Matthew presents the student of Scripture with several interpretive problems in the second chapter of his Gospel. As we pointed out in lesson 2 of this series, Matthew refers to the Old Testament Scriptures four times in chapter 2. Only one of these references can be viewed as a direct prophecy which is fulfilled by the events surrounding our Lord’s birth. That would be Matthew’s reference to the prophecy of Micah 5:2 in Matthew 2:6. Micah’s prophecy that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah was so clear and direct that even the unbelieving religious scholars in Jerusalem recognized it for what it was.
The other three references to the Old Testament in Matthew 2 are not direct prophecy as we would expect. For example, the reference to Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is not regarded as a direct prophecy/fulfillment. Matthew regards the return of Jesus from His “exile” in Egypt as the “fulfillment” of Hosea’s words, “I called my Son out of Egypt.” Matthew 2:23 is perhaps the most perplexing Old Testament reference because there is no Old Testament text that indicates Jesus “would be called a Nazarene.” The text we have chosen to focus upon is that of Jeremiah 31:15, cited as being fulfilled by the events of Matthew 2:16-18:48
13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (Matthew 2:13-18).49
Several questions emerge from Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 in relation to Herod’s slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem. Some of these concentrate upon Matthew’s use of the Old Testament Scriptures. Other questions arise regarding God’s sovereignty and human suffering. How do we explain the suffering that occurred in connection with our Lord’s birth and escape to Egypt? Was this a necessity? Why did God allow it, when it could have been prevented?
How did Matthew intend for his readers to understand the connection between Herod’s slaughter of the infants in 2:16-18 and Jeremiah’s words in 31:15? In some ways, these infants would seem to be about as “innocent” as a person could be. Why, then, did Matthew describe this atrocity as an event that was destined to take place, because God purposed it would happen?
This lesson, while occasioned by the events of Matthew 2:16-18, will seek to find an answer to the problem our text poses from a broader scriptural and theological base. The purpose of this lesson will be to gain a better perspective of suffering and particularly what might be called “innocent suffering.” We shall seek to learn how and why God chooses to include “innocent suffering” in His sovereign will. We will therefore begin our study by looking at other biblical texts, and end by coming back to Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18.
18 For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.
Paul has demonstrated that man is sinful and deserving of God’s eternal wrath, whether the standard men fail is the revelation of God in nature (Romans 1), or the revelation of God in the Law of Moses (Romans 2). The Law does not save anyone, but only establishes man’s guilt, because no one is able to live up to the Law’s demands (Romans 3:1-20). Since man cannot earn salvation by his works, God has provided salvation apart from works, through faith in Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death for those who trust in Him (Romans 3:21-31). Salvation by faith is nothing new; it is the way Abraham and every other Old Testament saint was saved (Romans 4).
In Romans 5, Paul spells out some of the benefits of the salvation God brought about in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ. It is noteworthy that the first benefit Paul mentions is related to suffering:
1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation (Romans 5:1-11, emphasis mine).
God’s salvation in Jesus Christ endures all adversity; indeed, we can rejoice in our adversity, knowing that it will only strengthen our faith and assurance of eternal life. This salvation in Christ accomplishes the reversal of Adam’s fall and the curse for every believer. What Adam did, God undid in Christ, and more (5:12-21).
God’s salvation in Christ is no license to sin; indeed, it is the motivation and the basis for godly living. After all, we who have been identified with Christ by faith have thereby died to sin, and thus should no longer live in sin (Romans 6:1-14). We should not only understand that we are free from sins’ former bondage, we should realize that the wages of sin is death, so we certainly don’t wish to continue on that path (6:15-23). In Christ, we have not only died to sin, we have died to the Law, which frees us to live in liberty through the Holy Spirit (7:1-7). The Law is not the root problem, however; sin is. Our flesh (our natural human strength) is not sufficient to overpower sin, so sin always gets the best of us when we strive in our own efforts (7:8-25).
The solution to the power of sin is the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ are no longer under condemnation, and they are no longer to be dominated by sin. They have the power to achieve what could not be done in the flesh (the righteous requirements of the Law being fulfilled in us) but can be done through the Spirit. The very same Spirit that raised the dead body of our Lord from the grave now lives in us, and He can give life to our mortal bodies. Everyone who is a true believer in Christ has the Spirit of God living in him, and furthermore He assures us that we are the “sons of God” (8:1-17).
