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No. 12: Gold, Incense, and Myrrh

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 12
April, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

The gifts of the wise men have been commonly interpreted as royal gifts to the infant King of the Jews. Each of the three gifts is, indeed, connected with kings and kingship in Scripture. The Lord’s anointed is pictured wearing a crown of gold in Psalm 21:3, and the gold of Sheba is brought to honor Solomon (Ps. 72:15; cf. 1 Ki. 10:2, 10). The coach of Solomon is, moreover, perfumed with both myrrh and frankincense (Song of Solomon 3:6; cf. 4:6, 14; 5:5). Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are, indeed, gifts fit for a king.

From this perspective, the coming of the magi is seen as an antitype of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, a prototype of the fullness of the Gentiles coming in, and a preliminary fulfillment of such prophecies as Isaiah 60:1-14. The magi represent the kings coming to the brightness of the Lord’s rising (Is. 60:3; incidentally, the word for "east" in Matthew 2 can also meaning "rising"). The magi are the sons who come from afar bringing the wealth of the nations to Israel (60:4-6). Isaiah specifically mentions the gifts of gold and frankincense (60:6).

This interpretation of the coming of the magi has much to recommend it. Still, I think it is likely that their gifts point also in a somewhat different direction. In the Old Testament gold, frankincense and myrrh come together in one place when the priest offers incense and prayers on the altar of incense. The altar of incense was made of gold (Ex. 30:1-10). A special blend of incense, including frankincense, was to be burned upon the altar of gold (Ex. 30:34-38). And myrrh was used in the anointing oil that was poured out on the priests and upon the tabernacle and its furniture (Ex. 30:22-33).

Thus, the gifts of the magi were not only kingly gifts, but priestly gifts as well. The magi brought as gifts the materials for a new priesthood in a new tabernacle. This fits with several other details of the text of Matthew 2. First, it fits with the theme of the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles. This, in fact, is one of the over-riding themes of the story of the magi. The Jews, represented by the half-breed King Herod, were "troubled" at the news of the birth of a King. Though surrounded by scribes of the law, Herod had to be informed of the Messiah’s coming by Gentiles from the East. Instead of seeking to worship the newborn king, as the magi do, Herod instead sought by deception and then by brutal cruelty to kill Him. The Jews, in short, had become apostate, and the slaughter of the innocents was a miniature prefiguring of God’s ultimate judgment upon His unfaithful people.

By contrast, the Gentiles, represented by the magi, sought to worship the King of the Jews. They made great efforts to find Him. They brought Him gifts, and worshiped Him. They were, in fact, the first to worship the Christ child. They listen to and obey the Word of the Lord, both the Word of the prophet and the Word of the angel.

In this context, the priestly character of the magi’s gifts is fitting. For the rejection of the Jews, and the entrance of the Gentiles into the Kingdom require that a new priesthood be formed. This priesthood is a priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, the priest-king, so it is appropriate that the magi bring gifts that suggest both sides of the Messiah’s office.

Another, less significant, indication that the gifts of the magi have a priestly character lies in the fact that the magi were themselves in all probability descendants of a priestly caste. Though tradition suggests that the magi were kings, the evidence indicates that magi were originally priests, who, when later deprived of their priestly status, turned to astrology and magic. If the magi were associated with a priestly caste, it would be appropriate for them to bring priestly gifts.

It may be objected that this interpretation requires that the magi possessed a fairly deep understanding of the tabernacle and temple systems. Several responses may be made. First, the magi apparently had some access to biblical sources; after all, they interpreted the star as indicating the birth of the king of the Jews. Second, it may be that the magi did not fully understand the character of their gifts, but simply brought what they considered most valuable. It is only in retrospect and in the context of the Old Testament that we recognize that these gifts pointed to the priestly status of Jesus.

It remains now to suggest more specifically the import of the three gifts. In the short compass of this article, I cannot examine each gift in detail. But several possibilities come immediately to mind. As a single composite image, the anointed priest offering incense on the altar of gold is an image of prayer (cf. Rev. 8). It is through the mediation of the anointed priest that the prayers of God’s people ascend to the Father. Christ, thus, in receiving these gifts is presented as the Priestly Mediator, our Advocate before the Father, who continually stands at the heavenly altar interceding for us.

Specifically, the incense itself that is offered on the altar symbolizes the prayers themselves, and in particular prayers that turn God from wrath to mercy (cf. Nu. 16:46-47). The myrrh with which the priest was anointed symbolized the Holy Spirit. Jesus was, even from His conception, anointed with the Holy Spirit beyond measure, and thus was qualified to act as a perfect mediator. It is only the Spiritual man who can be the Mediator. The gold of the altar of incense points to the glory of God, and particularly to the reflection of that glory in created things and in men. It is appropriate that incense (prayers) are associated with the altar of golden glory, since it is by prayer that men draw near to the glorious throne of God and are transformed into an image of that glory.