p.ost

How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The Benedictus of Zechariah

And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

The Benedictus of Zechariah corresponds to Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and echoes its central theme, which is that YHWH has acted to redeem Israel from its state of oppression for the sake of the promise to Abraham to preserve an authentic humanity, a renewed creation, in the midst of the nations of the earth. The passage is dense with allusions to the Old Testament, bringing into view a background narrative that must be allowed to guide and delimit our reading of the prophecy.

The following table lists only the more obvious points of correspondence.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people… (Lk. 1:68)

‘Remember us, O Lord, with the favour thou hast to thy people: visit us with thy salvation’ (Ps. 105:4 LXX)

…and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… that we should be saved from our enemies… (Lk. 1:69-71)

The LORD is… the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (Ps. 18:2-3)

that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us (Lk. 1:71)

And he saved them out of the hand of them that hated them, and redeemed them out of the hand of the enemy. (Ps. 106:10)

…to show the mercy promised to our fathers (Lk. 1:72)

You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old. (Mic. 7:20)

…to remember his holy covenant (Lk. 1:72)

For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Ps. 106:45 = 105:45 LXX)

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways… (Lk. 1:76)

Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal. 3:1)

…to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins… (Lk. 1:77)

The LORD has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Ps. 98:2)

…whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Lk. 1:78-79)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. (Is. 60:1-2)

The narrative that emerges from this kaleidoscope of memories is of Israel suffering the political consequences of judgment, looking to YHWH to rescue the nation from the humiliation and pain of subjugation and to restore its worship and prosperity. Psalm 106 (= Ps. 105 LXX) is especially important because it tells the story of Israel’s persistent disobedience, of how God gave them into the hands of the nations, and of his faithfulness in delivering them from oppression.

The message of the Benedictus, therefore, is that Jesus will save the people of God’s promise from a political situation that did not allow them to serve YHWH in holiness and righteousness without fear of violent repression (Luke 1:74). But this visitation of YHWH to save will also be a coming in judgment (‘But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’) because Israel has done evil in the sight of the Lord (Mal. 2:17-3:2). Israel is currently under occupation, it faces a catastrophic ‘great and terrible day of the Lord’ in the not too distant future (Mal. 4:5), but God has acted to preserve the ‘remnant of his inheritance’ (Micah 7:18).

This thoroughly political narrative does not need to be spiritualized or universalized in order to be meaningful for us. It is part of our story as God’s historic people of blessing, descended ultimately and definitively from Abraham. Zechariah prophesies the deliverance of a remnant from an oppression that would culminate in destruction, for the sake of the worship of YHWH in the world.