The Messiah would be the object of a murderous plot, but hope lies ahead
Jeremiah 31 is a passage of hope and restoration for the beleaguered nation of Israel. We should actually go back to chapter 30 to see the start of Jeremiah’s message of hope. Then chapter 31 goes on to include both the famous prophecy of a new covenant and an affirmation that God’s people Israel will never be destroyed, even if they end up in exile in Babylon.
In verses 15 and 16 of chapter 31, there is a dialogue going on. First, in v. 15, we find Rachel, one of the four matriarchs of Israel, grieving bitterly over the fate of her “children”:
Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Ramah was the place where the exiles were herded together to march to Babylon, and Rachel is portrayed as weeping in her grave at that very place as the nation is taken captive.
But then God responds in verse 16, telling Rachel to no longer weep, for there is a hope ahead for the nation:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.”
It is in verse 16 Matthew cites in his gospel:
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 2:16-18)
What Matthew is doing in his first few chapters is this: he is not saying that the Old Testament passages he cites are direct predictions of Jesus’ life – though they certainly were in other cases. What he is doing is showing that key points about the life of Israel are being repeated in Jesus’ life. In this way, Jesus fulfills Scripture because as the greatest Israelite of all, his life follows the contours of the nation’s history. The Old Testament, too, sees similar patterns. For example, the Exodus from Egypt is considered by the prophets as a pattern of an even greater Exodus to come in the future when Israel is gathered from the nations and redeemed in full. The coming Messiah is considered in the Old Testament to be another David, or even another Moses. It is as if Matthew is saying, “Jesus is with you, Israel – what you went through, he went through.” This may sound odd to our ears, but it made sense for the ancient readers of Scripture.
And so Herod’s murder of the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and under is part of a pattern in Scripture in which evil rulers attempt to destroy Israel. We remember that Pharaoh asked the midwives to kill the male babies of the Hebrews. We recall that Assyria and Babylon ripped Israelites from their land and brought them into captivity. We think about how Haman tried to commit genocide against the Jewish people. Now in Matthew, Herod is seeking to destroy someone that he views as a competitor, as another king. It has been estimated that given the population of Bethlehem at the time as less than 1,000, the number of children Herod had killed would have been at most twenty. That is not exactly genocide, terrible as it was; the real tragedy would have been if Herod had destroyed the Messiah among those twenty. Then Rachel would really have wept!
But remember that in Jeremiah, God responds to Rachel by telling her that there is a hope ahead, so her weeping can cease. We may be reminded here of Psalm 30:5 (Hebrew, 30:6): “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” In any event, in Matthew, there is yet hope ahead in spite of Herod – for the Messiah lives, and we should note, the Jewish people will continue to survive and even flourish.