Gifts Fit for a King

Did you know that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus at his birth have multiple precedents in the Bible that Jesus read? Consider this story from the life of Solomon:

When the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions. Arriving with a very great caravan — with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones — she came to Solomon and talked with him about all she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for him to explain to her. … Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. There had never been such spices as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. (2 Chron. 9:1-4, 9)

Here too we find these three unusual gifts. It also might seem strange that foreign royalty would come to give gifts to a king who was already rich. But when a powerful king arose in a country, other countries wanted to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. Solomon controlled more territory than any other Israelite king, so this was a report of royalty from very far away coming to pay tribute to him.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage is also used to describe the coming Messiah. The messiah was the promised son of David, who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, he will be king over the whole world! Psalm 72 looks ahead to when that will happen:

Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. …The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.

Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long. May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed. (Psalm 72:1, 7-12, 15, 17)

Interestingly, we see the same scene in this Psalm as happened to Solomon. Other kings would come to bow down to this great king, to bring tribute and present him with gifts, including gold from Sheba.

Sheba is at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, where Yemen is today, about 1800 miles from Israel. Sheba was known in ancient times as possessing great wealth: gold, jewels and spices. Spices don’t seem very precious to us, but in ancient times, some spices and aromatic oils were worth more than their weight in diamonds, because of their rarity and use as perfumes, incense and medicine.

There is yet another messianic prophecy in Isaiah 60 about the restoration of Zion that describes a similar scene. It says,

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. (Is 60:1-4, 6)

Here again royalty from Sheba comes, bringing gold and frankincense as gifts to Jerusalem.

This recurring image of kings coming with gifts of fabulous wealth sheds light on the significance of the story of the wise men in Matthew 2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” … On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of frankincense and of myrrh. (Matt. 2:1-6, 11) 

The wise men, probably ambassadors from the courts of other countries, wanted to see the messianic king who had been born in Israel, and to pay him homage. We can see why Herod wanted to destroy him–this king would become king over the whole world!

Only Jesus would do it a different way than Herod would. He would humble himself and die to redeem his people from their sins. As the message would go out to the world, people from all nations would repent and enter his kingdom. Gradually, his kingdom would expand, like a mustard seed, until every nation on earth would be blessed through him!


Photos: Leone Venter on Unsplash, John Romano D’Orazio [CC BY-SA 4.0], Juan de Flandes [Public domain]

Kings From Distant Lands

by Lois Tverberg

May he also rule from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. Let the nomads of the desert bow before him, and his enemies lick the dust. Let the kings of Tarshish and of the islands bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba offer gifts. And let all kings bow down before him, all nations serve him. – Psalms 72:8-11

When we read about the magi, it is a mystery who they are and where they come from. But if we understand the culture of the ancient world and read some of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messianic King, we can find out where they came from, and the incredible statement it makes about Jesus.

Three Kings

When a powerful king arose in a country, other kings would give him gifts to form alliances and show friendliness toward that nation. The verses in today’s passage from Psalm 72 are from a messianic passage with a vision of the greatness of the coming Messianic king. It names two areas where royalty should come from to honor the king – “Tarshish and the islands,” and “Sheba and Seba.” Tarshish is in modern Spain, and the islands are that of the Mediterranean. Sheba and Seba are at the southeast end of the Arabian peninsula. In the ancient world of the near east, these two areas were the limits of the known world of that time. Tarshish was as far west as one could go, and Sheba, as far east. It was if all the royalty from the ends of the earth should come to worship the Messianic king.

This picture of a king so great that other kings would come to pay homage to him was used to describe the coming Messiah. The Messiah was the promised son of David who would have a great kingdom without end. Not only would he be king over Israel, he will be king over the whole world!

Today’s verse from Psalm 72 foretells that kings from distant lands would come to give him gifts, as the queen of Sheba did for Solomon. The wise men were most likely counselors to foreign kings who were acting as ambassadors for their gentile nations. If the wise men were bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were most like like from Sheba or Seba, which is known for those things.

It is interesting how God was telling the ancient people something in language that they could understand that would one day mean something much greater. God was saying that peoples of every tongue and tribe and nation from all over the earth, including even the world they didn’t know existed, would someday worship the Messiah. As the gospel goes out to the far corners of the world, we only now see the magnificence of God’s plan.

Photo: Wonderlane

Why Frankincense and Myrrh?

by Lois Tverberg

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. – Matthew 2:11

In the story of the wise men, we often struggle to understand why they brought the gifts they did of gold, frankinscence and myrrh. It is very much related to the overall point of the story and what it says about the significance of Jesus.

Myrrh OilThe word “Messiah,” or “anointed,” alludes to the ceremony used to set apart one who is chosen by God, as a king or priest would be. Instead of being crowned during a coronation, kings were anointed with sacred oil that was perfumed with extremely expensive spices, making it like diamonds in terms of its preciousness. It would have been like putting on an invisible crown that conferred an aura of holiness. Everything that had that unique smell would be known to all as God’s special possession. After this initial anointing, kings would anoint themselves with other precious scented oils for special occasions. We read that both king David and Solomon did this:

(Song to King David) You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of joy above Your fellows. All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. (Psalm 45:7-8)

FrankincenseWhat is this coming up from the wilderness like columns of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all scented powders of the merchant? Behold, it is the traveling couch of Solomon; sixty mighty men around it, of the mighty men of Israel. (Song of Solomon 3:6-7)

So, in ancient times, the majesty of a king would be obvious to those around him, not only because of the jewels and robes that he wore, but by the scent of extremely expensive oils that were poured on him. These royal figures would process through the streets with the fragrance of the oils telling all of the bystanders that a king was passing by.

