Matthew's Old Testament Passages in the Christmas Story: Jeremiah 31
In the last two posts, we have seen that Matthew refers to Isaiah 7 and Hosea 12 in his telling the story of Jesus’s birth and childhood, saying that something happens that “fulfills” these passages from the prophets. The next time Matthew refers to something being fulfilled is Matthew 2:18, which refers to Jeremiah 31 and another passage that does not seem like a reference or prediction of the coming Messiah.
The Passage in Matthew
When the magi/wise men do not return to Jerusalem after visiting Jesus as requested by Herod so he could go to kill him, Herod decides that he will seek to destroy the child by killing all of the boys who are two years and younger in Bethlehem and the region. This action is fitting of Herod’s character, as he was known for being ruthless in doing whatever he could to get and stay in power, and also gives some indication of the length of time that it takes for the wise men to come from the East and then go to visit Jesus. Matthew notes that this massacre of children fulfills these words of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
The Passage in the Old Testament
This quotation is from Jeremiah 31. This chapter is part of the section in Jeremiah (chapters 31-34) often dubbed “The Book of Consolation” in which the book turns from words of judgment to promises of salvation (which includes forgiveness and a new covenant). Chapter 31 has an overall theme of a promise that God will turn the weeping and mourning of God’s people into joy and salvation as it opens with these words: “At that time,”declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:1) and goes on to say that God will rebuild His people and restore them after judgment. However, verse 15, the verse Matthew specifically mentions is the only verse in the chapter that speaks about the present grief that is experienced. He speaks of this grief with references to Ramah and Rachel, two references that might need further explanation to understand the passage.
Ramah refers to a town in Israel in the region of Benjamin about six miles north of Jerusalem. We read in Jeremiah 40:1 that this is the place where the people of Judah would be gathered on their way to being taken as captives into exile in Babylon during Jeremiah’s time. Other references to Ramah connected this location to sadness and despair (see Isaiah 10:29 and Hosea 5:8).
This town, as well as Bethlehem, also had associations with Rachel, one of the wives of Jacob and the mother of Benjamin and Joseph. She was said to be buried near Bethlehem (see Genesis 35:9; 48:7 and 1 Samuel 10:2). This connection seems to lead to the metaphorical use of Rachel in Jeremiah 31:15, as she is said to be weeping in Ramah when the people of Israel are being brought into captivity. Since she died over a thousand years before Jeremiah’s words, she is not literally weeping, but because she was the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (who had two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim), she was used as a symbol for the whole nation. She is said to be weeping because her descendants are being killed and taken away. It seems as if the promise of God to Abraham that he will have descendants, land, and be a blessing to others will not be fulfilled.
Therefore, the overall meaning of the passage here in Jeremiah is that there is a promise of restoration and hope even in the midst of suffering in the present; suffering is often a prelude to salvation. Verse 15 features the words that highlight the present grief that is experienced while waiting for the future hope (with verse 16 then talking about the end of the weeping).
So how does the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it fulfill the words of Jeremiah 31? Similar to what we saw in the use of Hosea 12 in Matthew 2, this does not seem to be an Old Testament passage that is making an explicit prediction about the Messiah and his appearance, but rather, is one that is a form of typology (discussed in that post) in which an event foreshadows another event, showing how Jesus’s life continues and brings to culmination the story of God’s people and the promises of God.
The connection is that something similar is happening in a similar area. Bethlehem was just about as far south of Jerusaelm as Ramah was north, and they were on the same road, so the location is similar. In addition, there is a similarity in the pain experienced at Jerusalem’s time as the mothers in Israel saw their sons killed and taken into exile and now the mothers in Jesus’s time in the area of Bethlehem are seeing their sons killed. What happens here recalls what happened elsewhere to God’s people.
It also doesn’t seem that Matthew picks some random verses to make his point, but draws on a passage that already used symbols and typology. For example, on page 85 of their book The First Days of Jesus, authors Andreas Kostenberger and Alexander Stewart point out that there is more typology in Jeremiah 31, including a reference to Israel (which is called Ephraim here) as God’s son in Jeremiah 31:9, 20, connecting back to the use of Hosea 12 in Matthew 2 and the reference to Jesus as the Son of God. Therefore, Matthew finds typology and metaphors in a passage that used metaphors and typology as well.
Matthew thus shows Jesus’ coming, ushering in the long-awaited hope of a return from exile and salvation, but once again that suffering is the prelude to salvation. This suffering, however, should not be viewed as indicating that God is not bringing this salvation, but rather that this salvation will come.
Hopefully this explanation does not just explain potentially confusing references, but offers a reminder for us that in the midst of challenges and sufferings we see in this world -- these will not last forever because of the hope that Jesus brings with Him. As we look at the world around us and as we move toward Christmas, there is joy but also sorrow in our lives. The events that surround Jesus’s birth (even the tragic ones that happen as the result of sinful actions) do not cast doubt on the fact that God has a plan, but points to the fulfillment of God’s plan. May this be true of us as well this Christmas season, that even in the midst of grief and pain, we know the hope and promise of God that is found in Jesus. The story of Christmas is one of hope -- coming in the midst of sorrow and despair, just as God had promised to His people many years before.
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