We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.
So wrote American Pastor and hymn writer John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857 in his beloved Christmas carol, We Three Kings. The hymn was inspired by that part of the Gospel narrative (Matthew 2:1-12) of the three wise men from the East seeking to pay homage to the newborn King of Israel.
Who were these kings? And what were they looking for?
The kings of the carol were actually magi or wise men. In ancient times, there was an international wisdom movement founded in Persia and Arabia in the East, Babylon in the North, and Egypt in the South. This school of “professionals” – those who profess – focused on the promotion of practical principles of wisdom for both personal and national governance. The wise men in Israel complemented the other Hebrew professional classes of prophets – those who represented God before men and priests and those who represented men before God.
These wise men had come from distant lands in the East (Matt. 2:1). While the Bible does not actually say, Christian tradition assumes there were three wise men because of the three unique gifts they brought from each of their nations. Each gift honored some aspect of the child’s life and purpose: gold, representing his royalty, frankincense in honor of his deity, and myrrh recognizing the purpose in his future death and burial.
Providence had sent them a “star in the East” that would guide them to Jerusalem (Matt. 2:2). These wise men were familiar with the Jewish Scripture. They had read the prophet Micah (5:2) who foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea (Matt. 2:6):
But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’
Why did the magi travel all the way to Bethlehem? What were they looking for? They were, in fact, seeking “thy perfect Light.”
The baby was to be “a ruler of Judah” and “the shepherd of my people Israel;” the one who inherits the throne of David, the shepherd-king. Perhaps these wise men, in search of wisdom, had read the prophet Isaiah (9:6-7) to understand more of who this shepherd-king would be:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
They were looking for wisdom. Wise men, whether the common man or the practiced professional, always seek wisdom; they will always seek God. Like these magi, they will travel over long distances of space and/or time until they find what they are looking for.
Today the search for wisdom seems to be in short supply. We seem to live in a time of youth/pop culture, where wisdom and the “old grey hairs” have little value. Youth is worshipped. The heroes are found in entertainment and sports. Could anyone have missed the media frenzy over the death of Michael Jackson or the constant whirlwind of attention given to multi-million dollar contracts for sports stars? So often today, those in entertainment, sports, and big business are idolized, and all the while so many of these figures are pushing every moral boundary to the very destruction of our ethical ecology.
We live in a time that does not respect either history or a thought of the future. “Live only for today” seems to be the modern mantra. We are a culture of narcissists. Everyone is focused on themselves, how they FEEL, what they WANT. The things that matter most – God, community, family, friendships, and the future for our children – are so often abandoned for the sake of self. Chasing the ever important self esteem has replaced the difficult necessity of recognizing real moral guilt and shame, where real redemption and hope are found. Our ultimate focus is one’s self and “what I feel and know,” rather than on God who is the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom.
Oh for wisdom to be a virtue again! Oh for the Creator to be the center of both space and time, and for sages to engage again. Oh for wise men to seek thy perfect light again!
-Darrow L. Miller