“We Three Kings”, the song says. But we don’t know their number, and the Bible calls them Magi instead of kings. That’s where we get the word magician, but these guys weren’t simply showmen who could pull a rabbit out of their hat. They were the scholars of the day, from the east, descendants of the ancient wise men of Babylon and Persia. And it seems that they arrived in Bethlehem quite a while after Christ’s birth.
But how did a star motivate these scholars to travel to another land to search for a king and give him odd gifts? We read about other wise men from the east – both Babylonian and Persian – being led by the Biblical prophet, Daniel, during the captivity of the Jews there: “Then the king placed Daniel in a high position and lavished many gifts on him. He made him ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men.”
And so the Magi knew the ancient prophecies. One in particular – a thousand years earlier, a fellow wise man of the east, a prophet named Balaam, had said, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” From those words, the Magi would have seen the connection between a new star and the long awaited messiah king in Israel.
From Daniel and others, they would have learned of prophets like Isaiah, who prophesied, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”