Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
While perusing the Facebook newsfeed one day this December, I noticed a link that a friend had posted from Crossway Publishers that described a dramatic poetry reading from Pastor John Piper called The Innkeeper. As I listened, I began to realize where the story was headed, and I discovered two reactions in my soul—first, I was surprised that I had never considered the powerful implications behind the text of Matthew 2:16–18, which is quoted for you above; and second, I was determined to take a deeper look at this text.
[Watch The Innkeeper by John Piper.]
Matthew 2:18 is the fourth Old Testament (OT) passage quoted in Matthew’s Gospel, which indicates that the writer establishes early on that he intends to interact heavily with the OT as he writes about the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. I tend to agree with Blomberg and Hagner on the reason for Matthew’s oft quoting of the Old Testament,
Again, in Matthew’s perspective Jesus is understood as summarizing the whole experience of Israel as well as bringing it to fulfillment.
For example, the previous paragraph quotes Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Hosea is referring to Israel’s experience of the exodus out of Egypt. Like Israel, Jesus too would be called out of Egypt.
Moving to the primary text of this article, Matthew 2:16–18 paints a grim scene. As we recite Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story this year, we should not skip over this part. The passage can be divided into two parts: (1) The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem and (2) The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah.
The Wrath of Herod upon Bethlehem
Remember, Herod was not the the first to order the slaying of young Hebrews. Do you recall what happened in the days of Moses? Remember how Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives to execute the male Hebrew children? The Hebrew midwives feared God (Ex. 1:17) and refused to obey the command of the king of Egypt. Although I am not certain, I wonder if the Hebrews in their oppression began to remember the promises of God to their fathers, believed that God may send a deliverer to them, and therefore, the midwives feared and obeyed God rather than Pharaoh because they were waiting for a deliverer? We do know that the people of Israel began crying out to God for help (Ex. 2:23–25). In the face of tragedy, God sovereignly raised up Moses in the midst of Egypt to deliver his people from bondage.
The wrath of Herod fueled by his wounded pride brought great tragedy upon the town of Bethlehem. Apparently, it took place nearly two years after Jesus was born. As indicated in 2:16, Herod had calculated the number of years based upon the previous information he had received from the magi, and in calculating the number, he determined to execute a raw expression of his rage. Every male child two years of age and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region was mowed down to the grave by Herod’s soldiers. Can you imagine being a parent in Bethlehem at that time? No warning. No refuge. The life of your child taken away—and perhaps your own—because you were the town that made room for the Deliverer. A tender population of your town wiped out because you sovereignly became associated with the Son of God. Bethlehem was not a booming metropolis. Estimates during the reign of Herod suggest that approximately one thousand people populated the town, from which we may gather that possibly “twenty boys would be born in two years, and several of those would have died in infancy” (from R. T. France, “Herod and the Children of Bethlehem”). However, even though we are only talking about the slaying of a dozen or so young boys, the tremors of tragedy reach deep into the context of a small town. The whole town feels it, and whether directly or indirectly affected, such a thing became part of everyone’s story. The history books have no record of Herod’s attack upon the children of Bethlehem, but God did not forget and chose Matthew to remind us of the price Bethlehem paid for its association with the new born King.
The Weeping of Rachel at Ramah
While the life and experience of Jesus in Matthew seems to have some parallels with Moses’ day, Matthew 2:17 reveals to us that Matthew primarily has in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are then quoted in 2:18. Jeremiah 31:15 is the exact reference here. Remember, Jeremiah lived during the tragic days of the Babylonian captivity and the fall of Jerusalem. Besides a brief period of revival and reform under king Josiah, Jeremiah faithfully and painfully proclaimed the word of God to idolatrous Israel. However, Jeremiah 31 is a rare chapter filled primarily with hope of restoration following the captivity. In verse 15, the message of hope digresses for just a moment because the Lord hears the lament of Ramah, the weeping of Rachel as her children are led through the town into captivity. Ramah was a town located approximately 8km north of Jerusalem. Interestingly, Bethlehem was located about 7–8km south of Jerusalem and was located along the same road. Even so, Matthew’s parallel between Ramah and Bethlehem is more than geographical—it is social, emotional, and theological. Blomberg further highlights the appropriateness of Matthew’s connection between Ramah and Bethlehem—they were both towns familiar with sadness and suffering. There is also one more thing that draws these two towns together—Rachel. Rachel was thought to have died and been buried near Ramah (1 Samuel 10:2) while Jacob and his family were on their way to Bethlehem (Genesis 35.16–21). Therefore, these two towns have a connection in biblical history, both being marked by the weeping Rachel, the mother of all Israel. Returning to Jeremiah 31, Rachel was heard weeping over her children as they were taken away into captivity to Babylon. She struggles to be comforted even by God’s promise to restore her children. Thus, Matthew once again sees Rachel weeping for her children in 2:16–18 when he compares the pain of the Babylonian captivity to the ruthless slaughter at Bethlehem. This is a fitting comparison, for where else could he have gone but to the darkest period in Israel’s history to describe the pain and mourning of the families of Bethlehem?
