For Christmas Day 2016
When the wise men come to Jerusalem and inquired about the king who had been born, their arrival amazed the whole city. The thing was news, and the city was stirred up by it. Herod was troubled by the news, and the whole city with him (Matt. 2:3). Herod, for his part, though an ungodly man, knew enough about the circumstances to ask his scribes and the chief priests where the Christ or the Messiah was to be born.
They replied that the Christ was to come from Bethlehem, and they cited Micah 5:2 as their reason for saying this. Matthew paraphrases their citation of the prophet, and there are some interesting interpretations that come with his paraphrase.
“But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, Until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: Then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, In the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; And they shall abide: For now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:2–4).
It is quoted a little differently in Matthew:
“And they said unto him, In Beth-lehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Beth-lehem, 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” (Matt. 2:5–6).
Two differences stand out. The first is that Micah says Bethlehem Ephrata, and Matthew says Bethlehem of Judea. It is likely that Matthew is simply summarizing, and he is not rendering Ephrata as Judea, but rather is simply distinguishing Bethlehem from another Bethlehem in the region of Zebulon.
The second difference is more striking. Micah says that Bethlehem is a little nothing town—“little among the thousands of Judah.” The reference to this in Matthew seems to say the opposite—Bethlehem is not least among the princes of Judah. But Matthew is not misrepresenting the point, but rather is summarizing the entire passage at once. Bethlehem is insignificant in v. 2, but in v. 4 of that same passage God has intervened on Israel’s behalf, and what is the result? Micah says that the Messiah will “stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” Matthew references this by saying that Bethlehem will produce a governor, a ruler, who will rule His people Israel. Matthew is not summarizing Micah 5:2—he is summarizing Micah 5:2-4.
So Bethlehem was a little nothing town. How much of a nothing town? Here in Idaho, a comparable town would be Lapwai, Plummer, or Genesee. Small. Scholar R.T. France says, “Estimates of the total population of Bethlehem in the first century are generally under 1,000.”
This is an educated guess, not a wild one. Micah says that Bethlehem was little among the thousands of Judah. The Jews reckoned their districts by chiliads, or thousands, and so if a town had three thousand men, as Calvin points out, it would have three “tribunes” or “prefectures” to go with them, although not under those names. Bethlehem was small according to that kind of reckoning.
But God loves the underdog story. He was the one who, centuries before, had set forces in motion that would result in Bethlehem becoming the city of David, and this in turn set the stage for Jesus to be the son of David, born in the city of David.
An Ephrathite man named Elimelech left Bethlehem because of a famine. The name Bethlehem means House of Bread, and he left because there was no bread. He left with two sons for the country of Moab (Ruth 1:1-2). After he died, and his two married sons died as well, his widow Naomi came back to Bethlehem with one of her daughters-in-law named Ruth, a great woman of faith. We can gather something about the size of Bethlehem at that time by noting that Naomi’s arrival caused a big stir in the town (Ruth 1:19)—kind of like the wise men did to Jerusalem centuries later. But at this time, Jerusalem was still in the hands of the Jebusites—and was only 6 miles away.
After we read the wonderful story of Boaz and Ruth, one of the things that is said near the conclusion of the book is quite striking. Boaz asks the people in the city gates, and the town elders, to witness what had just happened. And they said this:
“And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel: and do thou worthily in Ephratah, and be famous in Beth-lehem: And let thy house be like the house of Pharez, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give thee of this young woman” (Ruth 4:11–12).
Ruth was in fact extraordinarily fruitful—the ancestress of the new Israel. Like Rachel and Leah, she is a mother to all our tribes, and it only took one of her. But they also add to this the odd blessing of desiring that she be like Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her, and giving birth to the twins Zarah and Pharez as a result (Gen. 38:28-30). This is a prayer that little Bethlehem would supplant.
Remember that Zarah stuck his hand out first, had a scarlet thread tied to his wrist, and then was supplanted by Pharez, who was the first to come all the way out. The leaders of Bethlehem said, we want your wife to be like Tamar, and your seed be like the house of Pharez. Do it that way. Come from behind. Have this be His town.
Achan was a prince in Israel, and after his sin at the city of Jericho, his entire clan was executed and removed, not only from Israel, but from the messianic line. Now Achan was a descendent of Zarah (Josh. 7:1). And after the battle of Jericho, a man named Salmon married Rahab, and they had a son named Boaz (Matt. 1:5), who married Ruth. This Salmon was the great-great-great grandson of Pharez (Matt. 1:3-5).
And so these nameless people in a teeny town—before David, before any great glory—pronounced a monumental blessing. That blessing had no visible means of support, but people believed in it—they were writing the story down as it happened.
And so, it all came to pass, and we are instructed once again never to despise the day of small beginnings. O little town of Bethlehem . . .