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O Little Town of Bethlehem

From “Four Beloved Christmas Carols and the True Stories Behind Them,” a article by Amy Green, Dec. 17, 2019:

“When Phillips Brooks, a rising young preacher and staunch abolitionist, was asked to give the funeral address for President Abraham Lincoln, he must have been daunted by the task, and sure that his eloquent eulogy would be the most famous lines he would ever pen.

“He was wrong. Shortly afterward, exhausted from years of war and longing for rest, he took a sabbatical from preaching to visit the Holy Land, hoping to find peace.

“There, as he visited still-insignificant Bethlehem and looked out at the landscape at night, the lines for a poem jumped to his mind: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.”

“Several years later, he came back to the poem and completed it. His organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. It was first performed by the children’s choir in his church, and very quickly, the verse was included in hymnals as a seasonal favorite.

“But one child, who wasn’t yet born, would find special meaning in Brooks’s song. Helen Keller, the famous educator who was born blind and deaf, met Brooks years later. He was the one who explained the gospel to her for the first time.

“Through her teacher and translator, Anne Sullivan, she told Brooks, ‘I’ve always known there was a God, but until now I’ve never known his name.’

“The carol’s third verse, though written years before Brooks had met Keller, captures perfectly the joy of salvation arriving to a deaf and blind child whose ears could not hear his coming, but whose heart had long recognized his presence:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

For all of us who love small towns, Bethlehem is an example of the heights and depths to which an out-of-the way place can rise and sink as it finds its place in history.

1. What compelled these men to search for THE NEWBORN KING OF THE JEWS? (1-2)

Jewish history connected Bethlehem with King David as it was the place of his birth. As we will see, it was also a subject of prophecy.

In ancient times, the usual method of dating things was to reference the reigning king as Matthew has done in verse one. Herod reigned as king from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. This means Jesus was born from 6-4 B.C. You’d think that he was born year zero, Anno Domini (“A.D.”), but the Roman astronomer who created our modern calendar made a math error to the tune of 4-6 years and no one’s bothered to correct it.

The WISE MEN (aka “magi”) were not kings as the familiar carol (“We Three Kings”) claims. It’s more likely they were royal astronomer-priests whose main job was to predict the future. Among their sources of information were the stars and ancient legends interpreting them. Some speculate they were guided by Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17, which reads,


Whatever they saw among the stars or read in ancient documents, it only got them as far as Israel. That’s where logic took over. Logically, they looked for a new Jewish king in the Jewish capital city, Jerusalem.

It is ironic these men from a distant land were more on the ball looking for the Messiah than the Jews themselves. In fact, their stated reason for coming was to WORSHIP HIM. The word translated as WORSHIP can be used in a religious context, with God as the object of worship or it can be used in a secular context, with some person (usually royalty) as the object.

Based on the information we have, the WISE MEN may have been motivated by curiosity, religious zeal, or were assigned the task by an eastern ruler. Whatever motivated their quest, they pursued it over two years and hundreds of miles.

2. What compelled King Herod to help them? (3-8)

Herod was known as a shrewd politician who was very zealous to defend his throne from all usurpers. It became a paranoia with him. Herod had one of his wives and three of his sons murdered because he thought they were plotting against him. It was popularly said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than a member of his family.

It makes sense that paranoid Herod would regard news of a NEWBORN KING OF THE JEWS as a threat to his rule and was DEEPLY DISTURBED. No doubt, when Herod was DISTURBED, he made everyone around him nervous too.

Verse four implies that Herod wasted no time addressing this potential threat to his throne and assembled his own set of “experts” to answer the WISE MEN’s question. Their scripture citation combines Micah 5:2 and 2 Samuel 5:2 as identifying a RULER coming from Bethlehem: a SHEPHERD FOR ISRAEL. (In 2 Samuel 5:2, King David was called a SHEPHERD OVER ISRAEL, so this is another connection between David and Jesus.) In another 31 years these groups would violently oppose Jesus and call for his death. They would do what Herod could not! The prophecy notes the irony of the geographically insignificant village of Bethlehem taking on a theological significance.

What is unstated in Matthew is whether the religious experts ever acted on the two facts plainly put before them: one, that the city was DEEPLY DISTURBED by the announcement of a NEWBORN KING OF THE JEWS and two, that He would be born in Bethlehem. Did any of them mount any kind of search or do anything? Did fear of Herod’s wrath keep them silent and complacent?

