He Got It Wrong

John Hopkins (1820-1891) was a clergyman and an experienced hymn writer. Most of his work is now forgotten, but Hopkins wrote the words and music for a Christmas song in 1857 which is still in use. The song was created for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary of New York. And you would think that Doctor Hopkins, writing for this distinguished body, would take care to get his facts straight. But apparently that did not much concern him.

The carol tells of the visit of the wise men to pay homage to Jesus. Scripture records the event in Matthew 2:1-12. But Hopkins seems to have ignored the facts before him and let his fancy take wing. Consider the title of his carol: "We Three Kings of Orient Are." (To see the full text, click here: link ) First, the biblical text nowhere tells us how many men there were. They are referred to in the plural, but that could mean there were two or twenty-two. We do not know. That there were three gifts presented tells us nothing. (If you receive three gifts for Christmas, will that without doubt prove there were three separate gift-givers?) Second, they were not kings at all, but wise men or magi. The magi were men expert in the study of the stars. Third, they were not from the "Orient," which refers to the Far East, or Eastern Asia. Rather, they were from Persia (present day Iraq), in the Middle East. The Persians placed much faith in astrology, which is the reason they needed men trained in the location and movement of the stars.

But where did these men, living hundreds of miles from Palestine, get their knowledge of the coming King of the Jews--and the understanding that He would be more than a mere man, and worthy of their worship (Matt. 2:11)? Likely this information came from the time when the Jews were taken to be slaves in the land of Persia (earlier ruled by the Babylonians). The years of the Captivity (605-535 BC) brought the Persians in contact with the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, one of the greatest of the prophets, a man named Daniel, lived out his whole adult life in the palace of the king. When the Lord revealed to Daniel the hidden meaning of a dream that troubled King Nebuchadnezzar, the Bible says the king "made him...chief administrator over all the wise men of Babylon" (Dan. 2:48).

In this capacity, Daniel no doubt shared prophecies concerning the promised Messiah of his people--One whom he called "Messiah the Prince" (Dan. 9:25). He could have told them that Christ would be called the Prince of Peace, and reign upon the throne of David (Isa. 9:6-7). Or that Jeremiah promised this descendant of David would be called "the Lord [Jehovah] our Righteousness" (Jer. 23:5-6). Or that Balaam prophesied He would be identified by the raising of a kingly Septre and a Star (Num. 24:17). Given Daniel's powerful influence in the court, it would not be surprising if his teachings were handed on from one group of wise men to the next. That may provide a significant clue to the knowledge of the wise men of Matthew's Gospel.

To be sure, John Hopkins's carol contains a number of inaccuracies. But to give credit where it is due, Hopkins rightly identifies the symbolism of the three gifts presented to Jesus. Though the visitors may not have fully understood why, in God's providence, the gold, frankincense and myrrh were most appropriate. As Hopkins indicates, gold speaks of His kingly majesty--"Gold I bring, to crown Him again." And "incense owns a Deity nigh," because its rising smoke symbolizes prayer and worship. Myrrh's "bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom," because it was used as an embalming spice (cf. Jn. 19:39-40), pointing to Christ's death for sin (cf. Matt. 20:28; Eph. 1:7). Thus Hopkins's song does present Christ in a wonderful, three-fold way: "Glorious now behold Him arise: / King and God and Sacrifice." In that, he got it right.