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.
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. The Advent story, to put it another way, is no Hallmark movie. It doesn’t airbrush away the vileness of depravity, nor does it paper over the weight of our grief & suffering. The Advent story tells us that Jesus had come to engage in fierce combat with that ancient dragon. Christ in the manger is not a story of escapist sentimentality. It is the first jab & parry in the war He’d come to wage on evil.
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) to slaughter 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.