“After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Matthew 2:9
Many theories have been suggested about what the magi actually saw in the sky over Israel. Some have speculated it may have been a concurrence of bright stars, a comet or a supernova. But in my opinion explanations based on strictly natural phenomena fall short – and I will explain why.
If the Magi’s star were a natural star, it would have had to defy the laws of physics. The movement of stars usually traverse the sky from east to west. But the “star” the Magi saw led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, moving north to south. Further, the star led them to the precise location of a certain individual house, which of course a heavenly body, millions of light years from earth, could not do. The Bible even says that when the star came to the place where the Child was, it “stood still”– something stars do not do. There is definitely something unusual about this “star.”
The Scripture doesn’t explain exactly what is going on here. Since we are left to speculate, I might as well give a theory of my own. It is possible that what the Magi saw was actually similar to something the prophet Ezekiel witnessed hundreds of years earlier. Let me explain.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt, His desire was not merely to set His people free from slavery. He actually wanted to dwell in their midst. He wanted a covenant people who would provide Him a “house” on the earth. God told Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8). God gave specific instructions for the building of His Tabernacle. Once finished, the manifest presence of God – the Shekinah glory – took up residence in the innermost chamber called the Holy of Holies.
Many years later, King Solomon built the Temple. Once again, God’s Shekinah glory filled the temple in a dramatic fashion.
Now when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And the priests could not enter into the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord had filled the Lord’s house. And when all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the Lord upon the house, they bowed themselves with their faces to the ground upon the pavement, and worshipped, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever (2 Chronicles 7:1-3).
The glory of God rested in the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple for hundreds of years. But Israel continued to sin and rebel. The time for judgment was approaching when Israel would be captured and looted. The Babylonians would destroy Solomon’s temple and take the children of Israel away into captivity (which is the time Daniel’s story took place).
But before the temple was destroyed and before any physical devastation had taken place in the natural, something far more tragic already happened. The glory of God departed from the temple. It left so quietly that most of Israel never even noticed. But the prophet Ezekiel saw it. He described the progression as the glory of God moved one step at a time from the Holy of Holies to the threshold of the Temple, then out of the temple through the eastern gate and on to the Mount of Olives. Finally it was gone.
What a tragedy. God’s manifest presence was no longer dwelling in the midst of His people. The physical destruction of Solomon’s temple and the conquering of the nation were merely outward manifestations of their spiritual bankruptcy.
More than 100 years later the prophet Malachi said, “‘Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 3:1).
What a prophecy! God would send His messenger to His temple. This meant that the Messiah would come to a rebuilt temple. God promised restoration for the people, the land and the temple. In fact, the prophet Haggai declared, “The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,” (Haggai 2:6-9). According to Haggai, this second temple was supposed to be the greater temple with a greater glory. But there was a problem.
When the foundation to the second temple was laid by the exiles, and those old enough to remember the first temple saw it, they began to weep out loud (Ezra 3:12). It was so small and modest compared to the original. The physical beauty and grandeur of the second temple would pale in comparison to the first. THE STAR
But there was a much bigger problem. When the second temple was dedicated, God’s glory did not return. Fire did not fall as it had in the first temple. There was no manifestation of the Shekinah glory. They did not even have the ark of the covenant. God had restored some of His people to the land, but did not take up residence with them.
Although the physical building had been erected, the presence of God that gave it purpose and meaning was still missing. The prophecies were unfulfilled. Israel was still waiting for its Messiah and for the return of God’s glory. And this is where we return to the star of Bethlehem.
It is interesting that when Ezekiel saw the glory of the Lord departing from the first temple, he could actually trace the movement of the departing glory as it went step-by-step. I think this sounds remarkably similar to what the shepherds saw when the angels appeared and announced the Savior’s birth: “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9). And it sounds even more similar to what the Magi saw that allowed them to trace the moving of the “star” to a precise residential address. A natural heavenly body could never provide such precision or stand still over a particular house (Matthew 2:9). Could it be that the Magi actually saw the once-departed Shekinah glory of God now returning to Israel?
Jesus came into the world as the ultimate “Shekinah” – the ultimate dwelling of God among men. This is why the Scriptures said that He would be called, “Immanuel” which means, “God with us!” No wonder multitudes of angels announced his birth and worshipped God! Such a marvel the earth had never known. No spectacle of creation or human invention could compare to the miracle that God had wrapped Himself in human flesh and made his home among us. John says that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). When we celebrate Christmas, we are literally celebrating the fact that God came to live among us. What an amazing thought! “Christ, by highest heaven adored;