homage to their kings, they made them presents; thus the subjection of the kings of Sheba to Christ is spoken of (Ps. lxxii. 10), They shall bring presents, and offer gifts. See Isa. lx. 6. Note, With ourselves, we must give up all that we have to Jesus Christ; and if we be sincere in the surrender of ourselves to him, we shall not be unwilling to part with what is dearest to us, and most valuable, to him and for him; nor are our gifts accepted, unless we first present ourselves to him living sacrifices. God had respect to Abel, and then to his offering. The gifts they presented were, gold, frankincense, and myrrh, money, and money's-worth. Providence sent this for a seasonable relief to Joseph and Mary in their present poor condition. These were the products of their own country; what God favours us with, we must honour him with. Some think there was a significancy in their gifts; they offered him gold, as a king, paying him tribute, to Cæsar, the things that are Cæsar's; frankincense, as God, for they honoured God with the smoke of incense; and myrrh, as a Man that should die, for myrrh was used in embalming dead bodies.
III. See how they left him when they had made their address to him, v. 12. Herod appointed them to bring him word what discoveries they had made, and, it is probable, they would have done so, if they had not been countermanded, not suspecting their being thus made his tools in a wicked design. Those that mean honestly and well themselves are easily made to believe that others do so too, and cannot think the world is as bad as it really is; but the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptation. We do not find that the wise men promised to come back to Herod, and, if they had, it must have been with the usual proviso, If God permit; God did not permit them, and prevented the mischief Herod designed to the Child Jesus, and the trouble it would have been to the wise men to have been made involuntarily accessory to it. They were warned of God, chrematisthentes—oraculo vel responso accepto—by an oracular intimation. Some think it intimates that they asked counsel of God, and that this was the answer. Note, Those that act cautiously, and are afraid of sin and snares, if they apply themselves to God for direction, may expect to be led in the right way. They were warned not to return to Herod, nor to Jerusalem; those were unworthy to have reports brought them concerning Christ, that might have seen with their own eyes, and would not. They departed into their own country another way, to bring the tidings to their countrymen; but it is strange that we never hear any more of them, and that they or theirs did not afterwards attend him in the temple, whom they had worshipped in the cradle. However, the direction they had from God in their return would be a further confirmation of their faith in this Child, as the Lord from heaven.
The Flight into Egypt.
13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.
We have here Christ's flight into Egypt to avoid the cruelty of Herod, and this was the effect of the wise men's enquiry after him; for, before that, the obscurity he lay in was his protection. It was but little respect (compared with what should have been) that was paid to Christ in his infancy: yet even that, instead of honouring him among his people, did but expose him.
Now here observe, 1. The command given to Joseph concerning it, v. 13. Joseph knew neither the danger the child was in, nor how to escape it; but God by an angel, tells him both in a dream, as before he directed him in like manner what to do, ch. i. 20. Joseph, before his alliance to Christ, had not been wont to converse with angels as now. Note, those that are spiritually related to Christ by faith have that communion and correspondence with Heaven which before they were strangers to.
1. Joseph is here told what their danger was: Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. Note, God is acquainted with all the cruel projects and purposes of the enemies of his church. I know thy rage against me, saith God to Sennacherib, Isa. xxxvii. 28. How early was the blessed Jesus involved in trouble! Usually, even those whose riper years are attended with toils and perils have a peaceable and quiet infancy; but it was not so with the blessed Jesus: his life and sufferings began together; he was born a man striven with, as Jeremiah was (Jer. xv. 10), who was sanctified from the womb, Jer. i. 5. Both Christ the head, and the church his body, agree in saying, Many a time have they afflicted me, from my youth up. Pharaoh's cruelty fastens upon the Hebrews' children, and a great red dragon stands ready to devour the man-child as soon as it should be born, Rev. xii. 4.
