The Slaughter at Ramah
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” (2:16–18)
The third fulfilled prophecy that Matthew mentions in chapter 2 is that of Herod’s brutal slaughter in Bethlehem. After Joseph had secretly taken Jesus and His mother to the safety of Egypt, the malevolent Herod, enraged by the magi’s failure to report back to him (see 2:7–8), committed one of the bloodiest acts of his career, and certainly the cruelest.
The Greek word empaizō generally carried the idea of mocking, and is so translated in the King James Version of this passage. The root meaning is “to play like a child,” especially in the sense of making sport of or jesting. It is used to describe the accusations and taunts of Jesus’ enemies against Him (Matt. 20:19; 27:41; Mark 15:20; Luke 22:63; 23:11; etc.). But the idea in Matthew 2:16 is better rendered as tricked. Either meaning, however, refers to Herod’s perception of the motives of the magi, not their true intention. It was not their purpose to trick or mock the king but simply to obey God’s command “not to return to Herod” (v. 12). The king, of course, knew nothing of God’s warning and saw only that the wise men did not do as he had instructed.
Herod’s hatred of the newborn contender to his throne began when he first heard the news of His birth. The purpose of having the magi report back to him was to learn the exact information needed to discover and destroy the Child—not to worship Him, as he had deceitfully told the magi (2:8). The magi’s going home by another way, and so avoiding Herod, added infuriation to hatred, so that he became very enraged.
Thumoō (to be enraged) is a strong word, made still stronger by lian (very, or better, exceedingly). The Greek is in the passive voice, indicating that Herod had lost control of his passion and now was completely controlled by it. His senses, and what little judgment he may have had, were blinded. He did not bother to consider that, because the magi did not return to him, they probably had guessed his wicked intent and that, if so, they would surely have warned the family. The family, in turn, would have long fled Bethlehem and probably the country. In light of Herod’s perverted mind, however, he possibly would have taken the same cruel action—out of the same senseless rage and frustration—even had he known that the primary object of his hatred had escaped. If he was not able to guarantee killing Jesus by killing the other babies, he would kill them in place of Jesus.
In any case Herod’s rage was vented in the desperate and heartless slaughter of all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under. He went up to the age of two because of the time which he had ascertained from the magi. Jesus was probably no older than six months at this time, but even if that had been the age Herod determined from the magi’s information (2:7), it is likely he would have taken no chances. Killing all the male babies up to age two was a small precaution in his evil thinking, in case the magi had miscalculated or deceived him.
Herod’s crime was made even more vile and heinous by the fact that he knew that the Child he sought to destroy was the Messiah, the Christ. He questioned the chief priests and scribes specifically about “where the Christ was to be born” (2:4). He arrogantly and stupidly set himself against God’s very Anointed (cf. 1 Cor. 16:22).
It seems as if, from the earliest part of his message, Matthew wanted to portray the rejection of the Messiah by those from among whom He came and in whose behalf He first came (Acts 3:26; Rom. 1:16). The chief priests and the scribes, along with the many other Jews in Jerusalem who must have heard or known about the magi’s message of the one “who has been born King of the Jews,” showed no interest at all in finding Him, much less in worshiping Him (see Matt. 2:2–5). Though Herod was not himself a Jew and had no right to a Jewish throne, he nevertheless declared himself to be the king of the Jews and made a pretense of concern for Jewish religious and economic interests. In an illegitimate and perverted way, therefore, Herod’s rejection of Christ both reflected and represented the Jews’ rejection of Him.
The slaughter in Bethlehem was the beginning of the tragedy and bloodshed that would result from Israel’s rejection of her Savior and true King. Those innocent and precious babies of Bethlehem were the first casualties in the now-intensified warfare between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God’s Christ, God’s Anointed. Within two generations from that time (in a.d. 70) Jerusalem would see its Temple destroyed and over a million of its people massacred by the troops of Titus. Yet that destruction will pale in comparison with that of the Antichrist—a ruler immeasurably more wicked and powerful than Herod—when in the Great Tribulation he will shed more of Israel’s blood than will ever have been shed before (Dan. 12:1; Matt. 24:21–22). All of that bloodshed is over the conflict with the Messiah.
The least of Herod’s intentions was to fulfill prophecy, but that is what his slaughter did. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled. Herod’s beastly act is recorded only by Matthew, yet it was predicted in a text given to the prophet Jeremiah. The term fulfilled (from plēroō, “to fill up”) marks this out as completing an Old Testament prediction. This prophecy, like that of Jesus’ return from Egypt, was in the form of a type, which, as we have seen above, is a nonverbal prediction revealed in the New Testament. In the passage (Jer. 31:15) from which Matthew here quotes, Jeremiah was speaking of the great sorrow that would soon be experienced in Israel when most of her people would be carried captive to Babylon. Ramah, a town about five miles north of Jerusalem, was on the border of the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms. It was also the place where Jewish captives were assembled for deportation to Babylon (Jer. 40:1). Rachel, the wife of Jacob-Israel, was the mother of Joseph, whose two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, became progenitors of the two half-tribes that bore their names. Ephraim is often used in the Old Testament as a synonym for the northern kingdom. Rachel was also the mother of Benjamin, whose tribe became part of the southern kingdom. She had once cried, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30:1), and now her beloved “children,” her immeasurably multiplied descendants, were being taken captive to a foreign and pagan land.
