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It was a company of Magi. They were the learned class among the people of the east, employed chiefly with the study of religion, medicine, and astronomy, including the superstitious observance and worship of the heavenly bodies, to which were assigned special influences over the destinies of men. The evening sky was to these Magi their book of revelation. Each orb and constellation had a certain character and certain influences ascribed to it; and in advising kings, in going forth with them to battle, and in directing the movements of armies, the Magi noted carefully what constellations and planets were in the ascendant. The nearness of one of the planets to the earth at the birth of a royal personage was used to foretell his character, and that of his reign.
For some time previous to the Saviour's birth, there was a wide-spread expectation among the nations, that a king was soon to be born who would rule the whole world. By means of the captivity of the Jews, their expectation of the Messiah, founded on the prophecies of their sacred books, was, of course, widely known; and these prophecies represented that Judea would be his birthplace, that he would be a benevolent king, bringing abundance of peace to the whole human race, the author of a golden age, unparalleled blessings from Heaven attending his reign, so that he became, long before his birth, according to the prediction of one of the Hebrew prophets, “ the desire of all nations.”
About the time of the Saviour's birth, it pleased God to publish the event in far distant Persia, by a method coinciding with the habits of the people in the east. Toward the west, the astrologers saw an unusual meteor; their books of science and their astronomical calculations had made no provision for such a sign, but, as the new king of the Jews was then expected, they hailed that strange orb as the announcement of his birth. We see the forbearance and kindness of God in thus falling in with the superstitions of these idolaters.
Had this star been one of the regular heavenly bodies, it is plain that no such unusual impression would have been made by it as was made by this new sign in the heavens. The evening star had always been seen in the west without exciting any special attention ; the special brightness of a fixed star, for several nights in succession, would not have roused the Magi in so extraordinary a manner.
It is well known that the celebrated mathematician, Kepler, regarded the star of the wise men as the result of a conjunction between three heavenly bodies, such as occurred in the year of our Lord 1604, when Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars blended their rays, as he supposed; those planets being, at that time, in the sign of the Fishes, and a heavenly body then shed
ding forth a strange and wonderful light in that quarter. Kepler calculated the conjunction of these planets as having taken place, with two of them, in the year of Rome 747, and with the three, in 748; in one of which years it is generally agreed that Christ was born. Some, who wish to reduce the number of miracles in the Bible, and the corresponding tax upon their faith, as low as possible, account in this manner for the star which the wise men saw. But even if the star had an orbit among the regular stars, its sudden appearance makes no great demand upon credulity, for He who “maketh peace in his high places” has, from the beginning, led forth, and has also taken away, heavenly bodies from the eyes of
An illustration of this is the celebrated star, first described by Tycho Brahe, which appeared on an evening of November, 1572, in the sign of Cassiopēia. It surpassed, in size and brilliancy, the planet Jupiter, and was visible sometimes at noon, which is never the case with any other planet but Venus. When other heavenly bodies were hidden by clouds, this new and strange orb was frequently seen through them. Its color was, at different times, white, yellow, red, gray, and leaden blue. In sixteen months from its first appearance it passed away, and has never since that time reappeared. This may serve to help the faith of some with regard to the appearance of a new and singular heavenly body at the birth of Christ. But there is the strongest reason to believe that the star which appeared to the wise men was not a fixed, nor a regular planetary, orb.*
God, who ordained it for a special purpose, disposed the minds of the Magi to fulfil that purpose, by creating among them an enthusiasm with regard to the wonderful sign in the west. Night after night, perhaps, they watched the stranger, till, at length, all doubt that it heralded a royal birth departed. It hung in the west toward Judea, the region where they had been expecting that a great king would soon appear; and their long-cherished interest in that event was greatly quickened by the special appointment, as it were, of a messenger which seemed to beckon them. They could not resist the divine call. No more would they watch the Pleiades, till they had followed after that new star. Arcturus and his sons might, for a season, measure their zone, the crooked Serpent sweep through his orbit, and the sworded Orion lie along the sky, unheeded, as to any prophetic signs in their spheres. The Star of Jacob was then in the ascendant, and filled the thoughts of the wise men; and so, impelled by an invisible hand, a company of them commenced a pilgrimage toward Jerusalem.
* See “ The Star of the Wise Men, being a Commentary on the second Chapter of Matthew, by Richard Chevenix Trench, B. D. ;" to which valuable treatise I am greatly indebted in revising this Sermon for the
Interesting men! We love you as we follow your caravan in its dreary way along the beaten road or pathless wastes. None ever braved the desert for an object so great as that which excites your zeal.
The presence of a deputation of Magi from the east, in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews ?” moved the whole city. No doubt the Magi expected to find Jerusalem excited with joy at the birth of the new king. “We have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him ;” to join with you
your joy, and bring you the congratulations of the eastern world.
Herod the Great was now in the thirty-fifth year of his reign. The appearance of a successor independently of him, of course, filled him with consternation; and whatever disturbed him, especially if it were the prospect of being supplanted, would fill Jerusalem with apprehensions of political disturbance, inasmuch as the Magi might prove to be the representatives of some combination in behalf of a new civil power.
So far was Herod from knowing that Christ was born, that he called the Jewish scribes, (for he was an Edomite,) and inquired of them what place their sacred books named as the Messiah's birthplace. It appears strange, perhaps, that, having ascertained