“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” (Micah 5:2)
The city of Bethlehem is located about six miles southwest of Jerusalem. The first reference to Bethlehem in the Old Testament was when Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, died while giving birth to Benjamin. Genesis 35:19 states: “So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” Later, Bethlehem is referenced in the book of Judges (17:7-13) as the home of the Levite who became priest to Micah. The Book of Ruth also takes place in Bethlehem. Ruth gave birth to Obed who would become the father of Jesse, the father of David. It was also in Bethlehem that Samuel anointed David as king of Israel. And then the prophet Micah announced that the One to come, the Messiah, would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). The New Testament gospels confirm that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
God planned for His Son to be born in the tiny village of Bethlehem. He planned for Him to be born to a poor peasant girl and for his first breath to be taken, not amid splendor and riches, but in a stable. God planned for His Son’s first bed to be a manger filled with soft hay and for His first visitors to be lowly shepherds. God chose Bethlehem for His Son’s birthplace.
I wonder why God chose Bethlehem? Many feel that the small, obscure village revealed God’s concern for the lowly, the outcast, and the forgotten. While I certainly agree, I can’t help but wonder what Bethlehem meant to Jacob; Micah and his priest; Naomi, Ruth and Boaz; Obed and Jesse; King David; and, yes, even Jesus. I’m sure that Bethlehem was a special place for them, too.
Jacob probably forever remembered Bethlehem with sadness as he recalled the loss of his dear wife. Ruth may have treasured memories of her marriage to Boaz and the birth of Obed. Perhaps Naomi remembered how good it felt to come back home to her own people. David probably remembered his anointing and God’s call. Did Jesus think about the night He was born in Bethlehem? Did He listen as Mary and Joseph recounted each detail of what happened that special night? Did God use Bethlehem as a place to comfort, encourage, call, and inspire? Was Bethlehem perhaps not just God’s choice to speak to others, but was it also a place God lovingly prepared for those He called there for a certain time or season?
Each of us has one or more Bethlehem(s) as well – places that God may lead us through, maybe show us around, or perhaps settle us in. And I believe, with all my heart, that God not only knows where we are, but that He is actively involved in preparing these places for us. Consider the following:
- Sometimes Bethlehem is not a place we want to be.
“And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jeremiah 29:7).
Jeremiah is addressing a group of exiles who have been carried away to Babylon and other towns. This is not their home nor the place where any of them necessarily want to be. Yet even in this place, God has a plan for them – “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). Even when we find ourselves in a place where we don’t want to be, we can be sure that God knows exactly where we are, that He is there with us, and that He has a plan.
- Sometimes Bethlehem is a place where we discover a personal call.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
God had a special plan for Jeremiah and placed him at the right place, at the right time to fulfill God’s call upon his life. Just as God was intimately involved in every detail preceding the birth of Jesus, just as He called and equipped Jeremiah, He also has a plan for you and me. Our Bethlehem can be the place where we come face to face with God’s unique calling and plan for us.
- Sometimes Bethlehem is a new place.
“Now the Lord had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).
Sometimes, like Abram, we may need to leave the comfortable and familiar, what we have always known, and go to a place we’ve never been before. But we have God’s promise to go with us and direct our steps.
- Sometimes Bethlehem is a place of promise.
“I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2b-3).
This world is not our home. No matter what troubles or injustices we may face today, we have a precious promise. One day we will be with Jesus, Himself, in the place He has especially prepared for us.
As we enter this Christmas season, may we contemplate the many facets of Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born – a young mother and her just husband; an innkeeper with no rooms, but a stable; a host of angels and a motley group of scared, yet amazed shepherds. It doesn’t quite seem like the setting for the birth of our Savior and King, yet that is exactly what happened that night in Bethlehem. Such is often the case with our Bethlehem(s). How many times do we fail to see the hand of God at work in the various places we find ourselves? But as sure as He fulfilled the age-old prophecies and orchestrated the birth of His Son, He is also busy working out all the details in our lives wherever we may be. This same God who prepared Bethlehem for Jesus is with me in my Bethlehem. How I thank God for Bethlehem!