Herod’s political shrewdness is seen in his keeping his experts separate from the WISE MEN, whom he met with separately (7-8, A PRIVATE MEETING WITH THE WISE MEN). This allows him to pump the WISE MEN for information that he’d rather not have his religious experts knowing about. For example, he asked them WHEN THE STAR FIRST APPEARED. With this information, he guessed the approximate age of the child, a fact that will be important in verses 16-18.

The privacy of the MEETING allowed Herod to keep his role in the matter a secret. He duped the WISE MEN into doing his work for him; they were to find the CHILD and then report back to Herod who pretended to be as eager to WORSHIP Him as the WISE MEN were.

3. Which of them completed their quest? (9-12)

The wise men succeeded in their quest to WORSHIP the King. (9-11) Bethlehem was just five miles south of Jerusalem. Though it was a small village, it might’ve taken them a while to find Him on their own. God knew what was in Herod’s heart, so He knew time was of the essence.

God sent them a guide they would immediately recognize and heed; the very STAR THEY HAD SEEN IN THE EAST appeared again! This time the star’s message was very specific: it GUIDED THEM first to Bethlehem, and then STOPPED OVER THE PLACE WHERE THE CHILD WAS! There has never been, before or since, a star that behaved in such a way. Science cannot explain what the miraculous power of God accomplished.

Coming to the end of their journey, their hope realized, the WISE MEN were understandably FILLED WITH JOY. Upon entering the house indicated by the star’s light, they found the child king (as old as two years) with his mother. They gave Him WORSHIP and GIFTS as befitting a king.

After a lengthy and by no means certain journey, the WISE MEN’s quest was successful. They’d set out to WORSHIP the new king (2) and that’s what they did (11).

King Herod’s plan was thwarted. (12, 16-18) God the Father acted to protect His Son. In verse 12, God WARNED the WISE MEN to go home without returning to Jerusalem as Herod had instructed them. God again instructed the WISE MEN in a way they would recognize and understand, in a DREAM. God would later appear to Joseph in that same way (13), warning him to pick up his family and escape to Egypt for a time. Their travel funded by the gifts of the WISE MEN, Joseph lost no time being obedient and left for Egypt THAT NIGHT.

When it became clear to Herod that the WISE MEN were not coming back to report to him, his initial plan had failed. In his fury (16), Herod sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to KILL ALL THE BOYS in Bethlehem and, to be thorough, the surrounding area that were the approximate age of the newborn king or younger. (16) He utilized the information he’d obtained in secret by deceiving the WISE MEN to guess the age of the child.

As v. 17 states, Herod’s BRUTAL ACTION fulfilled a prophecy given by the prophet Jeremiah hundreds of years earlier (18). In verses 19-20 Herod gets part of his comeuppance: he is dead, but the Christ child survives.

God used a set of foreigners and a murderous king to verify the birth of His Son.

Matthew is keen to connect Jesus to King David, whom he mentioned five times in chapter one. This is to establish from the beginning that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David that one of His descendants would rule for all eternity. The circumstances of His birth in chapter two also lend support to this vital truth. There are other important points to be made, but this is how Matthew was inspired to write his Gospel and is worth noting.

In Luke’s Gospel to a Gentile audience, it is the Jewish shepherds who validate the birth of the Messiah. In Matthew’s Gospel to a Jewish audience, it is a set of Gentile stargazers who validate the birth of a new King over Israel. As always, when taken together, the complimentary views of the four Gospel writers provide us with a comprehensive and reliable guide to the birth of Jesus.

To recap; we have the WISE MEN who undertook a long, difficult, and potentially hazardous trip. Why did they do it? Speculations abound but the only explanation we’re given is that they saw a star that portended a new king born among the Jews. There was something about that news that energized them to make such a commitment.

Herod’s motive for wanting to find the child was purely selfish and his actions were utterly evil. He is the opposite number to the WISE MEN.

Bethlehem was the place where these two contrasting plans came to fruition. The song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” paints a musical picture of a placid little community, a place removed from the centers of power, where nothing much happened.

The birth of Jesus went largely unnoticed that night, announced only to the shepherds. Months later, the peace of the village was shattered irrevocably when David’s town was invaded by Herod’s soldiers, sent on a murderous mission. There’s history-making drama going on in that sleepy little town. God is at work. May the same be said of us.

RESOURCES:, retrieved on 22 Nov. 22.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 11, The Gospel of Matthew, 2005, David L. Turner

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