The prophecy that begins with “A voice was heard in Ramah” is found in Jeremiah 31:15.
It says, “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
This prophecy is then quoted in Matthew 2:18 after King Herod orders the massacre of all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus.
To understand how Jesus fulfills this prophecy, we need to examine the context and meaning of Jeremiah 31:15.
Ramah was a town not far from Jerusalem that was used as a gathering point for exiles being taken to Babylon.
Rachel was one of the matriarchs of Israel and was buried near Ramah (Genesis 35:19). As the Jewish captives were marched past Rachel’s tomb on the way to exile, Jeremiah pictured Rachel figuratively weeping and mourning for her “children” – the people of Israel.
So the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15 foretold the mourning and grief that would take place during the Babylonian captivity.
However, Matthew sees this as a type or foreshadowing of the even greater mourning and weeping that would occur in Bethlehem after Herod’s edict to slaughter all the boys under two years old (Matthew 2:16-18).
Just as Rachel wept for her children taken into exile in Jeremiah’s day, the mothers of Bethlehem wept inconsolably for their murdered children in Matthew’s day.
The Bethlehem Massacre as a Recapitulation of National Exile
The massacre of the infants in Bethlehem recapitulated the national exile foretold in Jeremiah 31:15.
Just as Israel went into exile under the Babylonians, so the youngest generation in Bethlehem was violently “exiled” from life itself. And so the ache of exile was intensified into the brutal sorrow of death.
In both cases, whether exile or death, the act was initiated by an imperial ruler attempting to assert his own power and authority.
And in both cases, whether Babylon or Rome, God was using the imperial power to accomplish his own sovereign purposes – punishment in Jeremiah’s day, salvation in Matthew’s day.
But that very sovereignty and purpose meant that the exile and the massacre, though horrific, were only temporary sorrows.
The house of Israel would again be restored to the land: there was hope beyond exile. And the slaughtered infants, though dead, were only temporarily so: they would rejoice forever in the presence of God.
Jesus as the Embodiment of National Restoration
If Jeremiah’s prophecy of exile offers a type and foreshadowing of Matthew’s slaughter of the innocents, so also does Jeremiah’s prophecy of restoration find its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah 31 goes on to provide a glorious promise of the restoration and regeneration of Israel:
“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” (Jeremiah 31:16).
The Lord promises joy and gladness instead of sorrow. Hope instead of despair. Restoration instead of exile. Jeremiah continues:
“I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).
Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
“This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded…I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:15-16, 13).
Jesus is the ultimate cause of this comfort and joy, the final fulfillment of restoration.
He embodies the hope and regeneration promised by God through Jeremiah. Whereas Rachel and the mothers of Bethlehem weep for their dead children, Christ transforms weeping into joy.
His resurrection reverses the curse of death inaugurated in Eden and experienced throughout the Old Testament.
The fact that Matthew draws a parallel between Jeremiah’s prophecy and Herod’s massacre signals that he sees Jesus as bringing an end to the exile and a initiation of an eschatological age of restoration.
Jesus Restores Israel’s Fortune
In addition to embodying the comfort and hope promised after the weeping in Ramah, Jesus also fulfills this prophecy by restoring Israel’s fortune and reversing the circumstances that led to the exile in the first place.
The Babylonian captivity came about because of Israel’s idolatry and disobedience. The nation broke faith with God and violated the Mosaic covenant. God judged this unfaithfulness by sending foreign armies to conquer Jerusalem and take the people into exile.
But the prophets promised that one day God would restore the fortunes of Zion and regather his scattered people. He would bring them back into the land and cause them once again to dwell in safety and prosperity. The nation would be cleansed, forgiven, and renewed.
In his ministry, Jesus begins to fulfill these prophecies. He calls the lost sheep of Israel back into covenant relationship with God. He denounces sin and idolatry. He brings good news of forgiveness and restoration. He promises that the meek shall inherit the land (Matthew 5:5).
Those who put their faith in Jesus are given a new heart and new spirit, and restored to proper covenant standing before God. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus reconciles wayward Israel to their God and gives them eternal inheritance in the promised land of the new creation.
Although national Israel rejects Jesus and the fortunes of Zion are not fully and finally restored until Christ’s second coming, nonetheless the ministry of Jesus anticipates that restoration and guarantees its eventual fulfillment.
So Jesus fulfills the prophecy and promise of the reversal of the weeping and mourning in Ramah through his work of regenerating and restoring the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
The Ministry of Jesus Recapitulates Key Events in Israel’s History
We can see this pattern clearly when we realize that several key events in the life of Jesus mirror major events in Israel’s national history.
Like the slaying of Hebrew infants by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22), Herod slays the infants around Bethlehem. As Israel passed through the waters of judgment in the Red Sea, so Jesus passes through the waters of baptism. After Israel spent forty years in the wilderness, Jesus spends forty days being tempted in the wilderness.
And as Rachel mourned the exile of her children in Ramah, so the mothers of Bethlehem mourn the massacre of their children. In all these recapitulations, Jesus represents the redemption and restoration of Israel.
The infancy narrative in particular emphasizes Jesus as the innocent suffering servant – heir to the typologies of Isaac, Joseph, Moses, and Isaiah’s servant – who endure exile and death on behalf of his people.
The Ramah Prophecy Foreshadows Good Friday and Easter
The passage in Jeremiah about Rachel weeping over her children not only refers to the Babylonian captivity and Herod’s massacre. When understood in light of the life of Christ, it also points forward to his crucifixion and resurrection.
The mourning and lamentation prophesied by Jeremiah finds its ultimate expression in the weeping of the mothers and disciples of Jesus on Good Friday.
As Rachel mourns her “dead” children in Babylon, so the followers of Jesus mourn his death at the hands of the Romans. The inconsolable weeping over stolen and slaughtered children becomes the inconsolable weeping at the foot of the Roman cross.
But just as Jeremiah prophesies hope and restoration after the exile, so Jesus prophesies hope and restoration after the crucifixion. The resurrection of Christ replaces inconsolable weeping with irrepressible joy.
The Ramah prophecy is overturned as the curse of death is reversed into new life.
So the tear-stained eyes of Rachel eventually give way to the exclamation of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). Lamentation is transformed into delight.
The prophecy of “a voice heard in Ramah” weeping for her dead children initially referred to the Babylonian captivity, but gains its full meaning in light of the life of Jesus.
His birth recapitulates the story of Israel by reliving the horrors of Egyptian and Babylonian bondage.
The massacre of the innocents matches the agony of exile in Ramah. But Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection reverse the weeping by completing the restoration promised by the prophets.
The inconsolable grief of exile and captivity is transformed into the irrepressible joy of salvation and deliverance.