Do you know what it’s like to feel the sorrow of a bereaved mother? A mother’s life is wrapped up in the care and well-being of her children. When those children are taken away from her or, worse, when they’re wantonly slaughtered before her eyes, it’s like ripping out her heart. She feels empty. She feels as if she no longer has any purpose for existence. Perhaps you’re experiencing that kind of grief. You’ve not been bereaved of your children, but you feel the same kind of empty sorrow. You feel hopeless and without purpose in the world.
But there is hope if you will believe the good news about Jesus Christ. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the “mourning.” That’s one of the biblical themes that the apostle Matthew highlights in his Gospel account. Let’s reflect on how Matthew develops this theme in the second chapter of his Gospel.
The Slaughter of Bethlehem’s Children
When most people think of birth of Christ and the little town of Bethlehem, they have in mind a beautiful and peaceful scene—shepherds and wise men worshiping the young Christ. But that is not the whole picture. Matthew would remind us that from the very beginning, there was much hatred aimed at the Lord Jesus Christ—hatred that resulted in the shedding of innocent blood!
In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew records an event that followed the birth of Christ: the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. According to verse 7, Herod had learned from the wise men when the star first appeared. Then, once he realized that the wise man had become privy to Herod’s scheme and escaped, he calculated the time elapsed from the appearing of the star, and he sent his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years and under.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt 2:16 ESV).
Matthew’s portrait of Herod accords well with secular history. History portrays Herod as a very gifted and capable leader, which is one of the reasons he was called “Herod the Great.” In his lifetime, he had many achievements to boast to his credit. But Herod was also a very cunning and cruel ruler. During the latter years of his rule, Herod became very suspicious that someone would usurp his throne. In fact, we’re told that he had three of his seven sons murdered, as well as one of this wives, because he suspected them of treason. For this reason, the Roman Emperor is reported to have said: “Better to be Herod’s pig [hus] than his son [huios].”
So it should be no surprise us to see Herod responding this way to the news that the King of the Jews has been born. Bethlehem’s population was probably under 1000 people, which, according to statistics, would put the number of baby boys slaughtered at around 20-30. Can you imagine such a horrible scene? Why would Matthew include such a gory scene in his gospel?
Not Everybody Loves Jesus
Commenting on this text, J. C. Ryle notes that Christ is portrayed as “‘a man of sorrows’ even from his infancy.” Don’t let the sweet little Nativity Scenes fool you. Here’s the “rest of the story”: not everybody loves Jesus. And there are still people today who, like Herod, would rather murder the Christ than worship Him.
What’s more, if you’ve been a Christian for very long and if you’ve made a public commitment to Christ, you know about the opposition. You’ve experienced the truth underscored by the apostle Paul: “All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).
The End of Rachel’s Tears
There is another reason why Matthew includes this tragic incident. According to verses 17 and 18, this gruesome event was no mere accident, but it happened in order to fulfill OT Scripture:
Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ”A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:17–18 ESV).
Ramah was a city located on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin, about 5 miles north of Jerusalem and 10 miles north of Bethlehem. This is significant, because Ephraim was part of the Northern kingdom and Benjamin was part of the Southern kingdom. According to Jeremiah 40:1, the city of Ramah was used as a staging place for the deportation of God’s people into captivity. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives. She had two sons: her first son was Joseph, to whom was born Ephraim. Her second son was Benjamin.
The Tragedy of the Exile
But Rachel has been dead for over 1,000 years. How could she be weeping? Obviously, Jeremiah is using figurative language to portray Rachel as the mother of the nation—Ephraim represents the north and Benjamin represents the south. From the grave the mother of the nation weeps for her children, and she refuses to be comforted because they are no more!
Try to imagine what this would be like. Families are literally being tom apart. Husbands and wives are being exiled to separate locations. Brothers and sisters will never see one another again. Mothers are being separated from their children. What great sorrow and grief! As Matthew reflects upon the sorrow experienced by the mothers at Ramah and that experienced by the mothers at Bethlehem, he obviously sees a clear correspondence.
All Hope Seems Lost!
But the correspondence is much deeper than mere emotional grief. As you know, the hope of redemption was bound up in the promise of a male seed who would descend from the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Judah, and from the line of David.
But when the young men of Israel—especially the descendants of David—were lined up in Ramah to be exiled from the Land of Promise, all hope of redemption seemed to be lost! All hope of salvation forever vanished!
Joy Comes in the “Mourning”!
And yet, all is not hopeless! “Though weeping may endure for the night; joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). And so, the Jeremiah assures God’s people:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16–17 ESV).
Jeremiah’s prophecy is not primarily a prophecy about sadness and grief. It’s primarily a message about joy and hope! In fact, as you know this chapter goes on to predict the coming of a New Covenant! (31:31-34). Yes, tears will precede the joy. But joy will come in the morning!
Jesus Wipes Away Tears
That’s Jeremiah’s message, and I believe Matthew’s point is that the “end of Rachel’s grief” portrayed by Jeremiah has come to fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah which began with the grief of Bethlehem’s mothers. In other words, the weeping mothers of Bethlehem do not merely recapitulate the sorrow experienced at Ramah. But they serve as a harbinger of the Messianic hope foretold by Jeremiah! As Donald Carson writes
The tears of the exile are being fulfilled—the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.
Isn’t that glorious! Let me put it in more practical terms: Christ is the end of sadness and grief and He is the beginning of joy and hope to all who will believe. And that’s true for sinner and saint alike! Whoever you are, look to Christ and find joy in the midst of your mourning.
 Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 1:15.
 “Matthew” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 95.