Rachel’s Tears

By Wayne Jackson

Rachel was the wife of Jacob (grandson of Abraham) and the mother of two sons—Joseph and Benjamin. Her name is found more than forty times in the Old Testament. In giving birth to Benjamin she died, and was buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). A thousand or so years after her death, Rachel is symbolically portrayed by the prophet Jeremiah: “Thus says Jehovah: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping. Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not.” She then was comforted. The Lord instructed her to refrain from her weeping for she would be rewarded, and “her children” would return from the land of the enemy (Jeremiah 31:15-17).

This section of the book of Jeremiah (chapters thirty through thirty-three) is Messianic in thrust. The Babylonian invasion loomed on the horizon and, in view of the Hebrews’ divine destiny, the nation needed words of comfort and hope. Jeremiah would provide them.

Chapter 31 can be arranged into ten thematic segments: Section 1 begins with a chronological notation, “at that time,” which is the equivalent of “the latter days” in the previous verse (30:24b). The expression “latter days” is employed by the prophets for the Christian age (cf. Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 23:20; 30:24; 48:47; 49:39; Daniel 2:28; Hosea 3:5). Similarly see the common expression, “Behold the days come” (Jeremiah 31:27, 31, 38). The paragraphs (ASV) may be cataloged as follows (for a fuller discussion, see Jackson 1979, 79-87):

  1. The promise of “that time,” the Messianic age (ch. 1-6)
  2. Israel depicted as Jehovah’s “first-born” (ch. 7-9)
  3. The gathering of Israel—a preview of the new Israel (ch. 10-14)
  4. Rachael’s tears (ch. 15-20)
  5. Highway signs (ch. 21-22)
  6. The happiness of Judah (ch. 23-26)
  7. The Messianic age (ch. 27-30)
  8. The New Covenant (ch. 31-34)
  9. The perpetuity of the New Covenant (ch. 35-37)
  10. The New Jerusalem (ch. 38-40)

The Weeping Woman

In this study, we are focusing on verse fifteen. Jehovah declares that a “voice is heard in Ramah.” Ramah was a small town about five or six miles north of Jerusalem. The community was located on the border between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern regime of Judah; thus, in reality, the community could function as a representative of either territory—or both. Ramah was the point at which Nebuchadnezzar assembled the people of Judah for their long trek into the captivity of Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1).

The voice is that of a woman who is weeping bitterly. She is Rachel, the wife of Jacob. Figuratively speaking, Rachel, who had died a millennium earlier, is lamenting her lost “children,” i.e., her distant offspring. Who are these children? Rachel was the mother of both Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh, both of whom were of Israel, while Benjamin was of Judah. Hence to weep for her children signified a bitter lamentation over the entire nation.

The occasion of Rachel’s weeping was the terrible suffering of her descendants. Israel had been taken into Assyrian captivity (722-21 B.C.), and the final disposition of Judah came with the third deportation of the Jews into Babylonian captivity in 586 B.C. The desolation was so heart-wrenching that it seemed that her children “were not,” i.e., they were dead. She simply refused to be comforted.

The Lord spoke, however, and instructed her to refrain from crying and to dry her tears. There would be a “reward” for her “work” of bringing her children into the world. They would “come again from the land of the enemy” (v. 16). They had learned the hard lesson of rebellion and acknowledged Jehovah’s “chastisement.” The Hebrew people had “turned” away from God, but through divine discipline they were brought to repentance and so “turned” back to the Lord (vv. 18-19). This is an excellent commentary on the nature of repentance. God promises to have mercy upon those who are of this disposition (v. 20).

Matthew’s Use of the Text

The curious thing about this passage (verse fifteen especially) is the fact that it is quoted by the apostle Matthew as being “fulfilled” when the vicious king, Herod the Great, slaughtered the male infants in his brutish attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:17-18). What is the connection between the two texts?

