“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace, and goodwill to those on whom His favor rests.”
After being told that peace had arrived in the form of a child in a local manger, the Jewish shepherds who received this message would have likely gone to the Migdal Eder, or 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack. They were probably overseeing a temple flock destined for sacrifice.
Shepherds brought ewes there to give birth. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls and carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. This special birthing place has been suggested as teh location where Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was born. As the prophet Micah had noted years before, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock,(Migdal Eder)… kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8)
But their watchtower was overshadowed by another tower.
Herod’s mountain fortress overlooking the town of Bethlehem was more than 200 feet in diameter. It loomed seven stories high, with an eastern tower that stood more than 40 feet higher. It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, and countless apartments. The lower palace included an enormous pool, a colonnaded garden, a 600-foot-long terrace, and a building more than 400 feet long. Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds. The Herodion’s circular upper palace literally overshadowed the surrounding villages for miles.
The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for him. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers (not slaves, yes he was that rich) for many years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other. He built his massive and grandiose palace-fortress on top of the remaining hill.
The shadow case over the land was not just physical; Herod darkened the moral climate of the land as well. Herod made his name when he broke the resistance of the rebels hiding in caves on the side of a cliff near the Sea of Galilee. Herod commanded his troops to make platforms with fires to be let down with ropes to the openings of the caves. The smoked-out refugees were pulled out with long, hooked poles and dropped down the sheer cliff.
At one point, Herod laid siege to Jerusalem. The soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children, and the Jewish soldiers were tortured and chopped to pieces. Herod executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who resisted him.
Herod also executed his brother-in-law; his old friend Hyrcanus, who had given him his start; his wife; then his mother-in-law. Hundreds of friends and family members, along with supporters of these last of the Hasmonaeans, were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations. Countless members of his family and court were tortured, as were his two sons.
Herod went to Jericho to die in agony, hated even by his family. Truly mad and fearing that no one would mourn his death, he commanded his troops to arrest important people from across the land, lock them in the hippodrome, and execute them after he died; if people would not mourn him, at least they would mourn.
Into this web of hatred and suspicion, "Magi from the east came... and asked (the Roman appointed King of the Jews), 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:2).
According to prophecy, the Messiah must come from Jacob (Israel) and must rule over Esau (Edom, or Idumaea). Herod was a Gentile, an Idumaean (called Edomite in the Old Testament). To the follower of God's Word, Herod could not be Messiah or God's king. No wonder that, when King Herod heard this news, he was “disturbed,” and he had the Israelite babies under two years old slaughtered.
The expected Messiah was supposed to free the Israelites from this type of bondage. Peace? That meant peace after a revolution, right? I’m sure they were encouraged when Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). That sounded more promising. And yet….he didn’t bring the kind of sword they were expecting. Jesus’ spiritual sword of truth didn’t displace the Romans; he didn’t come to bring that kind of peace. His message actually brought division between those who believed He was the Messiah and those who did not.
When peace entered the world in the person of Christ, it did not mean that all the sources of strife were suddenly neutralized. Herod was still there; the taxation was still going to happen; the Jewish community was still divided along political lines; even families would be divided as some believed the message of Christ and some did not.
The Prince of Peace showed up to change the world, but not in a way people expected.
When we talk about peace, we usually mean the absence of strife; the absence of the shadows that cover our land. Certainly that is part of peace; one of the greatest promises of Scripture is that one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). There will be no more predators and prey, no more users and used. Meanwhile, Jesus entered a world full of strife to help us through it, not necessarily to take us out of it.
There are some ways in which we live in the shadow of modern day Herodian temples.
We look around and think, “I have very little reason to have peace.” The claim that Jesus has left His peace with us often seems to clash with how we experience life.
Sometimes, the shadows effect the world in general: economic instability; war; global politics; cultural demise. Sometimes, the lack of peace hits much closer to home. When my Dad died, the shadow was daunting; the tower overshadowed my land. My wife and I have had seasons in our marriage when peace was hard to find. My jobs have and my health have not always been sunny. In these times in our lives, there is a temptation to get used to the dark, to resign ourselves to a frustrated life in the shadows of hostile strongholds.
And in those times when we are struggling to find peace, we become very good at misdiagnosing the problem and the solution. God said to Jeremiah that it is possible to heal the brokenness of people superficially. People will say, “Peace, peace, and there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
- We think that if the world were more peaceful, life would be better. This has some truth, but really, the world could be without war, and that would not guarantee our peace.
- We think that if our nation were more peaceful, life would be better. This has some truth, but our nation could be politically, economically and socially stable, and that would not guarantee our peace.
- We think that if our city could just agree on zoning and festivals and politics and school funding and that 6% sales tax… and this has some truth, but that would not guarantee our peace.
- We think that if our church could have perfect pastors and elders and Sunday school teachers and worship teams, and have a program for all our needs…but our church could be perfect, and that would not guarantee our peace.
- We think that if we could have the perfect job, and no financial problems… but we could have all the money in the world, and that would not guarantee our peace.
- We think that if we just had ideal parents, or perfect spouses, or kids who made our lives easy in everything they do… but even if our family were perfect, that would not guarantee our peace.
If we aren’t careful, we spend too much time trying to change "them": the Herods and their towers, or any other shadow-caster in our life. Surely, if the circumstances around us were better, we would have peace.
In a sense, that's a proper reaction to those things which oppress and destroy us. But on this side of heaven, something will always cast a shadow in life; that’s just how life is. We can dedicate our life to tearing them down, but new towers always rise from the rubble of the old. The battles will never be over.
If Jeremiah is correct, and the entrance of Jesus into the world counts for anything it all, I think we need to revisit how the Prince of Peace means to bring peace to the world and to us.
An attempt to make our lives truly peaceful by changing all the things around us does not ultimately address the place where peace begins.
When the angels announced that peace had arrived on earth, it was not because Herod was dethroned, or the Jewish people agreed on the identity of the real King of the Jews, or because the message of Christ would ensure that everybody got along. They announced that peace had arrived on earth because Jesus had arrived, and those on whom his favor rested would benefit in a way that somehow transcended political and social realities. The circumstances hadn't changed – other than that Christ was present.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you…not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Jesus spoke these words in the middle of the most tumultuous and violent events of his life. Judas Iscariot was hatching a plot to betray him. The crowds were in an uproar. The chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees were disturbed and fearful, hatching their own plots to rid themselves of this menace to their power and position. Even the Romans could feel the atmosphere of tension in the city.
Yet in the midst of all this, Jesus said he was giving peace. Clearly, the peace he offers isn’t a peace by the standards of the world (John 14:27).
Peace is not just the absence of strife. A fuller definition has to involve the presence of Christ: “He is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). True peace is found when we are in right relationship with Christ. The promise of Christmas is that Christ can bring peace within us even as life remains tumultuous around us.
“These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)