Why Did the Magi Go to Herod?

A friend recently asked me this Bible knowledge question:

Why did the magi approach King Herod? After all, doing so provoked him to slaughter the boys in Bethlehem, 2 yrs. and younger (Matthew 2:1-12). If they hadn’t gone to Herod, wouldn’t that have prevented this unnecessary carnage?

Here is some helpful, related Bible study information in reply:

Who are the magi?

The magi (or wise men) were men having a longstanding tradition of studying the stars, planets and other astronomical phenomena. Most likely from the Babylon/Mesopotamia/Fertile Crescent region, they received broad respect. In contrast, they were not evil magicians and astrologers associated with the occult.

Now, when we recount the story and sing our famous hymns about the birth of Jesus, we usually promote certain details which are not accurate.

  • We say that there were three wise men, but we don’t know the actual number. In fact, there were probably many more than three, forming a large entourage. So why do we say three? Because three gifts are mentioned in Matt. 2:11 – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But these are the three kinds of gifts they gave to Jesus, not the number. They gave Christ gold, frankincense and myrrh, in unknown quantities.
  • We also imagine that they appeared at the house where Jesus was born, when Jesus was laying in the manger. But the wise men believed that Jesus had already been born when they arrived in Jerusalem (Matt. 2:2), needed adequate time (as much as 1-2 years) to make the journey by land and met Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a house where they resided, not a cave (Matt. 2:11)

Why did they travel to Jerusalem?

As scholars, the magi studied the movements, cycles, patterns and occurrences of the many celestial bodies in the solar system. They also studied various historical documents, prophecies and oral traditions passed down through generations and cultures, tracing back to the earliest generations. They may actually have believed in the Messiah prophesied throughout the Old Testament, who would be Jesus Christ. Their research and awareness of Old Testament prophecies would have confronted them with this information.

Daniel (and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) appear to have been a part of this magi tradition, or somehow related or intersected with it. The ancient Babylonian Empire would take prisoners from the nations they defeated. They would recruit men, like Daniel, from each captive nation who would be able to provide them with key insights from their background, culture, religion and tradition – looking to expand their wisdom as an Empire.

We know that Daniel was very wise, that he enjoyed leadership and influence over the empire and over the wise men and counselors to the king(s) of the Bablyonian and Syrian empires. We also know that he rigorously studied the Old Testament Scriptures available to him to learn more about God’s prophecies and promises to the Jewish nation.

In one instance, Numbers 24:17, God prophesied about the coming Messiah, speaking through Balaam (who was a Mesopotamian).

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.

If the magi were aware of this prophecy, they would have associated a future star rising from the direction of the nation of Israel with a future king rising to reign over Israel. When they noticed an unusual or noteworthy phenomenon in the sky regarding a star of some kind or another rising over Israel, they would have recognized this as a potentially significant occurrence. So they acted on what they observed and followed the star to Israel.

What actually happened when they arrived at Jerusalem?

Considering the question at hand, being “why did the magi approach King Herod,” we should notice that the magi did not immediately present themselves to King Herod. They expected to find a king who had been born somewhere in the nation of Israel, but they didn’t have a more specific location in mind. So they traveled to the most logical destination, the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem.

After they entered the city, they asked people they encountered for the whereabouts of the boy who had been born, King of the Jews. Word of these guests and their questions reached King Herod, which prompted him to do two things.

  • First, he summoned the local Jewish religious leaders and OT scholars, the scribes. He asked them where a prophesied King of the Jews might be born. They cited Micah 5:2 (cf. Matt. 2:6), but didn’t seem to know that this event had already occurred.
  • Second, he summoned the visiting wise men to a private meeting with himself. He told them the answer to their question, where the King of the Jews might be born – Bethlehem. This was the detail they didn’t know. And in exchange for this vital information, Herod asked them when the star had appeared so that he would have a point of reference to know how old the child might be already.

At the conclusion of Herod’s two meetings, he instructed the magi to return to him to report on their visit and the whereabouts of this child, after they had found him. Only after they visited Jesus did God warn them to have no further communication with Herod. They had no such warning earlier, and they had never initiated the meeting with Herod.

So why did the magi approach Herod?

  • First, they had no instructions from God to stay clear of Herod.
  • Second, they probably didn’t know that Herod was maddeningly obsessed with protecting his newfound title, given by Rome, as the King of the Jews.
  • Third, they didn’t know where in Israel the child would be born. (Note: The book of Daniel was probably written by Daniel in Babylon about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The book of Malachi was probably written about 100 years later. Unlike the prophecy of Balaam, in Num. 24:17, Daniel and subsequent wise men would not have had access to Malachi, though they would have had access to Numbers. So the wise men knew when the Messiah had been born (Num. 24:17) and the Jerusalem rabbis knew where the Messiah would be born (Micah 6:2), and God used Herod to bring these two facts together, which made it possible for the wise men to locate Jesus.

Have you ever observed a star? The star can point you in a general direction (north, south, east and west), but due to various geographical, special and astronomical factors, it is difficult to say that a star is situated above a particular city, what’s more a small village like Bethlehem, and what’s more, a particular house in Bethlehem!

