One of the most familiar elements of the Christmas story is the star of Bethlehem. But at the same time, it remains one of the most unknown features of the story—because unlike the wise men, we don’t really look straight at it.
“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17)
Summary of the Text
As you know, the prophet Balaam was a covetous and sinful man (Jude 11; 2 Pet. 2:15). But at the same time, even though he was not of the nation of Israel, he was a true prophet. The Spirit of the Lord really did come upon him (e.g. Num. 24:2). Balak, king of Moab, had Balaam summoned in order to put a curse on Israel. In spite of everything, the Spirit of the Lord refused to let Balaam prophesy disaster for Israel—it kept coming out as blessing (Micah 6:5). Balak was understandably peeved with Balaam (Num. 24:10), but Balaam calmed him down by giving him some very practical and carnal advice . . . for a fee (Rev. 2:14). The women of Moab enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and fornication, and God dealt with them severely (Num. 25:1-3). Balaam was eventually killed by the Israelites when they invaded the land (Josh. 13:22). Judging from the number of times it is referred to explicitly, both in the Old Testament and the New, this is a very important story. And in the Christmas story, we most likely have an implicit reference to it.
At the end of his exchanges with Balak, Balaam gave the words of our text above, and as a prophecy of blessing for Israel, we should be careful to ask what it means. The first fulfillment of these words came with the reign of King David four hundred years later. He was the one who struck Moab (v. 17), not to mention Edom (v. 18). David was the king who was a type of the great king, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus—so Jesus is the antitype, the final and complete fulfillment of this word. A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter out of Israel, and He will establish his reign. The scepter would stay with Judah until Shiloh came, and He would be the one who would gather all the people to Himself (Gen. 49:10).
The Wise Men
Balaam was a prophet, but he was not a prophet of Israel. He was from the east, and was of the heathen nations there. The wise men who came to search for Jesus because of the star were also from the east. It is likely that Balaam’s words had been preserved outside of the Hebrew Scriptures—and note how the wise men speak of this (Matt. 2:2). They appear to have much more information than could be gleaned from looking at a star in the sky, even if they were serious astrologers. Balaam had prophesied of a king, one with a scepter. The wise men asked about a king. Balaam had specified that this king would be from Jacob, and the wise men asked about a king of the Jews. Herod, the man they asked about it, was an Edomite, one of the peoples that this prophecy described as being conquered by the coming king. And, most noticeably, Balaam spoke of a star, and the wise men came in response to a star. Incidentally, we don’t know for certain that there were three wise men—that is simply an inference from the three types of gifts they brought (Matt. 2:11).
Led By the Star
One of the reasons we don’t look too closely at what the text says about our star is that it might mess with our modernist cosmology too much. The text says that the star, the same one which they had seen in the east, led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a distance of about eight miles, and that the star then stood still over the house where Mary and Jesus were (Matt. 2:9, 11). Picture a star leading you to Pullman, and then pointing out a particular house.
Either the wise men were being “led by” the star in some astrological sense, meaning that they were doing some serious math on the back of their camels (also unmentioned in the text, by the way), or a star actually came down into our atmosphere and did some very un-starlike things. But why should this be a surprise? A whole host of stars did the same thing for the shepherds (Luke 2:13).
Not What We Were Expecting
Now if we don’t accept the astrological math option, then that means the star came down into our sky, and stood over a particular house—fifty feet up, say. Does faithfulness to Scripture require us to accept absurdities? That a flaming ball of gas, many times larger than our entire earth, came down into Palestine in order to provide first century mapquest services? And that it did so without incinerating the globe? We need to take a lesson here from our medieval fathers in the faith, brought to us via Narnia. “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” If we can leave our bodies behind when we go to heaven, why cannot a star leave its body behind to come to earth? But any way you take it, the Christian faith flat contradicts the truncated cosmology of moderns. Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.
Remember What the Star Meant
Balaam is talking about what will happen to all the tinpot monarchies when the real kingdom arrives, when the true scepter is established. In the book of Revelation, Jesus identifies Himself with His ancestor and subject, King David. He is the root and offspring of David, and He is the bright and morning star (Rev. 22:16). Balaam was talking about what was going to happen in “the latter days” (v. 14), and he is very clear about the rise and fall of nations before the Messiah would come. First, the Amalekites would perish forever (v. 20). After them, the Kenites would go down (v. 22). They would be followed by invaders from Kittim (the Greeks, under Alexander), which is what verse 24 is talking about. But then the Greeks would fade away (v. 24), which is what happened with Rome in the ascendancy. And thus it was that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (Luke 2:1).
So Caesar gave the command in order to tax the whole world (v. Luke 2:1). The star gave the command that magi from the east would voluntarily come, bearing gifts (Matt. 2:11). Augustus won his throne through a great deal of killing at the battle of Actium. The Lord Jesus won His throne at the battle of Golgotha, where He conquered and crushed the devil by dying. The star in the east, the one the wise men followed, was a star that declared a coming kingdom, a kingdom that will never end. This is the kingdom of the true king, before whom the most magnificent kings in the history of the world were but flickering types and shadows.
The star of Bethlehem is therefore the regal emblem of a scepter, a scepter of neverending glory.