And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,…
I. Preliminary questions. In the opening portion of St. Luke's Gospel, there is a definiteness of time, place, and circumstance, which makes us feel that we are not breathing in the air or looking through the deceptive light of legend. We are not travelling in dreamland, for we can measure distances. The objections which have been made in modern times to this statement are derived from two elements in the narrative —
(1) from the account of various angelic appearances;
(2) from the recorded bursts of ecstatic or prophetic song.
1. As to the angelic appearance in these opening chapters. Unquestionably here, as elsewhere, throughout, and to its very close, St. Luke's is the Gospel of the holy angels. The existence o!angels rests upon the same witness as the whole supernatural life. There must be something of fitness in the times of their manifestation, and in the persons to whom they make themselves known. In a material age they cease to appear. There must be a certain saintly second-sight — a something angelic in the angel seen. All depends upon the initial point of view. From ours it is not incredible, but rather probable, that Gabriel should have come to Zacharias and Mary; that songs of acclamation should have rung out over Bethlehem. We are come to an innumerable company of angels. Well, too, may we be impressed by the gravity and reserve of the scriptural account of angelic appearances. Man receives no random invitation to a heedless intimacy on the one hand; to a Socinian heresy of angel cultus on the other. Of all the countless hosts of heaven, Scripture condescends to make but two known to us by name — Gabriel and Michael.
2. But, in reference to these opening scenes of St. Luke's Gospel, it has further been objected that these sacred songs, these bursts of Hebraic poetry, are unmistakably like art, or legend; that the critic is irresistibly impelled to see them in a piece of fancy work, like the songs in Tennyson's "Queen Mary." There are a few considerations which remove this obstinate prejudice of modern criticism. If labour and genius are the only possible creators of any form of literature, these songs, of course, can scarcely be genuine. But if, as a matter of fact, prophecy exists; if Jesus Christ be its chief and central subject, it is only natural that, after an interval of 400 years, it should awaken again, just as he was about to visit the earth; that the father of God's chosen servant, who was to go as a messenger before Messiah's face, should be filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesy.
(1) The Benedictus was, no doubt, formed in the heart of Zacharias during the long months of enforced muteness, when he was dumb, and not able to speak. After nine months of silence it came streaming out like the molten metal when issue is given to it.
(2) The pious Hebrew would have no such material difficulties as those which have been suggested above. For Hebrew poetry was not fettered by the laws of an inexorable prosody. It did not exact the exquisite and severe modulation of classical scansion. Psalm. like strains rushed spontaneously to the lips of those who lived in the circle of the Old Testament writings, and spake its language. Moreover — and this is most important of all — the whole substance and tenor of the Benedictus shows that it was not moulded by art; that it does not bear the same relation to the gospel history as the speeches of Pericles or Hannibal to the narratives of Thucydides and Livy. From what point of view must Zaeharias have spoken? The sight of Christ which he enjoyed was far beyond that of any of the psalmists in clearness. Yet the picture which he drew must have been painted in Hebrew colours, and set in a Jewish framework. A later writer, in an age pre-eminently without critical tact and subtlety, would never have contented himself with putting these oracular utterances into the lips of Zacharias. No doubt the Christian Church has, almost from the beginning, used these songs in daily worship. By doing so she interprets them of Jesus. But the question is not, in the slightest degree, how the Christian Church understands this and the other songs, when they have been permanently committed to writing. The question is whether, after the cross and resurrection, after all things were fulfilled, she could, by any conceivable self-restraint, have managed to write them in such a strain? These songs would rather have been like the Apocalyptic strains, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain." The mind which wrote the Benedietus, under the condition of a full historical knowledge of the gospel, must either have been an earnest or a deceptive mind. For an earnest mind, such reserve upon the subjects which were in the front rank of its affections, would have been unnatural; for a deceptive mind it would have been, ex hypothesi, impossible. Thus, the Benedictus is impossible at a date either earlier or later than that to which it is assigned by the third evangelist. Such visions of the light just dawning, such a conception of the general character of the approaching redemption, with such reserve — rather such silence — as to the mode in which it was to be carried out in detail; such silver brightness on the edge of the mist, such dimness in its heart; such strange eloquence and reserve — could only have come from one who stood on the thin border-line between the two dispensations — on the infinitesimal space between the two vast ranges before and behind. A little more, and the song would have been purely Christian; a little less, and it would have been purely Jewish.