The wise men knew enough from Numbers 24:17 and their observation of the movement of the stars to go to Israel, and then naturally to the capital city, Jerusalem. Once there, they inquired for more information about where in Israel the King of the Jews had been born.

What can we learn from this account? We learn that while the sitting King of the Jews (Herod) and eventually Jerusalem and the Jewish nation in general would seek to destroy the Messiah, there were Gentile scholars from a place like Bablyon who were actually looking for the Messiah and wanting to worship Him! The birth of Christ was something that some Gentiles in the world were looking for even more than the Jewish nation!

7 replies
  1. Michael Dean Brackett
    Michael Dean Brackett says:

    God used Herod to bring these two facts together, which made it possible for the wise men to locate Jesus.

    Why didn’t God figure out a way for the wise men to locate Jesus without innocent children getting slaughtered?
    Why was it beneficial to anyone that they find Jesus?
    If all the gentiles & Jews were interested in Jesus, why was he missing from scripture til his 30s?

  2. TOvermiller
    TOvermiller says:

    Michael, many terrible things happen due to our own sinful nature and the influence of evil in the world. We all die, for instance. What’s more, Jesus himself died in our place, suffering the full, just consequences for our sins so that we may receive a fully restored, eternal relationship with God. That’s why it was beneficial and necessary for them to find him; but not all Gentiles and Jews were interested to find him, as you seem to suggest. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The majority rejected him, and not until after his resurrection and ascension did many believe, and we continue to believe today. Ultimately, we must each take personal responsibility for the sins that we commit. We cannot blame God for them. That God gets anything good accomplished in the world in spite of the many terrible choices we all make is a marvel, and demonstrates his sovereignty and compassion in astounding ways. We should each turn to Jesus Christ as our Savior to deliver us from our sins and to place us into God’s eternal, forgiven family. God bless you.

  3. Michael Dean Brackett
    Michael Dean Brackett says:

    Thank you very much for your gracious reply. I’m 45 years old & I’ve been seeking answers for my own salvation. I’d don’t understand why innocent children were slaughtered. Are they old enough to have sinned? Why wouldn’t God tell them not to speak to Herod beforehand? How could they be wise if they ask Herod where’s the king of the Jews? Common sense would dictate not to. Why was it beneficial for the wise men to find Jesus? If wise men traveled for 2 years to find Jesus, wouldn’t curiousisty spread to know of his whereabouts for the next 28 years before his ministry? God bless you for any insight.

  4. TOvermiller
    TOvermiller says:

    You’re asking thought-provoking questions to be sure. I’ll attempt to provide a helpful answer to each one.

  5. 1. Every person dies because every person is a sinner by nature, and this includes children. This does not mean that every person commits the same amount of sins or degree of sin. Consider Psa 51:5, Rom 3:23, Rom 5:12. Nevertheless, the Bible does seem to indicate God somehow grants eternal life to children who die in infancy and early childhood, being unable to consciously acknowledge their sins and turn to God for salvation. Consider 2 Sam 12:23 and some helpful thoughts here. Furthermore, Herod killing these children was not an isolated event. An Egyptian pharaoh did a similar thing (Exo 1:22), and world history features countless examples of innocent people dying in terrible ways. Why does this happen? Because of sin in the human heart and the work of Satan in the world (John 8:44). You see, God does not micromanage every human detail in a way that prevents every evil thing from happening. But in the end, God will make every wrong right. No sin will go unpunished. The conclusion of everything will be exactly right. Every evil thing will receive its full and proper judgment.
  6. 2. God is not obligated to reveal everything to us, just as he was not obligated to do so for the wise men. He is God, I am not. He knows far more things than I do. What he does and does not, what he reveals and does not reveal, what he permits and what he prevents do not always make sense to my limited human perspective. But that’s okay. He has a perspective as God that is far more comprehensive than mine, and one that is completely right, just, and accurate in every way. Mine is not. By allowing the wise men to go to Herod for information, God permitted the best thing to happen, all things considered. And only God can properly consider all the factors related to that circumstance. Consider Isa 46:10, 55:8-9, Rom 11:33-36.
  7. 3. It was necessary to find Jesus because Jesus was the promised Messiah from God to deliver people from their sins. He alone is able to provide the salvation we all need. Consider Matt 1:21, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and Acts 16:31.
  8. 4. Curiosity to know of his whereabouts was suppressed for various reasons. First, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus relocated to Egypt soon after the visit of the wise men, removing Jesus from Palestine (Matt 2:13-23). The wise men returned home without reporting the news of his whereabouts, and the shepherds were not a respected news source. Ultimately, the general population relied upon the Jewish rabbinical authorities for their religious and theological information, and these leaders worked hard to obscure any information about Jesus from their followers.
  9. I trust this feedback proves helpful. As you seek the truth about Jesus, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to view this video here. I would also encourage you to take time over the next few weeks to listen through my ongoing chronological preaching series from the Gospel of John here. Finally, if you are willing to provide me with your general location information, I would be very happy to connect you with a faithful, biblical church nearby which you could interact with in person. Feel free to reach out to me by direct message here. God bless you Michael.

  10. Michael Dean Brackett
    Michael Dean Brackett says:

    Thanks again for your response. Hope all is well with you and yours. Take care and keep up the good work.

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