And back to our story....
... While most assume that there were three, since they brought three gifts, the biblical text doesn't number these strange visitors from the East. They are called "Magi" in many English bibles, a Latin transliteration of the Persian word "magoi" (the root for the English "magic").
These so-called Magi were considered religious priests in the Medo-Persian empire and were known particularly for their ability to interpret dreams. Darius the Great appointed them over the state religion of his empire where they held considerable civic and political authority. That is why in some bible translations, and a Christmas song, they are called "Three Kings."
The Bible tells us that one of the titles given to the prophet Daniel, who grew up in the Babylon and then Persian empire, was "Chief of the Magi" primarily because of his extraordinary ability to interpret dreams (Dan. 4:9, 5:11). When Darius appointed him, a Jew, over the Persian priesthood, Daniel, who refused to hide his Messianic faith, but prayed openly to the God of his father's, ended up in a lion's den.
Daniel penned his prophecy in Aramaic, the common language in the Near East at the time (6th century BC), so that the Magi, the people and even the King of Persia would read and understand it. Daniel's vision of a divine kingdom ruling the world at the hands of a Jewish monarch would not have particularly surprised the Persians. Their own history was rife with Jewish nobles, counselors and eventually even a Queen (Esther).
In his prophecy, Daniel tells of kingdoms rising and falling, and of the precise times and seasons of the arrival of the Son of Man in Jerusalem. And the Magi, these wise men who continued to read the prophecy, six centuries later, come following the star, right on schedule, up to the Holy City, bearing gifts.
The Magi-Kings would have arrived in the Land with pageantry due their high positions in the empire, accompanied by an adequate military escort, insuring their safe access into what was Roman occupied territory. Their appearance in the Land alarmed King Herod, and even the people of Jerusalem were greatly concerned.
Consulting his scribes, Herod discovered from the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible that the promised Messianic-King would be born in Bethlehem. Disguising his concerns about the invading Persian officials, Herod feigned genuine interest, and asked the Magi to "keep him informed." But these Wise Men, after finding the baby, and presenting their gifts, "being warned in a dream" (a form of communication with which they were accustomed) returned to their own country, by a different route, ignoring Herod's request. (Read the full account in Mt. 2:1-12)
In addition to the exact timing of the Magi's arrival, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh reveal an extensive and profound understanding and belief in the advent of the Jewish Messiah and the biblical prophecies. They brought gold which speaks of His kingship; frankincense which was a spice used in priestly duties; and myrrh, an embalming ointment perhaps in anticipation of His death.
Far more than just a quaint background silhouette to a Manger Scene, these Wise Men demonstrate the timeless power of God's word to stir the hearts of men and women in every nation throughout all of history. It is a Word that brought Kings to the feet of a child, and a Savior to worship still today.
Who is Wise and has understanding among you? What gifts will you be bringing this season to our Messiah, King of Israel? There is still time to inquire of Him, and His word, for He speaks yet today.