15 This is what the Lord says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
16 This is what the Lord says:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
“They will return from the land of the enemy.
17 So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
“Your children will return to their own land.
18 “I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
because you are the Lord my God.
19 After I strayed,
after I came to understand,
I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
20 Is not Ephraim my dear son,
the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 31:15-20 NIV)
In previous passages, we saw the Lord share His plans with His children, then share His redemption plan for His people with the world. In today’s text, we see the Lord’s heart of love and compassion for His children, focused on the northern tribe of Israel.
In verse 15, the Lord paints a picture of Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because she believes her children are lost forever, exiled to the far ends of the earth. In verses 16-17, the Lord provides comfort and hope, guaranteeing that her children will return to their home, the land promised by God.
By way of historical context, Rachel had two sons: Joseph and Benjamin (Genesis 35:24). Her sons were two of the twelve tribes of Israel. If we fast forward to King Solomon’s death, we see the split of the nation into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom (called “Israel”, including Joseph’s two sons – Ephraim and Manasseh) and the southern kingdom (called Judah, where Benjamin’s descendants aligned themselves).
While many generations had passed since Rachel’s life, the idea of a mother weeping over her belief of never seeing her children again is deeply moving. Here we see God showing His heart of compassion and promise of hope. He tells Rachel to quiet her crying and dry her tears, as He has heard the travails of her heart and will take action.
In verses 18 – 19, the Lord notes that He hears the cry of the exiled northern tribes, noted by Rachel’s grandson and Joseph’s son Ephraim. The northern tribes (collectively symbolized in Ephraim) recognized the Lord’s discipline (v. 18) and repent (v. 19). The reference to an “unruly calf” needing training is in reference to the prophet Hosea’s word from the Lord about them (Hosea 4:16).
When I was a boy, I grew up on a farm and raised two calves which I showed at the county fair. County fair rules were very clear: the cattle had to be broken to lead. To have a wild or unruly calf weighing between 850 and 1,200 pounds was a safety issue for all involved.
The process of breaking a calf to lead is a lot like raising a child. Some are quite compliant and easy to train, and some are quite headstrong and require extra measures. Even if you start while they are young, some still have a mind of their own. The latter was the case for my two calves. Even as young calves, they each weighed multiples of what I did and would quickly jerk the rope out of my grasp and gain their freedom in the barnyard.
My father, being older and wiser, saw the strong-willed nature of these two young calves and came up with another plan. One at a time, he tied a rope from each calf’s halter to the back of the tractor and had me drive around the meadow and lane at a slow walking pace. The tractor, being many times greater in both weight and strength than the calf, would force the calf to follow along. When the calf would want to stop and eat the meadow grass, the tractor would impose its will on the unruly calf and force it to follow. When we turned onto to gravel lane, the calf would try to return to the grass and would lean back and lock its legs against the force of the tractor. The loose gravel offered no foothold, and the calf would leave four short hoof-sized “skid marks” in the loose rock as evidence against its vain efforts to free itself and return to the grass. After daily training sessions over the course of a couple of weeks, the calves would follow me wherever I led them without the aid of the tractor.
In verse 20, the Lord refers to Ephraim as His “dear son” (also as “first-born son” in v. 9). In these references, we see God’s heart of delight, compassion, and yearning for His children to return to Him. It pains God deeply to have to discipline His children, and His heart is always positive toward them.
When the Lord says “My heart yearns for him”, the original Hebrew text literally says “my bowels rumble for him”. The Old Testament belief was that the intestines were the seat of a person’s emotions. In our day, we say the “heart” is the seat of our emotions. Either way, the point of this phrase is to show the physical manifestations of these emotions, to indicate how deeply the Lord experiences His love and care for His own.
May we see God’s heart of love, joy, and compassion toward us, even when we are the “unruly calf” that must be broken to lead.
May we remember and recognize that when the Lord disciplines us, it is for our restoration to right relationship with Him, not to our destruction.