“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
“When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh” Matthew 2: 1-2, 9-11, KJV.
When Joseph met the wise men at the door, imagine his surprise, when they carried in the expensive gifts. He probably didn’t know that anyone from that far away knew who Jesus was, but he quickly learned that they definitely did, because the treasures they brought were to worship Him as King, Priest and Savior. They brought the gift of gold, since He was the King of kings, frankincense, since He was the High Priest, and myrrh, since He was to die for the sins of the world.
Mary most likely had never had gold, frankincense or myrrh, since both Joseph’s and her family were poor; those were treasures that only the wealthy enjoyed. God planned that they would have these items to barter when they had to flee to Egypt to save the life of the baby. They probably traded the gold first, since it was the least precious or practical of the three. The frankincense may have been the most profitable, since it was used in religious ceremonies, though the myrrh was the most usable gift.
Many theories exist as to who the wise men really were, but this much we know: They were men of learning and great wealth who watched the events of the world and trusted God to be in control. They were “from the east”, probably the Orient. Tradition suggests that there were 3 wise men, as well as numerous servants, but that is based only on the number of gifts; there may have been many more wise men.
Gold is the gift brought to worship Jesus as the King of Kings. The use of gold for money goes back hundreds of years before Jesus was born and has been used as a standard for value since then. Although the United States has not had any semblance of the gold standard since 1968, gold is still unofficially the gauge by which value is determined. When measuring inflation, the price of the item is compared with gold. Gold is considered to be the most stable in physical value. The value of the American dollar is quickly falling since the Federal Reserve is adding dollars into circulation (commonly called “printing money”). Each dollar is then worth less because the pie is cut into smaller pieces, so it takes more of those dollars to purchase the same item. Gold, however, does not change in value. Gold is still gold. Even though silver is considered to be a precious metal, it is still compared with gold, since it’s less stable in value. Gold was even more valuable in Bible times because it had to be dug up by hand with primitive tools, and there was less in circulation. Without gold, Joseph would have had to barter less valuable goods or services which would have taken more time.
There are a few other things that are known to be more valuable than gold. Wisdom holds higher value, because it causes the person to make better decisions in all areas of life and helps him to live a life with fuller meaning and purpose (Psalm 19:10, 119:127, Prov 3:14, 8:19). The law of the Lord is more valuable because it endures forever, it converts the soul, it brings wisdom to the simple, joy to the heart and light to the eyes (Psalm 19:7f).
Myrrh was given to Jesus in preparation for His burial, because it would prevent the stench of decomposition natural with death. The myrrh resin does not decay and is famous for its antibacterial properties. It has been used as far back as Jacob’s day (Genesis 37:25, 43:11), carried by camel to various parts of the “world.” In Ancient times, it was used to embalm the bodies of Pharaohs and other elite persons, which shows the esteem of the wise men for Jesus. When Esther was chosen for the harem of the King of Persia, she was given 6 months of beauty treatments with oil of myrrh and 6 months of perfume treatments, which probably included frankincense.
Myrrh is the Arabic word for “bitter,” and it has many healing, seasoning, and ritualistic uses. Mary would have used it to wash cuts, burns and other skin infections of Jesus and His siblings. When the children got a sore throat or mouth sores, they were given a little myrrh oil to gargle. They would have burned some myrrh and frankincense to repel insects and vultures from their chickens, milk cows or goats, sheep and donkeys. At the temple, myrrh and frankincense were often used together to make incense for worship. Myrrh has an earthy, bitter scent when it is burned, but when exposed to high heat, it expands instead of melting as other resins would. The gum resin was used as a flavoring in wines and vinegars. When Jesus was on the cross, He was offered a sponge dipped in myrrh vinegar and raised on a bamboo stick to help ease His pain, but He refused it because He came to bear the sin of the world. In the ancient world, it was a panacea for about every human affliction, from hemorrhoids to toothaches. Even today, it is a common additive in toothpaste and in veterinary practice. In Jesus’ day, one pound would be used in the wrapping of a body for burial, but Nicodemus brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) to prepare the body of Jesus.
Myrrh is a combination of the essential oil and gum of the small thorny tree called the Commiphora myrrha tree. It grows in dry, rocky soil in Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and other Middle Eastern countries. It can tolerate temperatures down to about 30º F. To harvest the resin and oil, wounds are made in the trunk and the sap bleeds out to heal the wound which is then collected and purified. When fresh, the resin is golden in color but turns darker with age. It has been so rare and sought after that at times, one ounce of myrrh has been more valuable than an ounce of gold.
Frankincense was brought by the wise men in worship of the High Priest, since Jesus was to be the final High Priest that was anticipated all through the Old Testament. In the first century, it was commonly used in India to make incense for religious ceremonies since the burning incense represented the prayers being carried to heaven. Frankincense oil is considered to be stimulating, for the relief of depression. Both frankincense and myrrh have blood-moving powers. It was the trade of frankincense and myrrh that made the Arabians the richest people on earth by the 1st century A.D. The ash from the burnt incense was known as kohl and was used to make eyeliner. Both frankincense and myrrh have been used to treat leprosy.
In Exodus 30:23f, God commanded Moses to make a sacred anointing oil for use only in the temple. The recipe was to never be used outside of sacred use. It was to be blended by a professional perfumer. In the mixture, there was to be 25 gallons of myrrh oil, 12-½ gallons oil of cinnamon, 12-½ gallons of sugar cane extract, 25 gallons of cassia oil which is very much like cinnamon, and 1 gallon of olive oil. This oil was used to anoint the Tent of Meeting and the ark of the Testimony; inside, the table, the lamp stand, the altar of incense and of burnt offering and the wash basin, as well as all the priests that served in the Tent of Meeting. There was also a special formula for the blend of incense that was to be used in the Tent of Meeting: Equal parts of Stacte gum resin (the highest grade of myrrh), Onycha, Galbanum and Frankincense. All four of these spices were gum resin from different trees in the area, extremely valuable and sacred. This blend was to be salted, then ground into powder and placed in front of the Testimony.
Frankincense was also used as treatment for Hemlock poisoning, tumors, vomiting, dysentery and fevers, leprosy, cancer, arthritis, bronchitis, menstrual issues, immune deficiency, gonorrhea, and as an astringent. It is used as camel and human food, the roots eaten raw or used as a flavoring in beverages. The inner bark can be used to make brown dye, or as fish bait.
The oil of frankincense has a woody, spicy, sweet smell, very pleasant. It is harvested from the Boswellia tree by making deep cuts in the trunk, peeling back the bark in narrow strips, and weeks later, collecting the hardened sap that bleeds from the trunk. This is the oleo gum resin, from which the oil is extracted using steam distillation. It is as rejuvenating to the skin, as the smoke is the spirit. The Boswellia sacra tree is native to Somalia and India. It is known for its ability to grow in extremely unforgiving areas, often out of solid rock which produced superior frankincense. Its native habitat is hot, dry and sunny most of the year, so it can’t handle any frost. It was far more valuable than gold and more versatile in use as well.
Myrrh is “bitter” and frankincense is “sweet,” which is why the husband speaks of his wife as a figure of the Temple mount as “the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense” (Song of Solomon 4:6). In this day and time, myrrh and frankincense aren’t valued as highly as they were, but there may come a day when they will return to their rightful place. The gifts of the wise men hold timeless value. Perhaps it wouldn’t be feasible in most areas of the United States to try to grow the trees, but it may be prudent to stock up on some gold and oil or oleoresin of myrrh and frankincense, or pray for some rich wise men to see a star directing them west to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.