Yesterday’s gospel asked of John the Baptist as a newborn: “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1:66) Today’s gospel answers the question: “Then Zechariah his father, filled with the holy Spirit, prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, … The praises to God are captured in Zechariah’s song, traditionally called the Benedictus from its first word in Latin.
It is the NT canticle sung at Morning Prayers. Culpepper (“Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible, p.59) writes:
The progression of thought in the Benedictus shows, however, that the true end of God’s redemption is not merely deliverance from political domination — as important as that is — but the creation of conditions in which God’s people can worship and serve God without fear…The ultimate purpose of God’s salvation presupposes deliverance from the enemy but is in fact undisturbed worship. Deliverance makes worship in peace — unhindered worship — possible. [p. 59]
Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina, 48) says much the same thing:
The canticle gives the reader the first sure sense of what “liberation” means for Luke. It is defined in specifically “religious” rather than political terms. Negatively defined, freedom means release from the power of enemies. But its positive content is worship and holiness of life. Thus John’s role in preparing the people for “restoration” involves the forgiveness of sins rather than the rallying of troops. Likewise the Messiah’s role is not one of violent revolt but rather of leading the people “in the path of peace.”
Where Mary’s hymn was cosmic and personal, Zechariah’s is cosmic and universal. This hymn surveys God’s plan through the forerunner (John) and the anointed Davidic heir (Jesus). The Lord, the God of Israel, is blessed for how he works through these two major agents. Zechariah rejoices that God has raised up the Davidic horn to do his work of deliverance, as well as sending a prophet to prepare the way for him. That deliverance possesses both political and spiritual dimensions, as verses 71-75 and 78-79 show.
Luke describes the hymn as Spirit-inspired. In other Lucan accounts, often the Spirit’s presence leads to a prophetic declaration or to praise (Acts 2:17-18; 11:27; 13:1; 19:6; 21:9). This hymn offers a divine commentary on God’s plan. John is the prophet of the Most High pointing to Jesus, the bright Morning Star. So Zechariah highlights Jesus just as his son John will.
John’s birth means that God is once again working actively to redeem his promise (vv. 72-73). Zechariah praises God, “…for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” God’s coming heralds an important Lucan concept, God’s visitation (1:78; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14). This introduction makes the hymn a praise psalm. The theme of the praise occurs in verses 68-70, while the explanation of the theme involves the rest of the hymn.
God often acted in history to “raise up” a prophet (Deut 18:15, 18), a judge (Judg 3:9, 15), a priest (1 Sam 2:35) or a king (2 Sam 3:10). Now in the Messiah’s visitation (Luke 2:26-32), God “raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant.” This Messiah is a picture of strength, symbolized in the “horn.” The horns of an ox are used for protection and for defeating opponents (Deut 33:17). The same image is used for a warrior (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 75:4-5, 10; 148:14) or a king who saves (1 Sam 2:10; Ps 132:17).
Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina, 48) presents a couple contrasts in our text when he writes:
If the “dawning from on high” is — as seems most likely — a reference to Jesus as Messiah, it is a marvelous metaphor. It balances the brute force suggested by the “horn of salvation.” The horn is “raised,” in an upward movement; the dawn is “from on high,” in a downward movement. The horn is within the house of David, and could be understood as a political force. But the dawn is “from on High” which denotes the power of God for a salvation greater than freedom from enemies, freedom from the “shadow of death” itself.
God is doing what he promised. His word will come to pass. These events are “as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” The promise involves rescue: God will save his people from their enemies and from all who hate them. Such salvation reflects the mercy of God and the recollection of the covenant made with Abraham. In this way the hymn actually combines two sets of divine promises – those about David’s son and those made to Abraham. What God will do for his people he does through Messiah. The fresh fulfillment of both covenants begins with Jesus’ arrival.
But what is the goal of this salvation? Here is perhaps the most insightful part of the hymn. Zechariah is not retreating from life or looking only to a future reward in heaven. His heart’s desire is to serve God “without fear … in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” This is the expression of an exemplary soul. The meaning of life comes in faithful service to a holy God.
Who are the enemies referred to in the hymn? In the context it seems clear that Zechariah anticipates freedom from the opposition of enemies (v. 74). Possibly he hopes for rescue from Rome, much as John the Baptist seemed to anticipate when he asked Jesus whether he really was “the one who was to come” (7:18-23). Such a political deliverance for the people of God is also anticipated by John in Revelation 19.
But this is only a partial answer. Zechariah’s hymn is an introduction to Luke’s entire book. To ask what the hymn means for Luke, we need only to see how he develops the theme of enemies within his Gospel. Such an examination shows that the enemy consists of supernatural opposition (11:14-23). Jesus is the “someone stronger” who overruns the strong man Beelzebub. To provide real victory Jesus will need to overcome not only human opponents but the spiritual ones that stand behind them as well (Eph 6:10-18). Jesus’ activity shows his goal to be the reversal of the effect of demonic presence (Lk 13:10-17). As the Davidic Son, he heals and shows his authority (18:35-42). The power of his horn extends even into these dimensions of reality. The miracles are not only events of deliverance but pictures of a deeper reality. To know Jesus is to have access to authority that can overcome the presence of evil. We are able, as a result, to serve God in holiness and righteousness.