The hallmark of Christmas is joy. Ear to ear grins. Hot chocolate mustaches. Gleeful shouts as presents are unwrapped. But your joy, true joy, is given to you by the grief of the Man of sorrows. The story of Christ’s birth, which brought glad tidings and peace on earth, is swiftly followed by a grisly tale of the ravenous wolf of sin.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
The slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem is staggering. Herod stands in a long line of brutes who use their throne to slaughter the innocent. Pharaoh killed the Hebrew infants. Saul deputized Doeg (an Edomite like Herod) slaughtered the priests in Nob for helping David. Nebuchadnezzar starved the Jews of Jerusalem (during the two year siege, circa 587BC), and then as he marched them off to exile he brutally slaughtered many of them (Cf. Lam. 2:19-22, Ps 137:8-9, 2 Ki. 25:20-21).
The thing which set Herod off was the wise men refusing to cooperate with his design to destroy the Christ-child. Herod had been informed that Bethlehem was prophesied to be the birthplace of the new davidic king (Micah 5:2), and he knew that the star had appeared less than two years before, implying the baby was no older than that. Caesar Augustus is said to have stated that he’d rather be one of Herod’s swine than one of his sons. Herod’s brutality was well-known. But in the slaughter of Bethlehem’s sons, his wicked wrath is put on full and gruesome display.
Adam & Eve submitted to the Serpent, and reduced mankind to the level of brute. The first tyrant bludgeoned his brother. Man’s depravity always leads to murder. It leads to devouring others. The coming of Christ the King is good news, and this is put in stark relief when contrasted with the reign of Man in bondage to sin and Satan. Herod is the City of Man. He is a mirror held up to us to see the depravity of the human heart. But in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come upon us
Matthew tells us that this slaughter was a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15, “Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”
When the Babylonians took the Jews into exile, they released Jeremiah at Ramah: “Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had let him go from Ramah, when he had taken him being bound in chains among all that were carried away captive of Jerusalem and Judah, which were carried away captive unto Babylon (Jer 40:1).” Jeremiah then is taken down to Egypt by a remnant of Jewish leaders (Jer. 42-43). Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s young men in particular were being cruelly slaughtered at Riblah (Jer. 52:27). There are echoes of Jeremiah in the story of Joseph whisking his wife and son down to Egypt (in fulfillment of another prophecy, Cf. Mt. 2:15), while Herod’s henchmen slaughter Bethlehem’s boys.
This is the context for Jeremiah’s prophecy. His prophecy had a two-fold fulfillment; first in the events that shortly followed his prophecy. But these events themselves become a type of the slaughter of Bethlehem’s sons. Both Nebuchadnezzar & Herod are non-davidic kings slaughtering the sons of Israel. A theme we’ll revisit in a future sermon. For now, it suits our purpose to simply make mention of it.
Though Israel dwells in the land the Lord promised her, it is clear that they are still in exile, still under siege, still in need of the deliverance of the Messiah. Bethlehem’s mothers mourned once more, for their sons were cut down, and would not grow up like plants around their tables (Ps. 144:12). The deuteronomic blessings were not to be found. Only the curses. They sowed in tears once more (Ps. 126). Ramah once more heard cries of grief & untimely death.
Jeremiah’s mention of Rachel takes us further back into the story of redemption: “And they journeyed from Bethel; and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath: and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour. And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour, that the midwife said unto her, Fear not; thou shalt have this son also. And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) that she called his name Benoni: but his father called him Benjamin. And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day (Gen. 35:16-20).”
As Rachel was expiring from childbirth she named her son Benoni: son of my sorrows. And then Jacob’s cherished wife dies. Jacob had worked under Laban’s tyrannical demands for fourteen years in order to claim Rachel as his bride. She’d been barren for long years before bringing forth his beloved son Joseph. And now his bride perished in anguished sorrow. Jacob buried her in Bethlehem (Ramah is relatively nearby to Bethlehem). Rachel had prayed, “Give me children or I die” and it was in bringing forth her second son that she died. This baby boy was both a son of sorrow and a son of his father’s right hand.
One other thread is worth tracing here. Saul came from the tribe of Benjamin, but instead of reigning at Yahweh’s right hand, he becomes a son of grief, while David becomes a true son of the right hand (Ps. 110:1). The Benjamites were famous slingers, but when a giant threatens Israel and her Benjamite king, a funny thing that happens. David (of Judah) deftly wields the sling to kill Goliath. David is a better Benjamite than Saul.
Herod is the king of the Jews who slaughters and devours his people, akin to Saul. Meanwhile, Jesus is, of course, a new David, a son of David come to lay down His life and give Himself as food for His people.
NEW COVENANT GLORY
Rachel’s weeping gives birth to a Son of the right hand. This world is full of sorrows, but the coming of Christ was the death knell for all sorrow and all suffering. The misery of God’s people was great. Their weeping was heard afar off. But now a Savior had been born in Bethlehem. He would take all their griefs and sorrows upon & unto Himself. All the tears which all of God’s people have sown, will turn into shouts of joy.
Jeremiah not only describes Rachel’s weeping over the death of Judah, he invites her to dry her tears (Jer. 31:16), comforting her with a revelation of new life. New life through a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). But this new covenant would be bought with innocent blood. Jesus, the only son who survived Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s boys, would still be slaughtered by another Herod. So He would, in all ways, be acquainted with our grief, share in our suffering, and die as one of us.
Weeping may endure for the night. But the morning brings joy. And now, in Christ, the eternal day has dawned. David’s throne is filled. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end. The sun of righteousness arises, with healing in His wings. This is the comfort for your every sorrow. This is the grace for all your sins. This is the Good News of Great Joy which is for all people. Christ is born in Bethlehem.