Several views are proffered by various scholars:

(1) Modernists see no relationship between the Old Testament text and Matthew’s use of the passage. Typically, William Barclay wrote: “Very certainly the verse in Jeremiah has no connection with Herod’s slaughter of the children. … Here again Matthew is doing what he so often did. He is finding a prophecy in his eagerness where no prophecy is” (1958, 29). This view cannot be endorsed by anyone who respects the doctrine of Bible inspiration. It indicts the apostle Matthew as an unscrupulous manipulator of the Old Testament.

(2) Others maintain there is a relationship between the two texts, but it is not a case of genuine prophecy. Rather, Matthew only employed the text from Jeremiah in an illustrative fashion. This was the position of Adam Clarke (335) and our own J. W. McGarvey (1875, 30).

(3) Most expositors believe this text reflects an example of a typological prophecy (i.e., a picture prophecy, as distinct from a word prophecy). In such a case there was an application of the text to a relatively immediate situation, but an ultimate fulfillment in the more remote future. A typological prophecy is different in kind, but no less a prophecy than one explicitly in words. The words, “then was fulfilled,” seem to reflect “a real recognition of divine intention . . . a real prediction, and not mere illustration” (Johnson 1896, 280; cf. Blomberg 2007, 10).

(4) Theo. Laetsch contended that Jeremiah’s prophecy was not typological, but was strictly Messianic and thus had nothing to do with “the deportations of either the Northern or the Southern Kingdom.” This view seems strained. Laetsch appears to deny the reality of any “typological” prophecy. He refers to “the futility of ‘typical’ interpretation” (1965, 250).

(5) To be rejected entirely is the theory of the millennialists, namely that the “ultimate fulfillment” of Jeremiah’s prophecy will be realized in the Millennium when Israel is restored to her God (Dyer 1985, 1172; Scofield 1946, 804). But as Lenski observed: “[T]his does not refer to a physical return of the lost ten tribes to Palestine during some millennium, but to the future conversion of the Gentiles, by whom the ten tribes were absorbed” (1961, 83). More likely, vv. 10ff embrace the entire church of Christ—both Jews and Gentiles.

Conclusion

In my judgment, view number three (above) seems to fit all the evidence best—both Old and New Testaments combined.

Israel, in the days of Jeremiah, suffered an estrangement from its sacred land, the equivalent of a separation from a holy environment; hence figuratively it was a spiritual death. Later, however, there would be restoration to a state of happiness. A similar circumstance would occur five centuries later. A brutal king would slaughter Bethlehem’s babies in an attempt to eliminate a rival King, Jesus; but God would bring his son back from the land of the dead. And as a result, a great spiritual reconciliation of peace would be available for all who yield to the Savior’s authority. A new “Israel” would be established (Galatians 3:26-27, 29; 6:16).

Professor Fairbairn once noted that, in a manner of speaking, Herod was the “new Nebuchanezzar.” The former by his cruel policies thought he would extinguish forever the hopes and aspirations of Israel. In like fashion, the bloody Herod thought he would eliminate the new Israel’s king by the massacre of Bethlehem’s babes. Both failed in their devilish ambitions (1859, 472).

Rachel’s tears were wiped away and the Messianic hope was revealed. Similarly, it can be so today; Jesus escaped the bloody hands of Herod, and those wise enough to seek refuge in him embrace the hope of everlasting life.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Barclay, William. 1958. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
  • Blomberg, Craig. 2007. Matthew. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
  • Clarke, Adam. n.d. A Commentary on the Bible. Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.
  • Dyer, Charles H. 1985. The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament. Vol. 1. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, eds. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.
  • Fairbairn, Patrick. 1859. Hermeneutical Manual – Exegetical Studies of the New Testament. Philadelphia, PA: Smith, English & Co.
  • Jackson, Wayne. 1979. Jeremiah & Lamentations. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications.
  • Johnson, Franklin. 1896. The Quotations of the New Testament From The Old. Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society.
  • Laetsch, Theo. 1965. Bible Commentary – Jeremiah. St. Louis, MO: Concordia.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. The Interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
  • McGarvey, J. W. 1875. Commentary on Matthew and Mark. Des Moines, IA: Eugene Smith Reprint.
  • Schofield, C. I. 1946. The Scofield Reference Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.