Thus far we have launched out into the wilderness of Judah, or Idumea; and that the more willingly, because in describing it, I have described also some part of New Idumea, of which discourse was had in the chapter aforegoing. Now we seek "the wilderness of Judea," concerning which the Gospels speak in the history of the Baptist.
I. And first, we cannot pass it over without observation, that it was not only without prophetical prediction that he first appeared preaching in the wilderness, Isaiah 40:3, but it was not without a mystery also. For when the heathen world is very frequently in the prophets called 'the wilderness,' and God promiseth that he would do glorious things to that wilderness, that he would produce there pools of waters, that he would bring in there all manner of fruitfulness, and that he would turn the horrid desert into the pleasure of a paradise (all which were to be performed in a spiritual sense by the gospel); it excellently suited even in the letter with these promises, that the gospel should take its beginning in the wilderness.
II. I, indeed, think the Baptist was born in Hebron, a city of Aaron, in the hill-country of Judea, Joshua 21:11, Luke 1:5,39; he being an Aaronite by father and mother. The house of his cradle is shown to travellers elsewhere; concerning which, inquire whether Beth Zachariah, mentioned in Josephus, and the Book of the Maccabees, afforded not a foundation to that tradition. It was distant from Bethsura only seventy furlongs, or thereabouts, as may be gathered from the same Josephus (by which word the Seventy render South Beth-el in 1 Samuel 30:27); and whether the situation does not agree, let them inquire who please.
A little cell of his is also shewed further in the wilderness, as it is called, of Judea, cut out of a rock, together with his bed, and a fountain running by; which we leave to such as are easy of belief: the wilderness certainly where he preached and baptized is to be sought for far elsewhere.
III. Luke saith, that "the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness and he went into all the country about Jordan." He sojourned from wilderness to wilderness. In the wilderness, in the hill-country of Judea, he passed his youth as a private man; not as an eremite, but employed in some work or study; and assumed nothing of austerity, besides Nazariteship, before the thirtieth year of his age. Then the Spirit of prophecy came upon him, and "the word of the Lord came unto him," teaching him concerning his function and office, instructing him about his food and clothing, and directing him to the place where he should begin his ministry.
The region about Jericho was that place, or that country, that lay betwixt that city and Jordan, and so on this side of it and on that about the same space; also on this side Jericho, towards Jerusalem. A country very agreeable to the title which the evangelists give it, and very fit for John's ministry. For,
I. It was sufficiently desert, according to what is said, "John came preaching in the wilderness."
"The space (saith Josephus) from Jericho to Jerusalem, is desert and rocky; but towards Jordan and the Asphaltites, more level, but as desert and barren." And Saligniac writes; "The journey from Jerusalem is very difficult, stony, and very rough; the like to which I do not remember I have seen. Jericho is distant from Jordan almost ten miles," &c.
II. This country might, for distinction, be called 'the wilderness of Judea,' because other regions of Judea had other names: as, 'The King's mountain,' 'The plain of the South,' 'The plain of Lydda,' 'The valley from En-gedi,' 'The region about Betharon,' &c.
III. Although that country were so desert, yet it abounded very much with people. For, besides that abundance of villages were scattered here and there in it, 1. Jericho itself was the next city to Jerusalem in dignity. 2. There were always twelve thousand men in it, of the courses of the priests. 3. That way was daily trodden by a very numerous multitude, partly of such who travelled between those cities, partly of such who went out of other parts of Judea, and likewise out of the land of Ephraim into Perea, and of them who went out of Perea into those countries. 4. John began his ministry about the time of the Passover, when a far greater company flocked that way.
IV. This country was very convenient for food and provision, in regard of its wild honey; of which let me say a few things.