Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Benedictus: Zacharias' Song of Praise (Luke 1:57-79)

Every year, we begin to realize that the Christmas Season is upon us when, sometime in November, we begin to hear the songs of the season on the radio, in the stores where we shop, and in many other places. But for Christians throughout history and around the world, we are still several weeks away from the Christmas Season. Historically, the Christian Church has observed the days between Christmas Day, December 25 and Epiphany, January 6 as the Christmas Season. These are “the 12 days of Christmas,” though I am not really sure what partridges in a pear tree or five gold rings really have to do with it. The season that begins today on the Christian calendar is not Christmas, but Advent. This is a season of anticipation, expectation, and preparation. We celebrate that the longing of the ancients has been fulfilled in the incarnation of Jesus Christ as God became a man, born for us at Christmas. But during this season, we also express our own longing and expectation, as we prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord. Just as He came 2,000 years ago, He also promised that He would come again to consummate His Kingdom, and we are awaiting His return and preparing ourselves spiritually for that day. Like the ancients, we do not know when He will come. But we know that when He comes, all wrongs will be made right, and we who belong to Christ will enter into His presence to dwell forever. And so, even as we celebrate the fact that He has come, we long for His return, crying out with anticipation, Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus. As we sing songs like “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” we are celebrating a past reality, even as we long for a future event to come to pass.

Of course, when we hear “the songs of the season,” many of them have nothing to do with Jesus. They are about snow, and winter, and Santa, and things like that; not about the birth of the Savior. This week, I pulled up the Holiday section on iTunes and took a look at the top 10 songs, ranked by the number of downloads. Not one of them are lyrically focused on the birth of the Savior. It seems that if you want to sing or hear a song about Jesus at Christmas, you have to come to church (which is not that bad of an idea anyway)! This year, during Advent, Pastor Jack and I will be exploring four songs that we might call “the first Christmas Carols.” We don’t sing them these days, we really don’t know the tune to which they were sung, but these songs capture the sense of longing that is satisfied in the coming of Christ in the world. Today, I will begin with the Benedictus of Zacharias. Next Sunday, Jack will deal with Mary’s Magnificat, and the following Sunday I will discuss the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon. Then on the final Sunday of Advent, Jack will present the Gloria, sung by the angels to the shepherds in the fields.  

We first meet Zacharias, the priest and the father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:5-25. He and his wife Elizabeth are described there as “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments of and requirements of the Lord.” And yet, all is not well for the couple for they “had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advancing in years.” It came about that while Zacharias was on duty in the temple, that he had an encounter with an angel who announced to him that his prayers had been answered and that he and his wife would have a son, and the child’s name was to be John. The angel proclaimed that this child would become the forerunner of the Lord who would go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” They were to call this child “John.” Now, rather than rejoicing that his prayers had been answered and his longings fulfilled, Zacharias did something stupid. He questioned God. He said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” The response is pointed and direct. The angel says, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” The fact that Zacharias is face-to-face with an angel of God should be enough to convince him of the truth of this promise, but he asked for a sign. And the sign he received is not just a proof, it is a judgment upon him for his lack of faith. The angel said, “Behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words.” Now, for Elizabeth, things aren’t so bad. She has what many women dream of having – a baby on the way, and a husband who cannot speak!

In time, the baby was born just as promised. In keeping with tradition, the boy was circumcised on the eighth day, and it was on this day that his name was to be given. Everyone expected that he was going to be a “Junior,” and be given the name of his father, Zacharias. It was tradition for the firstborn child to bear the name of his father. But Elizabeth protested and said, “No, indeed; but he shall be called John.” The people couldn’t figure out where “John” came from. They said, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” They appealed to Zacharias, who still could not speak, and he demanded a writing tablet, and he wrote, “His name is John.” Zacharias made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the matter was already settled. His name had been given from heaven. And immediately, as Zacharias followed through in obedience to the angelic message he had received, his tongue was loosed and he broke forth in song to praise the God who remembers His promises and is faithful to bring them to pass in His grace!

Zacharias’ song is called the Benedictus, the first word of the song in the Latin Bible. It is a song of praise. He says, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” And then the remainder of the song supplies the reasons why his freshly loosed tongue is employed in such exuberant praise. The theme of the song is salvation. He blesses the Lord because “He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people and raised up a horn of salvation.” So, the song goes on to magnify the God who saves, as the old priest sings of the promise of salvation, the preparation for salvation, and the product of salvation. As we come to experience the saving grace of God, Zacharias’ song becomes our song, which we sing with renewed tongues to the Lord as well.

