Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
In Mary’s song, we learned that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary (1:26-27) with the message that she would bear a Son whom she was to call Jesus (1:31). In her excitement, Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth (1:36) to tell her the Good News of her pregnancy with the holy Jesus (1:39-45). Mary’s response, the only appropriate response, was to sing praises to God for “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (1:49).
We now move back to an earlier time in Luke’s Gospel, to the historical record of the birth of John to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Although Zechariah’s song of thanks and praise occurs after Mary’s song, Luke’s account actually begins with them. Mary sings her song of praise and worship to God (1:46-55) after she is informed of her miraculous conception (1:26-38), and her visit with Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:39-45). Zechariah’s song, which is a prophecy, is spoken after John is born and Zechariah’s tongue was loosed, his punishment of being unable to speak for disbelieving the promise of God that he and Elizabeth would bear a son was removed (1:20, 63-64).
The Historical Context
Zechariah (which means “Yahweh has remembered again”) and Elizabeth (which means “my God is the one by whom I swear” or “my God is fortune”) were, like Mary, “righteous before God.” They also walked “blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (1:6). Zechariah was a priest, not a high priest, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, while Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the first priest (Ex. 28:1-5). Although they wanted children, they were unable because Elizabeth was barren, and to add to the impossibility of bearing children, both were “advanced in years” (1:6).
All priests served in the temple for two one-week periods each year. In the midst of Zechariah’s annual ministry, he was chosen by lot to engage in the greatest ministry of his career, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense (1:9). This special ministry was performed only once in a lifetime. When Zechariah was ministering in the temple burning incense to the Lord, Gabriel appeared to him and brought the message a message from God (1:19). The angel informed him that he and Elizabeth would bear a son, and they were to call him John (1:13). John’s ministry was to be that of a forerunner of the Messiah, to prepare the way for the Lord, “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (1:17).
Due to the apparent impossible circumstances facing this barren and old couple, Zechariah doubted God and his promise (1:18). God disciplined him by striking him mute until the birth of John (1:20). He exited the temple unable to speak. It is important to note the similarities and differences between Zechariah’s and Mary’s questions. They both ask questions and wonder how the promise given to them by the angel will be fulfilled, since both are humanly impossible. Mary’s question was answered and she, in turn, was blessed because she believed what the Lord had said to her would be accomplished. The Lord not only had to fulfill his promise, since it was impossible, he would fulfill his promise. In contrast, Zechariah doubted so he asked for a sign of confirmation to validate this promise. God did grant a sign, but it was in the form of a rebuke due to his lack of faith, his disbelief. He was not able to speak. He lived for the fill length of the pregnancy, nine months, with the promise and the sign, without any full realization of the fulfillment of the promise. Elizabeth knew this was only a work of the grace of God, and uttered “the Lord has done this for me” (1:25).
After nine months, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, and everyone shared their joy. Eight days later they brought the baby boy to be circumcised and to name him. Others wanted to name him after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that he be called John (1:59-60). When they asked Zechariah, he asked for a writing tablet and wrote “His name is John” (1:63).
Immediately he was able to speak and he praised God (1:63). In response he sang a beautiful Spirit-filled song of praise, the Benedictus.
In sum, the song praises God for His redemption, salvation, mercy, covenant, all brought about through the coming Davidic ruler, Jesus (1:68-75). It also focuses on the ministry of John (later known as the Baptist). He is the prophet of the Most High who will prepare the way (1:76), and to bring the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins (1:77), which comes through Jesus (1:78-79), the light of the world (Jn. 8:12; cf. Jn. 3:19-21).
The Theological and Doxological Response
God is praised for delivering his people (1:68-75).
God has come and redeemed his people (1:68a). God’s coming can refer to a gracious act or to judgment, often both. In this instance, the reference is to God’s gracious coming for deliverance of his people, but there is also an implicit statement about his judgement because he frees his people from the enemies who will be judged. This coming is linked with the Messiah Jesus’ coming. The Messiah’s coming means redemption for God’s people. It means deliverance from enemies, so that God’s people are free to serve the Deliverer. Redemption is release to a Redeemer, and worship of him.
Redemption has Old Testament roots. The divine act of deliverance from Egypt became the type for understanding God’s future acts of redemption and salvation for his people. Thus, with the coming of God in the Messiah Jesus, true liberation and redemption occur in both the physical and spiritual realms. Salvation in Christ becomes the anti-type, the fulfillment of the Egyptian experience and rather than Moses leading to the promised land, and who died before entering into it, Jesus brings us safely to the promised land.
God raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David, about which the prophets had spoken, and we were saved from our enemies (1:69-71). In the Old Testament, the term “raised” is used of significant figures – prophet (Dt. 18:15, 180, judge (Jd. 3:9, 15), priest (1 Sam. 2:35), and king (2 Sam. 23:1). In this Messiah, the one who represents God’s coming, all of these significant titles and functions converge into one person.
The Messiah is a person of power and strength. The term horn pictures the ox with horns that defeat enemies with the powerful thrust of its protected head (Dt. 33:17). It is also used of God himself (2 Sam. 22:3; Ps. 18:2). This Messiah who will be raised up is from the line and lineage of David and he fulfills the promise spoken by him (2 Sam. 7:14), and confirmed by many other prophets. There is divine unity in the biblical account: “as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (1:70). The message of the prophets is unified, though spoken by many, because the message of God’s promise remains the same throughout all ages, and its unity is guaranteed because he is the divine author. This Messiah, who is strong and fulfilled prophecy, saved and saves us from our enemies.
Salvation produces or displays God’s mercy, shown to our fathers, and faithfulness, he has remembered his covenant (1:72-73). God’s mercy and his covenant are brought together. Mercy is punishment withheld that is deserved, and grace, the other side of this twin truth, is a gift freely given undeserved. In God’s mercy, he acts. He sends the Messiah to save his people, our fathers in the faith. In doing this, he is faithful to the covenant, the original covenant given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), who is our father in the faith (Gal. 3:29). For God “to remember,” it does not mean simply to bring to mind. Rather, it refers to God bringing his promise to completion, to fulfillment. In relation to the covenant, notice, importantly, the reference both to Abraham (1:73) and David (1:69). It is important to acknowledge God sends a Messiah not primarily for us, but for him. He sends a Messiah as a result of faithfulness to his covenant, and secondarily for us.
The reason God did this, the purpose of God’s mercy, the forgiveness of sins, to remember his covenant, to rescue from enemies, was the following: The purpose of salvation (“we were rescued”) is that we might serve the Lord (worship) without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (1:74-75). God delivers his people from the hands of their enemies, he saves us, and in saving his people he fulfills the covenant, and he does all of this for his name’s sake. In response, when God delivers, redeems and saves for his sake, he does this so his people can serve him fearlessly, without fear. This expression is emphatic. If the enemy keeps people in fear of death and judgement and condemnation, God delivers from fear. This expression “without fear” is emphatic. Freed from these enemies and fears (Heb. 2:14-18), we are saved to serve, to worship, an engagement with God in all of life (cf. Rom. 12:1-2).
God is also praised for what he will do through John and Jesus (1:76-79).
John will be called the prophet of the Most High (1:76-77). Zechariah transitions to address John and Jesus. Most High refers to God. John is God’s prophet, whereas Jesus is God’s Son. John, though older, is subordinate to Jesus. John’s role is twofold.
First, he will prepare the way of the Lord. John is the fulfillment of promises given earlier by Isaiah (40:3) and Malachi (3:1). There is continuity between John’s and Jesus’ ministry, but when Jesus comes, John’s particular ministry is over. Jesus holds center stage in redemptive history. All that precedes points toward his coming, and all subsequent to this points back to his coming. He is the center point of all of redemptive history. The Lord is κύριος (Kurios). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), this term is used of God, translating the tetragrammaton, Yahweh. But in the coming of the Lord, God, the Lord is Jesus. This passage teaches about the deity of Christ.
John will, second, give the people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is connected with salvation. Since sin is defiance and rebellion against God, that sin must be forgiven or there will be no salvation. John will proclaim this salvation and forgiveness of sins, but it is Jesus who alone can and will provide it. This is why when John first encountered Jesus while in utero, he leaped (1:41). This also explains why when John saw Jesus later in life he exclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29, 36)! And understanding his role in redemptive history as the one who points to Jesus and once he arrives, his role is over and he rightly acknowledges, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).
Jesus is sent as a result of God’s mercy (1:78-79). It is because of God’s tender mercy he acts for his people. The “sunrise” will visit us from “on high,” from heaven. God initiatives. Here it states he will “visit us,” a repetition from what is stated earlier about God’s having “visited and redeemed his people” (1:68). The sunrise dispels the darkness (cf. Isa. 60:1-3), and spiritually it gives the light of life and removes death and the shadow of death (Jn. 1:4-5; 8:12). Jesus comes to shine on those living in darkness. The result of his coming is that he guides us into peace.
Here are some questions as we ponder over and pray through the truths expressed in Zechariah’s song: