Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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 inquired 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.
How angry Herod was when the wise men failed to return to Jerusalem to inform him of the whereabouts of the King of the Jews, whose star they had seen in the east. In an attempt to kill this newborn king, Herod ordered all the children of Bethlehem two years old and under to be killed.
Many misconceptions have arisen about the murder of these children. Some in the early church viewed the slain babes of Bethlehem as the first martyrs. This butchery has been called “The Slaughter of the First Martyrs” and “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The early church even celebrated this event with the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
Matthew interprets this horrible incident quite differently. By the inspiration of God he sees this butchery of Bethlehem’s babes as a fulfillment of a prophecy of the prophet Jeremiah. And this prophecy speaks of God’s judgment on an apostate nation. The babes of Bethlehem were not innocent martyrs. But Jeremiah’s prophecy also proclaims the salvation of God for the church.
A brutal murder.
Herod was not a Jew but an Idumean, a descendant of Esau. Through military victories and cleverness he had gained the appointment of king of Judea by the Roman Emperor. To gain the loyalty of the Jews, Herod had adopted the Jewish religion and enlarged the temple in Jerusalem.
But Herod was a monster. He had at least ten wives, two of whom were his nieces. His energy was spent protecting his throne. He killed anyone whom he considered a threat. This included even his wives and sons. It was said that it would be better to be Herod’s pig than his son. Just before his death Herod gave command to round up the principal leaders of the Jews and have them killed so that there would be mourning at his death. Thankfully, this was not carried out.
This helps explain the actions of Herod in killing the babes of Bethlehem.
Understandably, Herod was greatly concerned when the wise men came to Jerusalem with reports of a star and seeking the newborn King of the Jews. Herod was not looking for the Savior. Consequently, he supposed that this newborn King of the Jews was a direct threat to him. This occurred toward the very end of his life, when his suspicions nearly drove him mad.
All this led Herod to attempt to destroy this baby. He instructed the wise men to inform him of the whereabouts of this babe, so that he might also worship Him, planning all the time to kill Him. But now he saw that he was mocked. He had been bested in his own schemes and was being mocked by the wise men (so he thought) and perhaps by his own palace. Filled with rage and fear he sent his soldiers to kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem two years and under. His purpose was to kill, if possible, this newborn king. Failing that, Herod sought to take his vengeance out on Bethlehem. Joseph had been warned by God in a dream and was well on his way to Egypt. However, the infants of Bethlehem were slain. This did not involve the killing of thousands, as some have supposed. Bethlehem was a small town. There were perhaps ten to twenty baby boys killed. What a shock this would be to any community, but especially to a town as little as Bethlehem.
A fulfillment of prophecy.
By the inspiration of the Spirit of God, Matthew sees this brutal murder of Bethlehem’s babes as a fulfillment of prophecy. He cites Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.”
Jeremiah was a prophet of God to Judah. He prophesied during the reigns of Judah’s last kings, before Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. He spoke of the destruction of the nation because of her sin. The prophecy of Jeremiah was partially fulfilled during the reign of Jehoahaz. At that time Babylon besieged Jerusalem and led captive the princes of Judah (Daniel and his three friends included) and others. He also plundered the temple.
The words of Jeremiah 31:15, which Matthew quotes, were spoken by Jeremiah after this siege of Jerusalem. Jeremiah spoke of lamentation and bitter weeping in Ramah. Ramah was on the border of Israel and Judah, about five miles north of Jerusalem. It was here that the captives of Judah were assembled for deportation into Babylon. Among these captives was lamentation and bitter weeping.
Jeremiah identified this weeping with the weeping of Rachel over her children and refusing to be comforted because they were not. Rachel was the wife of Jacob’s carnal love. Jacob was attracted to Rachel simply for carnal reasons. God’s judgment upon this carnal love was that for many years Rachel was barren. This caused great grief for Rachel. “Give me children, or else I die,” was her complaint to Jacob (Gen. 30:1). Finally, God gave her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. This meant that Rachel’s children would be found both in Israel and in Judah. Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, became tribes in Israel. Benjamin was with the tribe of Judah in the kingdom of Judah. But now Rachel was robbed of her children. The nation of Israel had long ago been led into captivity. And now Judah was being led away, weeping and lamenting. According to Jeremiah, the weeping of Judah at Ramah was the weeping of Rachel for her children. With the captivity of Israel and Judah, Rachel was once more without her children. Rachel was again weeping. Her weeping was heard in the weeping of her children, as they also fell under the judgment of God for their sins.
Matthew sees this word of Jeremiah as a prophecy fulfilled in the slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem.
The judgment of God upon the Jews in taking them into captivity was a type or picture of a greater judgment that God would bring upon them in the future. This greater judgment was to lose their special place in God’s covenant. For generations the children of Israel had been God’s covenant people. But one day they would lose this distinction. In the way of their own sin and apostasy they would be rejected as the covenant people of God and be replaced by others. The captivities of Judah and Israel were an indication and prophecy of this terrible reality.
And the slaughter of the babes in Bethlehem was the beginning of this greater judgment on the Jewish people. The baby Jesus of Bethlehem was the Savior, sent from heaven by God. The Jews would soon reject Him. This rejection was already anticipated by the fact that there was no room in Bethlehem’s inn for Him. This rejection of Jesus would reveal the apostate nature of the Jews and in turn fill their cup of iniquity so that they would lose their place as God’s covenant people. What a terrible judgment that was! What a privilege and honor to be the covenant people of God! What blessings come to them in the covenant! How horrible to lose that place, to be cast away from the living God, and to come under His terrible wrath. But that was what awaited the Jewish people. Soon they would be destroyed as a nation. They would be persecuted throughout the rest of history. And as a people they would perish eternally in hell. Of these terrible judgments upon the apostate nation of Israel, the slaughter of the babes of Bethlehem was the beginning.
This slaughter of Bethlehem’s babes and the horrible judgment that was about to fall upon the Jewish nation was prophesied and anticipated by the judgment of God upon Israel and Judah in the days of the kings. And it brought to them the weeping of Rachel for her children.
A blessed gospel.
Jeremiah had more to say in the section of his prophecy quoted by Matthew. Jeremiah also prophesied that God would bring the remnant of Judah and Israel back again to Canaan. Upon their return God would establish a new covenant with them, in which He would write His law upon their hearts (Jer. 31:31-33).
This prophecy was partially fulfilled in the return of Judah from captivity under Zerubbabel. Under Zerubbabel a remnant of the Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. For a time the people prospered under God’s blessing. But it soon became apparent that this was not the new covenant in which the law would be written on the hearts of God’s people so that they would serve Him perfectly.
This prophecy of Jeremiah is fulfilled ultimately in Jesus Christ. Through His atoning death on the cross Jesus has established the new covenant. This covenant was established in principle at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Into this covenant was brought the elect remnant of the Jews. But soon the Gentile nations were brought in through the power of the gospel of Christ. And they are still being brought in, as many as were ordained to eternal life. Upon their hearts God writes His law so that they honor Him and serve Him in love.
But as we struggle with our own sin, we all recognize that this new covenant is not yet fully realized. So we look to the return of Jesus Christ on the clouds of glory, when the work of God in Christ will be complete and we will all serve the Lord in perfect love and devotion to enjoy Him forever.
Of this new covenant the wise men were first fruits.
To this new covenant we also belong in Jesus Christ.
But this new covenant is possible only with the judgment of God upon Israel for filling the cup of iniquity and being rejected by God as a people.
This final judgment and rejection began with and was anticipated by the murder of Bethlehem’s babes.
In it we find our salvation.