Balaam was having a rough month complete with an angel of God, a talking donkey, and problems in his job. He had been hired by the King of Moab to curse Israel but every time he opened his mouth blessings came out instead. In his fourth attempt, scripture records a miraculous moment when he gazes out across the sands of Palestine and far into the future where he sees Israel’s ultimate hope, the Messiah.
“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.” (Numbers 24:17)
To the ancient Jews the star represented political dominion. It continued to be a symbol of Israel’s independence throughout the centuries, even after the destruction of the temple. By AD 123, we see a strong movement of Jewish nationalism led by a military leader, Simon Barkoziba. His common name among his adoring people? “Son of the Star”.
When the wise men from the east follow the star of the Christ child, there is a clear messianic message associated with the heavenly body. We are not sure exactly what this particular star was. Perhaps it was something completely otherworldly like the Pillar of Cloud the Israelites followed during the Exodus from Egypt. It behaved in much the same way as it led and guided these pilgrims from Parthia.
It is also possible, of course, that it was a real star or comet commissioned by God for a short time to announce the birth of His Son. Although we lack an exact date, the historian Josephus makes an interesting note about an unusual occurrence in Jerusalem’s night sky around the time of Christ’s birth.
“Thus, there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet that continued a whole year. Thus also, before the Jew’s rebellion, and before the commotions which preceded the war.” (Josephus: Jewish Wars)
Whatever the nature of star, it became a symbol of Messianic hope for the early church which endures today. Its presence reminds us of God’s leading, deliverance, and faithfulness. It is the hope of a brilliant light piercing the blackest nights and a joyful herald that the long wait for deliverance is over. Salvation is here. Messiah has come.