2. He is directed what to do, to escape the danger; Take the young child, and flee into Egypt. Thus early must Christ give an example to his own rule (ch. x. 23): When they persecute you in one city, flee to another. He that came to die for us, when his hour was not yet come, fled for his own safety. Self-preservation, being a branch of the law of nature, is eminently a part of the law of God. Flee; but why into Egypt? Egypt was infamous for idolatry, tyranny, and enmity to the people of God; it had been a house of bondage to Israel, and particularly cruel to the infants of Israel; in Egypt, as much as in Ramah, Rachel had been weeping for her children; yet that is appointed to be a place of refuge to the hold child Jesus. Note, God, when he pleases, can make the worst of places serve the best of purposes; for the earth is the Lord's, he makes what use he pleases of it: sometimes the earth helps the woman Rev. xii. 16. God, who made Moab a shelter to his outcasts, makes Egypt a refuge for his Son. This may be considered,
(1.) As a trial of faith of Joseph and Mary. They might be tempted to think, "If this child be the Son of God, as we are told he is, has he no other way to secure himself from a man that is a worm, than by such a mean and inglorious retreat as this? Cannot he summon legions of angels to be his life-guard, or cherubim with flaming swords to keep this tree of life? Cannot he strike Herod dead, or wither the hand that is stretched out against him, and so save us the trouble of this remove?" They had been lately told that he should be the glory of his people Israel; and is the land of Israel so soon become too hot for him? But we find not that they made any such objections; their faith, being tried, was found firm, they believe this is the Son of God, though they see no miracle wrought for his preservation; but they are put to the use of ordinary means. Joseph had great honour put upon him in being the husband of the blessed virgin; but that honour has trouble attending it, as all honours have in this world; Joseph must take the young child, and carry him into Egypt; and now it appeared how well God had provided for the young child and his mother, in appointing Joseph to stand in so near a relation to them; now the gold which the wise men brought would stand them in stead to bear their charges. God foresees his people's distresses, and provides against them beforehand. God intimates the continuance of his care and guidance, when he saith, Be thou there until I bring thee word, so that he must expect to hear from God again, and not stir without fresh orders. Thus God will keep his people still in a dependence upon him.
(2.) As an instance of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus. As there was no room for him in the inn in Bethlehem, so there was no quiet room for him in the land of Judea. Thus was he banished from the earthly Canaan, that we, who for sin were banished from the heavenly Canaan, might not be for ever expelled. If we and our infants be at any time in straits, let us remember the straits Christ in his infancy was brought into, and be reconciled to them.
(3.) As a token of God's displeasure against the Jews, who took so little notice of him; justly does he leave those who have slighted him. We have also here an earnest of his favour to the Gentiles, to whom the apostles were to bring the gospel when the Jews rejected it. If Egypt entertain Christ when he is forced out of Judea, it will not be long ere it be said, Blessed be Egypt my people, Isa. xix. 25.
II. Joseph's obedience to this command, v. 14. The journey would be inconvenient and perilous both to the young child and to his mother; they were but poorly provided for it, and were likely to meet with cold entertainment in Egypt: yet Joseph was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, made no objection, nor was dilatory in his disobedience. As soon as he had received his orders, he immediately arose, and went away by night, the same night, as it should seem, that he received the orders. Note, Those that would make sure work of their obedience must make quick work of it. Now Joseph went out, as his father Abraham did, with an implicit dependence upon God, not knowing whither he went, Heb. xi. 8. Joseph and his wife, having little, had little to care of in this remove. An abundance encumbers a necessary flight. If rich people have the advantage of the poor while they possess what they have, the poor have the advantage of the rich when they are called to part with it.
Joseph took the young child and his mother. Some observe, that the young child is put first, as the principal person, and Mary is called, not the wife of Joseph, but, which was her great dignity, the mother of the young child. This was not the first Joseph that was driven from Canaan to Egypt for a shelter from the anger of his brethren; this Joseph ought to be welcome there for the sake of that.
If we may credit tradition, at their entrance into Egypt, happening to go into a temple, all the images of their gods were overthrown by an invisible power, and fell, like Dagon before the ark, according to that prophecy, The Lord shall come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, Isa. xix. 1. They continued in Egypt till the death of Herod, which, some think, was seven years, others think, not so many months. There they were at a distance from the temple and the service of it, and in the midst of idolaters; but God sent them thither, and will have mercy, and not sacrifice. Though they were far from the temple of the Lord, they had with them the Lord of the temple. A forced absence from God's ordinances, and a forced presence with wicked people, may be the lot, are not the sin, yet cannot but be the grief, of good people.