So, perhaps the wise men had brought these precious spices to anoint the king, the prophesied son of David. The wise men were proclaiming Jesus as the “anointed one,” the Messiah, the Christ, the King of Kings!

Photo: Spacebirdy and Itineranttrader

The News to the Magi

by Lois Tverberg

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

To most of us, the story of the wise men is strange. Who were they? Why would they look for a king because of a star? In different translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term “wise men” (hakamim) is often used to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners. It was common that pagan kings had magicians. We hear about them interpreting dreams of Pharoah and Nebuchadnezzar, and trying to reproduce the miracles of Moses.

One of these diviners who lived 1500 years before Jesus made a prophecy that is important for understanding why they were looking for a star. Balaam was a powerful, internationally known magician who was hired by a king to put a curse on the Israelites. But instead, God forced him to bless them and prophesy about their future. He said:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel… Numbers 24:17-18

Stars in Sky

The imagery of stars is closely associated with kings, and kings were poetically described as stars in the heavens. The poetic parallel of the word star in this passage is “scepter,” which certainly is a kingly image. The word scepter also means “comet,” also hinting that there was a tie between celestial events and earthly kings. It seems logical that the messianic king that the Jews expected was associated with a “star rising from Jacob” (meaning Israel), a celestial event that announced his arrival. Astronomers are still speculating what event was associated with Jesus and how the wise men interpreted it. It seems that when they learned by of the coming of this powerful figure, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this new ruler to pay homage for their countries.

It is interesting to note that these pagan magicians probably also used divination to gain this news. This tells us how the rest of the spiritual world reacted to the coming of Jesus. We know that the angels rejoiced to see that he was born. But it seems that all of the spiritual world was also in an uproar about the coming of this king! Not only were the angels telling the shepherds, but demons were telling the pagan magicians in distant countries about the powerful king who had arrived on earth. They knew that he would be king of all creation, and that he was more than human – he was the Son of God who would have a unique authority over the spiritual world that made the demons shake in fear. We should be reminded of the great authority and power of Christ, whose coming was not just earth-shattering, but “heaven-shattering,” rocking the spiritual world as well.

Photo: Joe Parks

Encountering Herod

by Bruce Okkema

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. – Matthew 2:1-4

King Herod, known as “Herod the Great” for his amazing military, political, financial, and architectural genius, ruled Judea from 40 BCE – 4 CE. The number and scope of projects that he was able to complete is almost unbelievable. It would appear that he had a dream team who imagined impossible projects and then found ways to accomplish them. And not just a few of these; he had palaces, temples, aqueducts, stadiums, and theaters going on all around the country — all at the same time!

herodianOne of these projects, the Herodium, 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem, is one of the most fascinating structures of all time. The upper palace/fortress was constructed as a double walled cylinder 214 feet in diameter reaching a height equivalent to a 7 storied building. This completed structure, built on top of an existing hill, towered more than 400 feet above the surrounding desert floor. For structural strength and defensive security, the base of the cylinder was covered by an artificial hill with steep embankments. The tremendous volume of earth required for this came from the top of the adjacent hill and Herod used thousands of workers to literally move a mountain from one place to another.

herodian palaceHis own upper palace was replete with courtyards, hanging gardens, a huge cistern system, bath houses, and balconies. The lower palace, despite its lack of a local water source, had lush gardens surrounding an enormous swimming pool large enough for boats to carry Herod’s guests out to a private island in the center of the pool.

The whole complex was covered in gleaming white marble and would have competed visually with the prominence of the Holy Temple just 8 miles away. “From the Herodium, Herod could see Jerusalem and Bethlehem to the northwest, and the Judean Wilderness, Masada and the Dead Sea to the east. By the use of mirrors to reflect the sun, he could communicate messages from Jerusalem to the Herodium to Masada.” (2)


As clever as Herod was, he was perhaps known more for his wickedness. He maintained his authority by terrorizing his subjects. He grew increasingly paranoid and throughout his life he had thousands of people executed — including his wife, his son, and many family members. He killed everyone who might be a threat to his reign. This he tried to do as well to baby Jesus:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matt. 2:16-18

From the shepherds of Bethlehem to the priests in Jerusalem, all would have been reminded of the presence of Herod every time they saw the volcano-like hill in the distance, or any time they encountered one of his many buildings. But what would they have been thinking? Would they have admired his ingenuity and achievements or would they have despised him and feared for their lives?

It would not be far fetched to imagine that Jesus was looking toward the Herodium when he said:

I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, `Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. Matthew 17:20

In this inspiring statement, Jesus was pointing out that it doesn’t take the abuse of thousands of workers to do what man might think is impossible. If they couldn’t see the Herodium, his listeners would have known about Herod’s moving of the mountain. He had done the “impossible” through fear, cruelty, punishment, and death; but Jesus was saying, “If you will only follow the Father, if you have even the smallest grain of faith in me, nothing will be impossible.”

The lesson we should learn from all this is that the Lord is not impressed by what we might accomplish — he is only interested in our hearts. We can also be sure that Herod, and all those like him, will one day learn that the wise men had it right.

(1) Spellings can be found as “Herodium, Herodian, and Herodion.”