I. We sing of the promise of salvation!

There have been many songs over the years that express the heartbreak of broken promises. We have become so accustomed to broken promises that we take no assurance at all from the fact that someone has promised us something. But when it comes to the promises of God, it’s an entirely different story. He has never broken a promise. There are no songs sung to God about broken promises. If we could put a succinct heading over the entire Old Testament, we would say that it is a book of Promises Made. If we wanted to place a similar heading over the New Testament, we could say that it is a book of Promises Kept. The Benedictus sings of how God has kept the promises that He has made.

Zacharias’ song is filled with Old Testament language. There are hints in this song of dozens of passages from at least 10 Old Testament books. This in itself reminds us that all true worship is fueled by the truth of God’s Word that is hidden in our hearts. When we have saturated ourselves in Scripture, as Zacharias obviously had, it is not hard to come up with the right words to say, or even to sing. Zacharias was not only drawing from his memory bank, though. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He demonstrates for us what it means to be a true worshiper. Jesus said that true worshipers worship “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Zacharias’ song of praise is empowered by the Holy Spirit and filled with the truth of God’s Word. He models for us what Paul says in Ephesians 5:18 -- “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Not only is Zacharias’ song praise; it is also prophecy. Verse 67 says that, filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias prophesied. Most of the time, we assume that prophecy involves foretelling the future, and sometimes it does. But most of the time in Scripture, prophecy is not a foretelling, but a forthtelling of God’s truth. It is a declaration of what God has spoken. Zacharias’ song does both. It speaks of what God has declared in the past, what He is doing in the present, and what He will do in the future.

Notice how Zacharias proclaims in song the promises that God had made in the past. He speaks of the oath which He swore to Abraham. This is obviously a reference to the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” In visiting us, God has brought that oath to pass by bringing salvation through the line of Abraham that will be offered to the whole world. That promised seed of Abraham is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth would soon occur when Zacharias sang this prophetic song. God has shown mercy toward the fathers of Israel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by fulfilling the promise He had made to bring the Savior into the world through their lineage. Though the fulfillment has been a long time in coming, God has not forgotten it. Zacharias praises the God who has remembered His holy covenant!

He also mentions “the house of David.” He says that The Lord God of Israel is to be praised because “He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.” What is a horn of salvation? The imagery is of an animal’s horns, which are the symbols of its strength. As Phil Ryken says, “Horns are an animal’s ‘business end,’ so to speak, and in a similar way, the Messiah is the business end of God’s saving plan. With the coming of Christ, He was shaking the mighty horn of His salvation the way a mighty beast intimidates his rivals.”[1] Jesus Christ is the strength and power of God to save. He came to be the horn of salvation that David had longed for. His song of deliverance from his enemies in 2 Samuel 22:3 is echoed in Psalm 18:2, and in both songs David proclaimed that the Lord is “My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” This horn of salvation has been raised up in the world in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And it has been raised up in the house of David. This harkens back to the promise that God made to David when David longed to build the temple for the Lord. In 2 Samuel 7, the Lord spoke to David through the prophet Nathan. He said that David would not build a house for the Lord, but rather, “the Lord will make a house for you. … I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.” The house that the Lord would build for David was more than a building; it was a dynasty that would endure in spite of his descendants’ failure to occupy and preserve the nation or the throne. There was another descendant of David who would come later, and His reign would never end. Through the house of David, God would bring an everlasting King to the throne, and He shall reign forever and ever, Hallelujah! The Lord Jesus Christ is this King, and He is the horn of salvation that God has raised up in the house of David.

This promise of salvation has been sworn on oath to Abraham; it has been proclaimed as a promise to King David. And it has been announced through the prophets of Israel. Zacharias sings that God has spoken “by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old.” Notice that it was God who was speaking; the prophets were merely His mouthpieces. And God spoke words of saving grace through His prophets: “Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” This redemption, this salvation, that God has established in His visitation fulfills all that God has spoken through His prophets. The divine Messiah that Isaiah promised to be born of a virgin (7:14; 9:6-7); whom Micah promised would be born in Bethlehem (5:2); and whom other prophets proclaimed “in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1) would soon be born, and this causes Zacharias to break forth in song praising God for the promises of His salvation. As we come to realize that the Lord Jesus is the Savior for whom all the world so desperately longs, that in Him all of God’s promises are “yes and Amen” (2 Corinthians 1:20), we will join him in singing of promises not only made, but kept!

