Revised November 29, 2021
Zechariah’s song (known as the Benedictus) doesn’t get nearly the attention as Mary’s (the Magnificat) earlier in the chapter, but it is the first recorded prophetic word since the Book of Malachi some 400 years earlier.
Its outpouring of praise culminates a long life of both piety and disappointment. After years of waiting and hoping, Zechariah, an aging priest, drew the lot for the once-in-a-lifetime assignment of burning incense in the temple. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and said his prayer was answered.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were childless, but one would hardly expect a pious priest to use an occasion of such great honor to pray for personal needs. He must have prayed for some great national need, such as the coming of the messiah and deliverance of Israel from its enemies.
But in Luke’s account, Gabriel passes over the actual content of the prayer to tell Zechariah that he would finally have a son who would play a major role in God’s coming plan. He instructed Zechariah to name the son John.
Unfortunately, the pious and righteous Zechariah chose that moment to act like a crotchety old man and show unbelief by asking Gabriel how he could know the promise was true. He never spoke another word until after John was born.
That nine months of silence gave Zechariah plenty of time to think and pray. His speech returned to him at John’s circumcision after he wrote, “His name is John.” Then, filled with the Holy Spirit and all of his meditation on Scripture, he blessed God not so much for his newborn son as for the coming Messiah:
The text of Zechariah’s song
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
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. – Luke 1:67-79 (ESV)
The meaning of Zechariah’s song
The Benedictus contains many quotations from and allusions to passages from the Psalms and the Prophets and announces the culmination of what believers of old had seen in the indefinite future.
Prayers of thanksgiving commonly opened with the same phrase Zechariah started with. But this prayer clearly comes by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and not from Zechariah’s own mind. He doesn’t offer his thanks for the birth of his own son. Instead, he praises God for redeeming his people. Under Roman rule, they certainly didn’t look redeemed.
The reference to “the horn of salvation . . . in the house of David” can only be Messianic, for David came from the tribe of Judah. Zechariah, as a priest, came from the tribe of Levi.
Let’s remember that the unmarried Mary was about three months pregnant at the time. She had spent those three months visiting Zechariah and Elizabeth. She may have even been present at John’s birth. Just imagine their conversations over those three months!
Zechariah had no way of knowing whether Joseph would accept her as his wife. Therefore, Mary herself must have been a lineal descendant of David. That’s why the genealogy in Luke 3, which does not follow the path of royal succession, might very well be Mary’s genealogy.
Zechariah then reaches even further back in time to recall the Abrahamic covenant. God had sworn an oath to Abraham, and he is always faithful to fulfill his promises. The consummation of that covenant would enable God’s people to serve him in righteousness and holiness without fear.
In point of fact, Jesus did not drive out the Romans. He never intended to deliver the Jews from Rome or any other human enemy. The deliverance he brought was much more profound. Jesus met and defeated Satan, who, as the result of Adam’s high treason, had become “the god of this world.” Satan can oppress believers in many ways, but he cannot take away their God-imputed holiness and righteousness.
Zechariah sees John and Jesus
Zechariah’s direct address to the baby John makes it clear that he was not the Messiah, but the one who went before him to proclaim his coming. But considering that the Jews had not acknowledged any prophet for 400 years, Zechariah nonetheless makes an astounding claim for him. John’s role was most clearly foretold in the last two verses of the Old Testament:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. – Malachi 4:5-6
But Zechariah’s focus immediately returns to Jesus. After all, neither John nor any other human except Jesus has the power to give knowledge of salvation or forgiveness of sins. The closing verses echo other Old Testament passages that can only refer to the Messiah:
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. – Malachi 4:2
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. – Isaiah 9:2
About 30 years later, the joy of Zechariah’s old age indeed introduced the Jewish people to their Messiah. And in Jesus, the sunrise indeed brought light to people who had lived in darkness.
Jesus’ birth and ministry culminated promises contained in numerous covenants God made with certain men in the Old Testament, including Abraham and David. I have published an ebook Understanding Our Covenants with God. Get it on Amazon.