“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not” (Jeremiah ch31 v15).
Next Monday, in the traditional calendar, the church celebrates “Childermas”, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.
These are the children of the Bethlehem region who were killed on Herod’s orders, according to the story found in Matthew.
The church counts them as involuntary martyrs, because his intention was to eliminate Jesus himself.
Matthew claims the event as a fulfilment of the prophecy quoted above.
But the words of Jeremiah had meaning and value for the people of the prophet’s own time.
Looking at what this verse meant for the nation addressed by Jeremiah may throw more light on what it means for the readers of the New Testament.
Jeremiah is referring to the recent destruction of the kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians.
Rachel weeps because she was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, the ancestors of the main population of the northern kingdom.
Her children are “lost”, in the sense that they have been taken into exile.
The weeping is supposed to be heard from the region of Ramah, presumably because it was coming from her tomb.
(There are variant traditions about the place where Rachel was buried.
The occasion of her death was the birth of Benjamin, so it makes sense that her tomb should have been near Ramah, in Benjamin’s territory -Genesis
The story of Saul places her tomb in Zelzah, which may be a location close to the better-known Ramah -1 Samuel ch10 v2
The Genesis account adds that she was buried “on the way to Bethlehem”, and later traditions have moved the tomb closer to Bethlehem itself.)
But the verse which Matthew quotes is not Jeremiah’s real prophecy.
Rather, it’s describing the situation which calls out the prophecy in the words that follow.
The Lord responds to Rachel’s grief in this way;
“Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
For your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country” (vv16-17).
This whole chapter is all about encouragement for “Ephraim” (that is, Israel), and for the kingdom of Judah which is facing the same kind of
There is the theme of exiles being brought back to the land.
“He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him” (vv10-11).
There is the theme of rebuilding the community of the land.
“I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow” (v13).
The community will be, as it were, “raised from the dead”.
And there will be a new covenant.
“Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers”.
The old covenant failed because people could break it too easily.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people”.
That would solve the problem of chronic disobedience.
Jeremiah says it will no longer be necessary for men to teach their brothers and neighbours, saying “Know the Lord”.
That promise is revealing, because it shows that “Know the Lord” exhortations were happening in Jeremiah’s time.
It may have been comparable to the Victorian era, when there was a standard faith which everybody accepted in theory, though not everybody obeyed its
Then there would be room for some of the Jews to lecture one another, as Victorians would have lectured one another, on the importance of “being
earnest” in their religion.
This could cease when “they all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”.
The foundation of all this would be the forgiveness of sin;
“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”. (vv31-34).
As already mentioned, Matthew quotes the words of Jeremiah as part of the story about Herod’s reaction to the birth of Jesus;
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem
and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew ch2 v16).
Obviously the main visible connection between prophecy and fulfilment is the “mourning of mothers for lost children”.
There’s also the geographical connection. Although Matthew faithfully quotes Jeremiah’s “Ramah”, the “road to Bethlehem” or
“Bethlehem” tradition about the tomb will have been in his mind at the same time.
(Strictly speaking, though, the children themselves, as members of the tribe of Judah, were not Rachel’s children but Leah’s.)
But if Matthew’s thought is following the parallels of Jeremiah, the implication is that the state of mourning is not the end of the story.
Jeremiah moved on from the lamentations into the prophecies of hope.
So we should be looking for the same kind of hope in the consequences of the birth of Jesus.
There is the theme of “return from exile”.
Jesus and his family escaped the massacre by going into exile in Egypt (just as Jeremiah himself did at the end of his life).
Then the family was able to return to the land a few years later.
For that matter, the whole nation is to be “brought back”, not from physical exile but from disobedience.
Jesus will gather them together like a shepherd collecting his lost sheep.
After the Resurrection, his disciples will go out into the world, so that the world can be “brought back” in its turn.
The re-gathering of God’s people also begins to fulfil Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant.
The very name “New Testament” marks the Christian belief that the new covenant has already been implemented.
“I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”.
Forgiveness of sin is at the heart of the message which Jesus presents, in person and through his disciples.
That is what heals the relationship between God and his people, overthrowing the barriers.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts”.
This promise was at least partly fulfilled, we may think, by the endowment of the church with the Holy Spirit.
That is what Paul would say; “We serve not under the old written code, but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans ch7 v6).
However, we haven’t yet realised the full extent of Jeremiah’s promise.
We are still capable of falling into disobedience. It continues to be necessary for a believing man to speak to his brethren and his neighbours and
urge them to “know the Lord”, because the knowledge of the Lord is not yet automatic and inescapable.
Only at the end of Revelation does the relationship attain unbreakable permanence, when “He shall dwell with them and they shall be his people”
(Revelation ch21 v3).
Then the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s promise will have reached its final stage, the perfection of the new covenant.
edit on 21-12-2015 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)