Behind the familiar scenes of shepherds and wise men so common at this time of year is one so horrific it often gets overlooked and under preached. Many would not even consider reading it or telling their children that this was also part of the story that went on during the time of Jesus’ infancy. But there it is in the narrative of the Gospel of Matthew:
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more' (Matt. 2:16-18).
It is the conveniently forgotten story of a mass murder, of a sadistic king having toddlers and babies chopped to death by his soldiers.
Why bring this up at all? After all, it's a time to celebrate, rejoice, share, give, and enjoy. The Christ has come! What possible good could come from thinking about this awful part of the story?
I thought of this account this weekend as I watched reports from the tragic tsunami in Indonesia coming in that suddenly took the lives of over two hundred people. One clip showed people enjoying a beachside concert at night inside a lighted canopy, with children walking about, unaware of a monstrous wave approaching them in the dark. When it hit them, many were dragged back out into the ocean to their death. How many were truly prepared to go into eternity that evening?
Similarly, many go about the holidays eating, drinking, and being merry, ignoring the eternity that awaits them. They seek to block out the sin and tragedies of this world in their merry making. They take the parts of the Bible that they like and set aside the rest. Do they not realize that is what they are also doing with God Himself?
As much as we may not like to do so, it would do us well to reflect deeply on this part of the Christmas narrative. For there is a profound lesson God's Word teaches us here. Rather than seeking to ignore the pain and darkness of this world, we should see the true hope God offers us in the midst of it.
When the magi arrived in Jerusalem, the factual account is quite different than the modern portrayal of it. Jesus was now living in a house (Matt. 2:11) and was probably several months or even a year-old or older, his parents having decided to reside in Bethlehem for a time. Thus, the wise men were not at the manger the night of Christ's birth. But it is the great political clash taking place at this time that tells the greater story.
By this time, Herod the Great had ruled in Jerusalem for nearly 40 years. His despotic rule had been a troubled one. He had often taken drastic actions against any that he suspected was seeking to overthrow his rule. His cruelty led him to execute his wife and two of his own sons. He was probably near 70 years of age at this point of his life, and was more desperate than ever to hold onto his reign.
So when these Persian magi show up in Jerusalem, the Scriptures say, “Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” Why? If this scene was of just three men riding camels into the city, it would not have garnered such a response. Rather, these men, as John MacArthur has shown, were kingmakers. They were Persian high priests, powerful figures in their society responsible for picking their king. They would have been traveling in full force with all their oriental pomp, perhaps looking more like Gandalf with conical hats with points on the top and long beards than how they are often portrayed. They would have been riding Persian steeds, not camels. As MacArthur states, “And when they came in they didn't come alone, the estimates of history are they came with Persian cavalry. When they came charging into the city of Jerusalem and Herod peeked out his little palace window, he flipped.” Especially when Herod heard their announced purpose was to honor the new king of the Jews.
So when they later left the region without telling Herod the location of the Christ, he was enraged. He ordered the execution of the male children two years and younger in the region. Bethlehem was five miles south of Jerusalem, showing how close to Herod that Christ was and thus the threat this action posed on his life. At this point, Matthew then quotes the prophecy from Jeremiah seen above. Note that in describing the location of the slaughter of children, Jeremiah describes it as taking place in Ramah, which was five miles to the north of Jerusalem. So why is Ramah mentioned?
It could be that Matthew was showing the fullness of Herod’s command to “put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its districts, from two years old and younger.” Apparently, the infanticide occurred in a devastating circle of five miles around Jerusalem. Yet it appears that more is at issue here.
Ramah, as the birthplace of Samuel, was the place where Israel gathered when they wanted a king and chose Saul. Thus, it became a stronghold of the king and symbolized Israel’s desire for a king. So when there was word circulating that the Christ had come, it should have been accompanied by shouts of joy.
But any rejoicing was soon turned to shouts of grief and dismay in this tragedy. For this weeping corresponds to another interesting thing about Ramah. This town was located in the region allotted to the tribe of Benjamin, and is believed to be near the place where Rachel herself cried. Recall when Rachel wept?
The story is told in Genesis 35, when Jacob was traveling back from his exile down to Bethlehem and Rachel went into severe labor. As she delivered her child, Rachel cried out, knowing this childbirth would be the end of her life. With her last breath, she named her new son “Ben-oni”, which means "son of sorrow" or "son of weeping". Afterward, Jacob changed this child's name to Benjamin, meaning "son of my right hand".
With these stories in its background, Ramah then became emblematic of both Israel's dreams for a king and of those dreams being dashed. For all throughout Israel's history, the daughters of Rachel had wept. For centuries foreign powers such as Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and now Rome had robbed her of what was most dear, which was her children. Ramah was also a place where these foreign conquerors would gather Israelite captives and ship them away for deportation. Many a mother had seen her sons slain or sent away at this point. Ramah was a place of shouting and tears, symbolic of misplaced hope and human futility. So now again, Matthew uses this prophecy to portray the people of God weeping over the children that Herod has slain.
Yet there is still one more thing to consider regarding this reference to Ramah. Recall what else Jeremiah promised around his prophecy quoted in Matthew.
'For I will turn their mourning to joy,
Will comfort them,
And make them rejoice rather than sorrow.
I will satiate the soul of the priests with abundance,
And My people shall be satisfied with My goodness,' says the LORD.
Thus says the LORD:
'A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.'
Thus says the LORD:
'Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears;
For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border.'
In the midst of this world's cruelty and misplaced hopes, God offers a true hope that will end all tears. For His Son came as Immanuel, God with us, who grew into a man of sorrows acquainted with this world's grief. Through His own suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, He is now seated as the Son at the right hand of God.
The fuller story of Christ's coming can offer hope in the face of the tragedies of this world. WORLD magazine reported of one such example back in 2012. In reporting on the Friday, December 14, shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when 28 people died, the article I saved recounted an incident that occurred a few days later. At Newtown Bible Church, the Sunday school curriculum for an elementary class called for the reading of Matthew 2, including Herod's account above. The children did not miss the connection. “That’s like what happened here,” said one boy.
Sadly, it was. For we do live in a world filled with Rachel’s tears. Yet thankfully, as this boy's teacher did, we can offer Jesus in the midst of all this sorrow.