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Matthew Henry's Commentary on Matthew 2:13-18

Matthew Henry's Commentary on Matthew 2:13-18

"Egypt had been a house of bondage to Israel, and particularly cruel to the infants of Israel; yet it is to be a place of refuge to the holy Child Jesus. God, when he pleases, can make the worst of places serve the best of purposes. This was a trial of the faith of Joseph and Mary."

Matthew Chapter 2 - Summary

In this chapter, we have the history of our Saviour's infancy, where we find how early he began to suffer, and that in him the word of righteousness was fulfilled, before he himself began to fulfil all righteousness. Here is, I. The wise men's solicitous enquiry after Christ, ver. 1-8. II. Their devout attendance on him, when they found out where he was, ver. 9-12. III. Christ's flight into Egypt, to avoid the cruelty of Herod, ver. 13-15. IV. The barbarous murder of the infants of Bethlehem, ver. 16-18. V. Christ's return out of Egypt into the land of Israel again, ver. 19-23.

The Flight into Egypt.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. 14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

We have here Christ's flight into Egypt to avoid the cruelty of Herod, and this was the effect of the wise men's enquiry after him; for, before that, the obscurity he lay in was his protection. It was but little respect (compared with what should have been) that was paid to Christ in his infancy: yet even that, instead of honouring him among his people, did but expose him.

Now here observe,

1. The command given to Joseph concerning it, v. 13. Joseph knew neither the danger the child was in, nor how to escape it; but God by an angel, tells him both in a dream, as before he directed him in like manner what to do, ch. i. 20. Joseph, before his alliance to Christ, had not been wont to converse with angels as now. Note, those that are spiritually related to Christ by faith have that communion and correspondence with Heaven which before they were strangers to.

1. Joseph is here told what their danger was: Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. Note, God is acquainted with all the cruel projects and purposes of the enemies of his church. I know thy rage against me, saith God to Sennacherib, Isa. xxxvii. 28. How early was the blessed Jesus involved in trouble! Usually, even those whose riper years are attended with toils and perils have a peaceable and quiet infancy; but it was not so with the blessed Jesus: his life and sufferings began together; he was born a man striven with, as Jeremiah was (Jer. xv. 10), who was sanctified from the womb, Jer. i. 5. Both Christ the head, and the church his body, agree in saying, Many a time have they afflicted me, from my youth up. Pharaoh's cruelty fastens upon the Hebrews' children, and a great red dragon stands ready to devour the man-child as soon as it should be born, Rev. xii. 4.

2. He is directed what to do, to escape the danger; Take the young child, and flee into Egypt. Thus early must Christ give an example to his own rule (ch. x. 23): When they persecute you in one city, flee to another. He that came to die for us, when his hour was not yet come, fled for his own safety. Self-preservation, being a branch of the law of nature, is eminently a part of the law of God. Flee; but why into Egypt? Egypt was infamous for idolatry, tyranny, and enmity to the people of God; it had been a house of bondage to Israel, and particularly cruel to the infants of Israel; in Egypt, as much as in Ramah, Rachel had been weeping for her children; yet that is appointed to be a place of refuge to the hold child Jesus. Note, God, when he pleases, can make the worst of places serve the best of purposes; for the earth is the Lord's, he makes what use he pleases of it: sometimes the earth helps the woman Rev. xii. 16. God, who made Moab a shelter to his outcasts, makes Egypt a refuge for his Son. This may be considered,

(1.) As a trial of faith of Joseph and Mary. They might be tempted to think, "If this child be the Son of God, as we are told he is, has he no other way to secure himself from a man that is a worm, than by such a mean and inglorious retreat as this? Cannot he summon legions of angels to be his life-guard, or cherubim with flaming swords to keep this tree of life? Cannot he strike Herod dead, or wither the hand that is stretched out against him, and so save us the trouble of this remove?" They had been lately told that he should be the glory of his people Israel; and is the land of Israel so soon become too hot for him? But we find not that they made any such objections; their faith, being tried, was found firm, they believe this is the Son of God, though they see no miracle wrought for his preservation; but they are put to the use of ordinary means. Joseph had great honour put upon him in being the husband of the blessed virgin; but that honour has trouble attending it, as all honours have in this world; Joseph must take the young child, and carry him into Egypt; and now it appeared how well God had provided for the young child and his mother, in appointing Joseph to stand in so near a relation to them; now the gold which the wise men brought would stand them in stead to bear their charges. God foresees his people's distresses, and provides against them beforehand. God intimates the continuance of his care and guidance, when he saith, Be thou there until I bring thee word, so that he must expect to hear from God again, and not stir without fresh orders. Thus God will keep his people still in a dependence upon him.

