‘When Herod had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.’
When we read this text from Matthew’s gospel (as we will later in our Advent series, and no doubt once or twice at other times in Advent), we immediately think of the famous passage in Micah chapter 5, the one we often use at carol services. And that would be right: not least because it’s the passage the chief priests and teachers of the law quote back to Herod in this conversation.
But, whilst Micah might be the moment when Bethlehem takes centre stage in the prophetic record, it’s not the first time Judea is given a significant role. Indeed, the central role of the clan of Judah – one of Joseph’s eleven brothers, from which the region of Judea takes its name – goes all the way back to Genesis, the very first book of the bible. On his deathbed, Patriarch Jacob speaks a prophetic word over all his twelve sons. Surprisingly, the pre-eminent place is not given to Reuben, the firstborn; or to Joseph, the most talented and his favourite; or to Benjamin, the baby of the family and most loved; it goes to Judah – fourth son of Leah, the wife he was forced to marry.
As so often in scripture, we can’t immediately see the obvious reason why Judah would be ‘the chosen line’. We look at the outward appearances – but the Lord looks at the heart. And, in the Lord’s wisdom, Judah is the line through which God’s great promises are fulfilled – via Boaz, David, Hezekiah, all the way down to another Joseph.
Judah is described as a lion – in the popular imagination, the greatest and fiercest creature of them all – and Jacob prophecies that one day, a descendant of Judah would carry the sceptre (i.e. royal authority) for the nations of the world, who would ultimately bow in obedience before him.
From that moment, God’s people were waiting for the Lion of Judah, who would fulfil this prophecy. And, whilst the images relating to the donkey and the blood of grapes were symbols of pre-eminence and prosperity in this particular passage, they also hint at darker meanings: the humble king riding on a donkey, the one whose blood was shed in victory, and whose blood we commemorate in wine – the one who made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; yet who was exalted to the highest place and before whom one day every knee will bow, and every tongue confess is Lord (see Philippians 2:7-11)
The Lion of Judah is Jesus Christ. As we begin our Advent series in earnest tomorrow, may the roar of this divine lion ring through all of our reflections, as we wait in hope for the coming King, and in faith for the obedience of the nations to be his.