The journey of the Magi in search of the newborn Messiah of Israel is one of the memorable elements of the Christmas story. It has been the focus of both pageant and preaching, and rightly so. It remains a powerful call for wise people of all cultures to seek diligently the Lord of heaven and earth, to worship Him, and to present Him precious gifts.
Yet the same narrative, found in the second chapter of Matthew, has another story. It is not the moving history of three wise men who came to kneel at the side of the holy child. Rather it is the gruesome tale of one wicked man who brought death and grief to the village of Bethlehem.
Herod, king of the Jews, sought to kill all the newborn boys in the village of Bethlehem in an effort to remove a perceived threat to his throne. Although it brought untold suffering to scores of innocent people, it failed to frustrate God's master plan of salvation. Herod's wickedness succeeded only in leaving for us a dramatic demonstration of the radical nature of evil, the ubiquitous presence of suffering and the eventual triumph of God's will.
Evil in the World
The devotion of the wise men is balanced in the popular story by the deceit of Herod. Herod the Great ruled as king of Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Even the secular historians chronicle his reign as one of uncontrolled wickedness. The Bible confirms this by telling us of his jealousy at hearing the news of the birth of Jesus, of his deception in dealing with the Magi, and of his rage when outwitted by them.
Such meanness is not uncommon among men, but when it resides in people of great power it breeds extraordinary evil. The Scriptures record that when Herod was troubled, all Jerusalem was troubled with him. They knew him too well!
There are two main characters in this story, Joseph and Herod. Joseph is kind, obedient, respectful, caring, willing to sacrifice his interests to the will and word of God. He represents for all of us the goodness and godliness that is possible through the power of God.
Joseph is the model of the one whose mind has been moved by the majesty of God, whose conscience has been cleansed by the word of God, whose habits are full of the love of God. Here is the human person, "born not of blood, nor of flesh, nor of the will of man, but of the will of God." He demonstrates what God can do in the life that is humble, repentant, full of faith and obedience.
Then there is Herod! Herod is the perfect example of meanness and selfishness. He is a man out of control. All of the baser instincts of the human soul came to public fruition in this godless man.
He bought the right to rule over the Jews. He murdered his mother and sons to remove heirs to the throne. He ordered that upon his death his soldiers should proceed with a mass murder to insure that there would be grief in the land during his own funeral. Here is a man of wickedness doomed for eternal damnation.