Rachel weeping for her children therefore represented the lamentation of all Jewish mothers who wept over Israel’s great tragedy in the days of Jeremiah, and most specifically typified and prefigured the mothers of Bethlehem weeping bitterly over the massacre of their children by Herod in His attempt to kill the Messiah. So even while Israel’s Messiah was still a babe, Rachel had cause to weep again, even as the Messiah Himself would later weep over Jerusalem because of His people’s rejection of Him and the afflictions they would suffer as a consequence (Luke 19:41–44).
Though Matthew does not mention it here, because he is emphasizing the tragedy of the massacre, the passage he quotes from Jeremiah continues with a beautiful word of hope and promise: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they shall return from the land of the enemy’ ” (Jer. 31:16). Within a few generations, the Lord brought His people back from Babylon, and one day He will bring all His chosen people back from captivity to Satan. “All Israel will be saved; just as it is written, ‘The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins’ ” (Rom. 11:26–27; cf. Isa. 27:9; 59:20–21). But before that great and wonderful day, disobedience, rejection, and tragedy would continue in Israel. The massacre of the little ones in Bethlehem signaled the start of terrifying conflict.
2:16–18 / Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had not returned to him with information about the newborn king. Immediately he ordered the death of all male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area who were two years old and under. His decision regarding age rested upon what he had learned from the Magi about the time the star had first appeared. It suggests that a number of months had intervened between the “rising” of the star in the east (2:2; cf. niv text note) and the return of the wise men to their own country. Undoubtedly Herod left a considerable margin for error. That Herod would carry out such a savage plan is not surprising. We already know that he murdered members of his own family, and, after all, Bethlehem was a tiny little village with not more than twenty or thirty children of that age. That Josephus the historian (or any other early writer) neglects to mention the slaughter tells us more about the cruelty of that day than it does about any lack of historicity of the event. Such purges were simply not noteworthy.
Once again Matthew finds prophetic background for the event. Jeremiah speaks of the weeping that took place in Ramah when Rachel mourned for her dead children (Jer. 31:15), giving a picture of the Israelites (Rachel’s children) filing by her grave at Ramah as they are led into captivity. Since the route to Babylon would lead the exiles north from Jerusalem, this has led to some confusion regarding the location of Ramah. If it is to be identified with Er-Ram, it would be located about six miles north of Jerusalem; if with Ramat Rahel, it would be on the road south from Jerusalem toward Bethlehem. Tradition has placed the burial place of Rachel near Bethlehem (cf. Gen. 35:19; 48:7). How then would the captives pass by on their way into exile? But is such geographical precision necessary? All we are intended to understand is that as Rachel mourned for her children, so also do the mothers of Bethlehem mourn for theirs.
Some have noted that the larger context of the Jeremiah passages is one of hope. The prophet goes on to say that the exiles will return (31:16) and “there is hope for your future” (31:17). God will bring his people back from captivity (31:23), refreshing the weary and satisfying the faint (31:25). Since a particular passage may intend the entire context (cf. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures, p. 126), Matthew may be pointing beyond the immediate sorrow to the final result of the Messiah’s entrance into the world. Beyond pain and death there is certain victory.
2:16–18. Herod would do anything to protect his own interests, including murdering children. Even though Herod the Great accomplished some wonderful achievements (such as major construction) during his reign, he is best known for his extreme paranoia and the bloodshed that ensued. The story of his slaughter of young boys in and around Bethlehem is consistent with the pattern of his life.
At the time of Herod’s slaughter of infant boys, Jesus must have been around one and one-half to two years old. Herod, in his paranoia, would have allowed for a margin of error in the estimate of the child’s age, ordering that the age range of those killed be high enough to include this king of the Jews (2:16). Demographers tell us there would have been perhaps two dozen boys two years old and under who were killed because of Herod’s obscene order. The weeping would have filled the night from Bethlehem to Ramah. Consider the arrogance of this man. He was observant enough to recognize the truth of Old Testament prophecies about God’s plan, but arrogant enough to think that he could thwart it! No created being, not even Lucifer, can thwart the plan of God. In this situation, God the Father intervened to protect his Son and to preserve our salvation.
The quote in 2:18 is from Jeremiah 31:15. Jeremiah prophesied during the decades leading up to and immediately following Judah’s fall to Babylon in 586 b.c. His ministry was one of proclaiming doom and judgment. However, he, like most Old Testament prophets, included a message of hope of forgiveness and restoration. Jeremiah 30–31 gives us a lengthy oracle focused on the future restoration of Judah. Even in this oracle of hope, Jeremiah occasionally mentions the sorrow and devastation of Judah, by way of contrast with the joy that would follow. Jeremiah’s specific prophecy relates to the captivity in Babylon and the killing of children during Babylon’s conquest of Judea. Its parallel here is striking.
The verse Matthew quoted regarding the children slaughtered by Herod is one of these sorrowful notes common in Jeremiah’s ministry. But in its original context it is immediately followed by, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,’ declares the Lord” (Jer. 31:16–17). Perhaps a number of bereaved parents in and around Bethlehem found comfort in the Lord’s promise, trusting, without understanding, that there was some kind of meaning behind their tragedy. Matthew probably intended his readers, familiar as they were with the Old Testament, to understand the context of hope in which this tragic verse was originally planted, and so to be led one step closer to finding hope in the Messiah.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 43–46). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 18–19). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 21–22). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.