“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 inquired of the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, 18 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”. (Matt. 2:16-18)
In the winter of 1994 two U.S. soldiers were flying in a helicopter near the Korean border. The helicopter went down and one soldier was killed. The other soldier was captured. The remains of the dead airman was sent back to the U.S. and the other soldier was released in due time. When this event first took place, the mother of the surviving soldier was interviewed. She was asked her feelings and she responded that she was both happy and grieved. Her son was alive, and that is reason to be grateful. However, another mother had lost her child, which made her grieve. The same occasion can produce both sorrow and grief.
In the birth of Jesus Christ, the hearts of many were filled with these conflicting emotions—unmitigated joy amidst deep sorrow. If we listen, we can hear the voices of the Wise Men from the Far East asking with great excitement, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” And if we listen, we can hear the voice of Rachel, “weeping for her children, and cannot be comforted, because they are not.” They are all dead. The innocent have been slaughtered.
The question is “Why?”
“Why did they die?”
“Who has caused their death?”
The answer is found in the madman by the name of Herod who sat on the throne in Jerusalem as king. How Herod became king is an interesting story of ancient history that is worthy of being told. What is important for the moment is that the proud human toad occupied a shaky stool of political power, and he knew it. Herod would never feel secure.
All of his life he would be looking over his shoulder, afraid of rivals to his throne. Herod would swiftly kill anyone he suspected of being disloyal, even if they were members of his own household. And that is what happened. Herod killed Hyrcanus, who was the grandfather of his wife Mariamne. Then he killed her. Later, he would kill his eldest son Antipater.
When Octavian, who now called himself, Caesar Augustus, heard that among the children who Herod ordered to be killed was Herod’s own son, he remarked that it would be better to be one of Herod’s swine than Herod’s sons. Because Herod was a professing Jew his swine, if he had any, would have been considered to be unclean and so they were safe from death; but his own sons were not.
The people of Palestine experienced alarm when they learned that Wise Men from the East came to the capitol of Judea to inquire, “Where is He that is BORN king of the Jews?” What was really being asked was, “Where is the Child that has the legitimate right to one day rule over the Jews?”
The worst nightmare of Herod was upon him. He had not been born king of the Jews. He was king by political appointment. He was not even Jewish! If word of One born a true Jewish king was revealed, there would be political chaos. His power would be gone for Herod knew that the people of Palestine would gladly follow someone else given a chance.
Not only was Herod troubled, but also all Jerusalem with him was alarmed (Matt. 2:3). The people had reason to be afraid. They knew how terrible this mighty Idumean despot of Jerusalem could be. The stage was set for a great slaughter of innocents because Herod felt threatened.
When people feel threatened they do terrible things. Trace the trouble of any conflict and the discovery will be made that someone felt threatened. It may not be a physical threat necessarily, but there is a threat to position, power or a course of action. Threats always precipitate counter threats, and defensive actions. At that point people become frustrated and hurt. Individuals feel rejected. Harsh words are uttered. Fiction becomes fact and perception become reality.Truth is sacrificed upon the altar of expediency. Fear replaces faith. All of these factors would be manifested in the days following the birth of Christ because Herod felt threatened.
But Herod did not survive in government by being stupid. The first thing Herod did when he understood the request of the Wise Men from the East was to call a religious conference. Invited to the conference were the Chief Priests of Israel and the scribes of the Law. Once they had all gathered Herod made his demand (Matt. 2:4). “Tell me,” Herod insisted, “where it is foretold that the Messiah should be born.”
Fortunately for all those present at the Royal Conference on Prophecy, Herod had asked an easy question. It was the prophet Micah (5:2) who had declared that Christ would be born in Bethlehem of Judah.
That was all Herod wanted to know. Sending the religious body away, Herod next called in the traveling astronomers.
These Wise Men of Babylon had traveled over 300 miles across the hot burning Syrian desert to come to Jerusalem. Their journey had been long and hard, but no sacrifice was too great if they could only find Jesus. Now their journey was almost over. Privately, the Wise Men spoke with Herod about their mission (Matt. 2:7). Diligently did the king inquire of them as to the time the Star they followed had first appeared.
Finally, when Herod had secured the information that he needed, the Bible says that he sent the Wise Men on their way with one provision. “When you have found the child, instructed Herod, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.”
Pious words veiled the hidden venom of hatred that Herod harbored in his heart. Feigned humility was upon his lips. Despite his saccharin-sweet personality for political purposes, despite his highly advertised humility and meekness Herod possessed an iron will to dominate and control. He had no intention of submitting to the newborn Sovereign of the Universe.
The Wise Men from the East left the presence of Herod and once more found heaven to be their guide. The Star of Bethlehem appeared again. The traveling astronomers followed the unusual Star until it finally rested over the house where the young child now resided.