II. We sing of the preparation of salvation!

How did Zacharias know that the Messiah’s birth was imminent? After all, his son who had just been born was not the Redeemer, yet he sings as if the birth of the Savior of the world is just on the horizon. Well, we must remember that Zechariah had been told that his son would be the forerunner, the one who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). So, if the forerunner is coming, then the Lord must not be far behind. Remember also that Mary, the virgin mother of the Lord, was a relative of Elizabeth, Zacharias’ wife, and that she had come to spend time with them when both women were pregnant and they had rejoiced together about God’s plan for each of their sons. Mary stayed with Zacharias and Elizabeth for three months (1:56), and during that time, I am sure that there had been many conversations about how God would change the world through John and through Jesus.
Zacharias knew by both revelation and conversation that the birth of his son marked the beginning of a new era – a time of preparation for the salvation that God would bring to the world through Jesus Christ. And so as the old man sings, he sings of his son, saying, “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” Though there had been some who had prophesied, no one had been called a prophet in Israel for 400 years. Just as Zacharias’ silence was broken at the birth of his son, so heaven’s silence was broken when John began to preach about the Lord Jesus Christ.

John’s ministry would be one of preparing Israel and the world for the coming of Christ. He would do this by giving “to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.” It would be fair to say that most people in that day were looking for salvation, but they weren’t all looking for this kind of salvation. The expectation of multitudes was that the Messiah was coming to save them from the oppression of Rome. He would come in like a military warrior on a white stallion to wipe out the enemies of Israel. But John’s ministry would prepare the way for the Lord Jesus by proclaiming to the people that this was not their greatest need. In fact, if they were liberated from Rome, they would still be enslaved to a stronger power. Though Rome was the most recent political power to oppress the nation, and could certainly be described by Israel as “our enemies” and those “who hate us” (v71), an enemy greater than Rome had enslaved the entire world under the oppression of a greater hatred. The salvation that the Messiah Jesus had come to bring was a redemption from the power of sin. The human race wastes away under the yoke of the ultimate spiritual enemy, Satan. Jesus said, “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34). John said that “the one who practices sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:8a). That is the bad news. We are oppressed and enslaved in sin by a harsh task master who hates us. Satan delights to ensnare us in sin because He hates God and he hates us. Thus, it pleases him to keep us at enmity with God. But the good news is, as 1 John 3:8 goes on to say, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” It would not be sufficient to deliver Israel from Rome, for they would still be enslaved along with the rest of humanity. But if the Savior comes to redeem us from sin, then all the chains are broken. Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). So, John the Baptist’s ministry was to go before the Lord to proclaim that salvation was coming, not from political powers or worldly discomforts, but the ultimate redemption that comes through the forgiveness of sins.

Zacharias sings of the preparation for salvation. He sings of John’s ministry of going before the Lord Jesus to make the people ready to receive Him. We who understand the nature of the salvation that Jesus brings, and find in Him the redemption from the bondage to sin and Satan, can add our voice to the song and bless the name of the Lord, even as we labor to prepare the way for others to come to know Him!

III. We sing of the product of salvation!

In C. S. Lewis’ essay collection entitled God in the Dock, we find a brief work called “What Christmas Means to Me.” He says, “Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival” that is of primary importance to Christians; but it “can be of no interest to anyone else.” The second thing called Christmas is “a popular holiday and occasion for merry-making and hospitality.” Lewis insists that he very much approves of merry-making, but he says, “what I approve of much more is everybody minding his own business.” The third thing called Christmas, Lewis says, is “unfortunately everybody’s business,” namely “the commercial racket.”[2] A few years ago, Donia and I began trying to use the word “Christmas” to only refer to the things of the season that pertain to Christ. The rest of it all, we refer to as “Winter Holiday.” Like Lewis, I have a hard time understanding why a person who doesn’t believe in, worship, or serve the Lord Jesus would have any interest in Christmas at all, but then again, I don’t see what most of “Winter Holiday” has to do with Jesus anyway. I know, I know: “Bah Humbug!” and all of that!

