Herod was a Jewish ruler beholden to Rome whose imperial forces occupied Jesus’ homeland. Under Herod’s leadership, Roman troops had conquered Palestine in 37 B.C. with the siege of Jerusalem. Responding to local rebellions through Palestine, the Romans again subdued the people around the time Jesus was born. Exploitation and brutality characterized Herod’s rule. The Jewish people had long expected the fulfillment of prophecy that God would send a Messiah to deliver the people. Herod was aware of the prophecy. He sought to destroy anyone—even an infant—who might threaten his rule or that of his descendants.
The Wise Men who came seeking the child were guided by astrologers who told them to follow a star. By this star, the heavens proclaimed the birth of a new king. Herod was unaware of the birth until the Wise Men came to him, not to pay him homage but to find the new king. Though they were wise, they came to Herod as naive outsiders from Persia, a country to the east. In their ignorance of local political realities, they exposed the child and his family to Herod’s jealousy and murderous intent. Later, guided by their dream, the Wise Men knew not to return. Returning to Herod with knowledge of the family’s whereabouts would expose the child further.
This story is the first in Matthew in which divine intervention saved Jesus’ life. The Wise Men interpreted their dreams and the stars. They used what knowledge and means they had to accomplish what they understood as their mission. The story contrasts two kings: Jesus and Herod. We read of a helpless infant in out-of-the-way Bethlehem and of a powerful tyrant in the capital city of Jerusalem. Compare the heavens’ visible leading with Herod’s secret plotting. The international visitors ask Herod the king about a newborn king. On entering the place where Jesus lay, they knelt down and paid homage, offering precious gifts.