[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
1:8-9. During the two weeks that Zacharias was serving as priest in Jerusalem that year, his lot fell to burn incense in the temple. This was an offering of incense which was to be burned twice daily in the temple (Exod 30:7-8). It was burned in the Holy Place at the Altar of Incense, right outside the Holy of Holies. The altar was considered part of the furnishings in the Holy of Holies (Exod 30:6), but since incense had to be burned on it daily, and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies one time a year on the Day of Atonement, the Altar was placed right at the veil, outside the Holy of Holies.
Since it was a great honor to burn incense, it was determined by lot which priest would burn the incense on a particular day (Lightfoot 1989:15). The casting of lots was a Middle Eastern method of making decisions (cf. Prov 16:33; Jonah 1:7; Acts 1:26). Lightfoot explains that the lots were determined by the priests standing in a circle, and then beginning with a certain man, the ruler of the Sanhedrin counts around the circle until a person is chosen for the particular task (1989:16).
Due to the vast number of priests in Israel (between 18-32,000), only those who had never before offered the incense were eligible to participate in the casting of lots (Green, 1997:68; Bock 1994:79). So a priest was only given this honor once in his entire life, and many priests were never chosen at all. It was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience” (Malina 2003:225). On this day, the lot fell to Zacharias.
1:10. As Zacharias went in to burn incense, a multitude of the people was praying outside. Though entering the Holy Place to light incense was not nearly so serious as entering the Holy of Holies, it nevertheless should be performed with great caution. At all times the priests were to maintain personal holiness, but this was especially true when they ministered before the Lord and approached the veil (cf. Lev 21:23). Certainly, every priest who entered the Holy Place remembered what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they approached in an unprescribed manner–fire came out from the Most Holy Place and consumed them (Lev 10:1-2).
As Zacharias entered the Holy Place to burn the incense, he likely felt some trepidation. All priests naturally experienced the fear of the Lord as they entered, but Zacharias probably had some extra concern due to the fact that his wife remained barren. If there was a sin which God was judging them for, and which Zacharias was unaware of, entering the Holy Place without having been cleansed of that sin would be a death sentence.
Possibly, various members of the multitude were there for similar reasons. They wanted to see, once and for all, whether Zacharias was as righteous and blameless as he appeared. God was going to provide the answer this day when Zacharias entered the Holy Place. Most, of course, were simply there to pray. A later tradition states that while the priest was in the Holy Place making the offering, the people outside prayed, “May the merciful God enter the Holy Place and accept with favor the offering of his people” (Bock 1994:80).