How should we handle this verse? First, we should note that Matthew introduces the verse by referring to prophets (plural, “through the prophets”), rather than saying, as he does in other instances, “This took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (Matt. 1:22) or “For this is what the prophet has written” (Matt. 2:5). This seems to indicate a general rather than specific Old Testament reference.
Further, he replaces the verb he usually uses in such introductory formulas (“said”) with the conjunction hoti, which means “that.” This is the only place such a substitution occurs in the Gospel. Matthew is probably not citing a specific Old Testament text but instead is referring only to a general teaching of Scripture. A right rendering of his words might be, “This was to fulfill the teaching of the prophets that he would be called a Nazarene.”
But the problem remains that nowhere in the Old Testament do the prophets say this about Jesus. Some have tried to explain the discrepancy by linking Nazareth to Nazirite, a person specially consecrated to God. But there is no real connection between these names, and Jesus was not a Nazirite, though he was fully consecrated to the Father.
A better explanation is probably found in the fact that Nazareth was a despised place, the kind of village we might refer to disparagingly as “Podunk” or “Endsville.” It would have had that immediate ring to any Jew of that day who heard the name. What Matthew seems to be saying is that the prophets predicted the Messiah would be a despised person, the victim of slurs such as this. He would not be known as “Jesus of Bethlehem,” with its many honorable Davidic overtones, though he had been born in Bethlehem. Instead, he would be called “Jesus the Nazarene.” We remember how Nathanael responded when Philip told him that he, Andrew, and Peter had found the Messiah—“Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).
Matthew was right to remind his readers that the prophets foretold the Messiah would not be honored by his people but would be despised. One obvious passage is Isaiah 53:3:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Other texts exist as well (see Pss. 22:6–8, 13, 17; 69:9, 19–21; Isa. 49:7; 50:6; Dan. 9:26).
Be Wise and Be Warned
As we come to the end of this second chapter of Matthew, which tells of the wrath of Herod against the infant Christ and of God’s preservation of his life through the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth, we need to step back and ask what the chapter as a whole has taught. There are two great lessons: first, the sovereignty of God, particularly in the details of the birth and life of Jesus the Messiah; and second, the need to confess Jesus as our King and Savior, rather than oppose him as Herod did.
We would do well to think here of Psalm 2, a prophecy of the Messiah, though not cited by Matthew, that explains what was happening in the events described in this chapter. Psalm 2 describes how the nations of the world conspire and the kings of the earth take their stand against the Lord and his Anointed One (in Hebrew “Anointed One” is Messiah). It is what Herod did and what all persons do apart from the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in their lives. We do not want God’s Messiah to reign over us. We want to rule ourselves.
But God is not troubled by this cosmic rebellion. God laughs at such folly. This is the only place in the Bible where God is said to laugh, and it is not a pleasant laugh. It is a scornful, scoffing laugh as God rebukes and terrifies his rebellious subjects saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (v. 7). God assures his Messiah that he will give him the nations for his inheritance and the ends of the earth for his possession. “You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (v. 9).
What, then, are we advised to do? The answer is clear. We are advised to “be wise” and “be warned” (v. 10), to “serve the Lord with fear” and to “rejoice with trembling” (v. 11). Above all, we are to “kiss the Son” in grateful, loving submission (v. 12). The ending says, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” That is what these rulers will not do, of course. It is why they are in danger of a final, fierce destruction. But we are warned not to be among them.
The rulers of the world rage against Christ. But why should you? The hands he holds forth for you to kiss are hands that were pierced by nails when he was crucified in your place. One day he is coming as the great Judge of all. On that day the wicked will be punished, but today is the day of his grace. He invites you to come to him. Remember verse 12: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” It is a reminder that the only refuge from the wrath of God is God’s mercy unfolded at the cross of Jesus Christ.