No one embarks on a journey by camel lightly. Traversing the breathtaking landscape of “the East” to meet the King of the Jews, the learned scholars from a foreign land most certainly believed their efforts would not be in vain. They had one purpose in mind when they saw the star arise from their easterly position – worship (Matthew 2:2).
They took a risk, leaving the comfort and convenience of their home turf, the land where they had earned their degrees and reputations, to cross into foreign territory. Scripture does not explicitly say the sojourners came on camels. Camels, however, have been the primary mode of transport in the region for millenia, designed to thrive in that environment. Millions of dromedaries dot Arabia even today, cared for as beasts of burden or raised to race or simply doted upon as dearly as the family pet. However beloved these creatures, a journey by camel is no summer camp pony ride.
Sitting astride a camel has been described as “more akin to sitting atop a swaying metal rod. Even the best Bedouin saddle – little more than a wood-and-leather frame covered in blankets – can only slightly dull the pain for the green rider. Most such riders can rarely withstand the suffering for more than two or three hours without a break.”* Perhaps the scholars were seasoned camel-riders and the discomfort of a camel journey was a blithe thought, no sacrifice at all. Perhaps the sacrifices they made in order to worship were of a different type.
When they arrived in Jerusalem they went throughout the city, asking the whereabouts of the newborn King of the Jews. The city was in a tizzy. What insight into local religious traditions and scholarship had these men brought with their foreign sensibilities? Rumors flew. When Herod heard there were travelers in the land seeking a king, “he was deeply disturbed.” He was the king. No one would share his glory. Indeed, the entire city became agitated and troubled when this crew from afar entered into their unwatchful state.
But the men were wise, watching and waiting in Jerusalem, not knowing where to find their King worthy of worship. King Herod was a king of a different type. Paranoid someone would steal his throne – even a child – he resolved to incite terror and blood if the threat to his power was not squashed immediately.
He sent a messenger to bring the magi, potential worshipers, from their place of rest in the city to meet with him secretly. It was Herod who told them, after consulting the chief priests and scribes, that the prophecy directed them to Bethlehem. But they didn’t give their gifts to the earthly king. They didn’t pause to gaze at his splendor or honor him in his court. This king was not worthy of worship.
They listened and left.
That’s all. No gifts of gold or incense to the ruler of the land. No presents to curry his favor or boost their reputations. No offerings to grease the skids for future favors. The earthly treasures they had guarded on their journey were reserved for one person alone – the Ruler of all lands and seas, stars and galaxies.
When they left the presence of the earthly king, bound for Bethlehem, behold, the star appeared before them yet again. They had not lost their way, distracted by an earthly power. They rejoiced exceedingly, and with great joy, when the star came to rest over a house. Not a palace. Not a walled compound with private security. A house whereupon entering, they saw a woman with a child. And they knew. Here was the object of their worship. It was a person. Him.
And they fell down and worshiped him.
In their robes, from their place of riches and abundance, they humbled themselves. They lowered their very flesh in submission to this King. Then, in a continuous act of worship, they opened their containers of frankincense, gold and myrrh. They had already sacrificed their time and their reputations. They weren’t worshiping – sacrificing – for an ideology, a regime, a movement, an earthly power. They were worshiping the King of Kings. Throughout their long journey, they had reserved these valuable gifts for Him. In His presence, they lavished him with their treasure.
And then, in a most remarkable turn of events, they left. They went home. They returned to the land whence they had come. And even more remarkably, God used a dream to speak to these Gentiles, warning them not to return via Herod’s court and confidences, but to disregard the ruler’s wishes. They would return to their homeland using a different route. Perhaps the journey would be even more difficult as they sought to avoid Herod. But this was no issue. They had worshiped the King of Kings. God affirmed it in a dream and they would return home declaring His praises.
The scribes and chief priests, knowing the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, did not seek the King to worship. Scripture makes no record of them also seeking out the long-awaited Messiah, following the path made by the foreigners from the east. Perhaps they were content in the confidence and access afforded in Herod’s court.
Herod did not seek the King to worship, but to destroy. Herod did not want his glory overshadowed. What he failed to comprehend is that God does not share His glory. Herod need not worry that God would allow Herod’s pathetic glory to be in His presence, much less approximate His shadow.
God, in human flesh, would grow up and dwell among the people. Outsiders, untouchables, would be invited to worship and behold His glory. When he was instantaneously healed, the untouchable diseased outcast “praised God with a loud voice, and fell at his feet and worshiped” Jesus (Luke 17:15,16). Early in the morning on the third day, after visiting the empty tomb, women disciples met Jesus and “took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (Matt 28:9). The object of their worship was not a ruler, power, authority or their own time, talent and treasure. These they willingly gave up, along with the Magi and many people since, to worship the Living King with their very bodies.
Just as the halls of power raged in Jerusalem the day a potential rival appeared, so in our day the nations – and city halls, school boards, parliaments and committee meetings – rage with individuals who have misplaced their worship. They are seeking refuge in something that withers and fades. Like the travelers from the east, refuge is found far removed from backroom meetings, halls of influence and juicy gossip fests. Refuge is found when we worship Him alone, rightfully beholding Him as the only King, eternal.
1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me,
“You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
*From Lawrence in Arabia, by Scott Anderson.
One response to “The Presence of Kings”
Heidi, thank you for your fresh insights into this ancient legend.
Mary must have been dumbfounded by this appearance of these suspicious foreigners. One more story she saved and pondered.
Happy New Year!