III. The fulfilling of the scripture in a this—that scripture (Hos. xi. 1), Out of Egypt have I called my son. Of all the evangelists, Matthew takes most notice of the fulfilling of the scripture in what concerned Christ, because his gospel was first published among the Jews, with whom that would add much strength and lustre to it. Now this word of the prophet undoubtedly referred to the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, in which God owned them for his son, his first-born (Exod. iv. 22); but it is here applied, by way of analogy, to Christ, the Head of the church. Note, The scripture has many accomplishments, so full and copious is it, and so well ordered in all things. God is every day fulfilling the scripture. Scripture is not of private interpretation: we must give it its full latitude. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him; and, though I loved him, I suffered him to be a great while in Egypt; but, because I loved him, in due time I called him out of Egypt." They that read this must, in their thoughts, not only look back, but look forward; that which has been shall be again (Eccl. i. 9); and the manner of expression intimates this; for it is not said, I called him, but I called my son, out of Egypt.Note, It is no new thing for God's sons to be in Egypt, in a strange land, in a house of bondage; but they shall be fetched out. They may be hid in Egypt, but they shall not be left there. All the elect of God, being by nature children of wrath, are born in a spiritual Egypt, and in conversion are effectually called out. It might be objected against Christ that he had been in Egypt. Must the Sun of righteousness arise out of that land of darkness! But this shows that to be no strange thing; Israel was brought out of Egypt, to be advanced to the highest honours; and this is but doing the same thing.
The Slaughter of the Children.
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Here is, I. Herod's resentment of the departure of the wise men. He waited long for their return; he hopes, though they be slow, they will be sure, and he shall crush this rival at his first appearing; but he hears, upon enquiry, that they are gone off another way, which increases his jealousy, and makes him suspect they are in the interest of this new King, which made him exceedingly wroth; and he is the more desperate and outrageous for his being disappointed. Note, Inveterate corruption swells the higher for the obstructions it meets with in a sinful pursuit.
II. His political contrivance, notwithstanding this, to take off him that is born King of the Jews. If he could not reach him by a particular execution, he doubted not but to involve him in a general stroke, which, like the sword of war, should devour one as well as another. This would be sure work; and thus those that would destroy their own iniquity must be sure to destroy all their iniquities. Herod was an Edomite, enmity to Israel was bred in the bone with him. Doeg was an Edomite, who, for David's sake, slew all the priests of the Lord. It was strange that Herod could find any so inhuman as to be employed in such a bloody and barbarous piece of work; but wicked hands never want wicked tools to work with. Little children have always been taken under the special protection, not only of human laws, but of human nature; yet these are sacrificed to the rage of this tyrant, under whom, as under Nero, innocence is the least security. Herod was, throughout his reign, a bloody man; it was not long before, that he destroyed the whole Sanhedrim, or bench of judges; but blood to the blood-thirsty is like drink to those in a dropsy; Quo plus sunt potæ, plus sitiuntur aquæ—The more they drink, the more thirsty they become. Herod was now about seventy years old, so that an infant, at this time under two years old, was not likely ever to give him any disturbance. Nor was he a man over fond of his own children, or of their preferment, having formerly slain two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and his son Antipater after this, but five days before he himself died; so that it was purely to gratify his own brutish lusts of pride and cruelty that he did this. All is fish that comes to his net.
Observe, What large measures he took, 1. As to time; He slew all from two years old and under. It is probable that the blessed Jesus was at this time not a year old; yet Herod took in all the infants under two years old, that he might be sure not to miss of his prey. He cares not how many heads fall, which he allows to be innocent, provided that escape not which he supposes to be guilty. 2. As to place; He kills all the male children, not only in Bethlehem, but in all the coasts thereof, in all the villages of that city. This was being overmuch wicked, Eccl. vii. 17. Hate, an unbridled wrath, armed with an unlawful power, often transports men to the most absurd and unreasonable instances of cruelty. It was no unrighteous thing for God to permit this; every life is forfeited to his justice as soon as it commences; that sin which entered by one man's disobedience, introduced death with it; and we are not to suppose any thing more than that common guilt, we are not to suppose that these children were sinners above all that were in Israel, because they suffered such things. God's judgments are a great deep. The diseases and deaths of little children are proofs of original sin. But we must look upon this murder of the infants under another character: it was their martyrdom. How early did persecution commence against Christ and his kingdom! Think ye that he came to send peace on the earth? No, but a sword, such a sword as this, ch. x. 34, 35. A passive testimony was hereby given to the Lord Jesus. As when he was in the womb, he was witnessed to by a child's leaping in the womb for joy at his approach, so now, at two years old, he had contemporary witnesses to him of the same age. They shed their blood for him, who afterwards shed his for them. These were the infantry of the noble army of martyrs. If these infants were thus baptized with blood, though it were their own, into the church triumphant, it could not be said but that, with what they got in heaven, they were abundantly recompensed for what they lost on earth. Out of the mouths of these babes and sucklings God did perfect his praise; otherwise, it is not good to the Almighty that he should thus afflict.
The tradition of the Greek church (and we have it in the Æthiopic missal) is, that the number of the children slain was 14,000; but that is very absurd. I believe, if the births of the male children in the weekly bills were computed, there would not be found so many under two years old, in one of the most populous cities in the world, that was not near a fortieth part of it. But it is an instance of the vanity of tradition. It is strange that Josephus does not relate this story; but he wrote long after St. Matthew, and it is probable that he therefore would not relate it, because he would not so far countenance the Christian history; for he was a zealous Jew; but, to be sure, if it had not been true and well attested, he would have contested it. Macrobius, a heathen writer, tells us, that when Augustus Cæsar heard that Herod, among the children he order to be slain under two years old, slew his own son, he passed this jest upon him, That it was better to be Herod's swine than his son. The usage of the country forbade him to kill a swine, but nothing could restrain him from killing his son. Some think that he had a young child at nurse in Bethlehem; others think that, through mistake, two events are confounded—the murder of the infants, and the murder of his son Antipater. But for the church of Rome to put the Holy Innocents, as they call them, into their calendar, and observe a day in memory of them, while they have so often, by their barbarous massacres, justified, and even out—one Herod, is but to do as their predecessors did, who built the tombs of the prophets, while they themselves filled up the same measure.
Some observe another design of Providence in the murder of the infants. By all the prophecies of the Old Testament it appears that Bethlehem was the place, and this the time, of the Messiah's nativity; now all the children of Bethlehem, born at this time, being murdered, and Jesus only escaping, none but Jesus could pretend to be the Messiah. Herod now thought he had baffled all the Old Testament prophecies, had defeated the indications of the star, and the devotions of the wise men, by ridding the country of this new King; having burnt the hive, he concludes he had killed the master bee; but God in heaven laughs at him, and has him in derision. Whatever crafty cruel devices are in men's hearts, the counsel of the Lord shall stand.
III. The fulfilling of scripture in this (v. 17, 18); Then was fulfilled that prophecy (Jer. xxxi. 15), A voice was heard in Ramah. See and adore the fulness of the scripture! That prediction was accomplished in Jeremiah's time, when Nebuzaradan, after he had destroyed Jerusalem, brought all his prisoners to Ramah (Jer. xl. 1), and there disposed of them as he pleased, for the sword, or for captivity. Then was the cry in Ramah heard to Bethlehem (for those two cities, the one in Judah's lot, and the other in Benjamin's, were not far asunder); but now the prophecy is again fulfilled in the great sorrow that was for the death of these infants. The scripture was fulfilled,
1. In the place of this mourning. The noise of it was heard from Bethlehem to Ramah; for Herod's cruelty extended itself to all the coasts of Bethlehem, even into the lot of Benjamin, among the children of Rachel. Some think the country about Bethlehem was called Rachel, because there she died, and was buried. Rachel's sepulchre was hard by Bethlehem, Gen. xxxv. 16, 19. Compare 1 Sam. x. 2. Rachel had her heart much set upon children: the son she died in travail of she called Benoni—the son of her sorrow. These mothers were like Rachel, lived near Rachel's grave, and many of them descended from Rachel; and therefore their lamentations are elegantly represented by Rachel's weeping.
