Rachel’s Grief

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Matthew 2: 17, 18: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.”

The prophecy of Rachel’s grief, says Scripture, was fulfilled just after the birth of Christ. Rachel’s grief is spoken of three times in Scripture: first in Genesis, then in Jeremiah, and finally in Matthew.[1]

Genesis tells us that Rachel is the beautiful wife of Jacob. He loves her and serves Laban 14 years for her. But in the process he receives another wife, Lea, whom he does not love. Yet God gives Lea children and for many years Rachel is withheld from bearing children. A fierce rivalry develops between the two sisters. The one can offer her husband children; the other her looks. But looks alone will not give Rachel the position of honour she seeks. Desperate for children she gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob to bear children on her behalf.

Nevertheless, after many years God gives her a son, Joseph, and on the way to the Promised Land she bears a second son. It seems that now her position is secure. She can glory not only in her looks but also in her sons, and can look forward to the possibility of more sons being born to her in the land of promise.

God, however, determines otherwise and Rachel comes to realise that she must die. After giving birth she whispers Ben-oni – son of my sorrow. Sorrow fills her heart because she had wanted children in order to glory in them. Yet now that she is in a position to begin appearing as an equal to Lea she must leave this life. Ben-oni. My life of suffering has been in vain! I will not see the land of promise, nor see my sons grow up there. I’ve borne children, but to what purpose? What do I still have? My momentary joy is taken from me. Rachel refuses to be comforted.

The LORD, in Jeremiah 31:15, sees an echo of this in the people of Israel being assembled at Ramah, the border between the ten and two tribes,  as they are about to be deported into the land of exile.

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”

The future of Israel looks extremely bleak. The people of Israel are to be taken captive to Babylon and dispersed among the nations, absorbed into Babylonian culture. It seems like the end of the road for Israel as a nation and as the people of the LORD.

But at this time of utter hopelessness and misery Jeremiah speaks words of hope on behalf of the LORD. The exile is not the end of the road.

“Thus speaks the LORD God of Israel, saying: ‘… For behold the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that I will bring back from captivity My people Israel and Judah,’ says the LORD. ‘And I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.’”

In their self-centred misery, however, the people of Israel refuse to be comforted. Do they acknowledge their sins, whereby they had become like the people of the world and served other gods? Do they admit that they had not heeded the continual warnings of the prophets, but had instead persecuted them? No. Instead they complain and moan and cry out in self-pity. Although Jeremiah speaks God’s words of comfort, comfort for the future of Israel, comfort about the promised Messiah, they refuse to be comforted.

In Matthew 2 Rachel’s tears are mentioned for the third time.  Herod, in an “outburst of hatred against the Christ”[2] and seeing his position as king in Judah threatened by the birth of the promised Messiah, tells his soldiers to massacre the infants of Bethlehem. The mothers, understandably, are filled with grief. “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.” Rachel’s grief, her sorrow, her hopelessness is again given expression in the weeping mothers in Bethlehem. Like the hopeless grief of Israel in Jeremiah’s days who thought that all was lost, and the immense sorrow of Rachel who felt that she had given birth in vain, so the mothers of Bethlehem feel that they have given birth in vain.

But the mothers in Bethlehem, like the exiles of Israel and like Rachel herself, refuse to be comforted.

And that is where the problem lies.

For what is Rachel’s grief really? It is a grief of selfishness. She weeps for children. She wants children for the sake of the children themselves and for her own sake; not for the sake of the Lord. Rachel’s great sin is that she resists the idea of the coming Messiah. She bypasses the spiritual seed, the spiritual blessing. She weeps because she wants children.

It is not wrong to want children. The question is why do you want children? Is it for Christ’s sake? God tells Abraham: In you all the nations of the earth will be blessed. God is speaking of spiritual seed. Those children are there for God’s honour. Every birth in Jacob’s tent has to serve God. If it contributes to God’s honour then all is well.

But Rachel has no eye for Christ in her tent. The children are there for Rachel, and she focusses on her own honour.

Every wise mother knows it: in the perspective of Christ’s goal through history I may not love my children as such. Children in themselves are not the most important point. I must see the children and my own life in the context of what the LORD is doing.

There is all the more reason for this in Jacob’s tent. For the promise is that the children will be a blessing for all nations. The child is more than the mother. It is about the spiritual seed. But Rachel has eyes only for the physical seed. She has eyes only for the temporal life. In her children she loves herself. She buries the Messianic promise under her self-centredness. That’s why when the temporal goes under she has no eye for what is eternal.

Rachel refuses to be comforted. And later the people of Rámah do not accept God’s consolation. Nor do the parents of Béthlehem. As Rev van der Jagt[3] puts it:

“There is no comfort when our grief is broken away from the Child of Bethlehem who has been saved through the intervention of God. But the prophecy of Jeremiah has been fulfilled. Rachel’s inconsolable grief is finished. God’s promises have been fulfilled. There is no longer room for despair and self-pity. From Bethlehem comes the victory. For there is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And already in Bethlehem it becomes obvious that salvation is not to be sought or found in anybody else than this Child. All things work together for good to those who love God. Even the massacre in Bethlehem.

For the sufferings of this present time ‘are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. In Christ we are more than conquerors. And the LORD helps us in our weaknesses.’ The massacre in Bethlehem is minor in comparison to all the sufferings in this world. Who will count the tears that are shed today? The whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now (Rom. 8: 22).

[…]

‘Rachel weeping for her children.’ How sad. How awful. Whether it happens during Jacob’s day, Jeremiah’s day, Herod’s day or our days, it’s heart-rending! But the tears and sobs do not have the last word. They never have the last word. You see, the tears and sobs should remind us of another day when the daughters of Jerusalem – the daughters of Rachel – wept. They wept and mourned for a lone figure – whipped and bleeding, crowned and mocked – as He walked up Golgotha hill. That day too Satan did not win. That day, above all days, the heavens were filled with ‘Glory to God in the highest.’ Because that day, for Satan, was the beginning of the end. On that day the war was won though the individual battles continue to the present time…”

 

J Numan



[1] The gist of this meditation is gleaned from a sermon on Matthew 2:17, 18 by Rev K Schilder held 29 December 1918 and published in K Schilder, Preken 1, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1957, P.193ff..

[2] Rev W van der Jagt in a sermon on Jeremiah 31:7-26 held in the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura 15th Dec 2013.

[3] Ibid.