Bible readingThis post continues with the story of Zechariah (Zachary), John the Baptist’s father.

Luke’s is the only Gospel which has the account of the events which led to John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s births.

It is helpful to read the first part of the story, especially noting the portions which explain the Nazirite way of life which John the Baptist was set to follow, as the angel who appeared to Zechariah declared. Essentially, John the Baptist was a type of Jewish monk, as was Samson in the Old Testament.

Unfortunately, these readings have not been included in the three-year Lectionary used in public worship. For this reason, they become part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry.

Luke 1:18-25

18And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

 24After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25“Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

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Zechariah made a serious mistake in doubting the angel (verse 18). He must have spoken to the angel in a way which was even more provocative than when Abraham’s wife Sarah laughed at God then denied doing so when He said she would bear a son (Genesis 18:9-15).

The angel revealed his identity as Gabriel (verse 19). By identifying himself, Gabriel sent a clear signal to Zechariah. The elderly priest would have known his Scripture, recalling that Gabriel appearing to Daniel.

Here is Daniel 8:16-17:

16 And I heard a man’s voice between the banks of the Ulai, and it called, “Gabriel, make this man understand the vision.” 17So he came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face. But he said to me, “Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end.”

And Daniel 9:20-23:

20 While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the LORD my God for the holy hill of my God, 21while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.

Zechariah, then knowing who was standing near him at the altar in the Temple, might well have realised at that moment he was in deep trouble. And he could not undo what he had just done. Gabriel chided Zechariah, saying, in effect, ‘Here I come as God’s messenger to bring you good news, not just for you and your wife, but also for God’s people’ (verse 19). The unspoken part was his disappointment in Zechariah’s perfunctory response.

So in verse 20, Gabriel punished Zechariah and his unbelief by striking him dumb. This would last for a little over nine months. In fact, Zechariah was struck not only dumb but also deaf. That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for a snippy response of unbelief to one of the Lord’s chief emissaries.

Henry wrote (emphases mine):

Thou shalt be both dumb and deaf; the same word signifies both, and it is plain that he lost his hearing as well as his speech, for his friends made signs to him (v. 62), as well as he to them, v. 22.

Henry’s commentary unpacks this punishment for us:

Now, in striking him dumb, [1.] God dealt justly with him, because he had objected against God’s word. Hence we may take occasion to admire the patience of God and his forbearance toward us, that we, who have often spoken to his dishonour, have not been struck dumb, as Zacharias was, and as we had been if God had dealt with us according to our sins. [2.] God dealt kindly with him, and very tenderly and graciously. For, First, Thus he prevented his speaking any more such distrustful unbelieving words. If he has thought evil, and will not himself lay his hands upon his mouth, nor keep it as with a bridle, God will. It is better not to speak at all than to speak wickedly. Secondly, Thus he confirmed his faith; and, by his being disabled to speak, he is enabled to think the better. If by the rebukes we are under for our sin we be brought to give more credit to the word of God, we have no reason to complain of them. Thirdly, Thus he was kept from divulging the vision, and boasting of it, which otherwise he would have been apt to do, whereas it was designed for the present to be lodged as a secret with him. Fourthly, It was a great mercy that God’s words should be fulfilled in their season, notwithstanding his sinful distrust. The unbelief of man shall not make the promises of God of no effect, they shall be fulfilled in their season, and he shall not be for ever dumb, but only till the day that these things shall be performed, and then thy lips shall be opened, that thy mouth may show forth God’s praise.

Meanwhile, the faithful were waiting for Zechariah to emerge from the Temple after lighting the incense to bless them (verse 21). They must have wondered what was going on. Once he emerged, he was unable to pray a blessing over them because he could not speak — or hear (verse 22). He made gestures to indicate that he had seen a vision, which they readily understood.  I wonder what our response would be today if this happened to a pastor or an elder.

Zechariah then returned home after his service duty ended (verse 23). Imagine what his wife Elizabeth must have thought.  What a long period of time that must have been for both.

Soon after, Elizabeth conceived and stayed out of the public eye for five months (verse 24). No doubt it was bad enough that Zechariah had been dumbstruck for such an extended period. What would the neighbours and their friends from the Temple have thought if she had gone out of doors any earlier to say that she was pregnant? People would have talked, perhaps ridiculed her. It is also possible that she did not wish to speak too soon in case she miscarried. We do not know. In any event, Elizabeth chose to wait appearing in public until it was apparent that she really was carrying a child and had been for nearly two trimesters.  Those must have been trying months indeed, joy coupled with frustration.

Verse 25 contains Elizabeth’s gratitude to God for granting her a child. Today, it is not unusual to find couples who are childless by choice. However, among the Jewish people — then and now — every married couple wishes to have at least one child. Not having children raises questions in people’s minds. The same was true then.

Elizabeth felt somewhat excluded from life because she had not experienced motherhood. She was missing out on one of the primary joys of womanhood. At a certain point she would have felt left out of conversations among her friends and acquaintances who were mothers. She could but look on and express her happiness for them. As for her, she might have been asked many times why she and Zechariah had no offspring. People might have wondered if one or both of them had a spiritual deficiency or if God was punishing them for some reason. This is why she praised God; not only had He given her a child but He had also lifted from her the burden of people’s ‘reproach’.

In closing, Matthew Henry has more observations about the significance of Zechariah’s muteness. His commentary tells us that there is a larger picture here which represents a transition out of the priesthood of the Old Testament into that which Christ represents in the New Covenant:

2. When he came out, he was speechless, v. 22. He was now to have dismissed the congregation with a blessing, but was dumb and not able to do it, that the people may be minded to expect the Messiah, who can command the blessing, who blesseth indeed, and in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed. Aaron’s priesthood is now shortly to be silenced and set aside, to make way for the bringing in of a better hope.

3. He made a shift to give them to understand that he had seen a vision, by some awful signs he made, for he beckoned to them, and remained speechless, v. 22. This represents to us the weakness and deficiency of the Levitical priesthood, in comparison with Christ’s priesthood and the dispensation of the gospel. The Old Testament speaks by signs, gives us some intimations of divine and heavenly things, but imperfect and uncertain; it beckons to us, but remains speechless. It is the gospel that speaks to us articulately, and gives us a clear view of that which the Old Testament was seen through a glass darkly.

You can read what happened to Zechariah after John the Baptist’s birth in one of my Advent posts, which also includes Mary’s imminent motherhood and her meeting with her cousin Elizabeth.

Next time: Luke 2:22-32

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