2. In the degree of this mourning. It was lamentation and mourning, and great mourning; all little enough to express the sense they had of this aggravated calamity. There was a great cry in Egypt when the first-born were slain, and so there was here when the youngest was slain; for whom we naturally have a particular tenderness. Here was a representation of this world we live in. We hear in it lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and see the tears of the oppressed, some upon one account, and some upon another. Our ways lie through a vale of tears. This sorrow was so great, that they would not be comforted. They hardened themselves in it, and took a pleasure in their grief. Blessed be God, there is no occasion of grief in this world, no, not that which is supplied by sin itself, that will justify us in refusing to be comforted! They would not be comforted, because they are not, that is, they are not in the land of the living, are not as they were, in their mothers' embraces. If, indeed, they were not, there might be some excuse for sorrowing as though we had no hope; but we know they are not lost, but gone before; if we forget that they are, we lose the best ground of our comfort, 1 Thess. iv. 13. Some make this grief of the Bethlehemites to be a judgment upon them for their contempt of Christ. They that would not rejoice for the birth of the Son of God, are justly made to weep for the death of their own sons; for they only wondered at the tidings the shepherds brought them, but did not welcome them.
The quoting of this prophecy might serve to obviate an objection which some would make against Christ, upon this sad providence. "Can the Messiah, who is to be the Consolation of Israel, be introduced with all this lamentation?" Yes, for so it was foretold, and the scripture must be accomplished. And besides, if we look further into this prophecy, we shall find that the bitter weeping in Ramah was but a prologue to the greatest joy, for it follows, Thy work shall be rewarded, and there is hope in thy end. The worse things are, the sooner they will mend. Unto them a child was born, sufficient to repair their losses.
Christ's Return from Egypt.
19 But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life. 21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
We have here Christ's return out of Egypt into the land of Israel again. Egypt may serve to sojourn in, or take shelter in, for a while, but not to abide in. Christ was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and therefore to them he must return. Observe,
I. What it was that made way for his return—the death of Herod, which happened not long after the murder of the infants; some think not above three months. Such quick work did divine vengeance make! Note, Herods must die; proud tyrants, that were the terror of the mighty, and the oppressors of the godly, in the land of the living, their day must come to fall, and down to the pit they must go. Who art thou then, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die? (Isa. li. 12, 13) especially considering that at death, not only their envy and hatred are perished (Eccl. ix. 6), and they cease from troubling (Job iii. 17), but they are punished. Of all sins, the guilt of innocent blood fills the measure soonest. It is a dreadful account which Josephus gives of the death of this same Herod (Antiq. 17.146-199), that he was seized with a disease which burned him inwardly with an inexpressible torture; that he was insatiably greedy of meat; had the colic, and gout, and dropsy; such an intolerable stench attended his disease, that none could come near him: and so passionate and impatient was he, that he was a torment to himself, and a terror to all that attended him: his innate cruelty, being thus exasperated, made him more barbarous than ever; having ordered his own son to be put to death, he imprisoned many of the nobility and gentry, and ordered that as soon as he was dead they should be killed; but that execution was prevented. See what kind of men have been the enemies and persecutors of Christ and his followers! Few have opposed Christianity but such as have first divested themselves of humanity, as Nero and Domitian.
II. The orders given from heaven concerning their return, and Joseph's obedience to those orders, v. 19-21. God had sent Joseph into Egypt, and there he staid till the same that brought him thither ordered him thence. Note, In all our removes, it is good to see our way plain, and God going before us; we should not move either one way or the other without order. These orders were sent him by an angel. Note, Our intercourse with God, if it be kept up on our part, shall be kept up on his, wherever we are. No place can exclude God's gracious visits. Angels come to Joseph in Egypt, to Ezekiel in Babylon, and to John in Patmos. Now, 1. The angel informs him of the death of Herod and his accomplices: They are dead, which sought the young Child's life. They are dead, but the young Child lives. Persecuted saints sometimes live to tread upon the graves of their persecutors. Thus did the church's King weather the storm, and many a one has the church in like manner weathered. They are dead, to wit, Herod and his son Antipater, who, though there were mutual jealousies between them, yet, probably, concurred in seeking the destruction of this new King. If Herod first kill Antipater, and then die himself, the coasts are cleared, and the Lord is known by the judgments which he executes, when one wicked instrument is in the ruin of another. 2. He directs him what to do. He must go and return to the land of Israel; and he did so without delay; not pleading the tolerably good settlement he had in Egypt, or the inconveniences of the journey, especially if, as is supposed, it was in the beginning of winter that Herod died. God's people follow his direction whithersoever he leads them, wherever he lodges them. Did we but look upon the world as our Egypt, the place of our bondage and banishment, and heaven only as our Canaan, our home, our rest, we should as readily arise, and depart thither, when we are called for, as Joseph did out of Egypt.
