You are hereTwo Kings (Psalm 72 & Matthew 2: 1 – 17)
Two Kings (Psalm 72 & Matthew 2: 1 – 17)
by Jeff Carter
About seven miles south east of Jerusalem – not far from the birthplace of the prophet Amos who declared, “Let justice stream flow like water ” in the Judean wilderness lay the remains of the Herodium – site of the fortified palace of King Herod the Great who ruled over Judea from 37 – 4 B.C. He wasn’t especially known for letting justice flow. About seven miles south east of Jerusalem – not far from the birthplace of the prophet Amos who declared, “Let justice stream flow like water ” in the Judean wilderness lay the remains of the Herodium – site of the fortified palace of King Herod the Great who ruled over Judea from 37 – 4 B.C. He wasn’t especially known for letting justice flow. No. Herod the Great was known as a paranoid evil king. A murderous evil king. “Herod was constantly on guard against threats to his rule from any side and did not hesitate to take vigorous, harsh, and ruthless action to eliminate them. Neither did he shrink from having anyone murdered who might possibly become a personal danger to him as an opponent of his kingship.” He murdered those who got close enough to threaten him – three of his sons, his favorite of his ten wives (when he became convinced that she was stepping out on him), her uncle mother and brother, and his own uncle.
When Herod the Great was laying in his deathbed, on the verge of passing out of this life, the king ordered one last act of depravity. He knew that the people of Judea did not love him, that they did not like him, and that they would not mourn his passing. He ordered that all the notables and wealthy people of Judea be rounded up and executed when he finally died so that the country would, indeed, morn his death. The order was, fortunately for the people of Judea, ignored.
The Herodium, now in ruins, was once the fortified palace of the cruel king. It soared 100 feet above the ground and was surrounded by double concentric walls with towers at the four cardinal points. It was a secure place in the desert.
King Herod liked secure places. He built several of them all over the country; he built castles and forts and secure palaces like the Herodium in order to defend the country from foreign invaders and from revolutionary groups within the country.
He rebuilt towns that had been destroyed during the Roman invasion, built entire new cities, built one of the largest harbors on the Mediterranean Sea, various temples to Roman gods, theatres, amphitheatres, stadiums for games, amazing sewer systems and aqueducts, and perhaps his grandest project was the restoration of Jewish temple (though he didn’t live to see it completed) which eventually eclipsed the glory of the previous temple built by King Solomon. He lowered taxes several times, and even went so far as to melt down his own gold and silver to purchase grand and food from Egypt to feed the people during a famine in 25 – 24 BC.
But for all that King Herod was still a murderous and evil king. He’s not really remembered for his building projects. He’s not remembered for the magnificent harbor that he built in Caesarea, nor is he remembered for his sewer systems, amphitheatres, or even for his restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s not remembered for the employment and prosperity be brought to the region. He’s remembered for his ruthlessness and cruelty. He’s remembered for torturing his enemies – those he perceived as enemies whether or not they really were enemies. And most of all, King Herod the Great is remembered for one monstrous act of cruelty.
When the magi from the east came following the star that announced the birth of a newborn King of the Jews Herod reacted badly. He ordered the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and surrounding villages.
One tradition, from Greece, asserts that 14,000 boys were murdered in this campaign against the newborn king of the Jews. Others say 64,000 children were slaughtered, and some Medieval writers claimed as many as 144,000 died. This is, of course, extravagant and unreasonably outrageous. Bethlehem was only a small hamlet of little importance. Few people would have lived there at that time. Perhaps only 200 or so. Modern estimates of the number of innocents killed by Herod range from 6 to 20 boys. But that does not in any way diminish the cruelty of King Herod the Great, the evil genius of the Judean nation. Even one state sponsored murder is one too many.
When the Magi came to Jerusalem seeking the child born that would be the King of the Jews King Herod was furious and afraid. His entire reign had been spent rooting out one conspiracy against his throne after another. He strangled and drowned and poisoned those who threatened him and his seat on the throne of Judea. The murder of a few inconsequential boy children in a minor village wasn’t even a matter of conscience for him.
King Herod had power, great power. He had the power to enact his will. If he wanted a building, he ordered its construction. If he wanted a monument, he gave plans for its design. If he wanted someone dead, they died. Herod was a powerful king, but he was not a good king.
