Luke 1: 67 – 80 Zechariah’s song
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us – to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
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This song is Hebrew poetry and it uses figures of speech that would have been understood by those listening. Today’s readers are mostly unfamiliar with the idiom, and may find certain things obscure. One phrase in particular probably needs explanation.
“He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
This means that God has caused the birth of a strong king who is a direct descendant of King David. In this song, Zechariah is prophesying. God hasn’t yet caused the strong king to be born, but he will do in the near future, because the ‘strong king’ is Jesus.
Let’s have a look at the structure of the song.
The second and third paragraphs above (verses 68 – 75) refer to Jesus, the strong king who is being raised up by God. Zechariah looks back through Jewish history, and summarises where God has affirmed his promise of salvation – in King David, through the holy prophets, and going right back to Abraham and the covenant made between him and God (Genesis 17: 1 – 27).
Rather touchingly, Zechariah’s own vocation as a priest influences what he says in verses 74 – 75. He sings, “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The Jews’ freedom to worship in the temple was by no means assured. If the Romans had judged it politically necessary, they could have stopped worship there immediately.
Note that Zechariah does not realise that the strong king is Mary’s child. If we look at the gospel narratives of Jesus’ baptism – and all four gospels include the event – we see that even John the Baptist didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah until he baptised him. St John explicitly has John the Baptist say that he didn’t know (John 1: 31). Matthew has John recognise Jesus’ righteousness, but not explicitly identify him as the Messiah (Matthew 3: 14 – 15). Luke and Mark just tell the story of the baptism without commenting on whether John the Baptist knew Jesus identity as the Messiah.
In the fourth paragraph, Zechariah is referring to his own son, John, who will be called “a prophet of the Most High”. He is “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” something he accomplishes through his ministry of baptism. Note that here Zechariah is prophesying about the end of the primacy of temple worship and sacrifice as the way in which sin could be forgiven.
This section closes by summarising what “the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,” means with some of the most beautiful words of the bible: “because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
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Zechariah’s Song contains a specific prophecy that I want to consider briefly. Jesus, the Messiah, the strong king, is “to rescue us from the hand of our enemies.”
Who are our enemies?
When Zechariah sang or chanted these words he almost certainly thought of the Romans, and of the Messiah driving them out. In fact, God’s plan was completely different. Jesus was to die to rescue all mankind from our enemies.
So Zechariah didn’t know that Mary’s child, Jesus, was the Messiah, and he would have misunderstood who the enemies were, and, indeed, he would have misunderstood who would be saved. We can learn two lessons from this. Firstly, you can prophesy authentically and truthfully without understanding what you are saying. Secondly, even though you deliver the prophecy faithfully and accurately, you can completely misunderstand what it means. I think this is probably as true now as it was in Zechariah’s time.
But back to the question.
Who are our enemies?
St Paul in Ephesians 6: 12 refers to them like this: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
It can certainly feel like that when I’m struggling with temptation. It can feel like that when I look at the way so much of worldly power is organised for violence, either the ‘hard’ violence of war or the ‘soft’ violence of greed and exploitation. At a personal level this equates to a temptation to profit from violence, greed and exploitation. It is impossible to avoid complicity in the system when much of our national prosperity is based on an unjust trade system and the supply of weapons to other nations.
But it is also possible to understand these evils as arising naturally. They come from human traits that once gave a survival advantage to small groups of humans. They reflect our origins as a species. This understanding of them doesn’t deny human responsibility for sin; quite the opposite. It puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of each one of us. Original sin is the way in which these characteristics, once essential for survival, can lead to actions which are evil. God demands that we struggle against them.
But – praise God! – we don’t have to struggle alone. We have Jesus on our side, and he has won the victory.
Thank you for Jesus. Please let me be constantly aware of his presence.
In Jesus name, Amen