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“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.”
The birth story of Jesus is found in two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke. Beginning with Mary’s song and including the angels singing to the shepherds, Luke presents the birth of Christ around four songs. Matthew builds his narrative around five quotations from the Old Testament. Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus to Abraham, while Luke traces the genealogy all the way to Adam. Matthew includes the coming of the Magi, while Luke provides the announcement made to the shepherds. The gospel writers emphasize different points of the birth narrative according to the greater message they sought to communicate. Luke sought to express that Jesus was the Savior of the world and Matthew desired to demonstrate that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would come from the Jews. Combined, they tell a full and glorious tale of the birth of Jesus Christ; the promised one of the Old Testament and the Savior of the world. The birth of Jesus brought light into a dark world, and every Christmas since the first is a reminder that light will always overcome darkness. This is the ultimate point behind the fourth Old Testament quotation in Matthew’s gospel, one of the darkest in the New Testament.
When the wise men from the East came to Jerusalem they caused concern to King Herod the Great. Herod was powerful but also very paranoid. His paranoia caused him to do wicked and evil things to preserve his position on the throne. When the Wise Men reported to him that the King had been born, Herod inquired how long had it been since they had seen the star. Calling his priests, Herod learned that the King was to be born in Bethlehem. Herod sent the wise men to find the child, with strict orders to report back to him when they had done so. When the wise men did not return, the anger of the king and his paranoia increased with the worry of another king born in his realm. The anger and paranoia of Herod caused him to do the unthinkable. He ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem.
The slaughter of the innocents is a sad account in the middle of the joyous Christmas story. In light of this horrific act, Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31 which speaks of the weeping mothers who refuse to be comforted (Matt 2:18). This quote is extremely sad and painful to read. As we read the quote from Jeremiah, we must not regard it as simply a statement about the situation in Bethlehem. We must understand this quotation as an invitation to come to discover the context and meaning behind “Rachel weeping for her children” in Jeremiah 31.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. He prophesies during the time of Jerusalem’s capture, destruction, and the captivity of Israel in Babylon. Jeremiah references Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob (Gen 29:28), as symbolically weeping for her sons who would die in captivity and never return to the homeland. The sadness in Jeremiah 31:15 is the same sadness that we find in Matthew 2:18. However, Matthew’s intent is to draw a comparison to the entire Jeremiah 31 passage not only verse fifteen. Jeremiah 31, in its entirety, is one of the most hopeful and joyous passages in all of the Old Testament. In fact, the theme of Jeremiah 31 is that the mourning of God’s people will soon turn to joy! Jeremiah writes that “a voice is heard.” The key to this text is determined by who hears that voice. Who hears the pleas of the people? Who hears their cries and lamentations? The passage speaks clearly that it is the Lord who hears his people and responds. He will take the tears of his people and turn them to joy, and also destroy their enemies who have dealt wickedly with them. The Lord will use his power to protect and deliver His people. At the end of this chapter, the Lord gives a promise of future blessing to his people. A blessing which will be greater than they have ever known. Jeremiah 31:31-34 states:
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more."
Jesus Christ, the one who was born in Bethlehem and fled to Egypt is the fulfillment of this promise. Jesus is the true light born in a dark world. Jesus is also the true hope born in a broken world. He will wipe away every tear and bring comfort to his people, turning all their mourning into unspeakable joy!!
Matthew’s gospel shows us that Herod had great power and used his power wickedly to destroy the powerless. We praise God that there is one who is infinitely more powerful than Herod. One who has exercised his power, not to destroy, but wields his power to save and comfort his people. He has heard the cries of the mothers and answered them. This passage in Matthew gives us hope that in the midst of pain and suffering, Jesus brings joy. This is what Christmas is about!