[K:NWTS 1/3 (Dec 1986) 4-16]
Christmas is the festival of the revolution. Rather, it is that of the divine revolution. The old is past. All is new. The old relationships are altered. The rich are sent away empty, but the poor are filled with good things. All is revolution.
The revolution has pervaded the life of Israel as a nation. The fleshly Israel is supplanted; the spiritual Israel is raised. This is what we see this morning.
The murder of children at Bethlehem can be viewed from various perspectives; for example, the meaning it has for Herod, for the mothers, which children are killed and so forth. Today we view it as a symbol. It is the revolution of God. That is noteworthy because the people love revolution–except when God makes revolution. Then they are all together "anti-revolutionary."
Rachel will not be comforted. But there is comfort here for us: the beginning of the holy dominion. We must understand that clearly. We are not here this morning to dwell on the person of Rachel, Jacob's wife. After all, you know that Rachel herself does not weep. The dead know not of earthly things.
Even less may we pronounce a verdict concerning the lot of the children. Rome speaks here about the baptism of blood; others about the martyrs; we leave it with God. This is something different.
Rachel mourned for her children. That weeping is fulfilled here and that has occurred right after the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. But that word is also prophetic because we find it in Jeremiah. How does Jeremiah come to this word? In order to understand that, we must return to Genesis.
Three times in Scripture, Rachel's tears are mentioned: in Genesis, in Jeremiah and in Matthew. It is not by chance that Rachel is also spoken of in Matthew chapter two. It must have meaning.
Rachel's tears form a section of history. Rachel's tears begin with the Old Testament (Genesis) and they end with the New Testament (Matthew). Rachel's tears first flowed when the promise of the seed of Abraham was given. Rachel's tears are last noted when the promise to Abraham's seed was fulfilled.
First of all, we shall trace the history. Genesis first mentions Rachel's sorrow. Rachel is the wife of Jacob–the wife of his love. Jacob has gone into exile, served seven years with Laban and has served yet another seven. In point of fact, he did not render service for Leah. Rather it was for Rachel that seven years were duplicated. And when Rachel came into Jacob's tent for the first time, he thought, "Now the sunshine has entered." But in an irony of history, it was just through this that he further felt the visiting hand of God. Rachel's entry is the beginning of Jacob's troubles. Ever since the woman he loved came to live in his house, a continual somber threat–a cloud of misery–hung over his dwelling.
Rachel is the weeping wife. She knew this: "I am Jacob's chosen. I am exalted above Leah because he loves me." She has a strong compulsion to grin and gloat over her sister. She shall avenge the deceit. However God acted differently. He withheld the child-blessing from her. Rachel remained childless.
It remained so for a time. Leah became a fortunate mother. Rachel did not. Her daily life passes in adversity. Presently the fire of jealousy is kindled. Then an unholy competition commenced between the two sisters. Rachel wrings her hands in despair. She comes storming into Jacob's tent with unreasonable demands. She takes recourse to a deed of desperation and gives her slave Bilhah to Jacob. All these wrestlings characterize Rachel's sorrow: Leah the mother with the proud smile; Rachel the wife with tears. The youngest, the prettiest and his well-beloved, that appeared to be a beautiful adventure–a victory over the sister. But the beautiful dream was cruelly disturbed. Rachel proposes; God disposes.
Once Rachel is humbled long enough, God gives her a son also–Joseph. In a moment, Rachel's stream of tears appears to dry up. She now has a child herself. In a moment, the still laughter is allowed to come upon her for the son is her son. But the joy does not last long. Joseph is born at the end of Jacob's sojourn in Paddan-aram. Jacob breaks camp. He journeys to Canaan. Already Rachel dreams of a beautiful life. She shall see her child–and others as they are born–in the land of promise.
But no! Before the end of the trip, Rachel shall die! As the caravan of Jacob comes between Bethel and Ephrata, she dies.
Again, a child is born to her. A second son! How she has longed for this greeting and expectation. Her opprobrium is removed. She dreams, "More sons shall follow." Rachel proposes; God disposes.
Rachel must die! And as her soul departs, she beholds the little child. Her weak mouth lisps something. Someone asks her what she wants to say. Listen! She stammers out the name of the child: "Ben-Oni!" Son of my sorrow.
