By Doug Redford
In its opening verse, the beloved Christmas carol “Silent Night” describes a scene in which “All is calm, all is bright / Round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild.” Yet the world beyond that mother and child was anything but calm and bright. It was a world of great turmoil and unrest, closer in many ways to today’s surroundings than one may realize.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jews, God’s covenant people, were chafing under the rule of the Romans. Roman dominance is illustrated by the way the account of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2 begins: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (King James Version). But Augustus’s influence was exercised from a distance. He had no personal involvement with the events surrounding the arrival of Jesus. He couldn’t have cared any less about a child’s birth in what was for him the other side of the world.
Another ruler at the time felt quite differently. He was Herod the Great, king of Judea in which Bethlehem was situated. He took the birth of Jesus very personally and seriously, as Matthew’s Gospel tells us. He gave to the wise men the pretense of wanting to worship the infant king, hiding from them his real desire to kill this perceived threat to his throne. When Herod later realized that the wise men had not followed his planned course of action, the enraged king ordered the execution of all infants age 2 and under, in and around Bethlehem. The “deep and dreamless sleep” in the little town was abruptly transformed into a nightmare of pain and horror. Here there was no “silent night.”
Matthew includes in his record the fulfillment of a Scripture from Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Among all the passages of Scripture quoted on the front of Christmas cards, this one never appears—and with good reason. What a tragic verse to be fulfilled at what is celebrated as “the most wonderful time of the year”!
Questions may be raised as this gruesome series of events is considered. Why did God even allow the wise men to stop at Jerusalem and consult someone like King Herod? Why not provide a dream to warn them at that point of the king’s evil intentions? And why did all of those helpless infants have to die? Why not use a miracle to spare them and their families from this unspeakable grief? Why not grant these people the “great joy” and “peace” that was announced to the shepherds? Why not simply put the sword to Herod before he could put it to these innocents?
Like most “why” questions, these are hard to address with a satisfactory answer. What we can take note of, from the perspective of faith, is the consistency between this profound sadness in Matthew 2 and the manner in which God has frequently carried out his sacred purposes throughout Scripture. Consider how Joseph’s brothers callously sold him as a slave to a caravan headed for Egypt and later assumed he had died. Joseph told his stunned brothers when he revealed his identity to them in Egypt: “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:5). On a later occasion he told them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
The brokenness of this sin-infested world is often the arena in which God demonstrates his sovereign purpose, and he does so through people who testify to that sovereignty even in the midst of their heartache. They are able to grasp a bigger picture visible only to those who by faith possess an “assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). They acknowledge that the presence of sorrow does not signify the absence of God.
So it was in the vicious slaughter of the Bethlehem infants. Rachel’s “refusing to be comforted” (Jeremiah 31:15) was notably the same as her husband Jacob’s response to the news (falsely conveyed by his sons) that Joseph was dead (Genesis 37:35). He believed that Joseph was “no more” (42:36), as was the case with Rachel and her offspring (Jeremiah 31:15). But that was not the final word. Jacob came to discover to his amazement that Joseph really was alive and in a position of authority in Egypt.
Nor is Jeremiah’s moving portrayal of Rachel’s grief the final word. The verses that follow the reference to Rachel’s weeping announce a dramatic transformation: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded . . . there is hope for your descendants . . . your children will return to their own land” (vv. 16, 17). While Jeremiah’s immediate reference is to the return of God’s people from captivity in Babylon, it may be no accident that Matthew’s citation of Rachel’s tears is followed by the return of the Christ child with Joseph and Mary to their own land after Herod’s death (Matthew 2:19, 20). The weeping that is part of sin’s bitter fruit is not meant to have the final say; as David expressed it, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
The ultimate illustration of this truth is the cross. There other hostile rulers sought to do to Jesus the man what Herod had failed to do to Jesus the infant. But they failed as well; for the Lord had issued his own decree: that all the world should be saved. The cross was the means by which that decree was carried out. Jesus could have said to his adversaries what Joseph told his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
Hope Through Tears
This Christmas season is a time of heightened unrest and turmoil. It is a time of many tears. Many find themselves in Rachel’s position, grieving and weeping over loved ones or friends who died during the past year. The brokenness created by sin has left so many souls in shambles. Hearing the festive music of the season only intensifies their pain. But we must draw hope from the truth that is more than a slogan: Jesus is the reason for the season—not just the baby in the manger but the conqueror of death, the risen Lord. The brokenness of the world could not defeat him when he was born, it could not defeat him when he died, and it cannot defeat him now even when the season may not be what we had planned for it to be. He can still be the Christ of our Christmas.
This Christmas, despite our tears, let us remember Jesus’ words: “My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.