In this video we look at the symbolism of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
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Welcome back to the Bible is Art where we explore the literary artistry of the Bible and this week we’re looking at the symbolism of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, and its both different and deeper than I originally thought.
We all know the story. Jesus is born and wise men come and bring three gifts to Jesus, Gold, frankincense, and Myrrh. But the question I want to explore is why three gifts and why these gifts.
As always in the Bible, if you’re trying to understand something the answer is often found in something that came before. And Gold, frankincense, and Myrrh have all appeared in the Bible before. And while these different things occur in different places in the OT, they only occur together in one place, The Temple and Tabernacle.
Gold was the characteristic material in the Holy of Holies. The ark of the covenant was made of solid gold and the room was overlaid with gold.
Frankincense was used in the offerings, specifically the grain or gift offering. And these offerings only happened at the temple in the first section or courtyard of the temple.
Myrrh was used as the first ingredient in the mixture that was burned in the alter of incense by the priests in the holy place.
So notice, there is one material that is found in each of the three sections of the Temple. So what significance does that have?
Well, there’s one more text or group of texts that we have to bring in. There are a set of texts that talk about in the future the nations of the world will bring gifts to Jerusalem and to her King.
So Psalm 72 talks about Israel’s king and says “May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
And Isaiah 60 speaking of the glorious future of Israel says, “
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…and nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. – Isaiah 60:3
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. – Isaiah 60:6
And In Solomon’s life, the Queen of Sheba brought him gifts.
So with these texts as backstory, we can begin to put together the pieces. These three gifts are brought because Jesus will be building a new temple. It is not surprising that later he will cleanse the temple and foretell its destruction.
In Matthew 21 when he is cleansing the temple he will get angry because the temple is being used for commerce instead of prayer for all nations. And even in the beginning of the gospel the connection of the temple and all nations is here because the gifts for the construction of the new temple will be brought by foreigners, magi.
So even as an infant Jesus is bringing Jew and gentile together in a way that the temple in Jerusalem couldn’t do, even having been around for so many years.
In the story, after the Magi offer their gifts and worship Jesus, an angel warns them of Herod and instructs them to depart another way. That is after they offer their sacrifices at or for the new temple, God responds by protecting them. The new temple Jesus is building is already open for use.
So Gold, frankincense, and Myrrh are not just costly gifts but the very material for the construction of the new temple that Jesus is building, even as an infant. And that, my friends is why, the Bible is Art.