Herod Slays the Children
“Herod … killed all the male children in Bethlehem… . 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.’”- Matthew 2:16–18
Matthew’s gospel quotes the Old Testament extensively, including passages such as Jeremiah 31:15 (Matt. 2:16–18). He cites that verse as being fulfilled in Herod’s massacre of Bethlehem’s children shortly after Jesus’ birth. His quote is perplexing because nothing in Jeremiah 31 seems to predict such an event. Prophetic fulfillment, however, does not always mean the prophets saw a direct vision of future events that later came true exactly as foreseen. The term fulfill in the New Testament often means “bring to completion” or “show the full significance of,” and that is how Matthew uses the concept in today’s passage.
Recall that Jeremiah 31:1–30 concerns the liberation of God’s people from the suffering of exile. After Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, many exiles returned to the Promised Land in 538 B.C. Yet as books such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi testify, this return fell far short of the glorious restoration Jeremiah had predicted. In fact, though the returnees to Judah included faithful people, most Jews had not met the condition for true restoration— heartfelt repentance—when it was time for the seventy years of exile to end (Dan. 9:1–19). So, the reform efforts of faithful Jews eventually petered out, much as Judah returned to idolatry after the reform-minded Josiah died (2 Chron. 36:1–16). Jewish history between Malachi and the birth of Jesus is largely a record of failure. Under the Maccabees, the Jews briefly enjoyed independence, but by the first century A.D., the covenant people were again under Gentile control—the Roman Empire. The Jews were back in their homeland but exilic conditions persisted, and faithful men and women in Palestine such as Simeon still awaited “the consolation of Israel,” namely, God’s promised restoration (Luke 2:25).
Herod’s brutal slaughter of the young boys in Bethlehem demonstrated that though the Jews were back in their homeland, the restoration had not materialized and the conditions of exile persisted. Being an Idumean with no real claim to the Jewish throne, Herod was himself a foreign ruler. The slaughter of the innocents also repeated the suffering and death of exile. In citing Jeremiah’s prophecy, Matthew is telling us that exilic conditions continued in the first century. But he is also revealing something more. The evangelist knew his Jewish readers would remember that the Jeremiah quote appeared in a context promising Israel’s restoration and salvation. By quoting Jeremiah 31, Matthew points out that with the advent of Jesus, the promised restoration had finally arrived.
That the majority of Jews had not fulfilled the condition of repentance necessary for restoration (Jer. 29:10–14) when the Son of God became incarnate demonstrates that the fundamental problem for Israel was not Gentile domination but rather the presence of sin that led to the Lord handing them over to Gentile control. Restoration could not occur until the root problem of sin was addressed. That is the problem that Jesus dealt with on the cross, purchasing our forgiveness and restoration.
Passages for Further Study
1 Samuel 18:6–16