Why Bethlehem? By Roger Campbell

Dec 20th, 2012 | By admin | Category: Religion

More than a century ago, Philips Brooks wrote his enduring poem, “O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM.”  Hearing it during the Christmas season often takes me back to a one-room country school when it was still legal to sing carols at the annual Christmas program.  Revealing this memory dates me but the poem Phillips Brooks penned is timeless and its message will be as meaningful to future generations as to his and mine.

Brooks said it so well:

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above they deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light –

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

What makes Bethlehem special?

Long before Brooks wrote his first poem, even before the first Christmas was celebrated, the prophets had revealed a very special birth would take place in Bethlehem.

Before Caesar and his senate plotted to enrich Rome with yet another tax while saving money on a census, Bethlehem had been pointed out by the prophets as a place that would enrich the world.  Centuries before Joseph and Mary traveled to the birthplace of their ancestor, David, to be counted and pay their taxes, that tiny town had been pinpointed in Holy Scripture as a place of holy expectation (Micah 5:2).


The first Biblical mention of Bethlehem names it as the place where Jacob and his wife Rachel stopped so she could give birth to her child.  The journey had been long and hard for Rachel, much as it would later be for Mary, and she died shortly after her child was born.  Before she died, Rachel named her son “Benoni,” meaning “son of my sorrow.”  Centuries later, Mary gave birth to a son who was called the “man of sorrows,” as had been prophesied by Isaiah.  And while the birth we celebrate at Christmas brought joy to Mary, and finally to the world, imagine her sorrow when she stood at the cross witnessing the crucifixion.

Bethlehem was also the place to which Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, came feeling empty and brokenhearted after their husbands had died.  But there Ruth met kind Boaz and married him, finding love and fulfillment.  Over two thousand years have come and gone since Mary gave birth in the town of Ruth and Naomi and unnumbered thousands, feeling empty and brokenhearted, have found love and fulfillment in the One born that holy night in Bethlehem’s stable.

Perhaps the most revealing clue to the reason for Bethlehem being chosen as the place for the birth of the promised One is found in the meaning of the town’s name.  Bethlehem means “house of bread.”  And the babe laid in Bethlehem’s manger would later declare Himself to be “the bread of life” (John 6:35).

There is no greater gift to the hungry than bread, so Brooks wrote his final stanza to the hungry of heart.  No wonder this carol has endured.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;

So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Roger Campbell is an author, a broadcaster and columnist who was a pastor for 22 years.

He can be reached at rcministry@ameritech.net