What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
- William C. Dix, The Manger Throne, 1865.
Even though I don’t carry a tune very well, I love to sing Christmas carols! They call up memories of Nana visiting our house for several days around Christmas every year, dusting off the seldom-used baby grand piano in the den, and filling the house with their sweet strains. Those were the wonder years, before I lost my hearing at age seven…
Yes, the music of the classic hymns of the season is beautiful. Yet more than their melodies, it is the words we should linger over and savor for the message they convey. What Child Is This is one of those treasured songs of the season that turn our thoughts from the mundane to a contemplation of things of a deeply spiritual nature. Join me, won’t you, in a brief meditation inspired by this song?
A dominant theme of this hymn is “Christ the king,” the “King of kings.” Put another way, it is about the Messiah, the Anointed Ruler, for “Christ” is an anglicized form of christos, the Greek rendering for the Hebrew term mashiaḥ, “anointed.” Our knowledge about spiritual matters is only correct to the degree it matches with what inspired Scripture reveals, so how do the words of the song compare with the biblical text? Two particular passages of Scripture piqued my interest in this regard (ESV):
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’” (Matthew 2:1-6).
This passage in Matthew is worth examining in more than a superficial manner. Their reference to the “king of the Jews” shows that the wise men, or magi, clearly knew their Old Testament. Some skeptics try to make a big deal out of the textual differences between Micah and Matthew, as if Matthew misquoted Micah and this alleged misquote indicates the Scriptures contain errors. That, however, is a false premise, for the passage tells us not that Matthew is quoting the Hebrew text of Micah, but is quoting the chief priests and scribes of his day, in a way that reflects their apparently paraphrased, yet still fundamentally accurate, understanding of Micah 5:2. The Bible of Herod’s time was primarily the Greek Septuagint, so the differences in the wording of Micah and Matthew can easily be attributed to different underlying manuscripts. In the end, what we know without doubt is that there are no contradictions of fact between the Hebrew of Micah 5 and what the chief priests and scribes told Herod: Bethlehem Ephrathah was indeed in the land of Judah; though the hometown of Israel’s greatest king, David, it was a relatively small village; and the ruler to come was to be over all of Israel.
Of particular note is the concept the magi had of this King of the Jews, not that of the chief priests and scribes. As Matthew relates the story, no indication is given they told Herod anything more than that a ruler of the Jews had been born. Nothing was said about the “where” of this birth; in fact, they had to resort to asking for directions, forcing Herod to make further inquiries of others. They knew enough, though, to realize that a King of the Jews had come, and that this King was deserving of worship, not merely honor and respect! They regarded this birth as such a significant event, it warranted a long trek over rugged country to an unfamiliar land far from home.
What might the magi, residents of a distant country for whom an ordinary king would have scarcely merited their attention, have known that drew them to the little village where David had been born a millennium earlier? Although we cannot be absolutely certain of their homeland, since the word magus is of Persian origin (modern Iran), it is quite likely that they hailed from there. Daniel and a sizeable group of Jewish exiles had lived in Babylon, bringing with them their Scriptures and the knowledge of the One True God. These Scriptures would have included scrolls of the prophet Isaiah (lived 739-685 BC), while the prophets Jeremiah (627-580 BC) and Ezekiel (593-570 BC) were contemporaries of the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC). His defeat of Jerusalem resulted in the deportation of its inhabitants to Babylon in 587 BC, an exile which lasted until 539 BC. At that time the Medes and Persians took over the Babylonian empire, inheriting the knowledge the educated had acquired about the Jewish Scriptures.
Here are a few of the Old Testament passages that could have provided the magi with their concept of the King of the Jews (ESV):
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this (Isa 9:6-7).
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins (Isa 11:1-5).
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:6-9).
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness” (Jer 33:14-16).
And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore (Eze 37:22-28).
This is an impressive amount of information that the magi could have been aware of from studying the Hebrew Scriptures. When I compare it with our hymn and the popular concept of this King of the Jews today, though, I find the two pictures do not match that well. The hymn gives us the sense most of us seem to default to when we are caught up in its beauty: it speaks of Jesus figuratively “reigning” in our hearts. This is made most clear in the third stanza when we sing, “The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone Him.” But we must ask, does this match up with the picture the Bible gives us? The hymn presents us with a non-literal view of the kingship of Jesus that humanity on the whole is quite comfortable with, not only at Christmas but all through the year. It puts Jesus in heaven and keeps Him there, where He does not meddle in the affairs of men and nations. As I look over the compilation of verses above, however, I am struck by how earthly their focus is! Do you not see it?
Isaiah writes that this King, who will be called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” – and as such is truly worthy of the worship the magi offered – will sit upon the throne of David and reign over a kingdom characterized by an expanding and never-ending government. Since the historical throne of David was located in Jerusalem, it is apparent that by traveling to Israel, the magi at least reached the right country! Moreover, Isaiah’s King is said to be a just, righteous Judge, such that “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” – “holy mountain” being an expression characteristic of the literal land of Israel – “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” – the whole earth, not just Israel, and not heaven. And even more incredibly, the prophet adds that in this mortal kingdom where people will procreate and bring forth little children, the world of nature will no longer be “red in tooth and claw.” One begins to get the impression that the magi were seeking to do homage not to the idea of a spiritualized, heavenly king, but to a real Ruler of the Jews.
What about Jeremiah? This prophet tells us that the King the magi worshiped will be a literal descendant of King David, who as Judge will “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” If the realm which He rules over is “in the land,” where can it be but in the land of Israel? Besides, we are informed that in the days of His reign, “Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely.” The obvious way to understand these references to ethnic Jews and the city of Jerusalem is not to interpret them figuratively, as referring to His “reign” in our hearts, but to a literal political rule over human beings.
The picture that is emerging appears to be fully fleshed out in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37. “And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel,” can be taken at face value, and has a lot of faith value when one does so. He will first regather all Israel back to their homeland, which we can see unfolding today before our very eyes. “And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.” No more will there be the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but they will all be one people under one King. And moreover, He will also save them from their sins: “But I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” Under this King of the Jews, this greater Son of David, at that time “They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived.” This verse securely anchors the prophecy in the real world, in the literal land of Israel where the Twelve Tribes lived. It cannot be figuratively understood; only a future kingdom in Israel makes any sense. To paraphrase Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings:
One King to rule them all, One King to find them,
One King to bring them all, and by His love refine them,
In the Land of Promise where your fathers dwelt.
Ezekiel continues: “They and their children and their children's children [mortal, procreating human beings] shall dwell there forever, and David my servant [Jesus, the Messiah, prefigured in David] shall be their prince forever.” It will be a time of unparalleled blessing as long as this present earth endures, the fulfillment of the words of the prophets when understood in a straightforward manner. Contemplating it should cause an upwelling of deep joy and worship in our hearts at having such a truly good and great King to look forward to! This is the only kind of King who could have drawn the magi to undertake their long journey, and to offer up not only their rich gifts but their worship as well.
In closing, as we approach Christmas and enjoy the Christmas carols and all the other blessings of this sacred season, may we not merely figuratively enthrone Jesus Christ in our hearts, but look forward to His coming again as King of kings and Lord of lords as well. Certainly, He brings salvation to us in the here and now, causing us to be born again when we yield our wills to His and allow Him to metaphorically “reign” in our hearts. But we should not lose sight of this fact: the magi sought after One who would someday literally reign in Israel as King of the Jews. Let us do likewise.