Slaughter of the Innocents, or Life for the Guilty?

Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, NJ.

Much debate we might have over the name by which this passage is remembered. Most commonly, the event recorded in that latter part of Matthew 2 is named “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” This event is placed for remembrance on the liturgical calendar of several denominations—Anglican, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic—on December 28. The purpose of this remembrance is to stimulate prayers for “innocents” slaughtered everywhere and prayers against all tyranny.

The question we must answer is whether this name is appropriate. Were these infants who were slaughtered by the cruel sword of Herod truly innocent?

From one point of view, we must answer in the affirmative. According to the law of God, there was to be a certain regard for life. There were certain persons who had to be put to death. From the time of Noah, it was understood that “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man must his blood be shed.” Blood was shed for the sake of blood. From the time of Sinai, those impenitent in their transgression against the law of God were either to be put to death or placed outside the camp, literally excommunicated from the fellowship of God’s holy people. Those infants slaughtered by Herod had committed no such transgression. They were not worthy of death. Because of this, wicked king Herod bears terrible guilt for this heinous sin.

But from another viewpoint we cannot hold that these children were innocent in themselves. According to the teaching of Pelagianism, these infants were free of guilt in every respect, even before God. As individuals (the only viewpoint of Pelagianism) they had done nothing wrong. And, since all sin is ever in the deed, they were not worthy of death, temporal or eternal. For this reason — not because of Christ — it is assumed that every one of these infants of Bethlehem was brought to heaven.

Holding to the biblical, Reformed doctrine of original sin, we vehemently disagree with this conclusion and its ground. These children were the children of fallen Adam. In him they were guilty and worthy of death. They were reckoned as sinners before they had done good or evil deeds. From that viewpoint this was not a “Slaughter of the Innocents,” but a slaughter of the guilty.

All, or some?

We must consider the possibility, nay, even the likelihood, that some of these infants were elect. In those particular cases, the cruel sword of Herod was the very means used by God to bring His children home, into everlasting life.

And that must be where we find the necessity of this unjust action of Herod. Necessary because of the One who had only recently been born in Bethlehem. Herod, even as he attempts to destroy Christ, must at the very same time serve Christ. Herod’s service to Christ takes place in several different ways. His first service to this child is to fulfill prophecies concerning Him in the Scriptures. His second service to this child is to serve his church. By his nefarious deed, Herod provided the church a picture of the idea of substitution: one life for another.

One life for another. This idea of substitution we have in three different ways. Herod viewed the Messiah as a threat to his throne. He received the wise men, not as ambassadors to himself, but as ambassadors to a king who was rival to Herod. Herod saw the need to maintain his throne, not so much for himself, but for his posterity. His life, and the continuation of his throne, he deemed of greater value than the infants of Bethlehem. These were not his people, for he was a descendent of Edom, Idumea. Herod was of the line of reprobate Esau, hated of God. His life and throne he thought to preserve by the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem.

The second substitution was in the life of these infants for the preservation of Christ. This preservation took place in two important ways. The wrath of Herod was vented on these infants. By their slaughter Herod hoped to ensure that the Messiah would be destroyed. Then it was back to business as usual. But the Messiah was preserved. The preservation of the child Jesus served, in fact, to identify Him as the Christ. He was the Son that God called out of Egypt.

The third substitution we deem the most important. This was the substitution of the life of Christ for others — all the elect.

This substitution, the substitution that we have as the center of the gospel, could not take place immediately. It would not do at all to have the Messiah killed as a child, among these other children of Bethlehem. He had to grow and develop. He had to be taught, and later to teach others the truth concerning Himself. He had to be separated from all others, even from these children of Bethlehem. He had to be lifted up from the earth on the cross, in order to be the substitute for the elect of all the earth. Not Herod’s sword would be the instrument of His death, but the wood of the cross, that He might bear the full weight of God’s wrath against His people. He had to be the willing, conscious substitute for that people. He had to die, not in the space of a few seconds, but over a period of six hours, that He might bear, through to the end, all of God’s wrath.

And so, for the sake of Christ, these children had to die. But it must also be true, if some of these children were elect, that Christ had to die for them. Since these elect infants were guilty in their first father, Adam, that guilt had to be removed by Christ, and in no other way than by the death of the cross.

The Scriptures had to be fulfilled, even those that appear obscure to us. “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.” This prophecy is recorded in Jeremiah 31:15, and had to do with the chastisement (Jer. 31:18) that Jehovah would send upon Judah for her wickedness.

The voice of weeping was due to death. This weeping was first occasioned by the death of Rachel, brought about by her hard labor in Benjamin’s birth as recorded in Genesis 35:16-20. Her sorrow, manifested in weeping, was the reason for the name which she gave to this son, Ben-oni, son of my sorrow. Rachel’s body was buried on the way to Bethlehem, and near the village of Rama.