One might think that when we come to Romans 8:18, Paul is about to tell us that all of life will now be a “bed of roses,” that having the Holy Spirit in us assures us that all pain and suffering will end. Such is not the case. In verses 18-30, Paul does exactly the opposite. He assures us that every human being will experience “suffering and groaning” in this life because of the fall of man and the curse that resulted. The “whole creation groans and suffers together till now,” Paul writes (8:22). The chaos and the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin will not be removed until the return of our Lord and “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19). At this time, God will “redeem our bodies and adopt us as sons” (8:23). At that time we will, with all creation, be fully and finally freed from our bondage to corruption (8:21).
If the whole world suffers and groans, the Christian does so even more. It is the Christian who has tasted of eternal life, and who already have “the firstfruits of the Spirit” (8:22). We not only long for the time when God will make all things new, but we agonize over the sin-broken world in which we now live. Nevertheless we are to wait for this day with eagerness and endurance (8:25).
Salvation in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit do not keep us from suffering; they keep us through suffering. The Spirit strengthens and sustains us, assuring us of our sonship. The Spirit communicates for us, when we cannot put words to our groanings (8:26-27). The same God who delivered us from the penalty and the power of sin will someday deliver us from the presence of sin. Until that day, His Spirit sustains us in suffering.
To summarize, suffering is the common experience of man, because we live in a sin-cursed world. God has given us all the resources we need to endure the sufferings of life and to bring us to His predetermined goal for our lives. We can endure suffering because God has given us His Holy Spirit, to comfort and to assure us that we are His sons, and to communicate to us and for us. Christians are not exempt from suffering, but because of our new life and eternal hope, we agonize as we “suffer and groan” with all creation, waiting for the day of our Lord’s return. If this kind of suffering does anything for us, it makes us hunger for heaven:
16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
1 Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but he was born blind so that the acts of God may be revealed through what happens to him. 4 We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 Having said this, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the saliva. He smeared the mud on the blind man’s eyes 7 and said to him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated “sent”). So the blind man went away and washed, and came back seeing.
We all remember the story of Job and his “comfortless friends.” They counseled Job on the basis of a false assumption: that suffering is always the direct result of sin. Even our Lord’s disciples seemed to buy into this false thinking. As they were walking along, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. I doubt that the disciples would have noticed him if Jesus hadn’t first taken note of this man.50 The disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, this man or his parents.51 It never seems to have occurred to them that this man might not have been suffering because of some sin in his life, or in the lives of his parents.
This was a tempting explanation for human suffering, and perhaps this is why it was so commonly accepted. On the one hand, it made suffering explainable, even tolerable. It is relatively easy to embrace the explanation that says people suffer because they get what they deserve. It rules out the possibility of innocent suffering, the most difficult kind of suffering to explain. On the other hand, it is an easy explanation to accept because it relieves us of the responsibility to help those who are suffering. If those who suffer do so because they have sinned, then suffering is divine judgment for sin. If God is imposing divine punishment on the afflicted, who am I to come to their aid? I would be resisting God’s purposes.
It is hard to imagine how this blind man must have felt, being the subject of this conversation. How well he knew that most people made the same assumption. Jesus responded to His disciples’ question in a way that must have shocked them. He told them that this man’s blindness from birth was not due to sin, not his personal sin, nor the sin of his parents. Instead, Jesus declared that this man’s blindness provided the occasion for God’s works to be revealed through him.52 If I was that blind man, my ears would be straining to hear what would happen next. After declaring that He was the “light of the world,” Jesus spit on the ground and took some of this “mud” and placed it on the blind man’s eyes, instructing him to wash in the pool of Siloam. He did just that and came away with his sight.
Let this miracle be a word of instruction and of caution to all of us. Suffering is not always the direct result of personal sin. We certainly know of many instances where sin and suffering go hand-in-hand. This seems to be the case with the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda in John 5. Jesus took the initiative in healing this fellow, and then slipped away. The paralytic made his way home with his mat, thus technically violating the Sabbath. For this he was accosted by the “religious police,” who accused him of breaking the law. When he told them about his healing, they insisted on knowing who had done this – that, too, was “breaking the Sabbath” in their minds. The man did not know who it was who had healed him, so he could not tell them. Jesus then found this man, and said to him,
“Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” 15 The man went away and informed the Jewish authorities that Jesus was the one who had made him well (John 5:14b-15).
