Is Matthew’s Use of Jeremiah 31 A Fulfillment of Prophecy?

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.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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3 Responses to Is Matthew’s Use of Jeremiah 31 A Fulfillment of Prophecy?

  1. Nate says:

    All the skeptics points mentioned above are refuted.

    I don’t feel like you demonstrated this at all. Your post essentially agrees that Jeremiah was not speaking about the events in Matthew. There was no prophecy given — certainly not one that applied to Christ.

    The commentary you quoted from says that Matthew sometimes uses the word “fulfilled” when talking about things other than prophecy, but that’s not surprising as “fulfilled” can be used in a number of different scenarios. It also doesn’t change how it was used here — as prophecy fulfillment, even though there was never a real prophecy in the first place. And the same complaints can be made about Matt 2:15 with “out of Egypt I called my son.”

    You may not feel like these are big enough issues to damage your faith, but to claim that skeptics are unreasonable to point to these as problems is going too far. Surely you can see why people might be bothered by Matthew’s use of the Old Testament?

  2. humblesmith says:

    The word for fulfill (Strongs 4137, plaro’o) occurrs 90 times in the NT. It is variously translated using about 14 different terms in the KJV. The best modern lexicon, BDAG, defines it with six major definitions, including to make full, to complete a period of time, to finish, and to bring to a designed end. It is not used in every instance in the sense of “Last week I predicted it would snow at 12:42 pm, and today it happened.” The term is used in several instances as a logical completion of something. For example, Jesus is said to have fulfilled the OT law; this means to bring to completion. This is merely the logical, grammatical use of the term. I am not shoe-horning a definition into the question.

    I can see how many would automatically think of “fullfilment” in the sense of a detailed prediction of a future event. Perhaps this is because we fail as Bible teachers to explain what the text is saying. Nevertheless, this passage cannot be used to show that Matthew was force-fitting a passage into a sense that it was not intended. If anything, Matthew’s audience, primarily first century Jews, would know the text and context better than us. If anyone would have been careful about quoting OT passages to prove a point, it would have been Matthew. We simply cannot use such passages to show the Bible is flawed, for the evidence is not there.

    • Nate says:

      I really don’t see how you can come to such a confident conclusion. The evidence is most certainly there, and the problem is not that Bible class teachers aren’t doing a good job of teaching what the Bible is “really saying,” the problem is with what the Bible says. Matthew says “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet.” I agree that “fulfill” can be applied to different circumstances, as I said in my first comment. But that doesn’t exclude the way it’s used when referencing what a prophet says, which is what Matthew clearly does.

      I guess what bothers me about your response is not that you’re trying to explain a problematic passage; it’s that you’re pretending the passage isn’t problematic at all. Why not just admit that it’s misleading, at the very least?

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