(2.) As an instance of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus. As there was no room for him in the inn in Bethlehem, so there was no quiet room for him in the land of Judea. Thus was he banished from the earthly Canaan, that we, who for sin were banished from the heavenly Canaan, might not be for ever expelled. If we and our infants be at any time in straits, let us remember the straits Christ in his infancy was brought into, and be reconciled to them.

(3.) As a token of God's displeasure against the Jews, who took so little notice of him; justly does he leave those who have slighted him. We have also here an earnest of his favour to the Gentiles, to whom the apostles were to bring the gospel when the Jews rejected it. If Egypt entertain Christ when he is forced out of Judea, it will not be long ere it be said, Blessed be Egypt my people, Isa. xix. 25.

II. Joseph's obedience to this command, v. 14.

The journey would be inconvenient and perilous both to the young child and to his mother; they were but poorly provided for it, and were likely to meet with cold entertainment in Egypt: yet Joseph was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, made no objection, nor was dilatory in his disobedience. As soon as he had received his orders, he immediately arose, and went away by night, the same night, as it should seem, that he received the orders. Note, Those that would make sure work of their obedience must make quick work of it. Now Joseph went out, as his father Abraham did, with an implicit dependence upon God, not knowing whither he went, Heb. xi. 8. Joseph and his wife, having little, had little to care of in this remove. An abundance encumbers a necessary flight. If rich people have the advantage of the poor while they possess what they have, the poor have the advantage of the rich when they are called to part with it.

Joseph took the young child and his mother. Some observe, that the young child is put first, as the principal person, and Mary is called, not the wife of Joseph, but, which was her great dignity, the mother of the young child. This was not the first Joseph that was driven from Canaan to Egypt for a shelter from the anger of his brethren; this Joseph ought to be welcome there for the sake of that.

If we may credit tradition, at their entrance into Egypt, happening to go into a temple, all the images of their gods were overthrown by an invisible power, and fell, like Dagon before the ark, according to that prophecy, The Lord shall come into Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, Isa. xix. 1. They continued in Egypt till the death of Herod, which, some think, was seven years, others think, not so many months. There they were at a distance from the temple and the service of it, and in the midst of idolaters; but God sent them thither, and will have mercy, and not sacrifice. Though they were far from the temple of the Lord, they had with them the Lord of the temple. A forced absence from God's ordinances, and a forced presence with wicked people, may be the lot, are not the sin, yet cannot but be the grief, of good people.

III. The fulfilling of the scripture in a this—that scripture (Hos. xi. 1), Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Of all the evangelists, Matthew takes most notice of the fulfilling of the scripture in what concerned Christ, because his gospel was first published among the Jews, with whom that would add much strength and lustre to it. Now this word of the prophet undoubtedly referred to the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, in which God owned them for his son, his first-born (Exod. iv. 22); but it is here applied, by way of analogy, to Christ, the Head of the church. Note, The scripture has many accomplishments, so full and copious is it, and so well ordered in all things. God is every day fulfilling the scripture. Scripture is not of private interpretation: we must give it its full latitude. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him; and, though I loved him, I suffered him to be a great while in Egypt; but, because I loved him, in due time I called him out of Egypt." They that read this must, in their thoughts, not only look back, but look forward; that which has been shall be again (Eccl. i. 9); and the manner of expression intimates this; for it is not said, I called him, but I called my son, out of Egypt.Note, It is no new thing for God's sons to be in Egypt, in a strange land, in a house of bondage; but they shall be fetched out. They may be hid in Egypt, but they shall not be left there. All the elect of God, being by nature children of wrath, are born in a spiritual Egypt, and in conversion are effectually called out. It might be objected against Christ that he had been in Egypt. Must the Sun of righteousness arise out of that land of darkness! But this shows that to be no strange thing; Israel was brought out of Egypt, to be advanced to the highest honours; and this is but doing the same thing.

