The Bible

Matthew 2:1-12 : The Story of the Wise Men

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1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

6 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

Study the Inner Meaning

Commentary on this chapter:


Explanation(s) or references from Swedenborg's works:

Arcana Coelestia 113, 117, 1171, 2135, 3249, 3762, 4262 ...

Apocalypse Revealed 277, 913

Sacred Scripture 23

True Christian Religion 205

Show references from Swedenborg's unpublished works

Spiritual Topics:

Prophecies About Jesus


Departing into Our Own Country Another Way

The wise men are warned in a dream, not to return to Herod.

As the Christmas season winds down, there is with most of us a mix of emotions – some gratitude, some sadness, perhaps a little wistfulness, a blend of inspired, happy memories and much food for thought. In addition there is the hope and promise of a new year with all its important possibilities for natural and spiritual growth. Where will we be a year from now, and what will we have learned? How will we feel, and who will be sharing their feelings with us? Why will we make the particular decisions that take us into the next new year?

In Psalm 20, David offers a beautiful prayer of blessing for all who trust in the Lord:

"May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble; may the name of the God of Jacob defend you; may He send you help from the sanctuary, and strengthen you out of Zion; may He remember all your offerings, and accept your burnt sacrifice. Selah. May He grant you according to your heart's desire, and fulfill all your purpose... May the Lord fulfill all your petitions." (Psalms 20:1-5).

The prayer, of course, does not stop there, but goes on to acknowledge the power of the Lord and our need to trust Him if we are to receive these blessings. So as we read in the Heavenly Doctrines, the whole Psalm really is about redemption and salvation by the Lord. He is the one who provides for all our needs, and He has done so, at least initially, by coming into the world to bring the hells under control, to restore order in the heavens, and to establish His church on earth (True Christian Religion 84).

The fact is, the Lord HAS answered us in the day of trouble; the name, that is, the pure love and wisdom of the God of Jacob HAS defended us. He HAS sent us help from the sanctuary of heaven so that the desires of our hearts could be granted, our petitions fulfilled. The theme of the 20th Psalm is carried further in the 37th Psalm,

"Do not fret because of evildoers, nor be envious of the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." (Psalms 37:1-4).

It's not as if the Lord will give us anything we want, but if we want what He wants, and we take delight in that, He will bring it to pass, as He actually gives us the desires that fill our hearts. In the Christmas story we read of many whose inmost desires were fulfilled by the Lord's coming: Zacharias and Elizabeth were given a son in their old age; Mary was granted to be the mother of the Lord; the shepherds the wise men, Simeon and Anna all saw the fulfillment of ancient prophecies in their lives. But then what? How did these characters respond to these events in the days and years afterward? What became of them and what did they DO as a result of their extraordinary experiences?

It's at least interesting that hardly anything is said about any of them after the Lord's birth. But what little is said shows the impact it had on them. Simeon in his old age declared that his whole life had been fulfilled, saying, "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word" (Luke 2:29). Anna, although very old as well, "spoke of Him to all who looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38). Mary appears from time to time as a background figure in her role as mother, but, significantly, she is only quoted twice in all the Gospels after the birth story (Matt. 12:46, John 2:5), and on both occasions she seems bewildered by the whole experience – although she followed Jesus all the way to the cross (John 19:26). Zacharias and Elizabeth simply drop out of the picture. As for the shepherds, after they visited the infant Lord at the manger they "returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen," but that's all we know.

It's only in the story of the wise men who came from the east to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem to worship this Child that we are given any slight indication of how this event really affected their lives. And although it is slight it is important, for in the few words that are said, with an appreciation of their spiritual implications, we can see the most vital issue of the Lord's birth coming to life in simple human terms: – "Then, being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way."

What a simple sentence this is, but how full of meaning! Every word is expressive, every phrase instructive. It is something we can easily remember and reflect on as we, like the wise men, return to our normal lives after the very special events of this season. And it is something that may give us encouragement as we ponder the questions posed a few minutes ago: Where are we going in our lives? How are we getting there? Why? And who's going with us?

