Were the Magi’s Three Gifts Symbolic?

Tradition ascribes significance to the gifts the Magi brought to Jesus. In Matthew 2:11 they present him “gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

The Christmas hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (besides calling the men “kings” and numbering them “three,” neither of which the Scripture teaches) has these lines:

  • “Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign”
  • “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh”
  • “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom”

The song “How Many Kings” by the Christian band Downhere has similar phrases:

  • “Gold for His honor”
  • “And frankincense for His pleasure”
  • “And myrrh for the cross He’ll suffer”

The Bible doesn’t ascribe symbolic significance, however, to the three gifts of the Magi. While it may be common to link gold to honor and frankincense to worship of a deity and myrrh to Christ’s impending death, the links are still speculation.

More certain, however, is that the Magi believed they were coming to see a king (cf. Matt 2:2), and therefore their gifts would be ones fit for a king (hence, expensive).

So while the gifts were expensive and denoted what would honor a king, any further symbolic significance is purely traditional. Much more can be said, though, for linking the gifts to Isaiah 60, Psalm 72, and 1 Kings 10. Those passages show the true significance of the Magi’s gifts to the baby Messiah.

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2 thoughts on “Were the Magi’s Three Gifts Symbolic?

  1. It is often tempting to read more into Scripture than God intended. I think this is an excellent example of how someone got carried away with it long ago, & then, over many years, it has become a tradition that we assume is fact. Many years when I first began teaching the Bible I was given some very good advice by my pastor: Don’t add things to the text that aren’t there. The Pharisees took this to an extreme & made God’s Law a huge burden to His people.

  2. Pingback: Jesus as the New Solomon, New Moses, and New Israel in Matthew 2 | Soli Deo Gloria

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