Perhaps you have wondered why the heavens have become such a focus in the last few years. Why is this important for us now? It’s important for us now because it was important during ancient Biblical times. The lights in the heavens played an important role in the lives of the people we read about in the Bible. We don’t run out lives by the heavens but they were put there, by God, as indicators. Gen. 1:14 says, “And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.” From this scripture and others, we know that God uses the lights in the heavens as markers for seasons and events.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we are introduced to the Magi. However, the Magi were a part of the Bible long before we see the official title that Matthew uses. The Magi were considered priest; similar to, the Levites. In their early days, their occupation was to provide the kings of the Medes, Persians and Babylonians with what they considered to be divine information about the daily matters involving government affairs. The prophet Daniel in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar became the “master of the magicians” (Master of the Magi), enchanters, Chaldeans and astrologers (Dan. 5:11). Jeremiah tells us the chief authority among the Magi was called the Rab-Mag (Jer. 39:3).
The title “Magi” was a title given to professional astrologers. The fact that Matthew mentions them does not mean that he was endorsing the principles of astrology. However in ancient times the differences between astrology and astronomy were blurred. While that is true, it is also important to remember that an orthodox astronomy and astrology were practiced; as well as, a pagan astrology and astronomy. Matthew was aware of the scriptures condemning astrology’s religious practice. But in mentioning the journey of the Magi to Jerusalem, Matthew shows that the Magi were motivated by astrological and astronomical principles which were taken seriously by people in the ancient world.
Ancient Near Eastern people lived with a supernatural worldview that included an intersection of the unseen world with the seen world. They believed in holy men who were conduits of the two worlds. All peoples of that time lived in the reality of prophecy. The Magi were revered and well known within the ancient world. If the Magi were not renowned within the Roman Empire and beyond, they would not cause Herod to be troubled and all Jerusalem with him. They were given and audience with Herod. Members of the Sanhedrin were called in to hear the interpretation of the astronomical signs. These circumstances must show that they were held in high esteem by the people of Jerusalem.
The people of the ancient Near East knew and understood the role of a prophet. In fact, most people were certain enough about prophecy to believe that a Jewish King would be born sometime near the 1st century. It is possible that Daniel’s association with the Magi is the reason why the ancient world expected a Jewish King to arrive at that time. Daniel had prophesied this would happen. National heads of state in the ancient Near Eastern world would be familiar with the accuracy of Daniel’s prophecies. Daniel prophesied the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed it in the 6th century B.C.E. He also said that 490 years would pass from a command to rebuild Jerusalem until a messianic kingdom would emerge on the earth in the region of Israel. (Dan. 9:24-27)
The Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in the last part of the 1st century, mentioned a conviction among the Jews that this prophecy of Daniel would have its fulfillment within the 1st century. Even the Romans were aware of the prophecies of Daniel. Suetonius in the early 2nd century said, “A firm belief had long prevailed through the east that it was destined for the empire of the world at that time to be given to someone who should go forth from Judaea.” A Roman historian Tacitus said, “The majority of the Jewish people were very impressed with the belief that it was contained in ancient writings of the priests that it would come to pass that at that very time, the east would renew its strength and they that should go forth from Judaea should be rulers of the world.”
There are many more historical proofs that the people of the time believed Daniel’s prophecy and were expecting a Messiah from the Jewish people. Now all of this is not a history lesson; but to establish the fact that the people of the East at that time were affected in a profound way by astrological and prophetic teachings. So, when the Magi who were professional astrologers saw what they considered to be the “star” of a Jewish King, it was a certain sign to them to go to Jerusalem with very expensive gifts for royalty to present to a newborn king.
The Magi’s arrival in Jerusalem would have caused a great stir. The people knew the occupation of the Magi. They knew these men dealt mainly with the evaluation of dreams, visions and astronomical signs. Herod and the people took the message of the Magi seriously. The Magi left no doubt of their interpretation of the heavenly signs. They were so certain of their evaluations that they made the long journey to Jerusalem to give rich gifts to a newborn king.
