First, it was foretold that the Messiah was to come from the house of David – to be a descendant of the young shepherd who became king of ancient Israel 1,000 years before the time of Christ. This was promised to David himself:
“When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom … and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-16).
This prophecy could not have been completely fulfilled by David’s physical descendants, but only by a Messianic king who could rule “forever” (vss. 13, 16). That is why in the New Testament it was foretold of Jesus: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32), and why, of course, Jesus is called the “Son of David” throughout the Gospels.
So the Davidic sonship of the Messiah was one reason for his eventual birth in Bethlehem – the place where David was born (and crowned) and his ancestral home (1 Samuel 17:12). As a descendant of David, Joseph, the husband of Jesus’ mother Mary, was required to travel to Bethlehem for a Roman census:
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:1-4).
But there is another reason for the Bethlehem nativity. The Old Testament Book of Micah contains a fascinating prophecy of what was to occur in the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah:
“And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem … 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. ... And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace” (Micah 4:8, 5:2-5).
This prophecy tells us that the Messianic ruler who would shepherd his people was, like David, to come from Bethlehem and that he would eventually reign “to the ends of the earth.” But notice another detail. The prophecy begins “And you, O tower of the flock ...” for which the Hebrew is migdal eder, literally “Tower of Eder.” This tower is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis. It stood on the outskirts of Bethlehem where the patriarch Jacob’s wife Rachel (Genesis 35:18-19) gave birth to her son “Ben-Oni” (meaning “son of sorrow”), whose name was changed to Benjamin (“son of the right hand”). In New Testament times, the tower was a watchtower used to guard the flocks of sheep that were pastured in that area.
The Jewish Mishnah (Shekalim vii. 4) indicates that sheep in the fields around Migdal Eder were controlled by the Temple in Jerusalem and were used to provide the animals sacrificed in the temple rituals. A number of biblical scholars have pointed out that if the prophecy of Micah 4:8 was fulfilled literally, then Jesus may well have been born in some building in this general part of the outskirts of Bethlehem. The word translated “manger” where the infant Jesus was placed (Luke 3:7) could also be translated as “stall” or any holding area for animals.
More importantly, have you ever wondered why the Gospel of Luke tells us that at the Nativity, angels appeared to shepherds? The heavenly host could have appeared, of course, to a group of soldiers, priests, travelers, or any other individuals, but we are told that they appeared to shepherds who were grazing their flocks in the area where Jesus was born (Luke 2:8-15). If Jesus was born in the area of Migdol Eder, the area where the sacrificial lambs were born and raised, the shepherds would naturally have been the people present in that area.
But regardless of the details of its fulfillment, the intent of the prophecy of Micah is clear. The promised Messiah who was the Lamb who would be sacrificed for his people (John 1:29) would also be their future Shepherd (Matthew 2:6). We see this principle throughout the Gospels, which speak of Jesus in both his initial human and later divine roles – as both the Servant and the future promised King, the Captive and the future Warrior, the Judged and the future Judge (Matthew 25:32, etc.). In every case, at his first coming Jesus fulfilled the lesser role, and at his second coming he will fulfill the greater role.
And there is a lesson in this for us. As we read the Gospel accounts and reflect on the life of Jesus, we should look carefully at how he carried out the lesser roles he fulfilled as a human being. These roles are recorded so that our present lives may be modelled on his – just as he promises to eventually share his greater roles with us if we are faithful in the lesser ones we have now (Luke 16:10).