[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
The song of Zacharias begins to provide an answer to the question asked by his friends and relatives in verse 66: “What kind of child will this be?” The song of Zacharias, like the song of Mary in verses 46-55, has traditionally been named after the first word in the Latin: Benedictus, which means “Blessed.” Luke the song of Mary, the song of Zacharias, focuses on the Messiah which is to come, the redemption He will bring, and how the son of Zacharias, John, will prepare the way for this Messiah.
This is a song of redemption for Zacharias as well. Up until this point in the narrative, he has been portrayed in a negative light, as one who doubts the word from God through Gabriel even though he had every reason to believe it. He has now had nine months to be alone with his thoughts, and the words almost certainly reflect what he has learned during this period of silence. Aside from containing numerous allusions to the Psalms and the Prophets, the words he speaks echo Mary’s song of faith, as well as the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. The similarity to Hannah’s prayer is especially appropriate since Zachariah’s son will prepare the way for the Messiah, the King of Israel, just as Hannah’s son, Samuel, prepared the way for King David.
1:67. His song is both a praise to God for what He has done, and a prophesy about what God will do in the future. Both of these were a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Using Exodus terminology (vv. 68, 71, 74; cf. Ps 106:10) he praises God for the salvation that is to come through the Messiah (1:68-75), and he prophecies that his newborn son will be the prophet who will prepare the way for this Messiah (1:76-79).
Even though Zacharias is prophesying about two different individuals, his entire statement forms a chiasm which reveals the central point Zacharias is making. He believes the Abrahamic Covenant is finally coming true. Verses 75 and 79 do not fit into the chiasm, but that is because these verses conclude the section about Jesus and John respectively. The chiasm is as follows:
A 68 – Visited by God
B 69 – Horn of Salvation
C 70 – Prophets since the world began
D 71 – Salvation from Enemies
E 72 – Mercy promised to fathers
E’ 73 – Covenant to father Abraham
D’ 74 – Salvation from Enemies
C’ 76 – Prophet of the Highest
B’ 77 – Knowledge of Salvation
A’ 78 – Visited by Dayspring
1:68. Zacharias begins with blessing the Lord God of Israel. It is He who has accomplished the great things Zacharias proclaims. The primary thing Zacharias praises God for is that He has visited and redeemed His people. Redemption is the grand theme of Scripture, wherein God seeks to buy back for Himself that which has been stolen from Him and sold into slavery and bondage. This was especially true of His people Israel, and Zacharias uses lots of Exodus, Jubilee, and Davidic dynasty terminology to present this idea (Green 1997:116-117). The people were not only in bondage spiritually and morally to sin and the legalistic requirements of human religion, but also physically to the Roman Empire. The expectation revealed by Zacharias here and in the following statements is that God will rescue and deliver them from all such enemies.
1:69. The primary means by which God would accomplish this redemption of Israel was through the Messiah. Zacharias speaks of the Messiah as a horn of salvation. In Scripture, horns are frequently a symbol of strength and power, as with the horns of an oxen (Deut 33:17), and the horns on a helmet (Ps 75:4-5, 10). This figure is also used to describe God (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 18:2, cf. Bock 1994:180). Finally, the horn could also be an allusion to the horn that would sprout from David (1 Sam 2:1, 10; 2 Sam 22:3). All these horn images fit within the battle-imagery that First Century Israelites would have had for the coming Messiah.
This helps the reader understand what Zacharias means by salvation. Despite modern usage, in Scripture, the term salvation is rarely used in reference to receiving eternal life and gaining entrance into heaven. Rather, it is most often used of gaining deliverance from physical harm, sickness, and enemies. In this context, Zacharias proclaims that God will provide salvation to Israel through delivering her from Roman occupation (cf. 1:71, 74). So the phrase horn of salvation refers to a coming Messiah who will be strong to deliver Israel from all her enemies (Bock 1994:180).
This is emphasized further in the next phrase, where Zacharias refers to the house of His servant David. Zacharias knows that Mary and Joseph were of royal descent and that their son will restore the Davidic throne in Israel. It may be that Zacharias has in mind the Davidic Covenant from 2 Samuel 7 wherein God promised to deliver him (and all Israel) from enemies, provide peace and prosperity in the land, and set up David and his family on the throne of Israel forever. This, however, was not only the expectation and hope from the time of David, but from the beginning of the world, as Zacharias says next.
1:70. The promises of redemption and deliverance from enemies is a theme found throughout all Scripture, as all the holy prophets testified. This was the hope and longing since the world began.Ever since sin and rebellion were introduced, people longed to return to Eden, to be restored unto fellowship with God, to gain deliverance from oppression, and once again have God walk among them.