III. The further direction he had from God, which way to steer, and where to fix in the land of Israel, v. 22, 23. God could have given him these instructions with the former, but God reveals his mind to his people by degrees, to keep them still waiting on him, and expecting to hear further from him. These orders Joseph received in a dream, probably, as those before, by the ministration of an angel. God could have signified his will to Joseph by the Child Jesus, but we do not find that in those removes he either takes notice, or gives notice, of any thing that occurred; surely it was because in all things it behoved him to be made like his brethren; being a Child, he spake as a child, and did as a child, and drew a veil over his infinite knowledge and power; as a child he increased in wisdom.
Now the direction given this holy, royal family, is, 1. That it might not settle in Judea, v. 22. Joseph might think that Jesus, being born in Bethlehem, must be brought up there; yet he is prudently afraid for the young Child, because he hears that Archelaus reigns in Herod's stead, not over all the kingdom as his father did, but only over Judea, the other provinces being put into other hands. See what a succession of enemies there is to fight against Christ and his church! If one drop off, another presently appears, to keep up the old enmity. But for this reason Joseph must not take the young Child into Judea. Note, God will not thrust his children into the mouth of danger, but when it is for his own glory and their trial; for precious in the sight of the Lord are the life and the death of his saints; precious is their blood to him.
2. That it must settle in Galilee, v. 22. There Philip now ruled, who was a mild, quiet, man. Note, The providence of God commonly so orders it, that his people shall not want a quiet retreat from the storm and from the tempest; when one climate becomes hot and scorching, another shall be kept more cool and temperate. Galilee lay far north; Samaria lay between it and Judea; thither they were sent, to Nazareth, a city upon a hill, in the centre of the lot of Zebulun; there the mother of our Lord lived, when she conceived that holy thing; and, probably, Joseph lived there too, Luke i. 26, 27. Thither they were sent, and there they were well known, and were among their relations; the most proper place for them to be in. There they continued, and from thence our Saviour was called Jesus of Nazareth, which was to the Jews a stumbling-block, for, Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?
In this is said to be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. Which may be looked upon, (1.) As a man of honour and dignity, though primarily it signifies no more than a man of Nazareth; there is an allusion or mystery in speaking it, speaking Christ to be, [1.] The Man, the Branch, spoken of, Isa. xi. 1. The word there is Netzar, which signifies either a branch, or the city of Nazareth; in being denominated from that city, he is declared to be that Branch. [2.] It speaks him to be the great Nazarite; of whom the legal Nazarites were a type and figure (especially Samson, Judg. xiii. 5), and Joseph, who is called a Nazarite among his brethren (Gen. xlix. 26), and to whom that which was prescribed concerning the Nazarites, has reference, Num. vi. 2, &c. Not that Christ was, strictly, a Nazarite, for he drank wine, and touched dead bodies; but he was eminently so, both as he was singularly holy, and as he was by a solemn designation and dedication set apart to the honour of God in the work of our redemption, as Samson was to save Israel. And it is a name we have all reason to rejoice in, and to know him by. Or, (2.) As a name of reproach and contempt. To be called a Nazarene, was to be called a despicable man, a man from whom no good was to be expected, and to whom no respect was to be paid. The devil first fastened this name upon Christ, to render him mean, and prejudice people against him, and it stuck as a nickname to him and his followers. Now this was not particularly foretold by any one prophet, but, in general, it was spoken by the prophets, that he should be despised and rejected of men (Isa. liii. 2, 3), a Worm, and no man (Ps. xxii. 6, 7), that he should be an Alien to his brethren Ps. lxix. 7, 8. Let no name of reproach for religion's sake seem hard to us, when our Master was himself called a Nazarene.
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