As a newborn, Jesus was placed in a manger because there was no room in a proper shelter. And He was in that manger when the shepherds visited.
Not so with the Wise Men, however.
We’re introduced to the Wise Men (or Magi) in the Gospel of Matthew:
[After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”] ~ Matthew 2:1-2
Now, that word “after” at the beginning of verse 1 is kind of ambiguous. How long after? A day? A week? A few years?
Fortunately, we can infer from two pieces of evidence in the text that the Wise Men visited Jesus at least a year after His birth, and probably closer to two years. First, notice the details of Jesus’ location when the Wise Men did show up bearing their gifts:
[After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.] ~ Matthew 2:9-12 (emphasis added)
See that? “On coming to the house.” Jesus was no longer “lying in a manger.” Instead, Mary and Joseph had been residents of Bethlehem long enough to rent or purchase a proper house. They had settled into the community after their long journey—probably unwilling to make a long trek back that would be dangerous for their young (and miraculous) son.
But how long had they been in that house when the Magi arrived? Strangely enough, that question is answered by the evil plot of mad King Herod.
If you remember the story, the Magi paid Herod a visit and asked: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). Herod was a paranoid and ruthless king; therefore, he had no interest in a potential rival. He told the Wise Men to find Jesus and then report back to him—supposedly so that he could “worship” the new king as well.
However, Herod’s true motivations were revealed when the Wise Men slipped through his fingers and returned to their country by another route. Look what happened next:
[When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.] ~ Matthew 2:16
The reason Herod set his target on boys who were “two years old and under” was that the Magi had given him the date when they saw Jesus star (v. 2) and began their journey toward Jerusalem. His decision was “in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
When the Wise Men finally met with Jesus, He would no longer have been a newborn lying in a manger. Instead, He was a miraculous toddler between 1 and 2 years old.
But then. Considering the question at hand, being “why did the magi approach King Herod,” we should notice that the magi did not immediately present themselves to King Herod. They expected to find a king who had been born somewhere in the nation of Israel, but they didn’t have a more specific location in mind. So they traveled to the most logical destination, the capital city of Israel – Jerusalem.
So why did the magi approach Herod?
First, they had no instructions from God to stay clear of Herod.
Second, they probably didn’t know that Herod was maddeningly obsessed with protecting his newfound title, given by Rome, as the King of the Jews.
Third, they didn’t know where in Israel the child would be born. (Note: The book of Daniel was probably written by Daniel in Babylon about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The book of Micah was probably written about 100 years later. Unlike the prophecy of Balaam, in Num. 24:17, Daniel and subsequent wise men would not have had access to Micah, though they would have had access to Numbers. So the wise men knew when the Messiah had been born (Num. 24:17) and the Jerusalem rabbis knew where the Messiah would be born (Micah 6:2), and God used Herod to bring these two facts together, which made it possible for the wise men to locate Jesus.
One final sidenote: people often talk about there being three Wise Men who met with Jesus, but the Bible never actually gives a number. The Wise Men brought three gifts before Jesus— gold, frankincense, and myrrh—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there were only three men. There may have been an entire caravan of Magi who came to worship the King.
Credit: Sam O’Neal