One of the most familiar and best-loved stories of the Bible is the account of the wise men coming from a distant country east of Israel to worship the young child Jesus, and to give Him three special gifts from their treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We cannot help but wonder, "Why these particular gifts?"
The gift of gold obviously was appropriate for both honoring a king and worshipping God. It has always been symbolic of wealth and of royalty. The essential symbol identifying a king was a golden crown on his head. But God is the ultimate Sovereign and His Son is the King of kings (Revelation 17:14). Therefore gold is most fittingly appropriate.
As God was structuring the nation of Israel in the wilderness under Moses, He told them to build a tabernacle in which He could "dwell among them" (Exodus 25:8). As He gave the pattern that they were to follow in building the tabernacle and its furnishings, it is noteworthy how often gold was to be used. The word was used well over 100 times as they received and carried out these instructions. Everything was either made of gold or overlaid with gold.
The same was true on an even larger scale in the temple, which King Solomon later built in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle. Again there was gold everywhere (1 Kings 6:21,22). But the tabernacle and the temple, as beautiful and meaningful as they were, were only types of God's future home with all His people. The heavenly city, New Jerusalem, will be made of gold everywhere (Revelation 21:18,21). A gift of gold was indeed a wonderfully appropriate gift for the Magi to offer the Lord Jesus as they worshipped Him.
But what about frankincense and myrrh? Both were highly valued in Israel and other nations of that time, used especially for medicines, incense, and perfumes. Interestingly, they are both encountered for the first time in the Bible in God's instructions for the services of the tabernacle (Exodus 30:23,34). The use of frankincense was commanded, both as a chief ingredient of the incense which was to be kept burning in the tabernacle and also in connection with the meal offering.
David prayed: "Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense" (Psalm 141:2). As the smoke of the burning offering ascended up from the altar, so the people believed their prayers would go up to God with it, and it would be a sweet savor to Him. The typological meaning of burning incense as prayer rising up to God is seen even in the prophecies of Revelation. John saw "golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints" (Revelation 5:8). This surely gives us a clue as to the real significance of burning incense (especially its chief ingredient, frankincense) rising up to God's throne. We pray, on the basis of the sin-cleansing sacrifice of the Lamb of God, and they rise up to the throne of God via the indwelling Spirit of God.
In the Old Testament figure, the High Priest had to serve as the intermediary, but now the relationship is different: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5; see also Hebrews 7:1-8:6).
Now we can see how wonderfully meaningful was this gift of frankincense to the little child in Bethlehem. Not only is He destined to be the great King, but also our eternal High Priest. The incense confesses that He alone can convey our prayers, and indeed our very souls to God.
The third gift was myrrh. Its first use in the Bible would suggest that its definitive Biblical use was in the holy anointing oil. The priests were to be "anointed" with a divinely-designed oil, the main ingredient of which was myrrh. This type of special ritualistic anointing was also applicable to kings and prophets. For example, Samuel anointed Saul and later David to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13; Psalm 89:20). God told Elijah: "Elisha … shalt thou anoint to be prophet" (1 Kings 19:16).
Myrrh is used in a striking way in Psalm 45, which eulogizes the Messiah ("the Anointed One"). Jesus is pictured in this psalm as about to leave the palaces of heaven for a mission to Earth with a "tongue" like the "pen of a ready writer" and with grace "poured into thy lips" (Psalm 45:1-2). He has beautiful words from God (Hebrews 1:1-2); in fact He is the Word of God (John 1:1,14)!
Prophet, Priest, and King
The Magi had surely read Moses' promise of the coming Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), as well as David's promise of the coming Priest (Psalm 110:4), and Daniel's promise of the coming King (Daniel 9:24-27), and when they saw Him, they fell down and worshipped Him, presenting Him with the three most fitting gifts of worship which the world contained.
—Condensed from "Gold and Frankincense and Myrrh" by Henry M. Morris and Kathleen Bruce. Published by Institute for Creation Research, Santee, CA. Used by permission.