Approximately one million Jews live in Egypt under Roman rule, making it an excellent place for Jesus’ family to hide during Herod’s reign (Matt. 2:13–15). This sanctuary is necessary, the angel has told Joseph, because of Herod’s desire to kill the Christ child. He does not want to bend his knee to the Messiah, despite what he has said to the magi (v. 8). Unfortunately, Matthew Henry comments, “the greatest wickedness often conceals itself under a mask of piety.”
Today’s passage describes Herod’s attempt to eliminate the One who has legitimate claim to his throne. In order to cover all of his bases and ensure that Jesus is eliminated, Herod orders the slaughter of every boy ages two and younger in Bethlehem and its surrounding region (v. 16). Herod derives this age span by adding the time since the star’s first appearance (and hence, Jesus’ birth, v. 7) and a window of a few extra months.
Bethlehem’s population is small, and twenty or fewer children are killed under Herod’s purge. This horrible act is in line with the same cruelty and paranoia that drove the evil king to kill a brother-in-law, wife, and three sons when he thought they might take his throne. Herod will also arrange to have the most beloved men in Palestine killed after he dies to guarantee that someone will mourn at the time of his death, though this order will not be carried out.
As with Jesus’ flight into Egypt, Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s toddlers fulfills prophecy. Matthew 2:18 quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, a passage describing how the mothers of Israel (personified here in Rachel, matriarch of the nation) mourned when their children, the tribes of Israel, were carried into exile. However, the rest of Jeremiah’s chapter is hopeful, predicting a day when God will rescue His people from exile and inaugurate a new covenant. In quoting this passage, Matthew tells us two things. First, in Matthew’s day the people are still enduring the suffering of exile even though they are living in their own land. Second, this exile will end with Jesus. The tears of Bethlehem’s mothers over their murdered children fill up and end the suffering of exile because the One who will bring in the new covenant has arrived.
Herod is one example of all those who have tried to destroy the Christ and His people. Though this evil king did much harm, he was in the end unable to thwart the plans of the Father for His Son. We too can be sure that even when the church suffers persecution at home and abroad, God’s kingdom will never be overcome. Pray today for believers who are suffering for their faith that they will remember the Lord’s victory and stand firm for His Gospel.
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