Despite popular traditions which associate the Wise Men with the birth of Christ at the manger, the text is clear that the Wise Men entered into a house. (Matt. 2:11) Some time had passed since the birth of Jesus and the days the Wise Men appeared. The time factor is not as important as the fact that the Wise Men never stopped looking until they came to Christ. And once they found their KING, the Bible says they had gifts for Him. There was gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Gold a proper gift for a king because of its intrinsic value. Jesus Christ is a king and one day He will literally, personally, bodily rule on this earth as He now rules and reigns from His exalted position in heaven. Christians are commanded to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” One day Christ shall return to earth and we shall crown Him with many crowns and recognize Him as King of all kings, and LORD of all Lords (Rev. 19:11-16). So the Wise Men brought Jesus their gold.
They also brought frankincense. In the Old Testament, frankincense was part of the sweet perfume or incense that was used in the worship of the Lord. It was never to be used personally, but was to be holy unto the Lord (Ex. 30:37) and therefore speaks of the deity of Christ. The wise men knew that in the person of Christ, they were kneeling before the Lord their God.
Dr. John R. Rice is correct when he says, “There is no way under Heaven that any man can approach God in peace except he come with prayer and praise to Jesus Christ as one who is very God, Creator, Savior, one to be loved and worshiped, one who answers prayer, one who is worthy of all the praises that can fall from human lips!”
Third, the Wise Men brought Jesus myrrh. Myrrh refers to a dark, sweet smelling resin obtained from certain varieties of the rockrose, a small shrub with large, roselike flowers. It grows in the desert region of Palestine (Gen. 37:25; 43:11). Myrrh was used for embalming the dead. It became a symbol of suffering and death.
From the cradle to the grave Jesus lived under the shadow of the Cross. He was born to die and everything in life pointed to that ultimate act of redemption. The angels had announced to the shepherds that Christ would save His people from their sins. They had in mind the crucifixion.
Simeon, who had waited so many years in the holy Temple to see the baby Jesus, said, “Mary, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35). He had in mind the crucifixion.
Gold, frankincense, myrrh. These were presents that best represented the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is King. Jesus is divine. Jesus is the only Savior of the world. Individually these gifts were expensive which tells us that Christ is worthy of our best. Personally they gave. Gladly they gave. With tears of joy, with trembling lips, with nervous fingers they unlocked their treasures to give to the Lord the best that they had.
After presenting the gifts of love, the Bible says that the Wise Men departed. Their mission was accomplished. They had seen the Messiah and so they started back to Babylon. But, being warned of God, they did not report to Herod what they had discovered. Rather, they returned to their own country a different way then they had come.
When Herod discovered that the Wise Men did not file an official report as ordered, the Bible says that he became enraged. He believed he was being made fun of. Throwing off all masks of religious pretense, Herod revealed the true murderous state of his hard heart. All males, from two years old and under, in the land of Palestine were to be executed. The orders were given and the blood bath began.
Soldiers rode into every town and village. Women screamed. Men tried to protect their families. Little children cried out in terror and still the blood ran into pools of red. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah 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.”
When Jeremiah first uttered these words, Ramah was located on the border between two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The small city was located five miles N of Jerusalem. It was in Ramah, in 586 BC, that foreign conquerors, known as the Babylonians, and ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, ordered the defeated people of Israel to be assembled for deportation.
In pictorial language, Rachael, the mother of all the children of Israel is represented by Jeremiah as being alive in the sixth century before Christ, but with a broken heart. She watches as the multitudes gather for deportation, and she begins to weep.
The centuries pass. Rachael is presented again as being alive during the days of the Messiah. And again Rachael is weeping because her children are no more. They are not being deported this time for Herod is killing them. The birth of Christ has brought great joy, and great sorrow.
We could wish that the story would be different. We could wish that the birth of Christ had united all of mankind under a common King, and a common love. But the reality is that Christ has many enemies. Some are in high places. The ideological sons of Herod still live today as individuals seek to destroy the very God who created them.
During this Christmas season of celebration, during this time of great joy for many, let us remember that there is a sober side to the birth of Christ. There are those who are hostile to the Lord, and therefore to His people the church.Let us not forget that Rachel is still crying. The conflicts in different parts of the world remind us that Rachel is crying.
The violence in the Middle East with the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children reminds us that Rachel is crying. The world needs the Prince of Peace. With John we cry, “Even so come quickly Lord Jesus.”
Only when Jesus comes again, not as a baby, but as the Conquering Sovereign will there be universal peace on earth and good will towards men. Until that day dawns and the darkness is vanished, let us diligently serve the Lord, giving Him our hearts, and our gifts, while being sensitive to the tears of Rachel. The slaughter of the innocent continues today in the killing of the unborn. The slaughter of the innocent continues today in the various civil wars. The slaughter of the innocent continues because individuals have yet to bow before the King of Peace.
One day Rachel will stop crying and that day will be when the gospel message has gone to the ends of the world. Then Jesus will return. In the days to come, let us commit ourselves afresh to finding ways to communicate the gospel to this community and beyond. Our motive for gospel evangelism will be great joy in having found Christ, and the fact that we can still hear Rachel crying this Christmas.