The Slaughter of the Children.

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Here is, I. Herod's resentment of the departure of the wise men. He waited long for their return; he hopes, though they be slow, they will be sure, and he shall crush this rival at his first appearing; but he hears, upon enquiry, that they are gone off another way, which increases his jealousy, and makes him suspect they are in the interest of this new King, which made him exceedingly wroth; and he is the more desperate and outrageous for his being disappointed. Note, Inveterate corruption swells the higher for the obstructions it meets with in a sinful pursuit.

II. His political contrivance, notwithstanding this, to take off him that is born King of the Jews.

If he could not reach him by a particular execution, he doubted not but to involve him in a general stroke, which, like the sword of war, should devour one as well as another. This would be sure work; and thus those that would destroy their own iniquity must be sure to destroy all their iniquities. Herod was an Edomite, enmity to Israel was bred in the bone with him. Doeg was an Edomite, who, for David's sake, slew all the priests of the Lord. It was strange that Herod could find any so inhuman as to be employed in such a bloody and barbarous piece of work; but wicked hands never want wicked tools to work with. Little children have always been taken under the special protection, not only of human laws, but of human nature; yet these are sacrificed to the rage of this tyrant, under whom, as under Nero, innocence is the least security. Herod was, throughout his reign, a bloody man; it was not long before, that he destroyed the whole Sanhedrim, or bench of judges; but blood to the blood-thirsty is like drink to those in a dropsy; Quo plus sunt potæ, plus sitiuntur aquæ—The more they drink, the more thirsty they become. Herod was now about seventy years old, so that an infant, at this time under two years old, was not likely ever to give him any disturbance. Nor was he a man over fond of his own children, or of their preferment, having formerly slain two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, and his son Antipater after this, but five days before he himself died; so that it was purely to gratify his own brutish lusts of pride and cruelty that he did this. All is fish that comes to his net.

Observe, What large measures he took, 1. As to time; He slew all from two years old and under. It is probable that the blessed Jesus was at this time not a year old; yet Herod took in all the infants under two years old, that he might be sure not to miss of his prey. He cares not how many heads fall, which he allows to be innocent, provided that escape not which he supposes to be guilty. 2. As to place; He kills all the male children, not only in Bethlehem, but in all the coasts thereof, in all the villages of that city. This was being overmuch wicked, Eccl. vii. 17. Hate, an unbridled wrath, armed with an unlawful power, often transports men to the most absurd and unreasonable instances of cruelty. It was no unrighteous thing for God to permit this; every life is forfeited to his justice as soon as it commences; that sin which entered by one man's disobedience, introduced death with it; and we are not to suppose any thing more than that common guilt, we are not to suppose that these children were sinners above all that were in Israel, because they suffered such things. God's judgments are a great deep. The diseases and deaths of little children are proofs of original sin. But we must look upon this murder of the infants under another character: it was their martyrdom. How early did persecution commence against Christ and his kingdom! Think ye that he came to send peace on the earth? No, but a sword, such a sword as this, ch. x. 34, 35. A passive testimony was hereby given to the Lord Jesus. As when he was in the womb, he was witnessed to by a child's leaping in the womb for joy at his approach, so now, at two years old, he had contemporary witnesses to him of the same age. They shed their blood for him, who afterwards shed his for them. These were the infantry of the noble army of martyrs. If these infants were thus baptized with blood, though it were their own, into the church triumphant, it could not be said but that, with what they got in heaven, they were abundantly recompensed for what they lost on earth. Out of the mouths of these babes and sucklings God did perfect his praise; otherwise, it is not good to the Almighty that he should thus afflict.

The tradition of the Greek church (and we have it in the Æthiopic missal) is, that the number of the children slain was 14,000; but that is very absurd. I believe, if the births of the male children in the weekly bills were computed, there would not be found so many under two years old, in one of the most populous cities in the world, that was not near a fortieth part of it. But it is an instance of the vanity of tradition. It is strange that Josephus does not relate this story; but he wrote long after St. Matthew, and it is probable that he therefore would not relate it, because he would not so far countenance the Christian history; for he was a zealous Jew; but, to be sure, if it had not been true and well attested, he would have contested it. Macrobius, a heathen writer, tells us, that when Augustus Cæsar heard that Herod, among the children he order to be slain under two years old, slew his own son, he passed this jest upon him, That it was better to be Herod's swine than his son. The usage of the country forbade him to kill a swine, but nothing could restrain him from killing his son. Some think that he had a young child at nurse in Bethlehem; others think that, through mistake, two events are confounded—the murder of the infants, and the murder of his son Antipater. But for the church of Rome to put the Holy Innocents, as they call them, into their calendar, and observe a day in memory of them, while they have so often, by their barbarous massacres, justified, and even out—one Herod, is but to do as their predecessors did, who built the tombs of the prophets, while they themselves filled up the same measure.