The man immediately went to the “Jewish authorities” and reported to them that it was Jesus who had healed him. Apparently this man’s suffering was due to sin, and thus our Lord’s warning to him not to persist in his sin. Instead of taking heed and forsaking his sin, he compounded it by reporting that Jesus had healed him.
Sin-related sickness is also mentioned in James 5, where James instructs the one who is sick to call for the elders of the church and to confess his sins (James 5:14-16). Sin is sometimes the cause of our suffering,53 but not always. In the case of the man born blind, suffering provided the occasion for God’s works to be displayed.
1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such an individual I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. 6 For even if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I would be telling the truth, but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, 7 even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations. Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
The Scriptures contain many examples of how God uses suffering in the lives of men for their good. We can see how God used the suffering of the man born blind to bring him to faith (see John 9:35-38). A number of those who came to our Lord for healing went away believing. God also uses suffering in the life of the believer, for his or her good.
In 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul continues to wage war against the “false apostles” (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13) by reluctantly comparing himself with them (see 2 Corinthians 11:21-29). In chapter 12, Paul speaks of being “caught up to the third heaven” (12:2), to paradise, where he heard “things too sacred to put into words” (12:4). These are the kinds of things in which one might glory and come to take pride in, so God gave Paul a “thorn in the flesh.” This affliction ultimately came from God, but was administered through a “messenger of Satan” (12:7). Paul appealed to God, asking three times to be delivered. Each time, God refused Paul’s request, reminding him that “His grace was enough,” because His “power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
Paul’s thorn in the flesh not only kept him humble, it kept him humanly weak, so that God’s power would be evident in his life. Suffering kept Paul from the sin of spiritual pride and kept him dependent on the power of Christ through His Spirit. This gave Paul a very different view of his afflictions:
10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).
In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of another blessing that God brought him through suffering:
7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because of having my own righteousness derived from the law, but because of having the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
Paul had once been a Jewish legalist, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and a zealous Pharisee (3:5). His experience on the road to Damascus and subsequent conversion showed him his sin of self-righteousness and his need for salvation by faith, apart from religious works. As a child of God, Paul now had a completely different outlook. He came to see that all the things in which he took pride were really useless – or to use his words, “dung” (verse 9). While he once viewed suffering as God’s curse on the sinner (much like the disciples did in John 9), he now saw suffering as a blessing. Paul now experienced in his sufferings for Christ a fellowship with Christ which enabled him to know Christ more intimately. How many Christians have testified the same thing about their sufferings? They have found in suffering a greater intimacy with Christ, a greater faith, a greater joy than they had previously known in physical ease. Suffering in the life of the saint is designed to draw us nearer to God because of our enhanced fellowship with Christ, whose suffering brought us to God.
Old Testament saints likewise found comfort and growth in their sufferings. We see this in Psalm 119:
65 You are good to your servant,
O Lord, just as you promised.
66 Teach me proper discernment and understanding!
For I consider your commands to be reliable.
67 I used to suffer because I would stray off,
but now I keep your instructions.
68 You are good and you do good.
Teach me your statutes!
69 Arrogant people smear my reputation with lies,
but I observe your precepts with all my heart.
70 They are calloused,
but I find delight in your law.
71 It was good for me to suffer,
so that I might learn your statutes.
72 The law you have revealed is more important to me
than thousands of gold and silver shekels. (Yod)
92 If I had not found encouragement in your law,
I would have died in my sorrow (Psalm 119:65-72, 92).
The psalmist found that his suffering was a form of divine discipline in his life, which caused him to give closer heed to God’s Word. This psalmist was not an exception. Asaph testified that his suffering drew him nearer to God, while prosperity only made the wicked arrogant and proud (Psalm 73). Job learned much about God in his affliction. Above all, he learned to trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty. The writer to the Hebrews informs us that the suffering of divine discipline is evidence that we are His sons (Hebrews 12:1-13).