Why do so many people have so much interest in “Winter Holiday” (as I call it) while having so little interest in the Lord Jesus? I believe it is because they have not truly understood what He came to do for us. We are partly to blame for this, because we have not communicated the good news of Jesus Christ clearly to those we know. And perhaps this is also because we ourselves have not truly comprehended “the breadth and length and height and depth ... [of] the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:18-19). Have we truly come to understand what He accomplished for us? Do we understand the effect, the result, the product (if you will) of this salvation that Jesus was born to bring us, that He lived to offer us, that He died and rose again to secure for us? Zacharias understood it, even before it happened. And he praised the Lord in this glorious hymn for the product of the salvation that the Messiah Jesus had come to bring us.

Apart from Christ, we are all dwelling in darkness. We are like those Zacharias describes in verse 79: we “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” But like the rising of the Sun, God has visited us in the person of Christ to bring light to us. The prophet Isaiah declared that “the people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them” (9:2). He said, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you” (60:1-2). Christ has come like the rising sun to bring light to us. In Him the glory of God is fully manifest to humanity! Christ has revealed God to us who were blinded in darkness and wasting away in the shadow of death. He has defeated death for us through His death and resurrection so that we no longer need to fear its shadow. We know there is life beyond death, and we know, through faith in Him, that this everlasting life is ours because of the salvation that He accomplished for us. We no longer sit in darkness. We have been “rescued from the domain of darkness” and transferred to the Kingdom of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14).

This salvation brings us the forgiveness of sins! The sins that keep us separated from God have been dealt with fully and finally through the cross of Jesus Christ. He came to redeem us and give us life through His death. The crude manger in which the baby Jesus was placed was a foreshadowing of the cruel cross on which He would hang to bear our sins in His body as our substitute under the righteous judgment of God. Thus, we can be forgiven because He took our penalty for us! As the wonderful hymn “It is Well With My Soul” proclaims, “My sin, o the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more! Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”

And being rescued from the enemies of Satan, sin and death, we can “serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (v74-75). God has declared those who come to Him by faith in Christ to be righteous and holy before Him. He has granted us a glorious exchange. He placed our sins upon Christ as He died, and He bestows to us the righteousness and holiness of Christ’s life in return. Thus, we are cleansed and covered, and enabled to render service to the holy God from whom we were once separated and alienated because of our sins. The blood of Christ has cleansed us, as the writer of Hebrews says, “to serve the living God” (9:14)! He has made us to be a kingdom of priests, “a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Notice in verse 78 that the basis of all of this is the “tender mercy of our God.” Isaac Watts, the greatest composer in English hymnody, penned a song in the early 1700s that is called “With Joy We Meditate the Grace.” It is not in many hymnals today, including ours. But when it occurs, there is a line that is usually worded something like this: “His heart is made with tenderness and overflows with love.” But those are not the words that Watts wrote. Watts wrote, “His heart is made of tenderness, His bowels melt with love.” My goodness, who wants to come to church to sing about bowels? But Isaac Watts was not being crude. He was being a good student of the Word of God. He was merely translating the phrase that occurs here in verse 78 of Zacharias’ song.[3] Where the NASB says “the tender mercy of our God” the Greek text reads literally, “the bowels of the mercy of our God.” While we tend to speak of the heart as the seat of emotion, the ancients spoke of the entrails as the emotional center of a person. Thus, this is the strongest wording that Zacharias could employ to convey the great compassion, the deep love, and the overwhelming mercy of God that compelled Him to visit us in the person of the Redeemer, the Lord Jesus, this Rising Sun, this Horn of Salvation. How much does God love you? He loves you so much that He is moved with mercy from the core of His being to act to bring you salvation: the forgiveness of sin, light in the darkness, the righteousness that He requires of you, which you cannot produce on your own, and which He bestows on you freely by His grace; in faithfulness to His promises. That made Zacharias sing! Do you sing with him?

We love the songs of the Christmas season. It is my prayer that today you have learned a new one. I wish I knew the tune, so I could sing it aloud! But we can sing it in our hearts, and if we have experienced this salvation that Zacharias sings about, the salvation that Christ was born to bring us, we can’t help joining him in singing, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” Sing that song! Tell that good news to all who are near and far, so that they will know and experience the wonder of this God who saves and praise Him with us!

[1] Daniel M. Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, Richard D. Phillips, The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2008), 92-93.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim’s Regress, Christian Reflections, God in the Dock (New York: Inspirational, 1996), 507-508.
[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1931), 33.

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