1:71. Zacharias returns for a second time to the theme of salvation from our enemies. This was the great longing of Israel, and the ultimate sign that the Messiah had come. The Exodus from Egypt was a prototype of kind of deliverance that Israel looked for. It was not just the freedom from enemies and oppression they longed for, but also the signs and miracles, the restoration of the land and throne, and the regaining of peace and prosperity. All of this would be accomplished when the Israelites were removed from beneath the oppressive hand of all who hate them. So once again, the salvation in view refers to deliverance or preservation, whether it be deliverance of a nation, or physical preservation of health. In context here, “the salvation is from enemies and from the hand of those who hate” (Bock 1994:182).
1:72-73. All of this was to happen in accordance with the mercy…promised to our fathers. This merciful deliverance was promised to all the forefathers of Israel, but Zacharias has a specific promise in mind. He speaks of the holy covenant which he specifies as the oath which He swore to our father Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 17:7; 22:16-18; 26:3, 24) is primarily about blessing. In a few short verses, blessing is mentioned four times.
Primarily, the blessing is for Abraham, to give him a land of his own, and to make his name great. This was fulfilled in Israelite history, but now that Israel was under Roman occupation, Zacharias and the other Israelites of his day were looking for a renewal of this blessing. They wanted the land to be restored to them. But the blessings were not just for Abraham and his descendants in regard to land and honor. The Abrahamic Covenant goes on to say that Abraham himself (including his descendants) will be a blessing to others. So much so, that eventually all the families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3). So the Abrahamic Covenant is not just blessings for Abraham and his descendants, but has ramifications for the entire world. He and his descendants are to be a blessing to every family in history. All the prophets attest to this as well, as Zacharias stated previously.
Now that the central point of the chiasm has been made, Zacharias begins to work his way back out, repeating what has been said before, as a way to emphasize that all these things will happen in fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant.
1:74. Zacharias states that the purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant is not just to be delivered from the hand of our enemies, but that, once delivered, the people of Israel might serve him without fear. God expects His people to serve Him whether they are delivered from their enemies or not. However, enemies often threaten God’s people with harm if they obey God. It is only when such enemies are re removed that God’s people can obey Him without fear. Once again, this idea is reminiscent of the Exodus, when God told the people of Israel that He was delivering them so that they might worship Him (Exod 7:16; Josh 24;14; cf. Green 1997:117).
1:75. This verse concludes the statements of Zacharias about the Messiah and what He will accomplish. He will remove enemies, deliver Israel, and bring in a time of peace and prosperity during which Israel will serve in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. Jewish tradition asserts that if all the Jews in the world could keep the Sabbath for two days, the Messiah would come. Zacharias reveals that when the Messiah does come, and the kingdom is inaugurated, all Israel will obey—not just the Sabbath laws, but all of God’s laws, and not just for two days, but for their entire lives. And Zacharias is not interested in simple, outward obedience, but obedience which is inner, of the heart, in holiness and righteousness. Such service involves all aspects of life, and becomes a life of worship (Rom 12:1-2).
Though Zacharias has concluded the section on the Messiah, the chiasm is not yet complete. He finishes the chiasm by talking about the future prophetic ministry of his son, John. The fact that both the Messiah and John have a part in this chiasm shows that their lives and ministries will be intertwined. Further, though John is born first and will begin his ministry first, Zacharias speaks of him second. Though John prepares the way for the Messiah, he is of lesser importance, like an emissary before the king (cf. John 1:27; Luke 3:16).
1:76. John, the child of Zacharias, will fulfill Jewish prophecies, and will himself be called the prophet of the Highest. He will become Israel’s greatest prophet (Luke 3:1-22; 7:28).. In the next few statements, Zacharias reveals two prophetic tasks that his son will accomplish. First, he will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways. There is some confusion about whothe Lord refers to. Though some see it as a reference to God (Bock 1994:188), it seems most natural to take the title as a reference to Jesus (Green 1997:118). It fits the immediate context best, and in the wider context, other uses of “Lord” also refer to Jesus (1:17, 43; 2:11). However, not too much should be read into the term. In First Century usage, any master or king could be called “Lord.” In Jewish thinking, the Messiah would be their Lord and King, but nobody imagined He would be a divine incarnation of God. So John, in fulfillment of prophecy, will go before the coming King to both announce his immanent arrival as well as prepare the way for Him (3:4; Isa 40:3).
