"There are in this loud stunning tide
Early History of the Baptist -- God's Hidden Ones -- The Hill Country of Judea -- A Childless Home -- The Forerunner Announced.
To the evangelist Luke we are indebted for details of those antecedent circumstances that ushered John the Baptist into the world. He tells us that he had "traced the course of all things accurately from the first." And in those final words, "from the first," he suggests that he had deliberately sought to examine into those striking events from which, as from a wide-spreading root, the great growth of Christianity had originated. Who of us has not sometimes followed the roots of some newly-discovered plant deep into the black mould, intent on pursuing them to their furthest extremity, and extricating them from the clinging earth without injuring one delicate radicle? So this good physician, accustomed by his training to accurate research and experiment, went back to scenes and events anterior to any which his brother Evangelists recorded. He compensated for the authority of an eye-witness by the thoroughness and care of his investigation.
What were the sources from which the third Evangelist drew his information? We cannot be sure, but may hazard a suggestion, which is supported by the archaic simplicity, the indescribable grace, the almost idyllic beauty of his two opening chapters. Critics have repeatedly drawn attention to their unique character, and insisted that they are due to some other hand than that which has given us the rest of the story of "the Son of Man." And why should we not attribute them to "the Mother" herself? It has been truly said that mothers are the natural historians of their children's early days -- never tired of observing them, they never tire of recounting their prodigies; and, in an especial manner, Mary had kept all things, pondering in her heart those wonderful circumstances which had left so indelible an impression on her life. She who, in her over-welling joy, uttered "the Magnificat," was surely capable, even judging from a literary and human standpoint, of the language in which the story is told; and the facts themselves would only stand out the clearer in her closing years, as many another memory faded from her mind. The granite remains when the floods have swept away the light soil that filled the interstices of the rocks.
It were a theme worthy of a great artist to depict! Mary's face, furrowed by deep lines of anguish, yet glowing with sacred fire and holy memory. Luke, sitting at his manuscript, now letting her tell her story without interruption, and again interpolating an inquiry, the words growing on the page; while, nearer than each to either, making no tremor in the hot summer air as He comes, casting no shadow in the brilliant eastern light -- He of whom they speak and write steals in to stand beside them, bringing all things to their remembrance by the Holy Spirit's agency, even as He had told them.
The story of John the Baptist was so clearly part of that of Jesus, that Mary could hardly recall the one without the other. And, besides, Elisabeth, as the angel said, was her kinswoman -- perhaps her cousin -- to whom she naturally turned in the hour of her maidenly astonishment and rapture. Though much younger, Mary was united to her relative by a close and tender tie, and it was only natural that what had happened to Elisabeth should have impressed her almost as deeply as her own memorable experiences. So it is possible that from the lips of the mother of our Lord we obtain these details of the House of Zacharias.
I. THE QUIET IN THE LAND. -- God has always had his hidden ones; and, while the world has been rent by faction and war, ravaged by fire and sword, and drenched with the blood of her sons, these have heard his call to enter their chamber, and shut themselves in until the storm had spent its fury. It was so during the days of Ahab, when the eye of omniscience beheld at least seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. It was so in the awful days of the Civil War, when Puritan and Royalist faced each other at Naseby and Marston Moor, and the land seemed swept in a blinding storm. Groups of ardent souls gathered to spend their time in worship and acts of mercy -- like those at Little Gidding, in Huntingdonshire, under the direction of Mr. Nicholas Ferrar. It was so when the thirty years' war desolated Germany, and "the quiet in the land" withdrew themselves from the agitated scene of human affairs to wait on God, embalming their hearts in hymns and poems which exhale a perfume as from crushed flowers.
It was eminently so in the days of which we write. Darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness the peoples. Herod's infamous cruelties, craft, and bloodshed were at their height. The country questioned with fear what new direction his crimes might take. The priesthood was obsequious to his whim; the bonds of society seemed dissolved. Theudas and Judas of Galilee, mentioned by Gamaliel, were but specimens of the bandit leaders who broke into revolt and harried the country districts for the maintenance of their followers. Greed, peculation, and lawless violence, had ample and undisputed opportunity to despoil the national glory and corrupt the heart of the national life.
Is it to be wondered that the godly remnant would meet in little groups and secluded hiding-places to comfort themselves in God? We are told, for instance, that Anna spake of the Babe, whom she had probably embraced in her aged trembling arms, "to all them that were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke ii.38, R.V.). What would we not give to know something more of the members of this sacred society, which preserved the loftiest traditions, and embodied in their lives some of the finest traits of the religion of their forefathers! The gloom of their times only led them more eagerly to con the predictions of their Hebrew prophets, and desire their accomplishment. Full often they would climb the heights and look out over the desert wastes to descry the advent of the Mighty One, coming from Edom, with his garments stained with the blood of Israel's foes. When they met, the burden of conversation, which flowed under vine or fig-tree, by the wayside or in humble homes, would be of their cherished hope. And as they beheld the hapless condition of their fatherland, the land of Abraham, the city of David, the cry must often have been extorted; "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will it be ere He shall come whose right it is who shall sit on the throne of his father David, and of whose kingdom there shall be no end? Come forth out of thy royal chambers, O Prince of all the kings of the earth! Put on the visible robes of thy imperial majesty; take up that unlimited sceptre which thy Almighty Father hath bequeathed Thee; for now the voice of thy bride calls Thee, and all creatures sigh to be renewed." So our great Milton prayed in more recent days.