We all remember the story of how Joseph’s brothers, prompted by jealousy and hatred toward this favorite son of Jacob, sold their brother into slavery in Egypt. There in Egypt, Joseph continued to experience suffering at the hand of others, not because of sin on his part, but because of his faithfulness to God. When Joseph was elevated to power in Egypt, he named his sons in such a way as to indicate that he saw the good hand of God in his life (Genesis 41:46-52). Thus, when his brothers came to Egypt seeking grain, Joseph was free to deal kindly with them, even though it did not appear this way in the beginning.54 When Joseph’s brothers repented of their sin, he revealed his true identity to them. Quite naturally, they were frightened, assuming that he would use his power to get even with them for their sin against him. His brothers did not yet understand God’s good purposes in suffering, even “innocent suffering,” but Joseph did:
7 God sent me ahead of you to preserve you on the earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. 8 So now, it is not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me an adviser to Pharaoh, lord over all his household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Now go up to my father quickly and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay. 10 You will live in the land of Goshen, and you will be near me—you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and everything you have. 11 I will provide you with food there, because there will be five more years of famine. Otherwise you would become poor—you, your household, and everyone who belongs to you”‘ (Genesis 45:7-11, emphasis mine).
18 Then his brothers also came and threw themselves down before him; they said, “Here we are; we are your slaves.” 19 But Joseph answered them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day. 21 So now, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your little children.” Then he consoled them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:18-21, emphasis mine).
Therefore, innocent suffering is not only for our good, but also for the good of others.55
In 1 Samuel 21, David is fleeing from King Saul, who is seeking to kill him. David and his men were in need of food so David went to Nob, where Ahimelech the priest was staying. Ahimelech sensed that something must be wrong when David came to him alone. David deceived the priest, telling him that he had come on a secret mission from King Saul, and that no one was to know about it (21:1-2). David asked Ahimelech for bread, and he was given some of the holy bread. Ahimelech also gave David Goliath’s sword, which he had taken from him when he killed him. It so happened that Doeg the Edomite, one of Saul’s men, was there that day and observed what took place. Later, Doeg reported to Saul what he had seen, and as a result, Saul ordered the death of many priests and their families:
16 But the king said, “You will surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house! 17 Then the king said to the messengers who were stationed beside him, “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord. For they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, but they did not inform me.” But the king’s servants refused to harm the priests of the Lord. 18 Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike down the priests.” So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests. He killed on that day eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. 19 As for Nob, the city of the priests, he struck down with the sword men and women, children and infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep—all with the sword (1 Samuel 22:16-19).
We know from David’s response to this tragedy that he felt responsible for the deaths of the priests and their families (1 Samuel 22:21-23). The guilt was not due to David asking Ahimelech for bread, for our Lord seems to have indicated this was legitimate (see Matthew 12:3-4). It is unclear whether David’s lie was a factor in this tragedy, but it is clear that all these people ultimately died because of Saul’s jealousy. The sin of one man (Saul) and the attempt of another (David) to feed his men led to the death of many “innocent” people.56
While David may have been guiltless in the death of the priests of Nob, his sin was the cause of the death of his child in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. While the army of Israel went to war, David stayed at home in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 11:1). As a result, David happened to look down on a young woman while she was bathing and then inquired about her. Even after David learned she was married to one of his faithful soldiers, David summoned her to his palace and slept with her. He then sought to cover his sin by ordering Joab, his commander, to put Uriah in the hottest part of the battle, and then to draw back from him. David was confronted by Nathan for his sin and was told that the child conceived through this illicit union would die. In spite of David’s repentance and petitions, God did take the life of this child. This “innocent” child died as the result of David’s sin. Innocent people sometimes suffer because of the sins of others.
I would briefly point out that it is not always possible to assess a single cause of suffering. Life is not that simple, and neither is sin. In 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21, we read of the plague that is sent upon the Israelites because David foolishly numbered the people, even against the counsel of his trusted servants, Joab and the commanders of his army (2 Samuel 24:3-4). On the one hand, we see that 70,000 of David’s men died because of his folly (2 Samuel 24:15). We see also from the account in 1 Chronicles 21 (verse 1) that Satan stood up against Israel, moving David to number Israel. So Satan, too, plays a role in this disaster. But from 2 Samuel 24:1, we learn that the situation was even more complicated than that:
The Lord’s anger again raged against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go count Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 24:1).
From these words, we see that God was behind this entire event, which should come as no surprise to the Christian. But what we also learn is that God “incited David” because He was angry with Israel. Thus, the Israelites were not really innocent; they were guilty, and God brought this about to chasten the nation for its sin. Suffering is often the result of a complex set of causes, all of which eventually are rooted in man’s sin.
