CHAPTER 6: WE THREE KINGS?
You know the song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are?” Lies, it’s all lies. Where do we even start in tearing this fiction apart? Well, first of all, they weren’t kings. Also, there weren’t three of them.
Okay, I guess that about summarizes what we get wrong about the wise men. But let’s not throw out that carol entirely. Because hidden in its forgotten verses is the meaning of the Magi, and the glory of Christmas itself.
First, who were these wise men, if they weren’t kings? Let’s look at the biblical text, from Matthew chapter 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.”
The Greek word translated “wise men” is magi, from which we get our English word “magic.” The magi were pagan astrologers, interested in how the movements of the stars affected life on earth. The twelve signs of the zodiac, which supposedly determine aspects of your personality based on what constellation was in the sky when you were born, were developed by the magi. You can thank them for the silly horoscope in your local newspaper every week. So, when you think of the magi, think less “we three kings” and more “we three fortune tellers.” What in the world are these guys doing in the Christmas story?
Well, one clue comes from the nature of the star itself, which we’ll tackle in the next chapter. Another clue comes from the wise men’s origin. All we’re told in the story is that they were “wise men from the east.” This probably means that they were from the eastern school of magi located in Babylon (there were several centers of astrological study throughout the ancient world, Babylon being the “eastern school” and the most prestigious of them). The eastern school of magi was probably founded by Daniel and other Jewish exiles during the exile in Babylon. (We’re told in Daniel 2 that Daniel was promoted to chief over all the magi there). The Jewish origins of the eastern school of magi would explain why these astrologers were so interested in a Jewish king that they made the months-long journey from Babylon to Jerusalem to find him.
It’s strange that foreign astrologers would come and bow down to Jesus. But it’s the gifts they bring that are the most unusual. Gold and frankincense and myrrh are not typically on a gift registry for a baby shower. What is the significance of these gifts?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were standard gifts to royalty or deity in the ancient world. They were typically offered at the coronation of a king, or the dedication of a temple. In fact, Isaiah 60:6 looks forward to the nations coming to the glory of the Messiah and anticipates these very gifts: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.”
Gold , obviously, was a royal gift fit for a king. Frankincense was a type of incensed perfume burned during temple worship. And myrrh was an expensive anointing oil, used at both coronations and burials. These three gifts show the significance of the child they bowed to: he was the King of Kings, he was to be worshipped, and he was the promised Anointed One who had come not just to reign but to die.
It’s the meaning of the gifts that rescues the carol “We Three Kings” from absurdity. Toss out the first line about three kings, and the rest of the carol is incredibly profound. Each verse unpacks the significance of a gift of the magi, and the final verse (often forgotten by carolers today) ties it all together with the gospel—this child is King and God and Sacrifice.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain;
Gold I bring to crown Him again.
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God Most High!
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise:
King and God and Sacrifice.
Earth to heaven replies!