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“We Three Kings of Orient Are”


Numbers 24:17; Matthew 2:1-7

January 7, 2017 (KSYC) • Download this article (PDF)

In the Christian calendar, January 6 marks the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, particularly to the “wise men from the east.” One of the most popular hymns to commemorate this event is “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” a hymn about wise men from the east who traveled to Bethlehem after they saw “his star.”

Who hasn’t seen Christmas pageants and nativity scenes where Jesus lay in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, cows and sheep, and the wise men? But there are many things in these depictions of the birth of Jesus that are not in the Bible and are purely grounded on “tradition.”

“We Three Kings of Orient Are” was written and composed by John Hopkins Jr. He wanted to be a lawyer at first, but changed his mind and studied at General Theological Seminary in New York. After graduating in 1850, he served as a music instructor at the seminary, and then as an Episcopalian minister in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1857, Hopkins wrote this hymn for a Christmas pageant at the seminary. It became widely popular that he published it in 1863.

Hopkins called the wise men “kings,” but they were called “wise men from the east” in Matthew 2:1. In the original Greek, the word used is magoi, a word used in the Zoroastrian religion in Persia that refers to “wise men” consulted by ancient kings for interpreting dreams, omens, signs and the stars. As early as the 5th century B.C., the historian Herodotus mentioned the magi.

“Wise men” were already mentioned in the Old Testament. In the 14th century B.C., when Moses went before Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses cast down his staff and it became a serpent. So in Exodus 7:11, Pharaoh called “the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts,” and they also turned their staffs into serpents.

In Numbers 22, Balaam, who was hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel, was one of these “wise men” who were actually diviners, seers, magicians, or astrologers. In the New Testament, in Acts 8:9, Philip met a man named Simon, who was a magus, or one who “practiced magic.” In Acts 13:6, the apostle Paul encountered Elymas, who was also called a magus, or a “magician.”

But were they kings? In ancient writings, there were wise men who had royal status. Joseph was made the Prime Minister of Egypt after he exhibited that he was wiser than all the Egyptian wise men. The Pharaoh praised him, “there is none so discerning and wise as you are” (Gen 41:28-31). Daniel was made the “chief over all the wise men of Babylon” (Dan 2:48).

The second century theologian Tertullian considered the wise men as kings, citing Psalm 72:10–11 as a praise to the coming Messiah, “may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” Tertullian was even more convinced that the wise men were kings by Isaiah 60:6, “A multitude of camels shall cover you . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.” The parallelism with Matthew’s account of the wise men from the east with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is striking.

How did the number of the wise men become three? The number comes from three gifts they brought. The Roman Catholic Church even adopted the tradition of naming them Melchior from Persia, Gaspar from India, and Balthasar from Babylon or Arabia. They claim that they were martyred for their faith, so they were conferred sainthood, and January 6 became the “Feast of the Three Kings.” But all these are not found anywhere in the Bible, and based only on superficial tradition.

Now let us look at the hymn. It has five stanzas, with a refrain after each stanza. The first stanza is the introduction, and the last stanza is a praise to Jesus. Stanzas 2, 3 and 4 describe each of the three gifts. Stanza 1 reads:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.

This stanza describes the pilgrimage of the wise men from Persia or Babylon to Jerusalem, through all kinds of terrain and weather imaginable. We don’t know how long it took them to travel 600-800 miles, but it could have been several months.

The refrain focuses on the star that the wise men saw:

O star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light.

The wise men knew that the “king of the Jews” has been born because of a star they called the star “his star.” Countless theories have been proposed as to what kind of star it was, including: a comet, a conjunction of planets, a conjunction of stars, even the “pillar of fire” that guided Israel during their exodus from Egypt. But a proposal that this star was an entirely new star is more convincing. How would the wise men have known that it’s the star announcing Messiah’s birth if it was only a star they see in the heavens day after day and year after year? This new star signified to the wise men what they might have been waiting for: the fulfillment of the prophecy (by the diviner Balaam controlled by the Spirit of God) in Numbers 24:17, “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

How then would they have known the prophecies about the coming Messiah? The Jews had waited for 400 years, and even they didn’t know. Remember that the Jews were exiled in Babylon for 70 years after they were conquered in 586 B.C. And even after the Persian king Cyrus later allowed them to return to Israel, only 50,000 did. The rest stayed and made Babylon and Persia their home, including Esther who became queen. The wise men might have learned about the coming of the Messiah from these Jews.

As for the timing, they might have learned about the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 that “an anointed one, a prince,” the Messiah or Christ, would appear after about 500 years from the return of the exiles. That would put His appearing during the time of the wise men.

Wouldn’t a new star be truly a “star of wonder”? Notice that the wise men sighted the star not once, but twice: first in their homeland, “in the east”; then after they arrived in Jerusalem, “And behold, the star that they had seen in the east went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt 2:9-10). This star is not only new, it is one of a kind in creation. What kind of star would come to rest over a specific house? Therefore, this star did not guide the wise men on their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Rather, they knew that he would be born “king of the Jews,” so they went to Israel after seeing the star the first time. They were only guided by the star from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

Stanzas 2-4 then explain what the three gifts signify. Stanza 2 says of the gold:

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Gold is the most precious of all metals that is fit for kings. The amount of gold a king possesses indicates his riches and power. King Solomon might have hoarded 800 tons of gold (1 Kgs 10:14), which would be valued at $29 trillion today! So the “riches of the glory” of Christ the King is “unsearchable” (Rom 9:23; Eph 3:8) and “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33). Gold is for the Child Jesus who is the everlasting King.

Stanza 3 says of the frankincense:

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him God Most High.

Frankincense is a fragrant gum and is used by the priests to make food offerings to God, “with a pleasing aroma to the LORD” (Lev 2:2). So it symbolizes the deity of Jesus, as well as his Priesthood.

In the third stanza, Hopkins explains the symbolism of myrrh:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Myrrh is a scented resin used as an embalming spice, as when Jesus was embalmed with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” in John 19:39). So myrrh points forward to the sufferings and bloody death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sins.

The last stanza says:

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and sacrifice
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Earth to Heaven replies.

This is a summary of the meaning of the three gifts to Jesus. Gold for Jesus the King, frankincense for Jesus the divine Son of God, and myrrh for Jesus the Sacrifice. But both frankincense and myrrh also signify his work as our Great High Priest. So the wise men from the east “fell down and worshiped him.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 72:10–11, “may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” The apostle John also prophesies about the new heavens and new earth, “By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev 21:24).

So whether the magi were wise men or kings; whether the star is a comet, conjunction, or a new star; whether there were 2, 3, or 12 of them: let us worship Christ who was born King, God and High Priest!

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