The Christmas story includes the “Massacre of the Innocents” – Herod’s slaughter of young male children in and around Bethlehem. Mothers were left inconsolable, like “Rachel weeping for her children,” writes Matthew. But that’s not the lesson to be learned from Rachel. The rest of her story can comfort those who have lost a baby.
Christmas is a two-year story, with magi arriving in Jerusalem two years after Jesus was born. The chief priests pointed them to Bethlehem while Herod tried to cut a deal, secretly asking the magi to find the exact location and report back. He planned to murder his newborn rival. God warned the magi to find Jesus and then flee. They did. Tricked, Herod became enraged and “slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under” (Mt. 2:16).
Historians estimate that probably between six and twenty children were killed in Bethlehem, with a dozen or so more in the vicinity. Matthew writes there was “weeping and great mourning;” fulfilling what the prophet Jeremiah predicted: “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they were no more.” Who’s Rachel?
Rachel was the wife of Jacob and the mother of two sons – Joseph and Benjamin. In giving birth to Benjamin she died and was buried in Jerusalem. Benjamin became head of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. A millennium later, Jeremiah is writing from Jerusalem. He is the “weeping prophet,” grieving for the twelve tribes about to go into exile in Babylon. Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin will return. Rachel served as a metaphor for Jeremiah’s grief, as she wept for “her children” (Jer. 31:15) – the lost tribes, including the infants, who will die in captivity. But there’s more to Rachel’s story.
Rachel had initially “refused to be comforted.” The Lord told her to stop weeping (Jer. 31:16-17). She would be reunited with her children at the coming of Messiah. The rest of Rachel’s story is God telling her to wipe her tears and get on with her life. That’s not harsh or unkind. It’s how heaven works. Jesus said heaven is for those who believe as well as those who cannot believe.
“He who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:18). Jesus said those who do not believe are judged – not those who cannot believe. Do not is a term of cognition, or reason. The retarded lack sufficient cognition to believe. They cannot believe. The same is true of aborted fetuses and those who die in miscarriage, as well as murdered infants. They cannot believe but do go to heaven. This is a reality King David recognized.
When his infant son fell ill, David asked God to spare the boy’s life. Didn’t happen. His baby boy died. David wept, wiped his tears, and got on with his life. His servants were shocked at how quickly he recovered. David assured them, “Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me” (II Sam. 12: 22-23). He grieved but got on with his life.
This doesn’t seem to be the case with the Bethlehem mothers. Matthew cites only Jeremiah 3:15 – they are inconsolable. He doesn’t include the rest of Rachel’s story (31:16-17) – Rachel being comforted. Perhaps the Bethlehem mothers didn’t know God.
There are many lessons to be learned here. The first is how Rachel’s story challenges some tenets of our therapeutic world. For instance, there might be five stages of grief (Kübler-Ross model), but getting to acceptance (fifth stage) might be quicker than many imagine. God told Rachel to weep, wipe her tears, and get on with her life – quickly. In our therapeutic world, many Christians seem to luxuriate in being “wounded.” God told Rachel to get after getting healthy. Her children were alive and well.
The second lesson leads us to the cross. Rachel’s story reminds us that God judiciously applies Christ’s payment on the cross to every individual until he or she is able to forensically reject it (Jn. 3:18). Judicial means just. In the case of those who cannot believe, God applies Christ’s payment to all to meet his demands for justice. Every baby who ever died – by infanticide, abortion, murder, miscarriage, or accident – is safe in heaven. The same cannot be said for adults. Except for the mentally incapacitated, adults have cognition and are accountable before God. This is the meaning of forensic, or able to debate. When individuals are able to reason, they become accountable, sometime around the age of seven. At this age, those who will not believe come under judgment. They must come to the cross for forgiveness.
The third lesson is especially poignant for parents who have lost babies. You can be reunited with them. This is the comfort Rachel received, but it required knowing God. Only God knows who is in heaven (I Tim. 2:19). He assured Rachel that she would be reunited with her children, but only because Rachel was also headed for heaven. Her story reminds us it’s wise to know where you are headed. As the prophet Isaiah noted, eternity includes believing parents being reunited with their children. “Lift up your eyes and look around; all your children gather and come to you. As surely as I live,” declares the Lord, “you will wear them all as ornaments; you will put them on, like a bride” (Isa. 49:18). This is the comfort Rachel received.
Rachel’s story is worth remembering as you adorn your Christmas tree with ornaments. Christmas ornaments help us imagine heaven for those who cannot believe. This is one reason why the angels said they brought glad tidings of great joy. If you have lost a baby, the Christmas story, though associated with infanticide, has a joyful ending.
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