Finding Joy in the Midst of Anguish
December 7, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
The birth of Christ, perhaps, was the most promised and anticipated event in the history of mankind. For centuries, the Jews heard and held onto prophecies of one to come who would bring deliverance, justice, peace, and a kingdom. Part of the wonder of Christmas is seeing those prophecies fulfilled in the birth of Christ. God promised, and God fulfilled. Our faith in the promise-keeping God is bolstered by celebrating the “good news of great joy” of the birth of Christ. This month, let’s consider a few of those Old Testament promises and their fulfillment in Christ. This is part two of a four-part series.
I suspect that Jeremiah 31:15 was not considered to be prophetic, foretelling what was to come, for the first listeners. The Babylonian Empire had been attacking Judah and the city of Jerusalem in waves between 605 and 586 BC. Jeremiah foretold of this impending doom. Chapter 31 is a word of encouragement in the midst of the tragedy. God promises to “turn their mourning into joy,” and that “your children shall come back to their own country” (v. 13 & 17). And the clearest declarations of the New Covenant promises come in 31:31-34.
In light of the hopeful promises of Jeremiah 31, verse 15 seems to be out of place. We read, “Thus says the LORD: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’”
Ramah was a city located about five to six miles north of Jerusalem. It served as a regrouping location for the exiles as they were being led along the road north to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. You can imagine that Ramah was associated with the memories of tragedy. The discovery that loved ones had been killed. Reality of exile sinking in. Being separated from loved ones. Lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel, being one of the wives of Jacob and mother of three of the tribes of Israel (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin), represents all mothers who lose their children. The grief is devastating.
What is verse 15 doing in the middle of a chapter of hopeful promises? It serves as a bitter reminder that while God has glorious plans for a redeemed and restored future, his people still live in a world broken by sin and the curse. Jeremiah 31:15 describes vividly the present reality of the people of Jerusalem in 600-586 BC. This is why I suspect no one in the 6th century BC heard it as foretelling.
Matthew, however, uses this verse to explain the wretched event of Herod having baby boys killed in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah…” (2:17). Fulfilled? Wasn’t it “fulfilled” in the 6th century BC? What could Matthew mean by this?
- Matthew uses Jeremiah 31:15 as typology. Biblical typology understands that certain events and people from the Old Testament serve as a pattern or template for New Testament experience. We can find the template of the world ravaged by sin and the consequences of sin recurring throughout Scripture. But this particular tragedy of the slaughter of children finds its greatest parallel in the brutal attacks of the Babylonians on Jerusalem. In a sense, Matthew is saying, “It’s happening again! Even at the birth of the Savior, the world still is ravaged by sin.”
- By quoting verse 15, Matthew invites the readers to think of the whole scope of Jeremiah 31. The original intent of Jeremiah 31 was to give hope to a people who were losing hope in the midst of tragedy. The tragedy of the destruction of Jerusalem and exile was not the final word or act for the people of God. God had greater plans of restoration and redemption. God even had plans to remedy the sinfulness of his people. Matthew “interprets” the Herod event by drawing attention to Jeremiah 31. He says that, while Herod is powerful to destroy life, God is still more powerful, and God’s plans cannot be thwarted. The birth of Jesus, interjecting this sinful world, is God’s active fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 to rescue his people from the tragic consequences of sin.
Matthew wants his readers (us!) to not lose sight of the hope we have in the birth of Christ, even while we endure tragedy. We’re reminded, at the birth of Christ, that Jesus entered this sin-stricken world as God with us. God does not leave us in our sorrow, but enters into it with us in order to bring hope. The death of those boys in Bethlehem was not the end of the story, just as much as any tragedy we face is not the end of our story. God is working for our joy even in the midst of anguish.