"Why lies he in such mean estate?"
This line from the Christmas carol, What Child is This?, draws attention to the seeming incongruity of the Son of God being laid in a manger. Have you ever considered how the whole narrative of our Lord’s birth shows us that God delights to do great things by humble means?
Think, for example, of this prophecy from the book of Micah, delivered some 700 years before the event:
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 (Micah 5:2)
There are several important truths that can be gleaned from this prophecy, but one that is often overlooked is what it says about Bethlehem itself, namely that it was “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (v. 2a). Literally, it reads, “too little to be among the thousands of Judah.” The tribes of Israel were divided for military purposes into thousands, with a head or a chief over each thousand. These thousands were reckoned according to city and town. But Bethlehem was too little to be reckoned among them. It was a tiny little town; a village, really—and a rather obscure one at that. It had nothing to commend itself as Messiah’s birthplace except that it was the birthplace of the great King David. Only in this did it have any significance. It never was a city of any importance, either before or after David. It wasn’t a commercial center. It wasn’t politically influential. It had no strategic significance. It was a sleepy little farming village.
We might have thought the Messiah should have been born in some great city, Jerusalem perhaps, the center of Israel’s religious life. Jerusalem was known as the “city of God.” It was home to the temple, the place where God had chosen to put his name. It was the center of Israel’s economic activity, too. It had a market that ranked in the top ten of the Roman Empire. It was the center of Israel’s political life, as well, the place where the Great Sanhedrin met, the place where Herod had his palace and held his court, and where the later procurators would exercise their authority.
One would think, then, that the Messiah would be born in Jerusalem. But God loves to do great things by humble means. Jesus would not be born in a great metropolis, but in a sleepy little village of no significance.
Not only so, but he would be born to a poor virgin, engaged to be married to an ordinary workman, a carpenter. They were nobodies. They were unknown outside their own family and community. The movers and shakers of Jewish society certainly took no notice of them. When the magi came from the east to inquire about the birth of the Messiah, the Jewish leaders were able to determine that he was to be born in Bethlehem, but no one seemed to know to whom he would be born. Joseph and Mary both were descendants of David. But the ancient and once glorious family of David had been cut down to a stump (Isa. 11:1). So much so, that his descendants, even Joseph, the very heir to the throne, was unknown in Israel.
Joseph and Mary’s humble means is amply illustrated in the offering that Mary brought for her cleansing after giving birth. She gave the poor woman’s sacrifice (comp. Lk. -24 with Lev. 12:6-8).
God delights to do great things by humble means.
Consider, too, that Jesus was not born in the comforts of a palace, but in the filth and stink of a stable. He was laid in a manger, not in a bed. There were no trained attendants ministering to him and to his mother; they were surrounded by livestock. Not exactly the kind of entrance into the world one might expect for the Son of God. But this is how God would have it. And it’s fitting that it should be so, for it shames and rebukes human pride, the mother of all sin. We put so much stock in pomp and circumstance, in glitz and glamour, in noise and attention. But here, in a remote corner of the Empire, nearly as far from Rome as it was possible to get, in a sleepy little village, in a stable, laid in a manger, was the promised Messiah, who was destined to rule the world.