We are not drawing on our imagination in describing these true-hearted watchers for the rising of the Day-star. They are fully indicated in the Gospel story. There was Simeon, righteous and devout, unto whom it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ; and Anna, the prophetess, who departed not from the temple, worshipping with fastings and supplications night and day; and the guileless Nathanael, an Israelite indeed, who had perhaps already commenced to sit at the foot of the ladder which bound his fig-tree to the highest heaven; and the peasant maiden Mary, the descendant of a noble house, though with fallen fortunes, who, like some vestal virgin, clad in snowy white, watched through the dark hours beside the flickering flame; and last, but not least, Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth, "who were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless."
For us, too, the times are dark. It is as though the shadows were being thrown far across the fields, and the light were becoming dim. Let the children of God draw together, to encourage each other in their holy faith, and to speak of their great hopes; for He who appeared once to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself shall appear a second time without sin unto salvation. We are, as the French version puts it, burgesses of the skies, "whence we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby He is able even to subject all things unto Himself."
But this attitude of spirit, which dwells in the unseen and eternal, which counts on the indwelling of the Son of God by faith, and which ponders deeply over the sins and sorrows of the world around, is the temper of mind out of which the greatest deeds are wrought for the cause of God on the earth. The Marys who sit at Christ's feet arise to anoint Him for his burying. Take, for instance, the Moravian Church, born and cradled amid the pietism of which Spener of Berlin and Franke of Halle were the acknowledged leaders; and it has given to the world a far larger number of missionaries in proportion to its membership than any church of the age. Or take the followers of George Fox, who have maintained through unparalleled suffering their testimony for spirituality of worship; and it is undeniable that some of the greatest reforms which have characterised the century recently closed have found their foremost advocates and apologists from their somewhat meagre ranks. Those who wait on God renew their strength. The world ignores them, scorning to reckon their tears and toils amid its renovating energies; but they refuse to abate their endeavours and sacrifices on its behalf. They repay its neglect by more assiduous exertions, its ingratitude by more exhausting sacrifices; content if, from out their ranks, there presently steps one who, like John the Baptist, opens a new chapter in the history of the race, and accelerates the advent of the Christ.
II. THE PARENTAGE OF THE FORERUNNER. -- As the traveller emerges from the dreary wilderness that lies between Sinai and the southern frontier of Palestine -- a scorching desert, in which Elijah was glad to find shelter from the sword-like rays in the shade of the retem shrub -- he sees before him a long line of hills, which is the beginning of "the hill country of Judaea" (Luke i.39). In contrast with the sand wastes which he has traversed, the valleys seem to laugh and sing. Greener and yet greener grow the pasture lands, till he can understand how Nabal and other sheep-masters were able to find maintenance for vast flocks of sheep. Here and there are the crumbled ruins which mark the site of ancient towns and villages tenanted now by the jackal or the wandering Arab. Amongst these, a modern traveller has identified the site of Juttah, the village home of the priest Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth.
To judge by their names, we may infer that their parents years before had been godly people. Zacharias meant God's remembrance; as though he were to be a perpetual reminder to his fellows of what God had promised, and to God of what they were expecting from his hand. Elisabeth meant God's oath; as though her people were perpetually appealing to those covenant promises in which, since He could swear by no greater, God had sworn by Himself, that He would never leave nor forsake, and that when the sceptre departed from Judah and the law-giver from between his feet, Shiloh should come.
Zacharias was a priest, "of the course of Abijah," and twice a year he journeyed to Jerusalem to fulfil his office, for a week of six days and two Sabbaths. There were, Josephus tells us, somewhat more than 20,000 priests settled in Judaea at this time; and very many of them were like those whom Malachi denounced as degrading and depreciating the Temple services. The general character of the priesthood was deeply tainted by the corruption of the times, and as a class they were blind leaders of the blind. Not a few, however, were evidently deeply religious men, for we find that "a great number of the priests," after the crucifixion, believed on Christ and joined his followers. In this class we must therefore place Zacharias, who, with his wife, herself of the daughters of Aaron, is described as being "righteous before God."
The phrases are evidently selected with care. Many are righteous before men; but they were righteous before God. Their daily life and walk were regulated by a careful observance of the ordinances of the ceremonial and the commandments of the moral law. It is evident, from the apt and plentiful quotations from Scripture with which the song of Zacharias is replete, that the Scriptures were deeply pondered and reverenced in that highland home; and we have the angel's testimony to the prayers that ascended day and night. In all these things they were blameless -- not faultless, as judged by God's infinite standard of rectitude, but blameless -- because they lived up to the fullest limit of their knowledge of the will of God. They were blameless and harmless, the children of God, without blemish, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom they were seen as lights in the world, holding forth amid neighbours and friends the Word of Truth.
