In Matthew 2:1-6, the following passage is found:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
Have you ever slowed down and thought about how you would bring the Savior of mankind into the world? What kind of things might influence our decision? Would his hometown have anything to do with it? What about his looks? Maybe his family? What about his education? There is one Bible story that depicts a similar scenario, before the savior of this world even comes on the scene.
In First Samuel 8, the people of Israel had existed for centuries in the land of promise, and then all of a sudden decide they want a king like all the other nations. Samuel sternly warns the people what a king would be like, and yet, they still insist on having someone other than God to rule them. God permits it, and sends His servant Samuel on a quest to find the first king of Israel. This is when we are introduced to a young man named Saul. When we first meet Saul, he is on a mission to find some of his father’s lost donkeys. After his interaction with Samuel, Saul, a tall and handsome Benjamite (First Samuel 9:1-2), is made king. But his reign was short lived. After making several mistakes and disobeying the voice of the Lord, Saul was rejected from being king (First Samuel 15:26).
The text of First Samuel seems to indicate an attachment Samuel had to Saul. It’s almost as if he felt responsible for the mistakes of Saul. The Lord came to Samuel shortly after Saul’s rejection and asked:
How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have selected a king for Myself among his sons.First Samuel 16:1
Wait… what? For starters, where even is Bethlehem? Bethlehem was a small village about 5 miles south of Jerusalem. At one time it was referred to as “Ephrath” (see Genesis 35:16; 35:19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11). It is understood that the word Bit-Lahmi or Beit-lahm (i.e. “house of flesh“) is the Arabic attempt to translate the word Ephratah. Similarily, “Bethlehem” appears to be the Hebraic attempt to translate Ephratah.1 The word “Bethlehem” can also mean “house of bread.”2 This is significant because this village was known for having extremely fertile ground. It was for this reason also that Bethlehem was known as being a fruitful place.3
For someone who will be God’s pick for king, is this really where we expected him to be? You and I are not alone in our doubts. As Samuel made his way to Bethlehem and into the house of Jesse, he first noticed Eliab, the older brother of David. Samuel immediately thought to himself,
Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.First Samuel 16:6
God was quick to correct that thinking,
Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.First Samuel 16:7
Just as many would not have expected for the next king to come out of Bethlehem, many wouldn’t have expected what would happen next. After parading out the other older sons of Jesse, Samuel inquires about the youngest of the sons. A young boy, who was out shepherding his father’s sheep in the pastures of Bethlehem. The scriptures described him as:
Ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance.First Samuel 16:12
This is the one. Behold, the anointed of God. A shepherd from Bethlehem. A descendant of the Moabitess turned Israelite, Ruth (Ruth 4:18-22). But the story of God using those from Bethlehem does not stop there. God told us through his servant Micah the following:
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. Therefore He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel.And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth.
This One will be our peace.Micah 5:2-5
In a time of uncertainty for Israel, this promise comes to them from God. To most, this would not have been a very comforting promise. Not only is Bethlehem still a place of insignificance at this time, but to be more specific he says Bethlehem Ephrathah. There were different parts to Bethlehem, so this just narrows it down more. In this prophecy, God tells us that although it is “too small to be among the clans of Judah”, this is where their ruler and deliverer will be from. Micah also tells us that the “He will arise and shepherd His flock.” Bethlehem is not only a “place of bread” but it is a place of shepherds! First David, and as Matthew 2 points out, the Son of God – Jesus the Loving Shepherd. The Prince of Peace.
So when it is all said and done, what are we to learn from the Bethlehem we read about in scripture?
1 God loves using the unassuming. As we already discussed at length, Bethlehem was a town so small, Micah says that it was too little to be among the clans of Judah. And yet, this is where the Savior of the world was born. Many other stories and Bible heroes have that common thread. Why you may ask? Because in weakness, God is able to make strong. Using people and places like Bethlehem showcase the power and authority of God quite well. The story doesn’t end with Bethlehem, though. God is doing the same with us. He is taking something small and ordinary, and making it into something unrecognizable. Not for our glory, but for His own. May God continue to use us and mold us, just as He did with the town of Bethlehem.
2 Jesus was always God’s plan. Ever since the fall of man, there has been nothing but turmoil and pain on this earth. When man was driven from the garden of God, there was clearly no longer peace between man and God. But as we see over and over again through Scripture, God is a God who wants peace. God wants reconciliation. God devised a plan to send His Son to save us. Or as Micah said about the One from Bethlehem, “this One will be our peace.” All the way from the story of Ruth in the land of Bethlehem, from David pasturing his sheep in the fields of Bethlehem, to finally Jesus the Christ. The very one who said “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.” He is the Good Shepherd from Bethlehem. May God help us follow this humble shepherd of Bethlehem. Thanks be to God for His foreknowledge and planning of sending our Savior.
1 H.B. Hackett, ed., Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), 293.
2 J.D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, eds., The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 141.
3 Douglas and Tenney, The New International Dictionary of the Bible, 318.
Chase Byers lives and works in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with his with Rebecca and daughter Sallie.