1:77. The second prophetic task John will accomplish is in giving knowledge of salvation to His people. This salvation is parallel to that of verse 69, and primarily refers to the deliverance of Israel from her enemies. Though this ultimately was the task of the Messiah, the prophetic forerunner would have a role in starting the process by calling Israel to national repentance (cf. Luke 3:1-20). As stated earlier, the Messiah would come (with the associated blessings) when all Israel turned from sin and lived in obedience to God. This is what Zacharias means when he bases salvation on the remission of their sins. Remission (Gk. aphesis) does not refer to “forgiveness” but is closer to “liberty” or “freedom” (cf. Luke 3:3; 4:18-19; 25:47).
The Jewish people understood that while Rome was their physical enemy, their occupation by Rome was only the result of a greater enemy—their sin and rebellion as a nation. In this way, national sin and enemy occupation were one and the same thing. If the nation was delivered from one, it must logically have deliverance from the other as well.
So verse 77 is not about gaining eternal life and entrance into heaven, but about the great Jewish hope of finally being freed from the twin enemies of sin and Roman occupation. (Compare Luke 24:47 where Jesus tells His followers to continue this mission of bringing peace and freedom to all nations.) “For Luke, the reconciliation of God’s people and deliverance from enemies are both part of the one divine movement” (Green 1997:115). Remission of sins, or liberty from sins, is both freedom from the captivating and addictive power of sin, and from the dire political and national consequences of sin for the people of Israel.
1:78. This great deliverance will be based upon the tender mercy of our God. This statement is rooted in Psalm 130:7-8 where redemption and freedom are a result of God’s love (Green 1997:118). Here, they are a result of God’s mercy, which fits well with what the friends and relatives of Zacharias had said about Elizabeth, namely, that God had shown mercy to her (1:58). The central point of the chiasm was that God was now going to perform the mercy which He promised to the forefathers. In this way, since mercy is shown to Elizabeth, she is pictured as a type, or model, of Israel. Though shamed and disgraced in her old age, God miraculously intervened, and in His mercy, provided a son. Israel was disgraced under Roman occupation, but now, after many years of pain, a son had been born who would prepare the way for the promised Messiah.
Zacharias describes his son as the Dayspring from on high. Though most take this as a reference to the Messiah, it is best taken as a reference to John. Grammatically, the noun could refer to either. Furthermore, the word dayspring (Gk. anatole) might best be translated as “branch” which would seem to support the view that Zacharias is referring to the Messiah (Lightfoot 1989:29; Green 1997:121; Bock 1994:191). However, in context, the coming light seems to be something different than the dayspring (which has caused all the discussion).. Therefore, the dayspring could be understood as the branches that come out of the sun and precede it in the sunrise. The dayspring is not the sun, but the branch of light which comes before the sun. It is the few minutes of light right before the first rays of sun appear on the horizon. It is the brightening of the horizon before the sun actually rises. In this context, it appears that Zacharias believes his son John is this light, the forerunner to the actual Light of the world.
1:79. Verse 78 concluded the parallel statements in the chiasm, but Zacharias must now conclude the section about his son John. He states that there are two reason his son has come as the dayspring, the light before the dawn. The first is to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. This describes the people of Israel and their distress under Roman occupation. It describes a life of fear and hopelessness. “The OT images appear to refer to those who are oppressed spiritually and physically, like Israel before the exodus (Psa 107:10; Isa 9:2; 42:7; 49:9-10; 59:8-9; Mic 7:8). They refer to people locked up in ignorance, on the edge of death. Threatened with rejection, they lack righteousness, do not demonstrate justice, and stand in need of release and forgiveness” (Bock 1994:193). Just as the first glimmer of light brings hope after a long night of wandering lost in an unfamiliar forest, so the birth and ministry of John would provide a glimmer of hope to those who faced nothing but darkness and death.
Secondly, the ministry of John would guide our feet into the way of peace. Again, the Jewish people longed for peace, and John would be the prophet who would help lead them there.
1:80 The section concludes with a statement about John growing up. This statement summarizes thirty years of preparation, of which we know very little. What is known comes from this verse alone. It says John grew and became strong in spirit, which refers to being filled, or controlled, by the Spirit. Luke goes on to record that John was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel. His primary place of preparation for ministry was in the desert, a place of solitude. This was true of many of the great prophets of Israelite history (e.g., Moses), and reminds the reader of the prophets about John that he would be a voice of one crying in the wilderness (3:4; Isa 40:3).
Luke’s summary statement “is reminiscent of Gen 20:21; Judg 13:24-25, where similar summaries of childhood and youth are given. It also anticipates the similar, but more developed [and therefore superior] report of Jesus’ maturation in 2:40-52, and the summary of the growth of the ‘Word of God’ in the Acts of the Apostles’ (Green 1997:120).