The magi had traveled from the east to find the ideal king who birth had been announced by that strange star that moved across the sky and hovered over a specific house. But what kind of king would that newborn king be?
Psalm 72 describes the ideal king of God.
God, endow the king with your own fair judgment,
the son of the king with your own saving justice,
that he may rule your people with justice,
and your poor with fair judgment.
Mountains and hills,
bring peace to the people!
With justice he will judge the poor of the people,
he will save the children of the needy
and crush their oppressors.
Psalm 72 was either written by or for King Solomon – the Hebrew preposition is a bit ambiguous and has caused a fair bit of debate… but either way – written by King Solomon or written for King Solomon, Psalm 72 is a prayer that the newly crowned king (whoever he was) would be a king after God’s own heart, an ideal king. Psalm 72 is a prayer that the new king would rule in the justice and righteousness of God for the benefit of God’s people, a prayer that he would rule as the Ideal King.
The extravagance of this ideal king’s rule has led many interpreters to believe that the Psalm should be interpreted Messianically – with the understanding that it must have been written specifically and prophetically about the Messiah, about the Christ; that it was written about that newborn King of the Jews whom the Magi had travelled across burning wastelands to find.
And though it may or may not have been written with a specific Messianic intent, Psalm 72 certainly lends itself to a Messianic interpretation. It is King Jesus who is the perfect judge, who gives justice to the poor and the oppressed, who rules with righteousness, who comes down “like rain on mown grass, like showers moistening the land.”
In his days uprightness shall flourish,
and peace in plenty till the moon is no more.
His empire shall stretch from sea to sea,
from the river to the limits of the earth.
We celebrate Christmas as the birth of the “Heaven-born Prince of Peace,” we hail him as the Son of Righteousness. And even though the Magi were probably not kings or royalty, we sing of them as the “three kings” which lends itself back to Psalm 72 which says,
The kings of Tarshish and the islands
will pay him tribute.
The kings of Sheba and Saba
will offer gifts;
all kings will do him homage,
all nations become his servants.
This is the glorious rule of the King of Kings – King Jesus. Dominion has been laid on his shoulders and he extends his rule in boundless peace, making it secure and sustaining it in fair judgment and with integrity, from this time onward and forever.
I like that last verse of Isaac Watt’s hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign” wherein all creatures are enjoined to “rise and bring peculiar honors to our king.” His old fashioned English phrase sounds peculiar in our ears, but we are encouraged to give a gift of our worship to this newborn King of the Jews, this one who was born to bless every people, and tribe and race and nationality – born as King of the Jews, yes, but not for them alone, born for all of us. “May his name be blessed for ever, and endure in the sight of the sun.”
This Ideal King, the Messianic King, this King of Kings rules and governs in peace and righteousness. This Ideal King is a powerful king. But unlike King Herod the not-so-great, this king uses his power to rescue the poor and the oppressed. This King uses his power to rescue anyone who calls to him, and those who have no one else who will help. Instead of inflicting cruelty and violence upon the people, this king redeems the people from oppress and violence, because their blood is precious in his sight.
This King is everything that King Herod was not. The difference is their attitude toward power. The difference is in the way they use power.
Herod the King, in his raging, used his power to kill and to destroy – even when he was building something it was with a mind towards death, death to those who would oppose him. His power was never used to help the lowly. His power was never used to heal the broken, or to give comfort to the distressed. He had a mind for empire, but he would not have been a benevolent emperor. It’s true that there was a measure of security and prosperity during his rule – but there was no peace, and that prosperity didn’t trickle down to the poor. Like today, that wealth and prosperity was concentrated among the privileged few who could secure the government contracts and who could curry favor with a well placed bribe.
But the Ideal King, the king whom the magi ventured to find, his rule is characterized by an altogether different set of priorities. He is not concerned with violence. He is not interested in scheming and plotting. He is, instead, focused on the peace and well being of his people. He is devoted to their good. He raises them up. He blesses them. He receives them. He welcomes them. He heals and comforts. He has pity and promises salvation. He rescues.
One king murdered and hated and feared.
One king saves and loves and blesses.
One king raged and burned.
One king blesses and soothes.
One king ruled with force and violence.
One king rules with integrity and without violence.
One king attempted to drag everyone down into death with him.
One king brings everyone up from death with him.