There has been a lot of scholarly speculation about who the wise men were and where they came from, and what exactly led them to Bethlehem. There was a television program years ago about astronomical research into the star and the Magi, who were supposed to have been Babylonian astrologers, taking note of a unique alignment of planets in the night sky.

The Writings tell us that they were students of the ancient Word, men who knew and understood the spiritual meaning of the prophecies foretelling the Advent thousands of years before it took place. The star represented their knowledge, indeed their insights about this. They may or may not have been studying the night sky and they may or may not have had royal status. But what we do know is that they found the Messiah, and it changed their lives, for "being warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way."

Let's consider this statement phrase by phrase: – first, that they were warned in a dream. Most translations say they were Divinely warned, or warned by God, but there's no such reference in the original Greek. They were simply warned in a dream. The "warning" part is a big Greek word derived from a root that has to do with the practical uses of life, including the transaction of business, particularly the consulting and deliberation that has to do with business. So it is a word with a very pragmatic focus, and when it refers to someone being acted on, rather than someone taking action, it carries the sense of warning, caution, or advice given after very careful thought.

So how do you suppose the wise men were warned? Did God suddenly appear to them in a blaze of light and tell them what to do? No. The word suggests a lot of deep thought and careful reflection. These men were wise because they used their heads. They knew the teachings of the ancient Word and they spent serious time reflecting on their meaning. So they were able to be enlightened in the practical business of their daily lives.

The same principle applies to us. We're not likely to be jolted out of some complacent passivity by a lightning bolt of revelation saying "Do this," or "Don't do that." We, too, if we want to be wise, need to dedicate real time and effort to the study of Divine revelation. Then the Lord can teach us without imposing on our freedom, and lead us according to our own determination.

But we read that the wise men were warned "in a dream." What does this mean? Well, dreams normally occur at night, when we are asleep, and this represents a state of obscurity, a state of mind in which we don't have much clarity or control. But to be warned in a dream is to be enlightened; it is to get a clear, purposeful message in an otherwise obscure, confusing state. It is, perhaps, like seeing a lighthouse through a fog at sea. And as in the case of a lighthouse the wise men were not especially told what to DO, but what to avoid, what NOT to do. This makes perfect sense in our own lives, too, because when we are in states of darkness or obscurity the first and most important thing we can do is to step away from what is harmful or disorderly, or as the Writings put it, shun evils as sins against the Lord. Only when we do that are we in a position to receive anything genuinely good from Him without corrupting it in one way or another.

So what was the warning to the wise men? Of course! "...that they should not return to Herod," the epitome of self-love and the love of the world. Now this is interesting. The wise men were wise because of their dedication to the Word. But they had come to a place – Jerusalem – which at that time represented a religion corrupted by evils and falsities. And it's not hard to see how this represents at least some of the temptations any wise person might encounter on his – or her – journey to find the Lord, for despite the wisdom we all have we are all born into natural and selfish loves, and if we're not careful these loves will drag us down. Sure, they guide us to the Lord, but not for HIS sake. They always want to know "What's in it for ME?" or "What am I going to get out of it?" That said, it's worth noting that while they were in the sphere of such loves and the falsities that went with them the wise men couldn't even see the star. But when they left Herod and continued to Bethlehem the star appeared again. Surely this experience taught them a valuable lesson, and it shows us, too, how self-interest or love of the world can corrupt our thinking.

So when we come to see the Lord, and really appreciate all that He stands for, like the wise men we cannot turn back. We cannot go back to the selfish attitudes or any of the old falsities represented by the place where Herod ruled. Rather, as we read, the wise men "departed into their own country another way," and so must we.

Here again, a single word carries a lot of nuances: in the original Greek "depart" is based on a root meaning to lift up or hold high. From this we get the sense of upholding or continuing, that is, carrying on in a certain way. It also suggests strength and endurance, as when someone holds up or holds out for something. With all this in mind the word in this case describes not only the return of the wise men but actually their continuation in the strength of their profound experience. Their perseverance. Their determination.