It should probably be noted at this point that no one, not even babies, are truly “innocent” in the sense that they are completely free of sin. David said it long ago:
Look, I was prone to do wrong from birth;
I was a sinner the moment my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).
Paul reaffirms this by citing Old Testament texts in Romans 3:
10 just as it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one,
11 there is no one who understands,
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
The only man who has ever been born free from sin and who has lived a perfect life is our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone could say,
Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)
He alone was the spotless, unblemished Lamb of God, whose shed blood cleanses men of their sins:
17 And if you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each one’s work, live out the time of your temporary residence here in reverence. 18 You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, you were ransomed—not by perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:17-21).
When we speak of “innocent suffering,” we must therefore do so in a qualified way. Only our Lord suffered innocently. Everyone else who suffers does so as a sinner. When we speak of “innocent suffering,” then, we speak of suffering that is not directly due to personal sin, but sin that is due to the sin of others.
When it comes to those who suffer in relative innocence, we find great comfort in God’s Word. Consider the conversation between Abraham and God, in reference to the impending judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah:
16 When the men got up to leave, they looked out over Sodom. (Now Abraham was walking with them to see them on their way.) 17 Then the Lord said, “Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 After all, Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations on the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using his name. 19 I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. Then the Lord will give to Abraham what he promised him.” 20 So the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so blatant 21 that I must go down and see if they are as wicked as the outcry suggests. If not, I want to know.” 22 The two men turned and headed toward Sodom, but Abraham was still standing before the Lord. 23 Abraham approached and said, “Will you sweep away the godly along with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty godly people in the city? Will you really wipe it out and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty godly people who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the godly with the wicked, treating the godly and the wicked alike! Far be it from you! Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” 26 So the Lord replied, “If I find in the city of Sodom fifty godly people, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Then Abraham asked, “Since I have undertaken to speak to the Lord (although I am but dust and ashes), 28 what if there are five less than the fifty godly people? Will you destroy the whole city because five are lacking? He replied, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Abraham spoke to him again, “What if forty are found there?” He replied, “I will not do it for the sake of the forty.” 30 Then Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry so that I may speak! What if thirty are found there?” He replied, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” 31 Abraham said, “Since I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty are found there?” He replied, “I will not destroy it for the sake of the twenty.” 32 Finally Abraham said, “May the Lord not be angry so that I may speak just once more. What if ten are found there?” He replied, “I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” 33 The Lord went on his way when he had finished speaking to Abraham. Then Abraham returned home (Genesis 18:16-33, emphasis mine).
God was about to punish Sodom and Gomorrah, but He wanted to share this with Abraham. When Abraham heard that these cities were to be destroyed, he was greatly concerned that there would be no righteous who were punished along with the wicked. He argued that His God would do what is right, and that this would preclude treating the godly and the wicked alike (18:23-25). In the end, he bargained that if there were but ten righteous remaining in the city, God would spare it. We know, of course, that there were not ten left. But even so, God was true to His character. Before God brought down fire upon these wicked cities, He removed Lot and his family (Genesis 19:12-26). Our God is just, and He does not punish the righteous along with the wicked.
This same truth57 is also taught in the fourth chapter of Jonah:
3:10 When God saw their actions—they turned from their evil way of living!—God relented concerning the judgment he had threatened them with and he did not destroy them. 4:1 This terribly displeased Jonah and he became very angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by trying to escape to Tarshish!—because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” 4 The Lord said, “Are you really so very angry?” 5 Jonah left the city, sat down east of the city, made a shelter for himself there, and sat down under it in the shade to see what would happen to the city. 6 The Lord God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to rescue him from his misery. Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant. 7 So God sent a worm at dawn the next day, and it attacked the little plant so that it dried up. 8 When the sun began to shine, God sent a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life, and said, “ I would rather die than live!” 9 God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “ I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10 The Lord said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11 Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” (Jonah 3:10—4:11, emphasis mine)
When Nineveh repented, God relented, and Jonah vented. He was hopping mad! The very thing for which others praised God (“you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment,” verse 2 above)58 Jonah protested against. Jonah hated grace,59 without seeming to notice that it was the only thing that kept him alive. Jonah wanted to see these guilty sinners pay; he wanted to sit and watch while God poured out His wrath on them, even though they had repented. Jonah failed to see the shade plant as a gift of grace, and he was angry when it was taken away, as though he somehow deserved it.
