The Bible

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

Study the Inner Meaning

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:

Stories:

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Show references from Swedenborg's unpublished works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


Commentary

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 #9594

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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9594. 'And you shall make the dwelling-place' means the second or middle heaven. This is clear from the meaning of 'the dwelling-place', when it refers to the Divine, as heaven - the middle or second heaven, strictly speaking. It is well known that there are three heavens, namely the inmost, middle, and lowest, or third, second, and first. All these heavens were represented by the tabernacle; the inmost or third heaven was represented by the ark where the Testimony was, the middle or second heaven by the dwelling-place where the table for the loaves of the Presence and the lampstand were, and the lowest or first heaven by the court. The reason why there are three heavens is that there are three degrees of life with the human being. (Human beings, who become angels after death, constitute heaven; angels have no other beginning, and the heavens spring from no other source.) The inmost degree of his life exists for the inmost heaven, the middle degree of life for the middle heaven, and the lowest for the lowest heaven. And because the human being is like this, or has been so formed, and heaven springs from the human race, there are three heavens.

[2] These degrees of life with a person are opened up in successive stages. The first degree is opened up by a life led in accord with what is right and fair, the second degree by a life in accord with the truths of faith drawn from the Word and with forms of the good of charity towards the neighbour that follow on from those truths, and the third degree by a life in accord with the good of mutual love and the good of love to the Lord. These virtues are the means by which those three degrees of life with a person, and so the three heavens with him, are opened up in successive stages. But it should be recognized that to the extent that a person departs from good in life and moves towards evil in life those degrees are closed, that is, the heavens with him are closed; for just as good in life opens them, so evil in life closes them. This being so, all who are steeped in evil are outside heaven, thus are in hell. It should also be recognized that with some people - since the heavens with a person are opened up in successive stages according to the good present in his life, as stated above - the first heaven and not the second is opened up; that with some others the second heaven and not the third is opened up; but that the third heaven is opened up solely with those governed by good in life springing from love to the Lord. For the human being is heaven in its smallest form, and has been created so as to conform to an image of heaven and of the world, see the places referred to in Arcana Coelestia 9279.

[3] There is therefore an inmost heaven, represented by the ark of the Testimony, which was the subject in the previous chapter; a middle heaven, represented by the dwelling-place, which is the subject in the present chapter; and a lowest heaven, represented by the court, which is the subject in the next chapter. Heaven is called God's dwelling-place because what is Divine and the Lord's dwells there; for Divine Truth emanating from the Lord's Divine Good is what makes heaven, indeed gives life to the angels there. And since the Lord dwells with angels in that which comes from Him, Arcana Coelestia 9338 (end), heaven is called God's dwelling-place, and the actual Divine Truths emanating from Divine Good, which angels or angelic communities are recipients of, are called dwellings, as in David,

Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me, let them lead me to [Your] holy mountain and to Your dwellings, that I may go in to the altar of God, to God ... Psalms 43:3-4.

In the same author,

There is a river whose streams will make glad the city of God, the holy place of the dwellings of the Most High. Psalms 46:4.

In the same author,

Down to the ground 1 they have profaned the dwelling-place of Your name. Psalms 74:7.

In the same author,

How lovely are Your dwellings, O Jehovah! Psalms 84:1.

[4] The fact that the Divine realities which emanate from the Lord's Divine Human are what are rightly called 'dwellings', as a result of which heaven itself is called 'the dwelling-place', is also clear in David,

He swore to Jehovah, he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob, Surely I will not give sleep to my eyes, until I find a place for Jehovah, the dwelling-places for the Mighty One of Jacob. Behold, we heard of Him in Ephrathah, we found Him in the fields of the wood. We will enter His dwelling-places. Psalms 132:2, 4-7.

'The Mighty One of Jacob' is the Lord's Divine Human, Arcana Coelestia 6425. 'Ephrathah', where He was to be found, is Bethlehem where He was born, Genesis 35:19; 48:7; Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:5-6. 'The fields of the wood' are the forms of good composing the Church among gentiles.

(References: Matthew 2:4-6)


[5] In Ezekiel,

They will dwell in the land which I gave to My servant Jacob. They will dwell in it, they [and their sons] and their sons' sons forever. And David My servant will be their prince forever. I will make with them a covenant of peace; it will be an eternal covenant with them. And I will set My sanctuary in their midst forever; so shall My dwelling-place be among them. Ezekiel 37:25-27.

'David, who will be their prince forever' stands for the Lord, Arcana Coelestia 1888; 'the sanctuary' (sanctuarium) stands for the Lord's Divine Human, since He is the source of all holiness (sanctum), Arcana Coelestia 3210, 9229, so that 'dwelling-place' stands for heaven and for the Church, where the Lord is.

(References: Ezekiel 37:25, 37:27)


[6] In Jeremiah,

Thus said Jehovah, Behold, I will bring back the captivity 2 of the tents of Jacob, and will have compassion on his dwellings, that the city may be built upon its mound. Jeremiah 30:18.

'Bringing back the captivity of the tents of Jacob' stands for restoring the external Church's forms of good and truths which had been destroyed, 'having compassion on his dwellings' for restoring the internal Church's truths, 'the city which was to be built upon its mound' for doctrinal teachings about the truth, Arcana Coelestia 2449, 2943, 3216, 4492, 4493.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 4492-4493)


[7] How the Lord dwells in the heavens may be seen from what has been shown previously regarding the Lord, that is to say, where it has been shown that the Lord's Divine Human is the Sun, the source of heat and light in the heavens. The heat radiating from the Lord as the Sun is love, while the light is faith. The Lord therefore dwells with those who receive from Him the good of love and the truth of faith, which are the heat and light of life; and how fully He is present depends on their degree of receptivity.

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Footnotes:

1. literally, Into the earth or land
2. i.e. restore the fortunes

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(References: Exodus 26:1)

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