This is important as we think about what can happen in our own lives. When we see the Lord for ourselves in any particular situation; when we see His love, His wisdom, or what He wants for us, and we recognize that and acknowledge it, then we have a special responsibility to apply it in our daily lives, that is, to uphold it and continue in it with real determination. In fact, it is very dangerous for us not to do this, since we run the risk of profanation, which is a permanent, inseparable mingling of goodness and truth with evil and falsity in our minds, leading to an impossibly conflicted life. So, just as the wise men risked being killed if they went back to Herod, our own spiritual lives are threatened if we go back to the loves of self and the world after we have come to see the Lord in our lives. "No one having put his hand to the plow and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).

But the Word goes on to say. "They departed into their own country...." This, too, is an important concept because the Greek word for country here really means any particular place, use, function or position that is properly our own. Of course it means "country," too, but the point is that we can easily relate to the phrase when we know its whole meaning as describing the opportunities and responsibilities the Lord has given each one of us according to our individual skills, insights and loves. Like the wise men we can go back to our jobs, our functions, our uses, our personal relationships; we can go back to whatever positions we hold in life and carry on – but completely changed and with a whole new perspective.

So we read that the wise men went back "another way." And we too must go back "another way." Now of course a way literally is a road or path, but it is also a spiritual life determined by our understanding of what is true and good. So it has to do with what we call doctrine, our way of thinking about what the Lord presents to us. And the truth is, when we come to see the Lord in our lives, and all the potential that He represents, we begin to think differently about everything. We speak differently, we make our daily decisions differently, we live differently; we go in strength and confidence, and with determination into our own country another way. In fact, if the vision of the Lord in His Divine Humanity does not change our lives, especially our inner lives, our attitudes and thought processes, we are in real danger. But if it does, and being warned in a dream that we should not return to Herod, we return instead to our proper places, our special uses, inspired and determined more than ever to live according to the truths of His Word, then surely in this and in every New Year He will answer us in the day of trouble, He will defend us, He will help us and strengthen us; He will remember our offerings and our sacrifices. He will give us the desires of our hearts; He will fulfill all our purpose, and He will, as David said, fulfill all our petitions.

(References: True Christian Religion 571)

From Swedenborg's Works

Arcana Coelestia #10252

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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10252. 'The best myrrh' means the perception of truth on the level of the senses. This is clear from the meaning of 'odour-bearing myrrh' as the perception of truth on the level of the senses; for its 'odour' means perception, as immediately above, and 'myrrh' truth on the level of the senses. The subject in the verses that come now is the anointing oil, by which celestial good, which is the Divine Good of the Lord's Divine Love in the inmost heaven, is meant. The nature of that good is described by the fragrant substances from which it was made. These were the best myrrh, sweet-smelling cinnamon, sweet-smelling calamus, cassia, and olive oil, which mean celestial truths and forms of good in their proper order, that is to say, ranging from those which are last and lowest in order to those which are first, or from those which are outermost to those which are inmost, the last or outermost being meant by 'myrrh'. The reason why celestial good, or the good of the inmost heaven, is described in this manner is that the truths meant by those spices are the means by which such good comes into being and is also kept in being.

[2] But since this matter demands to be investigated more deeply, the whole nature of it must be explained more fully. In order that the birth of celestial good, which is inmost good, may take place in a person, which is accomplished through being regenerated by the Lord, truths must be acquired from the Word, or from the teachings of the Church which are drawn from the Word. These truths first find 1 their seat in the memory within the natural or external man. From there they are summoned by the Lord into the internal man, which happens when the person leads a life in keeping with them. And so far as the person has an affection for them, that is, loves them, they are raised by the Lord to an even higher or more internal level, where they are transformed into celestial good.

[3] Celestial good is the good of the love which desires to put truths from the Word into practice for the sake of good, thus for the Lord's sake since the Lord is the source of good and therefore is such good. This is how that good comes to be born, from which it is evident that such good is brought into being by means of truths from the Word, first by their presence on the most external level in a person, which is that of the senses, then by their being raised to an internal level, and finally to the inmost one itself, where those truths are transformed into celestial good. And since that good is brought into being in this way by means of truths in their own order, so subsequently is it kept in being in similar order by means of those very truths; for continuance in being is a perpetual coming into being. When good is kept in being in that manner, the same as it had been brought into being, it is complete. For now higher things descending in order have lower ones to depend on as an infrastructure for their continued existence, for a resting-place, and for a plane of support.

