In the New Testament, chapter 2 of Matthew describes how Herod, the dictator over Israel, killed children under two years of age in an attempt to destroy a newborn king which he had been told about. In Matthew 2:17-18 says “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Matthew quotes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, where the prophet speaks in 31:15 of Rachel weeping for her children. The bible skeptic then claims the following: 1) Jeremiah is speaking of the nation Israel going into captivity, not some future prophecy; 2) Jeremiah does not speak of children being killed. In fact, Jer. 31.16-17 speak of the children returning to Israel. 3) There is no indication Jeremiah is trying to foretell some future event. The skeptic then concludes that Matthew took unrelated passages and force-fit them to sound like a fulfillment of prophecy.
In response, a careful examination of the passages reveals something else entirely. First, that the context of Jeremiah 31 is speaking of future events is clear. Future tense verbs are found in v.4 (“I will build,” “you shall adorn”), and v.5, (“you shall plant,” “shall enjoy”). Several lengthy sections of the chapter speak of a future day, including v.6 which speaks of a future day when Israel will return to the land. True, the passage is mainly speaking of Israel, but Old Testament passages about a remnant are often used as a comparison to the church. For example, compare the remnant passages of the same chapter, Jer. 31:7, with Romans 11:1-5, where in both passages God promises to always have a remnant.
Second, the literal children mentioned in Jeremiah 31 would indeed die in captivity, while only their descendants would return to the land of Israel. The captivity lasted for 70 years, and few of the children, if any, would return. Some would inevitably have been killed in the invasion and forced march out of Israel. So Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15 does indeed speak of children literally dying. The ‘children’ that returned were descendants.
Third, a bit of careful reading of the passages reveals something of Matthew’s intentions. As described in The Bible Knowledge Commentary:
In what sense was Herod’s slaughter of the babies (Matt. 2:17-18) a “fulfillment” of Jeremiah 31:15? Jeremiah pointed to an Old Testament deportation of children from a town north of Jerusalem; Matthew used the passage to explain the New Testament slaughter of children in a village south of Jerusalem. The answer to the problem hinges on Matthew’s use of the word “fulfilled” (plēroō). Though Matthew did use the word to record an actual fulfillment of an Old Testament prediction (cf., e.g., Matt. 21:4-5 with Zech. 9:9), he also used the word to indicate that the full potential of something in the Old Testament had been realized (cf. Matt. 3:15; 5:17). In these latter instances there is no prophetic significance to the word “fulfill,” which is how Matthew used the word to associate the slaughter in Bethlehem with the sadness in Ramah. Matthew used Jeremiah 31:15 in his book (Matt. 2:17-18) to explain the sadness of the mothers of Bethlehem. The pain of those mothers in Ramah who watched their sons being carried into exile found its full potential in the cries of the mothers of Bethlehem who cradled their sons’ lifeless bodies in their arms.
So using the words of Matthew and careful comparison of his use of the term “fulfill” tells us that he did not always indicate a detailed prediction, but often used the term in the sense of completion.
In summary, trying to use Matthew 2:17-18 as a reason to deny the inspiration of the Bible is unreasonable. To do so merely shows a preconceived bias towards the scriptures rather than deriving the meaning from the text. All the skeptics points mentioned above are refuted. What Matthew actually shows is an intimate and inspired knowledge of the Old Testament, showing how parallel passages have completion in God’s wonderful plan.