That word is the summary of Rachel's death statement. Her sorrow completely fills her in her death. She has desired children in order to glory in them. And now–now she may scarcely present her sons next to Leah's, and she has to leave. "Thus I have suffered in vain! Ben-Oni. I have yet to see the land of promise–yet to see the growth of my sons. Now I have children, but what have I next? I have joy, but must now relinquish it. Ben-Oni. My sorrow embodies itself in this son!"
Thus Rachel dies—not with the smile of faith, but with the tears of a disillusioned life. This is the last word that we know of her. Rachel's tears! How great they are! What a tragedy. Who understands them? Not her children–they are too young; not Leah; not Jacob apparently. After all, he even alters her last will. He changes the name to Benjamin. Jacob will not crystallize the tears of Rachel.
Then do her tears go with her to the grave? The tears of Rachel make an impression on us who read about the situation. Ben-Oni–that is not a confession of faith, but a confession of pain. For those who read it, the power of the tragedy goes away.
Rachel is the first mother in Scripture who dies giving birth to her child. Her deathbed is soaked in tears. She remains standing in Israel as a salt pillar of the spirit. One who considers Rachel's grave considers Rachel's tears. Is this why Israel is so carefully concerned with Rachel's grave?
The weeping Rachel must needs address weeping people. Hence, the prophet Jeremiah will not let the story of Rachel escape the mind. Jeremiah and Rachel–the prophet of tears and the mother of tears. Not unjustly have people named Jeremiah the prophet of tears in the dominion of tears. For example, we read, "I am broken with the breaking of the daughter of my people" (Jer. 8:21). "Oh that my head was water; my eye a fountain of tears; thus I might weep day and night for those of my people who are slain" (Jer. 9:1). We read again (9:l7bff.): "Call the women mourners; they must commence wailing . . . that our eyes may run down with tears and our eyelids may spout water." And in Jeremiah 13:17, it states: "If you do not hearken, then my soul shall weep in hidden places; my eye shall weep bitter tears; yea, tears shall run down." To conclude with one more, we read in Jeremiah 14:17: "My eyes shall run down with tears day and night, and not cease." Jeremiah has written the songs of Lamentations–one song of tears in which he curses his birthday. Is it any wonder then that Jeremiah thinks about Rachel?
Laughter forgets laughter, but tears do not forget tears. So it is that Jeremiah speaks about Rachel's tears. The words of Jeremiah are now quoted by Matthew. One finds in Jeremiah 31:15: "There is a voice in Ramah; a lamentation; a very bitter cry; Rachel is weeping over her children; she refuses to be comforted about her children because they are not."
What will Jeremiah say here? It is a high literary image. He pictures the misery. The ten tribes–the dominion of Ephraim–have been transported. Ephraim is the foremost tribe. All ten tribes are named after him and Ephraim is a son of Joseph. Furthermore, Joseph is a son of Rachel. Consequently, Rachel's children are those being transported.
The writer puts matters as if Rachel rose again from the grave. She cries on high, with louder voice. She sees her children gone into exile–her children. Even now, she has no portion in Israel. So she has borne children in vain. In her life, she has wept over Benjamin, Ben-Oni. Presently Benjamin is bound with Judah and still not exiled. But that shall very quickly come to pass also.
Yet presently, Joseph's offspring are transplanted–Joseph of whom she was so proud. Her deathbed pain lives again. Not once, but twice it is true: "Ben-Oni"–"son of my sorrow." Everything is now sorrow. She has suffered, fought and borne children in vain. For the second time Rachel's tears are mentioned. Yet it does not end.
Rachel's tears are named a third time–in Matthew. Rachel's affliction is then fulfilled: "Then is fulfilled, that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying: 'Rachel mourns her children and would not be comforted.'" Her pain is made full. Her despair has risen to the top.
The occasion is famous! It is a gruesome story–the murder of children in Bethlehem.
Herod's rage . . .
He tries to destroy the innocent
By the murder of innocent souls;
And causes weeping in town and country:
In Bethlehem and on the field;
And awakens the spirit of Rachel
Which haunts through field and pasture.
Then to the west, then to the east;
Who shall comfort that sad mother,
Now that she misses her dear children?
Now she who sees them suffocate in blood;
They perish who hardly have been born–
And so many swords colored with crimson.
She sees the milk on the tips
Of the deadly pale and whitened lips,
Wrenched freshly from mother's breast,
She sees little tears hang
As dew and drops on the cheeks;
She sees them filthy, in blood besoiled.
Who can describe the misery and distress,
And count so many young flowers
Who withered early, before they even
Had their fresh leaves open;
And smell sweet for everyone
And in the morning dream of breast-milk?
