O Little Town of Bethlehem

We sing “O little town of Bethlehem.” Little is not just a sentimental description. Bethlehem was an insignificant town. But Micah’s prophesy (5:2) echoed through the years to be recalled by the priests almost seven centuries later.

Trust the humble Messiah. Bethlehem was insignificant. The town was ancient. Both “Bethlehem” and “Ephrathah” were associated with it (Genesis 35:19) but it was a small, unimportant town. It was the boyhood home of David, but that alone didn’t give it lasting importance. We may be proud of Newberg as the boyhood home of President Hoover, but that doesn’t put the town on the map. Perhaps the insignificance of Bethlehem was one of the reasons the priests and leaders of Israel, although able to cite this prophecy in response to Herod’s question, failed to follow the Magi to Bethlehem. The Magi must have been surprised. After following the star to the land of the Jews (where people responded, “What newborn king?”) they are directed out of Jerusalem to little Bethlehem. Today the kingdom of God still often appears insignificant to men. The church seems (and is) weak. Often it is unnoticed.

In the context of humility God does great things. God picks Bethlehem as the setting where the incarnation comes to light. As far as the leaders of Israel in Herod’s day are concerned, the problem is not only the insignificance of Bethlehem. More serious still is their assumption that any king worth knowing would have made his presence known to them. The chief priests were in charge of the Temple. If the Messiah had indeed come, the Temple would have been the place to which he would have come. The experts in the law just knew that the Messiah had not arrived—or they would have known. Yes, they will answer Herod’s demand. They will quote the prophecy to the Magi—and let them go off on their wild goose chase. They are not going to waste their time on wild rumors. Humble Bethlehem is a fitting birthplace, for this Ruler will grow up, not in a palace, but in a carpenter’s home. His retinue will be, not well-bred courtiers, but 12 former fishermen, tax collectors, etc. His mouth will utter, not royal proclamations, but the good news of the kingdom of heaven. And his work will not be imperial domination but suffering and death. But through his unlikely appearing work God would bring about the salvation of his people. Precisely because he was born in Bethlehem in this humble condition, he is equipped to be your perfect Savior. He comes “for me,” on God’s behalf. His birth in Bethlehem calls you to trust, not the power structures of men, but the Savior God provides, Micah 5:10 ff. Remember how that Ruler, now seated at the right hand of the Father, is building his kingdom—not with the tools of political power, but through the ordinary means of grace. Yes, Christians can and should be involved in the affairs of government, but don’t fall into the trap of putting your trust in them. Without the force of arms, without an earthly political structure, his kingdom would expand throughout the world.

Submit to the Victor who restores his people. His origins are from of old. Although his coming is future from Micah’s perspective, the origins of this king are from old. He is a new figure, but not really new, for he is the Rock who provided for the people in the wilderness. He is the one who appeared to the patriarchs as the Angel of the Lord. He is the Seed promised to the woman as she left the Garden. And you cannot exclude eternity from “of old,” for Jesus Christ is indeed eternal. “The theocratic king, embodied especially in David with his humble beginnings, many-sided experience of life, deep emotions, poetic disposition, unflinching courage, and brilliant victories, was a son of God (2 Sam. 7:14; Pss. 2:6–7; 89:27), the anointed one par excellence (Pss. 2:2; 18:50)…. Coming from despised little Bethlehem, where the royal house of David originated and to which, driven from the throne, it withdrew (Mic 5:2; cf. 3:12; 4:8, 13), the Messiah will nevertheless be a ruler over Israel; his origins as ruler—proceeding from God—go back to the distant past, to the days of old.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 3), p. 244)

He is the mighty warrior who delivers you. Micah uses imagery that reflects the Exodus, Micah 6:4,5. God has delivered his people in the past, yet those great acts of salvation are merely a faint echo of the greater deliverance to come in the Messiah. “The Messiah stands for salvation; indeed, “Saviour” is the most popular name by which the Christ has come to to be known among His followers. This saving aspect of the Messiah’s work is inseparable from His vocation…. Without the hope of salvation to wrought through Him, the greater part of the Messiah’s reason for existence would fall away. In the great Messianic prophecies, such as Isa. 9 and 11, Mic. 5, Zech. 9, this feature stands in the foreground.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus,p. 25) The One born in Bethlehem rules his people. He chastises them, removing their dependence on human instruments of power, verses 10-13. The event in Bethlehem still calls you to rest, not on your own wisdom, not on human power, but on the One God provides. Note the reactions to the prophecy shown in Matthew 2. The leaders of Israel cannot be bothered to investigate further. Herod, paranoid that there might be a competing king, plots to murder the Messiah. But the Magi go to worship him. The Ruler defeats his foes and the foes of his people. In Micah’s day, 700 years before Christ, the enemy was Assyria, verses 5b–6. But the victory is over all who oppose the Messiah and his people. He rules in the strength and majesty of the Lord, verse 4. The humility of the Messiah conceals infinite power. He will be the peace of his people, verse 5a. He doesn’t simply proclaim peace, but by his life, death, and resurrection, he actually achieved peace for you, his people. No wonder the angels proclaimed peace on earth.

The insignificance of Bethlehem is swallowed up by the immensity of the event that took place there. With the Magi listen to the words of Micah’s prophecy. Worship and serve the King born in Bethlehem.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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