The depth of Jonah’s sin is seen in relation to the children of Nineveh. He wanted to watch (in the words of Abraham) God “sweep away the innocent60 along with the wicked.” God’s justice is seen in contrast to Jonah’s self-righteous anger. It mattered not to Jonah that Nineveh had repented; he wanted to see them all perish. God not only delights to save repentant sinners, God cares about innocent children. He would not punish them even though their parents were evil.
God’s words to Jonah lead us to our problem passage in Matthew 2, verses 13-18:
13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother at night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he became enraged. He sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and nearby from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (Matthew 2:13-18).
The magi had been divinely instructed to go home another way, and they obeyed (2:12). God then instructed Joseph to take the child and Mary and flee to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus. Joseph likewise obeyed. When Herod realized that his plans to kill the infant king had been foiled, he was furious. Having learned the time when the star first appeared to the magi and where the child was born from the experts in the law, Herod knew the age and location of the child, even though he did not know his identity. While Jesus could hardly be two years old, Herod thought that was a good, round number at which to destroy all of the boy babies in Bethlehem. And so, at Herod’s instructions, all boy babies in the Bethlehem vicinity who were two and under were slaughtered.
While estimates of the number of babies killed have sometimes been exaggerated, it is generally thought that no more than 20 or 30 babies actually died. This in no way minimizes Herod’s guilt, or the grief suffered by the parents of these children. One must ask why Matthew chose to include this detail about the slaughter of these infants when he did not go into detail about the death of Herod himself. The reader would tend to find a kind of satisfaction in Herod’s painful death but is distressed at the report of the slaughter of these infant boys. What purpose does this account serve in the Gospel of Matthew?
First, the story of the slaughter of the innocent infants serves to cast a certain dark cloud over the otherwise joyous occasion of Jesus’ birth. We should remember that Jesus came to die at the hands of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles. We encountered the name Jesus in Matthew 1:
She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
The way Jesus would “save His people from their sins” was by dying as an innocent sacrifice, on the cross of Calvary. The birth of our Lord was a joyous occasion, as most Christmas cards convey, but it was the birth of a Savior who would die in Jerusalem. Thus, Matthew sets the scene for his readers early in his Gospel. The people of Jerusalem and its ruler were deeply troubled by the report that “the King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem.
We would do well to compare Matthew’s account of the birth of our Lord with that of Luke. While each author chose different occasions, events, and personalities, both prepared the reader for the fact that the One who was born in Bethlehem would die for the sins of His people. Matthew prepares us by reporting the slaughter of the infants; Luke does so through the words of Simeon to Mary:
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: this child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. 35 Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” (Luke 2:34-35, emphasis mine)
If the events of our Lord’s birth were intended to foreshadow the later events of our Lord’s life, and death, then somewhere in the birth account the reader needed to be alerted to the fact that Jesus would die.
There is yet another dimension to the account of the slaughter of the infants that I believe we should at least consider. Some may find my connection a bit of a reach, but I am not entirely alone in my approach. I had to ask myself a very simple question: What was the reason why Herod had the boy babies put to death? The answer, I believe, is both simple and obvious: Herod had these boy babies slaughtered because of their identification with Jesus. Herod did not kill all the 12-year-old girls in Jerusalem; he killed all the boy babies 2 years old and younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Why? Because Herod was trying to kill Jesus, the “King of the Jews.” Herod had only those killed who were born where the Messiah was prophesied to be born, and those of the approximate age that the magi gave by telling him when the star first appeared. In one sense, these infants were the first martyrs for Christ.
We must now ask the question: What is the connection Matthew is seeking to draw between the slaughter of these infants and Jeremiah 31:15? Let me begin with several observations about the passage Matthew cites from Jeremiah 31.
(1) The context of Jeremiah 31 is Israel’s captivity and subsequent return and restoration. In particular, God is assuring the Northern Kingdom of Israel of their restoration after their Assyrian bondage. Notice these comments in the Bible Knowledge Commentary on verses 2-6:
God assured the Northern Kingdom that He will restore her. Those who had survived the sword (probably Assyria’s destruction of Israel) will yet experience God’s favor as He leads them into the desert for their new Exodus 16:14-15; 23:7-8; Hosea 2:14-15). The turmoil of their long years of exile will cease when God intervenes to give rest to the nation Israel. 61
Now notice the comments of the Bible Knowledge Commentary on verses 7-9:
As God leads these people on their new Exodus into Israel He will provide for their every need. He will guide the people beside streams of water (cf. Ex. 15:22-25; Num. 20:2-13; Ps. 23:2) and they will travel on a level path so they will not stumble. God will do all this because of His special relationship to Israel. He is Israel’s father (cf. Deut. 32:6), and Ephraim (emphasizing the Northern tribes of Israel) is his firstborn son (cf. Ex. 4:22). Jeremiah used the image of a father/son relationship to show God’s deep love for His people (cf. Hosea 11:1, 8).62
The “captivity” may very well include the later Babylonian captivity as well. Ramah, we are told, was the staging point from which the people of Judah were sent on their way to Babylon:
Thus Jeremiah was picturing the weeping of the women of the Northern Kingdom as they watched their children being carried into exile in 722 b.c. However, Jeremiah could also have had the 586 b.c. deportation of Judah in view because Ramah was the staging point for Nebuchadnezzar’s deportation (cf. 40:1).63
(2) The mood of this chapter is joyful celebration, because God will bring His people back to the land and restore them, showering His blessings upon them. In this sense, those who weep should weep no longer.
10 Hear what the Lord has to say, O nations.
And proclaim it in the faraway lands along the sea.
Say, “The one who scattered Israel will regather them.
He will watch over his people like a shepherd watches over his flock.”
11 For the Lord will set the descendants of Jacob free.
He will secure their release from those who had overpowered them.
12 They will come and shout for joy on Mount Zion.
They will be radiant with joy over the good things the Lord provides,
the grain, the fresh wine, the olive oil,
the young sheep and calves he has given to them.
They will be like a well-watered garden and will not grow faint and weary any more.
13 The Lord says, “At that time young women will dance and be glad.
Young men and old men will rejoice.
I will turn their grief into gladness.
I will give them comfort and joy in place of their sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:10-13).
(3) The place referred to in Jeremiah 31:15 is Ramah, and the person is Rachel, weeping over her children. We are first of all reminded of the death of Rachel, recorded in Genesis 35:16-19. Rachel has great difficultly giving birth to her son, whom she names, Ben-oni, “son of my sorrow.” In the end, Benjamin (“son of my right hand”) is born, but Rachel dies in childbirth. Rachel is the mother of Joseph (whose sons were Ephraim and Manasseh) and Benjamin. She was looked upon as the “mother of Israel.” She would be very closely associated with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. How easy it was to describe the mourning of the mothers of the Northern Kingdom as “Rachel weeping for her children” when the Assyrians led them away in captivity. The same words would be an apt description of the mothers of the Southern Kingdom mourning as they watched their sons carried off to Babylon.
(4) The context of Jeremiah 31 is also the “new covenant”:
27 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will cause people and animals to sprout up in the lands of Israel and Judah. 28 In the past I saw to it that they were uprooted and torn down, that they were destroyed and demolished. At that time I will see to it that they are built up and firmly planted. I, the Lord, affirm it. 29 “When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’ 30 Rather, each person will die for his own sins. The teeth of the person who eats the sour grapes will themselves grow numb. 31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old agreement that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and led them out of Egypt. For they violated that agreement, even though I was a faithful husband to them,” says the Lord. 33 “But I will make a new agreement with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. And I will be their God and they will be my people. 34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. That is because all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the Lord. “All of this is based on the fact that I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done” (Jeremiah 31:27-34, emphasis mine).
I find it especially significant how Jeremiah describes the effect of the New Covenant in verses 29 and 30. His point seems to be that while, under the Old Covenant, children bore the penalty for their parents’ sins, this would no longer be true under the New Covenant. Given these words in such close proximity to Jeremiah 31:15, I would find it difficult to say that the innocent suffering of the baby boys of Bethlehem was due to the sins of their parents. Given the results of our study earlier in this lesson I would also find it difficult to conclude that these infants were somehow under divine condemnation as a result of the death, in a way little different from that of Herod, who also dies in Matthew 2.
How do all these “dots” connect? I believe Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the new Israel. Jesus was subtly linked with Moses, whose life (among others) was sought by Pharaoh, but who God spared. Jesus was like David, who jealous King Saul sought to kill because he was a rival to his throne. Jesus was all that Israel failed to be, so that His journey to Egypt and back could be likened to the exodus, as Hosea referred to it in Hosea 11:1.