–"Rey van Klaerissen," from Gysbrecht
van Amstel by Joost vanden Vondel
Weeping mothers in Bethlehem! "Well now," says Matthew, "Don't you see it? If Rachel saw it, she would cry again. Just as the pain of Rachel lived again in Jeremiah's days and inflicted itself newly on the prophet, so it does at present."
The disappointment of Rachel with her death is also present. The same pain which Rachel lived through is present. By her death, she has borne children in vain. In Jeremiah's day, she bore children in vain. In Bethlehem's fields, she has borne children in vain.
But there is a peculiar difficulty. Is it actually Rachel that must weep? What about Leah? In fact, the children of Bethlehem are children of Leah. Judah is a son of Leah.
Thus we allow that Rachel is not concerned here as the mother of these mothers who cry with her. That is impossible. We must seek another explanation. The question is only resolved in the judgment that Matthew himself gives. Matthew actually refers us back to Jeremiah. Jeremiah points out the symbolism that he is in the patriarchal tent. Everything has a typical character! Thus Paul places over against each other Sarah and Hagar as types of the Jerusalem above and the Jerusalem below.
What is Rachel's weeping, properly speaking? It is a weeping from self-interest. She weeps concerning children. She wants children for children's sake; not to establish God's will. Rachel has committed a great sin. She has resisted the advent-notion in the patriarchal tent. She is the spiritual seed; the spiritual blessing is past.
So we come to our second thought–the origin of the weeping. She weeps about children. She mourns children. Children! that is everything to her. In this way Rachel is a type. That is apparent already in Genesis.
Was it wrong, that longing for children? Surely it is exactly in the children-blessing that the power of the promise is found. Children were promised by God. But why? For Christ's desire. "In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed," God told Abraham. God spoke about the spiritual seed. Hence the children were God's honor. All those born in Jacob's tent must serve God. As his promise is fulfilled, all proceeds well.
But Rachel does not know this. She has no eye for Christ in the tent. Unworthily, she serves her own self, as in the game with the household images. The children are for Rachel's sake and her own honor is at the center. "Wrestlings of God," she says in the naming of Naphtali. But it is wrestling with the Devil.
Every mother with awareness knows: "In eternity I cannot love my children as such. Children are thus not the ultimate end. Hence, I must love eternity through the children."
There was even greater rationale in Jacob's tent. It serves to be a blessing for all people–so sounds the promise. The child here is more than the mother. It serves for a spiritual childhood. In reality, Rachel has only a view to the fleshly childhood. Rachel has a temporal love in her children. In them, she has a self-love. She buries the advent-notion under feminine greed and envy. She weeps as the temporal perishes. She has no eye for the eternal.
It is true with her deathbed. It is true in Jeremiah's days. It is true here. The child-slaughter in Bethlehem is a portent of the falling of fleshly Israel and the rising of spiritual Israel.
The children themselves surely stand outside the center. But God sees that Israel as a fleshly people exists for Christ's sake; that those in Jacob's tent bear children, not for Jacob, not for Rachel, but only for Christ. And that is the notion that Rachel does not accept. Rachel is a symbol–a symbol of Israel who will not spare her own glory. One cannot find that in their purpose as a people. It is forgotten that the purpose only exists in servitude to Christ.
See, Rachel must needs have been able to die joyfully. She was allowed to have served God's counsel. She was allowed to have borne children. God's purpose was disposed. She could then depart.
So it was that Israel must needs be able to die. She had the possibility of serving God's counsel. She had the possibility of serving the Son. God's purpose was disposed. But neither Rachel nor Israel understood that.
I said to the Lord, "Thou art my God;
Give ear, O Lord, to the voice of my supplications.
As for the head of those who surround me,
May the mischief of their lips cover them."
We finally see the passion of her tears: "She will not be comforted." The weeping mothers in Bethlehem–the passionate wailing: it is prophecy and immediate fulfillment. Fulfilling Rachel's passion, they are also incapable of comfort. The prophecy of Judaism weeping; Judaism shall repeat the angel's song. Peace on earth: that is their grief. Peace in Palestine: that had been better; under the people of well-being; under the Jews of well-being. Thus they had wished.
Therefore the honor of their God is not sounded this day; rather a bitter lamentation. That is portrayed in the weeping of the mothers.
