Scripture: 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.” Matthew 2:16-17 ESV
Observation: This tragic story is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and once again, this redeemed disciple of Jesus alludes to the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. While some scholars doubt the event’s veracity, D.A. Carson argues that it perfectly connects with historical records of the aged Herod’s paranoid and ruthless character. But why are there no extra-biblical accounts to corroborate this event? Because only a few infant boys would have suffered death under Herod’s edict based on Bethlehem’s small population at that time.
So when did this all unfold? Its timing would be within several days of the magi departing Jerusalem once Herod realized they would not return. And given Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem (an hour’s march for the troops), its execution would have been swift. But why target boys aged two or younger? Matthew tells us that Herod ascertained from the wise men (v.16 above) the infant king of the Jew’s age range. Hence, most scholars estimate the infant Jesus to be between six and twenty months of age at this point in the story.
Of further note, regarding the rephrased citation from Jeremiah 31:15, the context of this verse is the deportation of the two southern tribes to Babylon. As theologian Robert Gundry contends, the setting of Jeremiah’s prophecy is one of hope amid tears that one day the exiles would return.
Takeaway: Jeremiah’s prophecy was partly fulfilled approximately five decades after Judah’s deportation when the first remnant of exiles returned to rebuild the temple (Ezra) and walls (Nehemiah). But during the inter-testimonial period, Greek and Roman occupation severely curtailed Israel’s freedom and spurred yet another season of sorrow. Thus, as Matthew deduces through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the tragic genocide at Bethlehem signified the soon fulfillment of hope amid tears with Christ’s climatic crucifixion and resurrection.
So how does this passage apply to us? From a biblical theology standpoint, much of our Old and New Testaments carry underlying themes of suffering and hope. Indeed, Jesus, in his farewell discourse to his disciples, concludes with the promise that his disciples’ sorrows will turn to joy (John 16:16-24). How so? Like all children of God, we live in a fallen world that inflicts trials and tribulations. Still, our Master has overcome the world and granted us his supernatural peace to alleviate the pain of our losses (John 16:33).
How, then, do we appropriate Christ’s peace and wait for his Holy Spirit to transform our sorrows into joy? It takes practice and patience. For Mary, buoyed by treasured memories of God miraculously acting in her life and revealing greater truths about her son, she would hold fast to hope amid her tears of confusion, anxiety, and despair. Eventually, she would grasp the eternal import of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and her sorrows would turn to joy. Similarly, when we go through the “Ramahs” of life, we will do well to quiet our souls by:
- reflecting on how God has shown his love for us in past trials,
- recalling his promises revealed in Scripture, and
- relying on the community of believers for comfort and care.
And the Holy Spirit, our 24/7 Comforter, will supernaturally instill in us patience (knowing that we cannot fix ourselves or others) and Christ’s joy and peace that foster hope amid our tears.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son who fulfilled all prophecies, particularly the promise that our sorrow would turn to joy. So would you please help us to cooperate with your Holy Spirit to quiet our souls and instill in us patience and hope amid our tears as we rely on your goodness, graciousness, and faithfulness revealed in Scripture, our lives, and the community of believers? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling