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Micah had so definitely pointed out the birth-place of Christ, that they unanimously replied, “In Bethlehem of Judea." This answer is conveyed to the wise men of the East; and Herod sends them to Bethlehem, desiring to be informed if their search was successful, that he too might come and worship the young child. The Magi departed; and the star which led them from their distant home conducted them to the house where Jesus was. They presented to the child the gold, and the frankincense, and the myrrh: but God, who knew the treachery of Herod, allows them not to return to Jerusalem ; when this their homage was paid they are bidden to depart into their own country another way; and ere the news of their departure could be carried to Jerusalem, Joseph receives a command to fly into Egypt, with the young child and his mother, and there to await another communication from God.
The safety of Christ being thus secure, the fury of Herod is allowed to break forth. Finding himself mocked by the wise men, and baffled in the destruction of his infant rival, he thought to effect by an indiscriminate slaughter, what he could not do by selecting his victim. He takes therefore a large sweep, caring nothing what number was sacrificed, so that he might be secure that the one whom he hated could not escape. He “sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men." Then it was, says St. Matthew, that the prophecy quoted in our text was fulfilled; a prophecy which describes Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, as weeping for her lost children, and refusing to be comforted.
There can be no doubt, that we have here rather an accommodation, than an accomplishment, of the prediction. The slaughtered children were probably for the most part of the tribe of Judah ; and though some amongst them might have been of the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin, yet the prophecy referred primarily to another event. We can hardly think that Rachel would have been mentioned in preference to her who was the mother of Judah : indeed if you refer to Jeremiah, you may readily perceive that it relates chiefly to other occurrences. It is found in the thirty-first chapter of that prophet; a chapter which, it is on all hands agreed, expects its fulfilment in the final restoration of the Jews and the establishinent of the kingdom of Christ. After a beautiful description of the return of the twelve tribes, Rachel is introduced as weeping for her lost children, and as bidden by God to refrain her voice from weeping, and her eyes from tears. But it is evident, from what is subjoined, that captive children, and not dead, were the object of the mother's lament. “Thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord, and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border." This sufficiently shews that, however the prophecy may be accommodated to the slaughter of Bethlehem, it looks for its accomplishment in yet future events.
The representation is just what follows. By a fine poetic figure, Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and from whom therefore descended large portions of the kingdoms, both of Israel and Judah, is supposed to arise from her sepulchre, and to behold the land inhabited by strangers, and deserted by her posterity. She looks around sorrowingly on the scene, and weeps at the thought, that those to whom the territory had been given are exiles, wanderers,
and captives. Thus it is the dispersion, through long centuries, of the twelve tribes, which is delineated. The mother comes up from her tomb, and finding herself amongst strangers, and not, as she expected, amongst her children, gives way to maternal anguish, and sorrows over the banished ones, her sons and her daughters. And when the Lord speaks comfortably to her, and tells her of the return of her children, the reference is unquestionably to that glorious restoration of Israel and Judah which is associated with the blessedness of all the nations of the earth.
But while such seems the fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, it might be accommodated, with the nicest accuracy, to the slaughter at Bethlehem. If the mother were ever to be roused from her slumbers, what so likely to awaken her as the piercing shriek of her little ones in the grasp of the murderers? She had been poetically delineated as rising from her sleep when the land had cast out her children; as though the tread of the foreigners disturbed her in her grave. Now if she could not rest when the turf beneath which she lay groaned under the tramp of the stranger and blasphemer, shall she not be stirred when the shrill cry of her own infant is echoed in her sepulchre ? Rachel was buried between Rama and Bethlehem ; so that the children were almost massacred on the tomb of the parent. It was therefore a fine adaptation of the prediction, though the event was not that originally contemplated, when St. Matthew quoted the prophecy of Jeremiah, as descriptive of what occurred through the cruel orders of Herod, representing the mother as called back into life by the shrieks and the groans of her little ones, and returning to earth, that she might bewail, with an inconsolable mourning, her innocent offspring butchered by an unrelenting tyrant. O, there never was a more touching image in poetry than this, of the dead mother stirring in her grave at the cry of her children, and rising from the dust which was soaked with their blood, that she might water it with her tears.
Now it is enough thus to have shewn you, that the prophecy adduced in our text, though not strictly fulfilled in the slaughter of the innocents, may readily be accommodated to that tragic occurrence. Indeed, as it has been well observed, though St. Matthew uses the word “fulfilled,” he does not employ the form of expression by which inspired writers generally mark the accomplishment of prophecy. He does not say, “that it might be fulfilled," but simply, “then was fulfilled." The former expression denotes that the event took place on purpose that the prediction might be accomplished; and thus distinctly points out that event as the object of the prophecy. But the latter expression—“then was fulfilled"-seems satisfied, if we suppose so accurate a correspondence between the thing done and the words quoted, that the writing may be regarded as descriptive of the occurrence.
We waive, however, further reference to the prophecy, and will not confine our attention to the event whose history we have briefly reviewed. Undoubtedly it seems strange, that one of the earliest consequences of the incarnation of Him, who afterwards declared that he came not to destroy men's lives, but to save, should thus have been the murder of so many unoffending little ones. We know not indeed what number fell in the massacre; but whether great or small, there is the same cause of surprise, that the birth of Christ should have been allowed to give occasion to so ferocious an act. Probably the number VOL. ul.
was not large; inasmuch as Betlilehem and its dependent districts, are not likely to have included a very considerable population. The enemies indeed of revealed religion, anxious to fasten on Christianity a sanguinary character, or to invalidate its claims, reckon up a prodigious number of victims : so that Voltaire, one of the most determined foes of our faith, estimates at seventy thousand the children slaughtered at Bethlehem Such exaggerated statements carry with them their own confutation; for it is easy to see, that, on such a supposition, Bethlehem must have been much more populous than the most overgrown of modern cities. Resorting, however, to a less suspicious source, we find the Greeks, in their Calendar, and the Abyssinians, in their Omces aud Liturgy, commemorate the death of fourteen thousand babes. Had the number been so large, it would be difficult to account for the fact, that Josephus, the historian of the Jews, makes no mention at all of the slaughter. The omission is not at all strange if the number were small; for the murder of a few children might well be overlooked in giving the history of so blood-thirsty a tyrant as Herod : others of his actions were so far more atrocious, that the annalist might omit what seems trifling in comparison. But if thousands were slain, then even the desire of Josephus to keep back all that had reference to Jesus, would scarcely, we think, explain his silence. And it is with the view of bringing us into this dilemma, that Voltaire so grossly exaggerates the slaughter of Bethlehem, and to draw an inference against the veracity of St. Matthew. On the largest computation there seems no reason to suppose that so many as one hundred children perished in this massacre; the computation being of course made with reference to the probable population of Bethlehem, and to the fact, that none but the male children were objects of the fury of Herod.
But while it was necessary that we should glance at this matter, as knowing the misrepresentations of the enemies of Christianity, we own that some surprise may be felt at God's permitting the transaction, which is not to be removed by shewing that no great number was slain. We fully admit that there is something strange in the transition from the birth of Christ to the slaughter of these infants. A few days ago we assembled around the cradle of the new-born King; and now the ground round about us is strewed with the bodies of the young ones, slaughtered, as it were, in his stead. Then there were cherubim and seraphim to sing his birth-song; and now the air is laden with the cries of those who had done no wrong, and who are perishing on his account. Well might he afterwards declare, that he came not to send peace, but a sword upon the earth ; seeing that, while yet a nursling in his mother's arms, he is the occasion of the sword being plunged in numbers who least deserved to die. And the thing most remarkable in this transaction appears to us to be, that the permission of the slaughter was in no sense requisite to the safety of Christ. Joseph, and Mary, and the child, hai departed for Egypt, before the fury of Herod is allowed to break out. How easy does it seem that Herod should have been informed of the flight, and thus taught the utter uselessness of his cruei edict. But measures were taken with a view of preventing this; the Magi are not allowed to return to Jerusalem: and yet supposing they had returned, and had told Herod of the success of their search, and that in the meantime God had given the warning, and secured the flight of the Huly Family, why, so far as appears on the surface of things, the certainty is that Christ would have been
equally safe and the likelihood is, that the innocents of Bethlehem would not have been slain. The probability seems vastly on the side of the supposition, that Herod would have ascertained that the child whom he sought had escaped, and he would not then, with all his cruelty, have perpetrated an act by which he could not have been benefited. This, we perceive, is the most remarkable point of view under which the transaction presents itself. It seems to have been designed by Providence that Herod should be left without the knowledge which would have prevented the massacre; though that knowledge might have been conveyed, without, as it would appear, endangering the safety of Christ. And we are tempted to ask why this should have been-why the Magi should have been forbidden to carry intelligence which, without detriment to the newborn Messiah, might have preserved from the sword the infants of Bethlehem. We should think little that numbers died for Him who came to die for the world, had the sacrifice been apparently demanded for his safety: but when that safety might have been secured without the bloody offering, we are tempted to marvel that the birth of the Prince of Peace should have brought death to so unoffending a company.
Now, we have several considerations to advance on the history before us, when thus regarded as presenting a transaction which seems at variance with the known mercy of God. It will be further unavoidable in discoursing on the slaughter of the innocents, that we shall refer generally to the death of children: so that it will be well that we employ the remainder of our time in examining, in the first place, the consequences of this slaughter, so far as others were concerned; and, in the second place, its consequences so far as the innocents themselves were concerned.
We begin by observing, that it is in no sense necessary to the vindication of God's dealings, that we should always be able to give reasons for their every part. We keep fast to certain principles, which we are sure, from the nature of God, are never violated by any permission or proceeding. But we have no right to expect of their non-violation, that it should always be matter of sight and never of faith. It is one of these principles, that whatever evil God permits, he overrules for good; but it would be asking what does not consist with a state of probation, if we required that we might always be able to discern the good produced from the evil permitted. It is a fine expression which the Psalmist uses in speaking of God: "Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep." The righteousness, you observe, of the Almighty, stands forth as one of the huge mountains of the earth, not to be over-looked by any who admit his existence. But then the judgments which this righteousness directs, are all the while as the vast ocean from which the mountain rises, not to be estimated by finite scrutiny. We have no right, therefore, to be staggered by any proceeding, even should it seem to us productive not of goo!, but of unmixed evil. It is only confessing our own short-sightedness, and no impeachment of the righteousness of God, when we admit, in respect of a providential dispensation, that its wisdom and its goodness lie far beyond our penetration. So that if unable to discover that the slaughter of the innocents were a means to ensure wise ends, we shall be confident, from the actual occurrence of the thing, that there was such an end, though not to be
ascertained by our limited faculties. We do not, however, allow of the transaction in question, that no reason can be discovered for its permission. We believe, on the contrary, that they who inquire at all carefully, will find enough to remove all surprise, that Herod was not restrained from the murder. Let it be first observed, that the prophecy had fixed Bethlehem as the birth-place of the Christ, and had determined, with considerable precision, the time of the nativity. It were easy, therefore, to prove, that no one could be the Messiah who had not been born at Bethlehem, and about the period when the Virgin became a mother. How wonderfully, then, did the slaughter of the innocents corroborate the pretensions of Jesus. If no one could be Messiah unless born at Bethlehem, and at a certain time, why the sword of Herod did a.most demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah : for removing, perhaps, every other, who could have answered to the test of the time and place of birth, there seems only Jesus remaining in whom the prophecy could be fulfilled. We regard this as a very striking reason why the slaughter may have been permitted. God was providing for the conviction of those who should search into the pretensions of Jesus, or of leaving all inexcusable who should reject these pretensions. There was an universal agreement that Messiah was to be born at Bethlehem, and about the time of the slaughter; and what then did the slaughter do, if only Jesus survived, but prove distinctly that Jesus must be the Messiah ?
Besides, it should be carefully remarked, that Jesus was to live in comparative obscurity, until thirty years of age; he was then to burst suddenly upon the world, and to amaze it by displays of omnipotence. But brought up as he had been at Nazareth (Bethlehem, though his birth-place, not being the residence of his parents), it was very natural that, when he emerged from long seclusion, he should have been regarded as a Nazarite. Accordingly we find 80 completely had his birth-place been forgotten, that inany objected his being of Nazareth, against the possibility of his being the Messiah. “Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the Scripture said, that Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was ?" They argued rightly, you observe, that no one could be the Christ who had not been born at Bethlehem, but then they rashly concluded, that Jesus wanted this sign of Messiahship, because they knew him to have been brought up in Galilee. And what made them inexcusable? Why the slaughter of the innocents. They could not have been uninformed of this event; bereaved parents were still living, who would be sure to tell the story of their wrongs; and this event marked, as with a line of blood, the period at which the Christ was supposed to have been born. How, easy, then to ask whether the parents of Jesus had been then at Bethlehem ; how easy to determine it, seeing the period was that at which the Roman Emperor required every Jew to repair to his own city. So that there was not needed any laborious investigation, any searching into genealogies and records, in order to the deciding where Jesus was born : the massacre of the innocents was a proof, known to the most illiterate, that thirty years before there had been born a child at Bethlehem, whose nativity had been attended by such signs as disturbed the king on the throne. A moment's inquiry would have proved to them that Jesus was this child, and removed the doubt which attached to him as a supposed Galilean. And therefore not in vain was the mother stirred from her sepulchre