II. We proceed to draw some lessons from the song itself.
1. It is well to remember who and what Zacharias was. Zacharias was a holy and religious priest. The employment of Zacharias was that of a minister of a Divinely. ordained ritual. Now true revelation does not deal with the spirit of man mechanically. The thought and utterance take the mould and colour of the mind, which the spirit freely uses. The form of the revelation is adapted to the natural tendencies and whole condition of him who is the Holy Ghost's voice or pen. The prophet priest Ezekiel views the Church under the image which would naturally occur to one who had been trained in such an element — the image of a temple. The priest prophet Zacharias views the life of all the emancipated children of God as one continuous worship, one endless priestly service — "That we, fearlessly, having been once for all delivered from hand of enemies, should continually do Him worship. In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days that we have." This is the essence and use of all the true ritualism of God. One word summed up the whole meaning and purpose of the priestly life of Zacharias — to do God service, to be worshipping Him. This word, this Ich Dien of the faithful priesthood, he makes the Ich Dien of every child of God. The one true priest, whose coming is so near, shall enable all the redeemed people to perform the true service of priests, to celebrate God's worship in the long festivity of a perpetual freedom. The motto of Christ's kingdom of priests comes fitly from the lips of an inspired priest. The meaning of the Old Testament ritual is given, as best became the fitness of things, by one who was "of the order of Abia." These words are sung in hundreds of churches. It is well that singers should be taught to sing "gracefully," as well as heartily, to the Lord. But both choirs and congregations should keep the words of Zacharias ever before them, "Without fear to do Him the worship and service of a life."
2. The place which is occupied by the Benedictus in the reformed Prayer Book is significant and interesting. It is placed immediately after the second lesson at morning service, which is always from one of the Gospels, Epistles, or the Apocalypse. Zacharias was the first New Testament prophet; and this is almost the first gospel hymn. The voice and song of such a one may fitly be heard immediately after our first reading from the New Testament. It does not, perhaps, seem a mere fancy to see in the contents of the Benedictus a reference to the work of the Christian ministry. Zacharias was a father as well as a priest. He turns, with a burst of joy, which was not merely natural, to his babe, and places him among the goodly company of the prophets — " And thou too, child, shalt be called prophet of the Highest. For onward thou shalt go, on, in front of the Lord, to prepare His ways; To give knowledge of salvation to His people." But what was to be done by the child of Zacharias is to be done by Christ's ministers, who "prepare and make ready a people for His second coming." And the simple reading of the simple gospel in the second lesson is a specimen, as it were, and epitome of all this work.
III. This utterance of Zacharias is something more than a song or poem. It is a treatise on salvation.
1. Its Author — "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He hath raised up a strong salvation for us."
2. Its cause — "On account of the tender mercy of our God."
3. Its essence — " Salvation, consisting in remisssion of sins."
4. Its blessedness and privileges — "Being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, to serve Him without fear."
5. Its consequence — "In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days." All who have ever understood the Psalmist's deeply pathetic cry, "Make the reproach which I am afraid of to pass over," will also understand the preciousness of the privilege. We conclude by citing the image with which the song concludes. It is derived from a caravan which has lost its way, when the wayfarers "sit down" in the darkness, which is like the shadow of death, to perish in their helplessness. Then, in the high heavens, a glorious star makes its Epiphany. So often as we sing this hymn with true spiritual worship, with hearts full of the sense of that salvation which consists in remission of sins, the old song may be as full of life and joy as any new hymn. The Hymn of Zacharias is the strain of the "Pilgrims of the Night."
(Bishop Willliam Alexander.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,