As Matthew concludes Jesus’ birth narratives in the latter half of chapter 2, he references three prophetic fulfillments, which I will explore in chronological order.
The first occurs amidst a shockingly tragic moment. Enraged the magi never returned to him with information on Jesus’ whereabouts, Herod orders all males in Bethlehem under age two to be slaughtered. It’s every parent’s nightmare coming true in life-shattering horror. There are no words to soothe such sadness. It’s a kind of deep-cutting event that can completely redefine a community; a dark cloud of shock, anger, and bitterness could have very well hung over those homes and community for the rest of their lives. I try imagining the fathers going to synagogue and trying to prayerfully mouth some semblance of the Psalms in an effort to find some glimmer of hope in their inexpressible sadness. The only comment Matthew makes about this great tragedy is from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.”
Decades removed from the event when he writes these words, Matthew might be seeing something typical of Israel’s history playing out in this early moment of Jesus’ story.
The events of this Jeremiah text had already tragically happened centuries earlier. When the culture of entrenched idolatrous indifference in the southern kingdom of Judah had climaxed, God brought the Babylonian Empire against them in judgment. Jerusalem was destroyed, many of its citizens slaughtered, and the survivors were exiled to Babylon. Departing Jerusalem, one of the first towns they passed through was Ramah; heartbroken over Jerusalem’s destruction and bereaved of their loved ones, they mournfully wandered through, wondering what the future held or if hope was possible after this, probably much like how the Bethlehem parents felt. So as Matthew recounts this tragic event from which Jesus escaped, he may be interpreting it as an echo typical of Israel’s story.
While some prophecies can be fairly literal predictions of what will happen, other prophecies can be more typological, in that what is happening is a type of what has already happened. New Testament scholar R.T. France clarifies typology as “the recognition of a correspondence between New and Old Testament events, based on a conviction of the unchanging character of the principles of God’s working, and a consequent understanding and description of the New Testament event in terms of the Old Testament model.” I believe Matthew’s three prophetic references here are examples of typological prophecy.
The second prophetic passage occurs after Joseph, Mary, and the child have fled to Egypt, escaping Herod’s rage. The text doesn’t detail how long they stayed there, but it was until Herod’s death, at which point an angel told Joseph to return to Israel, which Joseph did, exiting Egypt to enter the land of Israel. Matthew again comments on these events with a prophetic reference from Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Again the event spoken of had already taken place. This time it’s the northern kingdom of Israel that had grown so idolatrously indifferent to what God had called them to be and would thus suffer the consequences of God’s judgment by the Assyrian Empire. Perhaps as a disappointed parent might, God uses Hosea to recall how youthfully loveable Israel was when he initially called them out of Egypt, lamenting how their own rebellion has brought them to this judgment. It’s a memory of God’s salvation amidst a moment of impending judgment; as tragic judgment approaches, Hosea’s thoughts turn to their past salvation from slavery, perhaps hoping that, even as judgment descends upon them, God’s salvation may one day return to Israel.
By quoting the Hosea text in the context of Jesus exiting Egypt and entering Israel, Matthew may be reframing the Exodus memory, that memory of past salvation Hosea recalled, as an anticipation of the impending salvation Jesus would bring upon the land and people of Israel.
Both of these cited prophecies were delivered at a time when the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel both underwent tragic consequences for their great idolatry and indifference; moments that shaped within the surviving remnant’s post-exilic mindset a shameful sense of what was historically typical for their people. But what Matthew hopes his readers will observe in the text is that with God, salvation is also typical.
The third prophetic comment is actually not a prophecy at all, but more of a Messianic characterization built on other prophetic statements. As Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settle in the city of Nazareth, Matthew comments “This was to fulfill what was spoke through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.”
These exact words are found nowhere in Scripture. Two theories thrive here. First, other Messianic prophecies say Messiah would be despised and rejected; in John 1:46, Nazareth seems to personify a sense of worthlessness. The second theory is, since the word Nazareth is similar to the Hebrew word for branch, Matthew may possibly be alluding to the Isaiah 11:1 prophecy about a branch springing up from David’s line, bearing righteous fruit.
Considering the context already discussed, I think both theories are plausible. Having been battered by God’s judgment and years of post-exilic shame, an atmosphere of worthlessness or despair permeates Israel, shaping much of how they perceive themselves. Who can lift such a soul-crushing burden? Only one who knows its weight himself. To truly be Messiah, Jesus must empathize with the people, living life as they have, know what it is to be despised and stung with sorrow. In doing so, Jesus is identified, not just with his own people, but with all humanity. Jesus is one of us. Only after he is identified with us can he be revealed as so much more. The shameful history that has come to shape Israel’s downcast identity is the soil from out of which the righteous branch shall grow and produce a redemption that redefines everything.
We are all shaped by our history. We’ve all had moments that may mold in us a cynicism or downheartedness that redefines our perceptions of what we think is typical. We may express these perceptions through learned phrases like “story of my life”, “just my luck”, or “it is what it is”. We may be living according to a script in our heads that says our role is that of a worthless one or a sorrowful wretch or someone who has nothing to look forward to. The role of Messiah, however, is meant to show us we’re reading the wrong script; that this story is about salvation. Though life may teach us that sorrow is typical, Jesus shows us that with God, salvation is typical. A part of learning to follow Jesus means adjusting the perceptions of our minds and hearts to the salvation reality embodied in Jesus. I pray the eyes of your heart be saturated with the salvation permeating this world through the presence of Messiah Jesus.