Today’s text is the most tragic and difficult text in the Christmas narrative. But it is there for a reason, so we cannot ignore it. And I believe there are lessons that we can learn from it as well.
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)
Historians of the first century confirm that Herod the Great was a ruthless and brutal king. He even murdered his own sons when he felt threatened that they might try to take power from him. (A fourth-century historian tells us that it was said of Herod: “It is better to be his pig than his son.”) When the wise men didn’t return as he had asked, he went into a rage and ordered the execution of male children 2 years old and under (Jesus may have been between 6 months and a year old at this time). Bethlehem would have been a pretty small village at the time, so most scholars estimate the number of children murdered in this massacre at 20-25.
So, what is this quote about a voice heard in Ramah? This is a quote from Jeremiah 31.
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.” (Jeremiah 31:15)
Here is the quick explanation of that quote and it’s significance here. At this point, Israel was divided into two kingdoms (the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom). Ramah was situated on the border of these two kingdoms. At the time of Jeremiah’s writing, both the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom had been conquered and many of their young men had been deported – the northern kingdom by Assyria and the southern kingdom by Babylon. Ramah was the debarkation point for both deportations. Rachel, who was the mother of both Joseph (whose children represent the majority of the northern kingdom) and Benjamin (whose children represent the southern kingdom), is seen as the mother of all of Israel weeping for her children who “are no more” because they have been taken into captivity. Rachel wanted children and begged the Lord to give her children, and now her “children” are gone and she is inconsolable. Yet, most of Jeremiah 31 is consolation to Israel that the Lord is going to turn their mourning into joy and initiate a new covenant through a future Messiah.
Matthew puts this quote here to emphasize that, although there is mourning for the lives lost in this terrible tragedy, God is going to turn their mourning into joy because he is initiating a new covenant with them through the Christ who has just been born.
- Sin is devastating. Don’t ever minimize sin, laugh at it, or dismiss it. Sin is awful and you should hate it. It eats away at our conscience and makes it possible for horrible tragedies such as this to occur. None of us can look at the ten commandments and say “I am innocent” of more than one or two of them. We have all sinned, and sin separates us from God, who is sinless.
- Thankfully, there is a Savior who came into the world to live a sinless life and be the sacrifice for our sins. He did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves.. That’s the message of Christmas. Check out this quote from the end of that same Jeremiah 31 passage:
“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. But 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.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)