Some observe another design of Providence in the murder of the infants. By all the prophecies of the Old Testament it appears that Bethlehem was the place, and this the time, of the Messiah's nativity; now all the children of Bethlehem, born at this time, being murdered, and Jesus only escaping, none but Jesus could pretend to be the Messiah. Herod now thought he had baffled all the Old Testament prophecies, had defeated the indications of the star, and the devotions of the wise men, by ridding the country of this new King; having burnt the hive, he concludes he had killed the master bee; but God in heaven laughs at him, and has him in derision. Whatever crafty cruel devices are in men's hearts, the counsel of the Lord shall stand.

III. The fulfilling of scripture in this (v. 17, 18);

Then was fulfilled that prophecy (Jer. xxxi. 15), A voice was heard in Ramah. See and adore the fulness of the scripture! That prediction was accomplished in Jeremiah's time, when Nebuzaradan, after he had destroyed Jerusalem, brought all his prisoners to Ramah (Jer. xl. 1), and there disposed of them as he pleased, for the sword, or for captivity. Then was the cry in Ramah heard to Bethlehem (for those two cities, the one in Judah's lot, and the other in Benjamin's, were not far asunder); but now the prophecy is again fulfilled in the great sorrow that was for the death of these infants. The scripture was fulfilled,

1. In the place of this mourning. The noise of it was heard from Bethlehem to Ramah; for Herod's cruelty extended itself to all the coasts of Bethlehem, even into the lot of Benjamin, among the children of Rachel. Some think the country about Bethlehem was called Rachel, because there she died, and was buried. Rachel's sepulchre was hard by Bethlehem, Gen. xxxv. 16, 19. Compare 1 Sam. x. 2. Rachel had her heart much set upon children: the son she died in travail of she called Benoni—the son of her sorrow. These mothers were like Rachel, lived near Rachel's grave, and many of them descended from Rachel; and therefore their lamentations are elegantly represented by Rachel's weeping.

2. In the degree of this mourning. It was lamentation and mourning, and great mourning; all little enough to express the sense they had of this aggravated calamity. There was a great cry in Egypt when the first-born were slain, and so there was here when the youngest was slain; for whom we naturally have a particular tenderness. Here was a representation of this world we live in. We hear in it lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and see the tears of the oppressed, some upon one account, and some upon another. Our ways lie through a vale of tears. This sorrow was so great, that they would not be comforted. They hardened themselves in it, and took a pleasure in their grief. Blessed be God, there is no occasion of grief in this world, no, not that which is supplied by sin itself, that will justify us in refusing to be comforted! They would not be comforted, because they are not, that is, they are not in the land of the living, are not as they were, in their mothers' embraces. If, indeed, they were not, there might be some excuse for sorrowing as though we had no hope; but we know they are not lost, but gone before; if we forget that they are, we lose the best ground of our comfort, 1 Thess. iv. 13. Some make this grief of the Bethlehemites to be a judgment upon them for their contempt of Christ. They that would not rejoice for the birth of the Son of God, are justly made to weep for the death of their own sons; for they only wondered at the tidings the shepherds brought them, but did not welcome them.

The quoting of this prophecy might serve to obviate an objection which some would make against Christ, upon this sad providence. "Can the Messiah, who is to be the Consolation of Israel, be introduced with all this lamentation?" Yes, for so it was foretold, and the scripture must be accomplished. And besides, if we look further into this prophecy, we shall find that the bitter weeping in Ramah was but a prologue to the greatest joy, for it follows, Thy work shall be rewarded, and there is hope in thy end. The worse things are, the sooner they will mend. Unto them a child was born, sufficient to repair their losses.

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