The gifts of the wise men.
The nativity by Matthew, part 5
I really like the song We Three Kings, but of all the carols I like it has to have used its poetic licence to the limit. Comparing the lyrics with the Gospel account throws up a number of differences, the number of wise men is not given in the Gospel, it has been assumed from the number of gifts, the wise men were magi, astrologers, not kings, and the Gospel account does not say that yonder star was followed.
I like the carol because it is allegorical, it speaks of Jesus as King and God and Sacrifice, it is a great hymn, but I do not think the significance of the gifts individually necessarily points to the significance in the song. As I said the song is allegorical.
The only significance I can find for the gifts is that they were expensive. The idea of one gift per visitor is dubious, it is recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E. These were the standard gifts at the time for a king or a god. Wise men were looking for a king, found the king and offered the gifts due to a king.
The main significance I find here is that they worshipped. Falling down and worshipping the child born to be king was the first thing they did. They were not Jews yet they worshipped the one born to be King of the Jews.
To get King and God and Sacrifice as in the hymn you have to look at the wider sweep of the story of Jesus. What Matthew is doing in these early chapters is establishing who Jesus is. The genealogies show he was human, the story of Joseph wanting to break off the engagement is to show he was God. The story of the wise men, to which Matthew dedicates a large part of the story is to establish Jesus as King. King not just of the Jews, but in the adoration of the Magi shown as King of the World.
It is almost Christmas. May we follow the example of the wise men and worship Jesus who is human and God and king.
Those who wish to follow the story, here it is:
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.