From Lament to Life
Just as there was suffering in the midst of the grand promise given by God and proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah, there was suffering in the midst of the fulfillment of that promise when the Son of God became incarnate. Consider the words of comfort given by the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah to the weeping Rachel:
The LORD says to her,
“Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears!
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded.
Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
I have indeed heard the people of Israel say mournfully,
‘We were like a calf untrained to the yoke.
You disciplined us and we learned from it.
Let us come back to you and we will do so,
for you are the LORD our God.
For after we turned away from you we repented.
After we came to our senses we beat our breasts in sorrow.
We are ashamed and humiliated
because of the disgraceful things we did previously.’
Indeed, the people of Israel are my dear children.
They are the children I take delight in.
For even though I must often rebuke them,
I still remember them with fondness.
So I am deeply moved with pity for them
and will surely have compassion on them.
I, the LORD, affirm it!
The proclamation of hope and restoration is accompanied by the future repentance and turning of Rachel’s children back to the Lord. God sent them into exile due to their idolatry and rebellion against him. But what are we to make of Bethlehem? Why the slaughter? We know why Judah was taken away into Babylon. But why this tragedy upon Bethlehem? Ultimately, I don’t know. Evil happenings in our world escape the reaches of human reason much of the time. Yet, I do know that they do not escape the reach of my all-knowing God, and I do take comfort in him because of this.
I feel that there is also one other possible explanation (perhaps among many) that may speak to us about this tragedy in Bethlehem that accompanied the glory of the Lord’s birth. Bethlehem sovereignly became associated with the Messiah. Which causes us to ask, what does it mean to be sovereignly associated with the Messiah? What a wonderful thought for meditation this Christmas season. Listen to what Dale Allison writes,
Jesus is literally sympathetic; that is, he suffers along with others. His identity as God’s beloved Son (3:17; 11:25–30; 17:5) does not render him immune from agony or despair. He is, on the contrary, especially subject to misfortune and pain: in Matthew’s story, Jesus suffers far more than anyone else. The savior is the innocent victim writ large. Now for those who believe in him, there is surely something reassuring in this. One recalls Heb. 4:14–15 and 5:8, where Jesus learns through suffering and so can sympathize with human weakness. Suffering shared is more easily endured. And as in Hebrews, so in Matthew: the principle has become christological. It is not just that one does not suffer alone, but precisely that one suffers in the company of Jesus, God’s Son. This must mean that the divinity does not remain aloof from suffering, for God knows the Son (11:27) and the Son knows suffering. If the Son is a person of sorrows, acquainted with grief, his Father must likewise be beset by grief and sorrow. This does not, to be sure, do anything to unravel the mystery of iniquity. It does, however, put God on the side of the hapless Rachel weeping for her children, and on the side of the disciples tossed grievously to and fro by persecution. And perhaps that thought matters far more than any rational apologetic.
Matthew knew very well what it meant to be sovereignly associated with Messiah—it meant he would take a journey from lament into life. You see when Jesus called Matthew to follow him (see Matthew 9), he would have been best described as a publican thug, barred from the temple and the synagogue because of his sins and treason against his own people. However, there is good reason to think that at some point, Matthew developed a heart for God (how else did he know so much of the Old Testament?!). Yet, the religious scene of his day did not allow him to seek God. Then, Jesus comes along and says to him, “Follow me.” Matthew perhaps did not know what was in store for him at that point, but as he followed Jesus, he surely came to realize that to be associated with Jesus meant a life associated with Jesus’ suffering but also with his glory.
I suppose now that Rachel may still be weeping for her children to return to the Messiah. However, perhaps there is also hope stirring in her soul because from afar she saw the birth of a new covenant, she saw Messiah conquer the enemies of her soul, and now she awaits repentance and revival as God promised to her.
What is it to be associated with the Messiah this Christmas? Is it not to believe in him and be saved—the glory of salvation? And is it not to willingly suffer with him and for him in a dark and unbelieving world? Is it not as Paul said, “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29)? At the close of The Innkeeper poem referred to above, the Lord Jesus responds to Jacob’s tears of sorrow and faithfulness with the following,
I am the boy
That Herod wanted to destroy.
You gave my parents room to give
Me life, and then God let me live,
And took your wife. Ask me not why
The one should live, another die.
God’s ways are high, and you will know
In time. But I have come to show
You what the Lord prepared the night
You made a place for heaven’s light.
In two weeks they will crucify
My flesh. But mark this, Jacob, I
Will rise in three days from the dead,
And place my foot upon the head
Of him who has the power of death,
And I will raise with life and breath
Your wife and Ben and Joseph too
And give them, Jacob, back to you
With everything the world can store,
And you will reign for evermore.”
This is the gift of candle three:
A Christ with tears in tragedy
And life for all eternity.
May the love of Christ cause you to rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, and persist in prayer this Christmas and beyond as you follow Jesus to the cross and into glory.