Leah's tears can be dried. She also did not weep in Jeremiah's days, for with the temporal perishing, the spiritual comfort abides. But who shall comfort Rachel? Further than the flesh she said nothing. Thus her purpose is given with the purpose of the temporal blessings. The heart of the matter is the sin of appropriating to ourselves the fruits of religious life instead of appropriating them for God; ourselves the purpose instead of God.
Rachel's trail of tears is not ended. It is frequently retraced. We naturally think about mothers who have lost a child. How do you assess this? It is still not the main thought of the text. On the contrary, it is only a slight application. The chief matter is the sin of preserving and cherishing our flesh when God comes to crucify it.
Rachel's pain is yet in the world. It lives in Judaism. It cannot forgive Jesus that the children are dead for the sake of his will. Many also outside of Judaism cry Rachel's tears. If Jesus takes something away, they cry and stamp their feet. Rachel's pain is a crisis for many because we all suffer with Rachel's illness. But a crisis yields to either good or evil.
As it goes for evil, men will refuse to be comforted. Note well–we do not refuse to comfort ourselves; rather we refuse to be comforted. We are thankful to be angry.
As it goes for good, we shall indeed be comforted. We cry to God. We can be far from Christ and yet suffer on account of him–in our self–in our families. It is Rachel's pain. Are you not acquainted with it? Do not deceive yourself. Jesus Christ comes to tear up your fleshly well-being, and that requires sacrifice. That costs pain and pain is not that of arguing away a text. Christ asks the sacrifice. If you push yourself to the forefront, he puts you to the side. He does that when you hold to the flesh rather than the Spirit.
Rachel had an obligation to serve God in child-bearing. But she made her calling a right for Rachel herself. Religion, that is, God-service, must serve her. So it is with many people. They will gladly serve God, but only for their own sake. Such religion overtakes us as well.
Do you know Rachel's sorrow? Because you recognize Rachel's sin as your own? How is the crisis in your life? Has it humbled you or hardened you? Do you remain in Rachel's sorrow? Rachel will not be comforted. She will not relinquish her own honor. At this point, punishment is sealed and it gets worse.
In Genesis, we see Rachel die and her children live. Our joy makes the sting possible. In Jeremiah we read that Rachel's children go into exile. Our joy departs from us. In Matthew, it happens that our joy dies.
God shall wipe all tears from the eyes–except Rachel's tears. She does not want that. She dies in sin. Do you conquer Rachel's sorrow? Do you allow yourself comforting? If you see God's counsel in Christ, put the spiritual over the material, serving God and not your own honor.
In Jeremiah it states: "Control your tears." Jeremiah says, "The sadness is great, yet gladness shall come out of it." There is an expectation for descendants. It is present here as well. Even as Rachel is incapable of comforting, still it is said, "Control your tears." There is expectation. It is the spiritual Israel.
A dread travels through history. Often we come upon the same performance. We find the tears of Rachel through the ages. We also find the tears of Rachel in our days–the loss of the material for the gain of spiritual salvation in Christ. The tears of Rachel become crucifixion tears. Rachel is crucified on Christ [i.e., in stumbling over the cross of Christ]–Jesus Christ is not crucified for her. Rachel is presently regarded as a symbol, not an individual.
There is still something else in the history: the laughter of Sarah. Not the unbelieving laughter, but the believing laughter. The Lord has made me laugh. There was melancholy and laughter; a quiet tear and a happy laugh. From this, Christ is born! The two intersect in Mary.
Mary! She is the anti-image of the non-comforted Rachel. Rachel weeps and weeps and weeps. She cannot stand comfort-preaching because she does not want to receive comfort. But Mary is able to elicit the word of comfort for us because she desires to be comforted. And those who are able to understand Mary's tears are able because they have understood the tears of her great Son. The ministry of comfort is heard from her mouth. The same ministry she heard from her Son; the same which she directs on behalf of this Son to the later family–also of weeping mothers: Sorrowing mothers, mark this truly:
Sorrowing mothers, mark this truly:
Your children die martyrs,
And first fruits of the seed,
That from your blood begins to grow,
And shall bloom gloriously to God's honor,
And not perish by tyranny.
Preached December 29, 1918 at Vlaardingen, The Netherlands
Translated from Preken I, K. Schilder Verzamelde Werken (1957) and printed here with the kind permission of the publisher Oosterbaan & Le Cointre B.V., Goes, The Netherlands
Stuart Jones is Pastor of First Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland
The translation of the poems has been revised and improved by Nicolaas Van Dam of Fallbrook, California