[4] And they have outermost or last and lowest ones, which are truths present within knowledge on the level of the senses, as a foundation. These truths are described in John, in the Book of Revelation, by the precious stones forming the foundations of the wall of the Holy Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, Revelation 21:19-20. By 'precious stones' God's truths received within good are meant, see Arcana Coelestia 9476, 9863, 9873, 9905.

The fact that 'odour-bearing myrrh' means truth on the level of the senses is also clear in David,

You have loved righteousness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions. With myrrh, aloes, and kessia 2 [He has anointed] all Your garments. Psalms 45:7-8.

These words refer to the Lord, who alone is Jehovah's Anointed, because the Divine Good of Divine Love, meant by 'anointing oil', was within Him, Arcana Coelestia 9954. By 'His garments', which are said to have been anointed with myrrh, aloes, and kessia, Divine Truths springing from His Divine Good, present in the natural degree, are meant, Arcana Coelestia 5954, 9212, 9216, 9814, so that 'myrrh' means Divine Truth on the level of the senses since it is mentioned first.

(References: Psalms 45:8-9)

[5] In Matthew,

Opening their treasures the wise men from the east offered gifts to the new-born Lord - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11.

'Gold' here means good, 'frankincense' internal truth, and 'myrrh' external truth; both kinds of truth spring from good. In this instance 'gold' is the first to be mentioned because it means good, which is inmost; 'frankincense' is the second because it means internal truth springing from good; and 'myrrh' is the third or last to be mentioned because it means external truth springing from good. For the meaning of 'gold' as good, see in the places referred to in Arcana Coelestia 9874, 9881; and for that of 'frankincense' as internal truth springing from good, see below at verse 34 of the present chapter.

[6] The wise men from the east offered those gifts to the Lord born at that time to indicate His Divinity within His Humanity; for having a knowledge of correspondences and representations they knew what gold, frankincense, and myrrh each served to mean. That knowledge was the chief kind that existed in those times among Arabs, Ethiopians, and others in the east, which also explains why in the Word those who possess cognitions or knowledge of heavenly things are meant in the internal sense by Arabia, Ethiopia, and 'the sons of the east', Arcana Coelestia 1171, 3240, 3242, 3762. But such knowledge during that time perished, for when the good of life passed away the knowledge was turned into magic. First it was erased among the Israelite nation, and subsequently among all the rest. At the present day it has been erased to such an extent that people do not even know of its existence; indeed it is so completely absent from the Christian world that if anyone tells them that all things in the literal sense of the Word serve by virtue of their correspondence to mean heavenly realities, and that these constitute its internal sense, they do not know what to make of it.

[7] Because myrrh served to mean the most external truth, which is truth on the level of the senses, and perception of that truth, the bodies of those who had died were anointed in former times with myrrh and aloes. That anointing served to mean the preservation of all of a person's truths and forms of good, and also to mean resurrection. Therefore also such [spices] were used as served to mean the last and lowest level of a person's life, called the life of the senses. The Lord's body was anointed with such, and together with them was wrapped in a linen cloth; and this was the custom among the Jews, see John 19:39-40, and also Luke 23:55-56. But it should be remembered that things said in the Word about the Lord Himself are to be understood in a pre-eminent sense. Consequently the spices mentioned in those verses mean His Divine life on the level of the senses, which is the life proper to the body, and also the resurrection of this with Him. As is well known, unlike anyone else the Lord rose again with the whole body He had in the world, for He left nothing in the tomb. Therefore also, when the disciples beheld the Lord and thought that they were seeing a spirit, He said to them,

Why are you troubled? See My hands and My feet; handle Me, see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see Me have. Luke 24:38-39.


1. Reading nanciscuntur (find) for nascuntur (are born)
2. The Hebrew word which appears inPsalms 45:8 is q'tsi-oth, the plural of q'tsi-ah, while that in Exodus 30:24 and Ezekiel 27:19 is qiddah. Nowadays both Hebrew words are taken to mean cassia; but the unusual spelling kessia is used to show the difference.


(References: Exodus 30:5, 30:23; Luke 23:53, 23:56)

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