With these words, the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) wrote to describe his fellow countrymen who had lost many sons and daughters in a military attack:
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Also with these words, the apostle and evangelist St. Matthew described the horrors of families who had seen their little ones slaughtered by cruel King Herod (Matthew 2:17-18). And these words also describe the affliction of heart that families today suffer who have gone through the abortion of a child. As Dr. James Lamb recently told me, how many modern “Rachels” there are who suffer in silence, who have the constant companions of emotional turmoil and grief, and who know the devastating repercussions of guilt and shame.
Rachel in Scripture was a woman who had also known grief and sadness. Besides the texts mentioned above, she had seen her sister marry the man she loved and how Rachel was prevented from marrying him for another seven years. Rachel was barren for a long while and her sister had many children. Threats against their families’ safety came in the announcement that her husband’s estranged brother was coming for him with a company of soldiers. Finally, there is this unique passage from Jeremiah and St. Matthew which is the kicker. Rachel weeping, refusing to be comforted, because her children were no more.
Yet, there is a remarkable insight and comfort that God the Holy Spirit has hidden in this passage too. Much attention is given to the emotional trauma of Rachel, and also the fine Gospel promise that follows in the next two verses of Jeremiah 31:16-17: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears … There is hope in your future, says the Lord.” And this is fine and good.
But, it is also interesting if we look a little closer at the biblical Rachel and who her children were. Rachel had been barren for years while at the same time her sister, Leah, had given birth to seven children. But, in Genesis 30:22, “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb.” She had a son: Joseph. Rachel’s second son had a tragic birth. Genesis 35 describes how Rachel’s second pregnancy was hard, and the childbirth caused Rachel’s death. While she lay dying, she gave her second son the name Ben-Oni. But her husband Jacob called the baby a different name: Benjamin.
The wonderful thing about names in Scripture is that they mean things. When these names are translated, they give us a remarkable testimony about the individual—and about God’s gracious work and His compassion for wounded hearts. Joseph means “He will add.” Genesis 30:24 gives the meaning Rachel said, “The Lord shall add to me another son.” Therefore, the one doing the adding is not Joseph, but the Lord—this would be another son who would be like the first, who would take away Rachel’s shame and comfort her heart.
Ben-Oni, on the other hand, means “Son of my sorrow.” When death was separating Rachel from her children, all Rachel’s focus was on the sharp sting of grief. She was devastated in her heart, and that affliction carried over when she thought of her son. Post-abortion people can empathize, because the affliction of their hearts is so sharp and overwhelming too.
But this son was given a new name, Benjamin, which means, “Son of my right hand.” It is a name of hope and a name of comfort. The son of the right hand is another way to say the son of my strength. The right hand was often seen by the Hebrew culture as a way to refer to power, skill, ability—one’s best likelihood to find success and victory. And so the name of hopelessness for Rachel’s second son was changed to a name of hope, sorrow was changed to joy, death changed to life.
If you put these three names together, they point to an even greater reality. “The Lord shall add to me another son, a son of my sorrow, a son of my right hand.” Isn’t this what our loving and merciful God has done? He has added another son to hearts that grieve—His own Son, Jesus! God has added to us His Son who has shared in our affliction and carried our sorrows. However, Jesus the Son of God is also the Son of God’s right hand, and our right hand. That is to say, He is the strength of God over hopelessness, despair, and affliction of heart! Jesus is the One who defeated every enemy that overwhelms people. He is the success of God for fallen sinners, and His name Jesus (which means “He will save”) is most certainly the name of hope, the name above all names. This is why, even now that He is risen from the grave and is ascended, it is impressive that Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Here, God’s “right-hand Man” who is also true God prays for us and brings our needs before God. He is God’s strength, God’s skill, God’s Deliverer who now gives fallen sinners victory.
Jesus is also the Son of our right hand, too. In Him alone we find our strength, our ability to cope, our joy at His gracious giving, our peace of heart because He does not hold our sins against us! The preaching of Jesus’ Gospel is our light in the darkness, for He is our great Morning Star who drives the darkness of guilt and shame away. Because we are also baptized into Him, He is at our right hand. By the Holy Spirit’s grace that He continues to work in the baptized, Christ comes to be with us, and for us. Trusting in Christ, you have victory over the devil, over his lies, over your mistakes in the past, over every wound you bear, and over every hopelessness.
God, whose grace was won by the death of our Lord Jesus, is gracious for all sinners. He does not afflict the afflicted, but either takes the affliction away, helps the afflicted bear it, or turns the affliction into something good. Even with Rachel who wept because death came between her and her sons, God inspired these names as a way to bring comfort for us too. Christ is our Life. God has added His Son to us, and because of this, there is hope in Him.
Rev. Robert Mayes is pastor at Immanuel and Zion St. John Lutheran Churches, Beemer and Wisner, Nebraska.