This weeping had a second occasion, for along the way of Rama were the Jewish captives led to Babylon. In this place also was Jeremiah released from this captivity, and allowed to go where he pleased. In this band of captives there was great mourning and lamentation. This weeping was occasioned by the violence of the Babylonians against the infant children of Judah and Jerusalem. Babies were pried from their mothers’ arms by the Babylonian soldiers and dashed headlong to the ground. Their necks broken, they formed an ugly path along the way through Rama. Violently killed before their mothers by the enemy, these infants were cause for great sorrow.

That lamentation turned into a wish and a prophecy. The wish we find recorded in Psalm 137:8,9: “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” The prophecy we find recorded in Isaiah 13:16,18. There the prophet writes of the end of Babylon at the hands of the Medes. “Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes…. Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of their womb; their eye shall not spare children.”

However, there had to be a third occasion for the weeping which took place in connection with the birth of the Messiah. The occasion is the wrath of the tyrant Herod. This king was no stranger to bloodshed. He had killed for the sake of his throne before. He put to death members of his own family because he suspected they were plotting against him. He put to death the leaders of the Sanhedrin, suspicious that one of them might otherwise be father to the Messiah. Now it appears that the wise men have mocked him. He had planned to shed the blood of one child, having obtained knowledge of His specific location. This plan, brought to nought through divine intervention, makes a new plan necessary. So Herod sent out the order: All the children of Bethlehem, two years old and under, must be put to death. Herod’s thirst for blood, inflamed by his rage, knows no bounds. He “sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under.” The mothers and fathers of Bethlehem and the coasts thereof saw their children torn from them and viciously murdered. For what reason they had no knowledge. How great their sorrow!

Meanwhile, Herod’s sword cannot touch the Messiah. For, before Herod even began to grow suspicious over the “delay” of the wise men, Joseph received an angelic message in another dream. “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word.” Joseph’s obedience must have been spurred on by the knowledge of what sort Herod was. Joseph left by night, perhaps immediately following the dream. No one must know where he is going, not even the casual observer.

Through Joseph’s obedience, the Messiah is preserved, while the children of Bethlehem must soon be slaughtered. This obedience stands in the service of God toward another end. Another prophecy must be fulfilled, that of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” This prophecy may seem to us as incidental, just as the prophecy ofJeremiah 31:15. For this prophecy is God’s complaint against His people, that they had refused sonship, though God had so mightily delivered them. By means of this prophecy, however, the inspired Gospel-writer Matthew shows that God had another purpose with these words. They were spoken about the Messiah, and fulfilled through the flight to Egypt and back. The Messiah, too, as the Son of God, must be called by His God out of Egypt.

That prophecy of Hosea must apply first of all to Jesus Christ. There are no other sons of God, unless He is truly the Son of God. Israel could not be called the son of God unless that nation carried Christ in its womb.

This brings us to the point of substitution. We have our eye upon God’s election in Christ. Jesus is the only-begotten Son. But in Him God chose others to be His sons and daughters by adoption. The gracious election of the true Israel. It was for them as substitute that Jesus Christ came into the world. It was for them that all these prophecies had to be fulfilled. It was for them that the children of Bethlehem were put to death. It was for them that Joseph fled into Egypt and returned to Nazereth— because their sin and guilt could be taken away by no other means than the death of the only begotten Son of God. Even those children of Bethlehem who were elect had to be put to death for the Christ. But through the death of Christ they, too, were brought out of their sin and guilt, into salvation.

Great is the weeping. But greater still will be the joy of the redeemed. We keep before us the words spoken in such close connection with the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15. “Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border” (31:16, 17).

Questions for Meditation and Further Study:

1. How do the prophecies and the history related in this passage bring together different facets of the doctrine of antichrist? How do they together demonstrate the victory of Christ over antichrist? Can we see this part of the gospel reflected inRevelation 12? To what degree, and how?

2. What is the significance of these prophecies when we consider that Christ is wholly passive regarding them? How do they conclusively demonstrate that this Child is indeed the Christ?

3. How must it humble us when we consider that these children died as they did not only for the sake of Christ, but also for our sake? How is the death of these children a matter of God’s wrath? How is it a matter of God’s grace and mercy?

4. Why must Joseph flee into Egypt? How does this “make” Christ the Son of God? Is there another deliverance from Egypt that takes place through another call, as the fruit of Christ’s death?

5. How does Jesus’ residence in Nazareth come about? Why must He be called a Nazarene? Which prophecy (prophecies) is here fulfilled? (Calvin’s Commentary on this passage is an excellent resource, but be free to disagree!)