Jesus’ journey to Egypt and back was like Israel’s captivity (both the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom). Thus Matthew draws the connection between Rachel’s weeping over the departure of her children. Though she wept, thinking they would never again return, God had promised they would return and would be restored to blessing. Does this not imply that the weeping of the mothers (and fathers) of Bethlehem, whose sons were slaughtered by Herod, would be short-lived as well? And all of this because of Jesus, the new Israel. As these infants were identified with Christ in their death, so I believe they are going to be identified with Christ in His resurrection and return in glory.64 Herod died, opposing the “King of the Jews;” these infants died because of their identification with the “King of the Jews.” How different their destinies will be.
In this lesson, we have seen that there are various causes of human suffering, and there are also varied effects. While we may wish for simple answers to our questions regarding suffering (answers like that of the disciples in John 9, or by Job’s friends), such answers are often not to be found. It was many years before the man born blind learned the reason for his suffering, and he certainly must have concluded that it was worth it all. Job was not given the answer to his suffering. He was simply reminded of who God is, and that was enough for him. While simple, easy answers to our questions regarding suffering may not be available, there are some assurances which enable us to endure in faith. For a summary of these assurances, I would like to return to Romans 8.
(1) Suffering is part of our common experience as human beings (Romans 8:18-25). In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul wrote:
13 No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried too much, but with the trial will also provide a way through it so that you may be able to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Living in a fallen world means that we must experience some of the after-effects of the fall, and thus suffering is a part of our lot, not just as Christians, but as human beings.
(2) Our Lord is always with us through His Holy Spirit. He assures us that we are God’s children and that we have the certain hope of eternal life. He also communicates for us in our times of suffering. Jesus assured us that He would be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). He told us that He would never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We are never alone in our suffering. Indeed, God often draws us near to Himself through our sufferings (see Psalm 73:21-28).
(3) Christians are assured that any suffering that comes their way has come from the hand of their loving God, for their good, and for His glory:
28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
(4) We can triumphantly face our sufferings, in the light of the fact that Christ, our Savior, suffered infinitely for us, that we might have eternal life:
31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that, he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we encounter death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).
Praise God that we have a loving, sovereign God, who administers our afflictions for our good and for His glory!
47 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 3 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on March 2, 2003.
48 I have included verses 13-15 to supply some needed context.
49 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
50 I had an experience in India which helps me understand the way many people look at those who are blind or in some other way are infirmed. I was just entering India with my blind friend, Craig Nelson. We were being interviewed by a customs official when he seemed to take note of my friend’s handicap. Turning to me, the official asked, “Is he a sick man?” My friend Craig responded, “I’m not sick; I’m blind.” From that moment on the official refused to look at or to talk with my friend; he only talked to me. It was just as if a blind person did not even exist. No wonder the lame beggar outside the temple in Acts 3 expected to receive something, once he noticed Peter and John looking at him.
51 This man was born blind, so it would have been hard for him to sin first, and then experience blindness as divine punishment.
52 See Luke 4:18-19.
53 See, for example, the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus returned to this man and said, “Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you” (John 5:14).
54 Joseph’s harshness was a disguise (Genesis 42:7). His true feelings are revealed by his private tears (42:24; 43:30).
55 Note also 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, where Paul teaches that the comfort which we gain in our suffering enables us to comfort others in their affliction.
56 It should be noted that the death of these priests may also be related to the curse on Eli’s family, found in 1 Samuel 2:27-36.
57 In Genesis, Abraham argued on behalf of the righteous; in Jonah, God argues on behalf of the “innocent” – children and animals.
58 See Exodus 34:6; Nehemiah 9:17, 31; Psalm 103:8; 111:14; 112:4; 116:5.
59 The one thing self-righteousness despises is grace.
60 The reader will note that I have exchanged the word “innocent” for the word “godly,” which Abraham used (Genesis 8:23). The situation here is not identical with Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is similar.
61 Walvoord, J. F. Zuck, R. B., & Dallas Theological Seminary. 1983-c1985. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Victor Books: Wheaton, IL. Emphasis mine.
64 This conclusion is very closely related to my understanding that babies who die go to heaven, a view which I deal with in much greater detail in my sermon on 2 Samuel 12: