“Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men,” Matthew 2:16.
When I read this passage this morning (Monday 2nd January), I began to think of why such a thing should happen. I started out from the truth that the “LORD is upright: he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him,” Psalm 92:15. The wise man stated the case well: “As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come,” Proverbs 26:2. As the swallow, with its homing instincts, follows the course set for it of God, so God’s judgments follow a path set by Him. Nothing is by chance nor happens without divine overruling!
We think of the cruel and wicked actions of Herod but has thought been given to why such a horrific thing should have overtaken the babes of Bethlehem!
The narrative refers to the prophecy of Jeremiah and states that this slaughter was the subject of that prophecy.
“Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
Matthew 2:17-18. This prophecy is found in Jeremiah 31:15. This was written at the time approaching the first besieging of Jerusalem by the Babylonians which eventually led to the final overthrow of the city and the nation and the seventy years of captivity. It was a time of slaughter, brought on, it must be noted, by the apostasy and spiritual rebellion of the people. Jeremiah had faithfully warned of the coming judgment from the beginning of his ministry.
“And the word of the LORD came unto me the second time, saying, What seest thou? And I said, I see a seething pot; and the face thereof is toward the north. Then the LORD said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land. For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north (Babylon), saith the LORD; and they shall come, and they shall set every one his throne at the entering of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah. And I will utter my judgments against them touching all their wickedness, who have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, and worshipped the works of their own hands,” Jeremiah 1:13-16.
For the words of Jeremiah to have any bearing on what happened at Bethlehem after the birth of Christ, I think we must understand that there was something of the same spirit of rejection of God and His Word as was seen in Jeremiah’s day.
That is why the slaughter took place.
I. This violent and cruel slaughter of the children of the people of Bethlehem was indeed a judgment.
Why? we ask. The answer is found, I believe, in Luke chapter 2.
“And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds,” Luke 2:15-18. There is quite a contrast between the shepherds reaction to the ‘glad tidings’ and that of the people of Bethlehem. I believe that they showed the same spirit, or at least the beginnings of that spirit, which was seen at the rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah. “And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify him. Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him,” Mark 15:12-14. That cry sealed the fate of Jerusalem in AD 70 at the hands of the Romans.
II. Please note the shepherds’ willing and swift response to the message of the angel.
“And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”
But note also their sharing of the ‘glad news’ of the gospel.
“And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” The phrase “they made known abroad” appears only here in the New Testament. It refers no doubt to a most unique testifying by the shepherds of what they had seen. The heavenly vision, the news given and the singing of heaven’s choir and above all, the seeing the Messiah in the manger, was so unique that their witness to these wonderful facts was related with an excitement and spiritual unction that no other gospel witness ever equalled!
God had indeed “left not himself without witness” (Acts 14:17) to the people of Bethlehem.
III. But please note also the reaction of that privileged and blessed town.
“And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds,” Luke 2:18.
The word ‘wondered’ means ’to marvel’. It denotes an astonished reaction, a viewing the report as almost unbelievable!
The word first appears in Matthew.“When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel,” Matthew 8:10. The Saviour ‘marvelled’ that someone who was not a Jew should manifest such faith as that shown by the Roman centurion when he said: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it,” Matthew 8:8-9. Such a response by a Gentile ‘invader and conquerer’ of Israel was nigh unto unbelievable! He who was brought upon in Pagan darkness was here showing an astonishing measure of faith in the mercy and power of the Lord Jesus Christ and freely professed that faith.
Such is the amazing power of the grace of God.
IV. We must note that the wondering of the people of Bethlehem was not accompanied by any action like that of the shepherds.
They had said: “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” This determination was followed immediately by a coming “with haste” to the place where they found the Saviour even as told by the angels.
Had there been a similar response by the people to whom the shepherds witnessed there would doubtless have been a record given us of it. This is evidenced by what is recorded in verses 25-38 of Luke chapter 2. There we have the response of two of God’s faithful ones, Simeon and Anna. If the response of two elderly believers was worthy of note, then I think that, had there been an earnest and joyful response of the people of Bethlehem, like that of the shepherds, then we would have been told of it. As it is, no such response is recorded. Instead there is the record of the dreadful slaughter by Herod.
V. The reason for that visitation was the unbelieving response of the people so marvellously favoured all those years ago.
The spirit of Bethlehem has been seen on our streets of late. Drunken louts and shameless lassies cavorting brazenly and intoxicated in blasphemous ‘celebration’ of ‘Christmas’. Thus they mark what is commonly believed, though utterly without foundation, the birth of Christ!
Such a response to the gospel will bring a like judgment upon this nation which has heard the voice of ‘the shepherds’ for generations, only for that voice to be mockingly rejected.
Oh! please note this truth, dear Christian, for judgment is approaching upon this land. Heed the words of warning and instruction of the prophet of old.
“Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee: hide thyself as it were for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast. For, behold, the LORD cometh out of his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity: the earth also shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain,” Isaiah 26:20-21.
The only place of safety is the place marked by blood as was the home of the believing Israelite of old.
“Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your families, and kill the passover. And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning. For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you,” Exodus 12:21-23.
How we need to act as did the Hebrew fathers of old and seek to ensure that all of our household are in under the blood of the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” John 1:29.
Rev Ivan Foster (Rtd)
2nd January 2023