Many times we know segments of Old Testament Scripture because of their usage in the New. When we read Jeremiah 31:15, it rings familiar in our ears, but probably because of where it is in the book of Matthew. Well, Jeremiah is the first place we encounter this well-known passage and he has something particular to communicate to us. This part of his dream (vs. 26) begins:
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."
Rachel refers to the beloved wife of Jacob, and the mother of two children-Joseph and Benjamin. As the mother of Joseph, her appearance here is significant for being the matriarch of Joseph’s two children Manasseh and Ephraim. These two tribes become the dominant two in the northern kingdom of Israel by the time they are taken into captivity by Assyria. By telling us he hears Rachel weeping for her children, Jeremiah is referring to how long-gone and dispersed the northern kingdom of Israel had become in the last two hundred years. Literally, only God knows where her children are.
Ramah is a geographical location just north of Bethlehem significant for being the place where Rachel gave birth to Benjamin, died as a result, and was buried. Jeremiah, in this dream, hears Rachel mourning from her grave for her lost children.
But there is more to Ramah than its historical significance for Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 40:1 we read that he is taken captive by the conquering Babylonians and taken to the way station for exiles in Ramah. Ramah, for Jeremiah’s contemporaries, was one of those places where you knew for sure the effects of the siege warfare and famine. Here exiles are processed and learn for sure their family members are dead or gone and that their lives are about to be forcibly changed forever. Jeremiah did not just hear Rachel from the grave, he stood next to grieving mothers who had their children ripped from their arms and would not be consoled.
These are the images Matthew calls to mind in chapter 2 verses 16-18 when Herod slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem 2 years old and younger. But NT authors rarely refer to just a single OT verse when they quote OT passages. Matthew, though he hears the weeping, also hears something else-he hears the rest of the passage in Jeremiah beginning with verses 16 and 17:
Thus says the LORD:
"Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,…
There is hope for your future,
declares the LORD.
When the Messiah was born, a great slaughter ensued because of an evil king, but the Messiah was born. And this Messiah would bring light and life to all, including the Bethlehem infants.
Scripture recognizes and validates the reality and the depth of suffering and evil. Scripture allows us to grieve and mourn when necessary and appropriate. But Scripture does not let us stay there; we are not to despair of all hope. Suffering is real, but is it never the last word. The Puritan Matthew Henry said, “we can mourn, but we cannot mummer.”
In Anne of Green Gables, Anne asked Cuthbert this question, “Can’t you even imagine you’re in the depths of despair?” The wise Cuthbert responded, “No I cannot. To despair is to turn your back on God.”