We do not know exactly who the Magi were. Efforts to describe them as “kings” are not scripturally supported. It is assumed there were three because of the three gifts that were presented to Jesus. The Magi were following a divine guidance to Jesus. It is appropriate to consider the Magi were being led by the Holy Spirit, with the intent to worship, not just visit or observe.
It was God’s will that Herod the Great be told of this new king. The reign of Herod was from 37 to 4 BC. King Herod was a paranoid ruler. When the Magi told him of this new “king of the Jews”, he was immediately threatened. According to Matthew, not only was Herod troubled, but all of Jerusalem was. This means the corrupt Jewish priests and politicians feared judgment. It may also mean that people feared a costly revolution was at hand, as the expected the messiah to be a military king. The priests and scribes related the prophecy of Bethlehem to Herod. Herod extracted information from the Magi that he could use to identify the child. Herod asked the Magi to let him know when they found Jesus under the pretense that he may worship him also. Herod’s intent was to kill this future king. Here, we have the contrast between true and false worship, that still exists today.
The Magi left Herod and saw the star again, which led them to Christ and they worshiped him. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh resonate as more than simple gifts for a newborn child. They are different, special, and even kingly. The are called treasures. We may not understand them today, and there are different theories attached to their purpose, from practical to spiritual, but what is important to realize is that the Magi recognized Jesus as a king.
The Magi were warned not to return to Herod. This was for the protection of Jesus and also for their protection as well.
How cruel was Herod? Herod could play the politician well, but he was also very suspicious of those around him, and killed whoever he thought threatened his kingship, including his own sons and wives. Interestingly, Herod the Great was a practicing Jew, and would not eat pork. Caesar Augustus is recorded to have said, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”