The OT has a lot to say about the stars as well. We have already read Gen. 1:14. From this verse alone, the Jewish authorities and King Herod would not have found such interpretations by the Magi as being odd or anti-biblical.
Gen. 37:9-10 records a divine revelation given to Joseph in which the twelve tribes of Israel were compared to the twelve zodiacal signs. Joseph dreamed the sun represented his father, the moon his mother and his eleven brothers were the other eleven constellations of the Zodiac. Joseph was the twelfth.
So consistent, methodical and symbolic were the motions of the heavenly bodies that King David wrote about it in Psalm 19:1-4 David said that all of the heavens spoke a “language” to all people on earth. Paul quoted this Psalm is Romans 10:18. In this chapter he is saying that Israel has heard the message of the Gospel. One of the ways it was proclaimed is through the heavens.
In Job 38:31, we read of the star cluster known as the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) influenced things that were occurring on earth. These Seven Sisters may be equated with the seven “stars” of the Book of Revelation that denoted the seven angles of the seven churches. 2 John 13 gives us an example of a church being called “sister.”
The OT and NT have several teachings about the “influences” of the heavenly bodies with affairs occurring on earth. David singled out the Sun for its symbolic role in teaching. He referred to it as a bridegroom. In the NT, who is the bridegroom? It is the Messiah (Mt. 25:1-10). His coming was prophesied as being like the “lightning that comes out of the east” (Mt. 24:27). The Messiah is equated in a symbolic way to the sun (Malachi 4:2) “the sun of righteousness.” The sun is not spelled Son in this passage. This relationship was not strange to the people of that time.
In the Book of Revelation we find four living creatures that surround the Throne (Rev. 6:1-8; Ez. 1:4-28). Scholars recognize that the faces of these creatures (a lion, an eagle, a man and a bull) denote the four main seasons of the zodiacal year. These are equated with Leo the Lion, Scorpio (an eagle with a snake in its talons), Aquarius (a man bearing water) and Taurus the bull. The tribes of Israel were positioned the same way around the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Numbers 2). Leo, representing Judah, was directly east of the entrance to the Temple and it was the beginning sign for the Hebrew Zodiac. The other three principal tribes were located 90 degrees from each other in a circle around the sanctuary forming a zodiacal design.
The Jews were interested in astronomical signs. The above scriptures and others we will talk about, reveal that OT as well as NT writers commonly identified prophetical events on earth with symbolic comparisons found in the heavenly bodies and their motions. Jewish interpretation differed from ordinary Gentile methods in reading the signs. The Jews stated that God is the King of the stars in the heavens and that their influences were a manifestation of God’s power and not spiritual manifestations emanating from the celestial bodies themselves.
Let’s be clear, the signs did not cause anything to happen on earth. They didn’t have any kind of manifestation of power over people. The Bible clearly forbids this. Isaiah puts it this way, “You are wearied with your many counsels and plans. Let now the astrologers, the star-gazer, and the monthly prognosticators stand up and make known to you and save you from the things that shall come upon you.” (Is. 47:13)
Isaiah condemned the misuse of the signs but they were not against symbolic teaching associated with the celestial signs themselves. The Bible drew attention to the heavenly signs and even forecast future ones (Lk. 21:11, 25). Remember, even the Apostle Paul said the voice and sound of the stars spoke a symbolic language that glorified the role of the Messiah in world affairs.
All of that is to say that, signs were and are given in the heavens. The most profound Biblical example of this is found in the narrative surrounding the birth of Christ. Herod was deeply persuaded by what the Magi from the east told him about the “star.” The arrival of the Messianic King who would rule Israel and the world was anticipated. Herod knew the prophecy from Numbers 24:17 “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;”
All of this, is to make us aware that 1) God put the celestial bodies in the heavens as markers, 2) the people of the middle east put a lot of stock in the heavenly signs, 3) the Jews believed God used the heavens to proclaim His truth, and 4) we should pay attention to them as well.
The next post is about the signs that caused the Magi to leave Babylon and travel to Jerusalem…