O Little Town of Bethlehem

20 Dec

(Photo by pippalou on Morgue File)

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. While I am Baptist, I enjoy reading from the Book of Common Prayer. As such, I often take my devotions from its daily readings. One of the passages given for today is Micah 5. 2-5a. Here are the verses of this pericope:

[2] But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. [3] Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel. [4] And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. [5] And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5a, ESV)

Bethlehem was certainly not an unknown locale even in the day of Micah. However, it was, for the most part, largely insignificant in the times of the Old Testament.  It is without question that it is far more of a prominent place today, especially in Christian circles.

Before we touch on some of its history, let us first consider the meaning of its name. Bethlehem, in Hebrew, בֵּית־לֶחֶם, means “house of bread“. It is located about five miles south of Jerusalem.

The site is an ancient one. Its first mentioning in Scripture is found in the book of Genesis. The name it was known as then was Ephrath. (You will also see it spelled Ephratah or, as in Micah, Ephrathah.)

It is first mentioned in Gn. 35.16, 19. There it is mentioned in connection with Rachel giving birth to Benjamin (or, as she named him, Benoni)—When they were still some distance from Ephrath . . . (Gn. 35.16b). It is mentioned again in v. 19 of the chapter, in connection to Rachel’s subsequent death and burial—So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). (The exact location of her burial is disputed.) Also read Gn. 48.7, where Jacob recounts the happenings of chapter 35.

It is also the setting, by and large, of the book of Ruth. Ruth deals with the history of David’s paternal lineage and the town is mentioned in Ruth 4.11.

This, of course, leads to another mentioning of the city, as it is associated with David the anointed king. You can read about Samuel’s anointing of David, the son of Jesse, in 1 Samuel 16.

Bethlehem is found in some other places in the Old Testament, in some cases as a fortified city and, in others, as a village in a list of villages and towns.

Of course, everything changes for this little town with the Messianic promise found in Micah. It would be from this small, rather insignificant village that the Messiah (God’s Anointed) would be born. Certainly, it would seem Bethlehem was a strange choice for the birth of the long-awaited, long-promised Messiah; but, that is what God declared through his prophet.

In the New Testament, Matthew and Luke mention it in their birth narratives of Christ (Mt. 2.1 and Lk. 2.4, respectively). It is clear that the religious leaders knew the prophecy of Micah very well. They fully expected the Messiah to be born in the village of Bethlehem (cf. Mt. 2.4-6; and see Jn. 7.42).

Herod, in irrational jealousy and hate, would send soldiers to the quiet village and slaughter all male children under a certain age. Mary and Joseph had already escaped with Jesus, having been divinely warned of the coming massacre. It would be a dark mark on the village: the bewildered whispers of shepherds, summoned by angels, gave way to the terrifying cries and screams of little boys and their mothers.

A very different scene indeed from the immortalized image captured in the classic Christmas tune, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Below are the lyrics to the song, written by Phillips Brooks:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

For Christ is born of Mary, and gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

There are a couple of life-lessons we can draw from little Bethlehem.

  1. God often times chooses the weak or seemingly insignificant to display his glory and power.
  2. The connection of Bethlehem with David and his descendant and heir, Christ is not incidental or accidental.
  3. Jesus’ humble origins, as exhibited in his birth in a manger in Bethlehem, reminds us that his greatness was in who he was/is and not in the things we tend to judge greatness and importance (i.e. birth rights, education, wealth, prestige, power, acclaim . . . et. al.).
  4. The religious leaders knew the details of the Messianic prophecy; yet, they were not prepared for its happening. We too can fall into that trap.
  5. While being chosen by God is a great blessing, it does not mean that one is exempt from pain and suffering. In fact, sometimes it brings with it an added degree of suffering. Bethlehem certainly experienced that through the madness of Herod. Another example would be Mary herself, the chosen vessel of God; and yet, she had to endure ridicule over her pregnancy, the death of her husband (probably at a somewhat young age) and she had to witness the death of her Son.




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