But they lived under the shadow of a great sorrow. "They had no child, because Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years." When the good priest put off his official dress of white linen, and returned to his mountain home, there was no childish voice to welcome him. It seemed almost certain that their family would soon die out and be forgotten; that no child would close their eyes in death; and that by no link whatsoever could they be connected with the Messiah, to be the progenitor of whom was the cherished longing of each Hebrew parent.
"They had no child!" They would, therefore, count themselves under the frown of God; and the mother especially felt that a reproach lay on her. What a clue to the anguish of the soul is furnished by her own reflection, when she recognised the glad divine interposition on her behalf, and cried, "Thus hath the Lord done unto me in the days wherein He looked upon me, to take away my reproach among men" (Luke i.25).
But had it not been for this sorrow they might never have been qualified to receive the first tidings of the near approach of the Messiah. Sorrow opens our eyes, and bids us see visions within the vail, which cannot be described by those who have not wept. Sorrow leads us up the steep mountain of vision, and opens the panorama which lies beyond the view of those who dare not attempt the craggy steep. Sorrow prepares us to see angels standing beside the altar of incense at the hour of prayer, and to hear words that mortal lips may not utter until they are fulfilled. Sorrow leads us to open our house to those who carry a great anguish in their hearts, who come to us needing shelter and comfort; to discover finally that we have entertained an angel unawares, and that in some trembling maiden, threatened by divorce from her espoused, we have welcomed the mother of the Lord (ver.43). Shrink not from sorrow. It endures but for the brief eastern night; joy cometh in the morning, to remain. It may be caused by long waiting and apparently fruitless prayer. Beneath its pressure heart and flesh may faint. All natural hope may have become dead, and the soul be plunged in hopeless despair. "Yet the Lord will command his loving-kindness in the morning;" and it will be seen that the dull autumn sowings of tears and loneliness and pain were the necessary preliminary for that heavenly messenger who, standing "on the right side of the altar of incense," shall assure us that our prayer is heard.
III. THE ANGEL'S ANNOUNCEMENT. -- One memorable autumn, when the land was full of the grape-harvest, Zacharias left his home, in the cradle of the hills, some three thousand feet above the Mediterranean, for his priestly service. Reaching the temple he would lodge in the cloisters, and spend his days in the innermost court, which none might enter save priests in their sacred garments. Among the various priestly duties, none was held in such high esteem as the offering of incense, which was presented morning and evening, on a special golden altar, in the Holy Place at the time of prayer. "The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense." So honourable was this office that it was fixed by lot, and none was allowed to perform it twice. Only once in a priest's life was he permitted to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, which an assistant had already brought from the altar of burnt-sacrifice, and spread on the altar of incense before the vail.
The silver trumpets had sounded. The smoke of the evening sacrifice was ascending. The worshippers that thronged the different courts, rising tier on tier, were engaged in silent prayer. The assistant priest had retired; and Zacharias, for the first and only time in his life, stood alone in the holy shrine, while the incense which he had strewn on the glowing embers arose in fragrant clouds, enveloping and veiling the objects around, whilst it symbolized the ascent of prayers and intercessions not only from his own heart, but from the hearts of his people, into the presence of God. "And their prayer came up to his holy habitation, even unto heaven."
What a litany of prayer poured from his heart! For Israel, that the chosen people should be delivered from their low estate; for the cause of religion, that it might be revived; for the crowds without, that God would hear the prayers they were offering toward his holy sanctuary, and, perhaps, for Elisabeth and himself, that, if possible, God would hear their prayer, and, if not, that He would grant them to bear patiently their heavy sorrow.
"And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense." Mark how circumstantial the narrative is. There could be no mistake. He stood -- and he stood on the right side. It was Gabriel who stands in the presence of God, who had been sent to speak to him, and declare the good tidings that his prayer was heard; that his wife should bear a son, who should be called John, that the child should be welcomed with joy, should be a Nazarite from his birth, should be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth, should inherit the spirit and power of Elias, and should go before the face of Christ to prepare his way, by turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the just.
He tarried long in the temple, and what wonder! The people would have ceased to marvel at the long suspense, could they have known the cause of the delay. Presently he came out; but when he essayed to pronounce the customary blessing his lips were dumb. He made signs as he reached forth his hands in the attitude of benediction; but that day no blessing fell on their upturned faces. He continued making signs unto them and remained dumb. Dumb, because he questioned the likelihood of so good and gracious an answer. Dumb, because he believed not the archangel's words. Dumb, that he might learn in silence and solitude the full purposes of God, to set them presently to song. Dumb, that the tidings might not spread as yet. Dumb, as the representative of that wonderful system, which for so long had spoken to mankind with comparatively little result, but was now to be superseded by the Word of God.
With the light of that glory on his face, and those sweet notes of "Fear not" ringing in his heart, Zacharias continued to fulfil the duties of his ministration, and, when his work was fulfilled, departed unto his house. But that day was long remembered by the people, prelude as it was to the time when their blessings would no longer come from Ebal or Gerizim, but from Calvary; and when the great High Priest would utter from heaven the ancient words:
The Lord bless thee and keep thee.