Salvation in the Benedictus

The canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) is commonly known by the first word of its Latin version: Benedictus. Luke tells us that the song (or poem) is a prophecy inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah is the father of a baby named John, whose birth has been miraculous. John will grow to become the prophet known as John the Baptizer (or John the Baptist). Like the prophet Samuel, John was born to parents who had been childless well into their old age. Zechariah’s song, however, is not really about the joy surrounding his son’s birth. The few words that directly pertain to John are confined to the middle of the text.

Instead, Zechariah sings about the salvation that God will bring to his people. The salvation of which Zechariah sings has both a negative component and a positive component. It is salvation from, and salvation for.

God will bring salvation from Israel’s enemies and the hand of all who hate them. Throughout its history, foreign powers both great and small threatened Israel’s existence. In Zechariah’s day, Israel was subjugated by Rome and its puppet governors. The people of Israel suffered from violence, taxation to the point of poverty, theft of their property, unjust courts and the indignity of Gentile occupation. All of Israel looked for God’s deliverance from oppression.

God’s salvation doesn’t stop with saving Israel from its enemies. God will save Israel for a life of peace and righteousness. God will rescue Israel from its foes so that it can “serve him without, in holiness and righteousness all our days.”

In context, “serve him without fear” refers most directly to the security and peace of the temple, where God’s people offered the sacrifices that maintained the covenant relationship. Zechariah was a priest, and Luke begins by telling us about his period of service in the temple. Prior to its destruction in 70 AD, the temple cult was the heart of the people’s life with God. Zechariah foresees the day when Israel’s worship would not only be free from external threats, but also from the threat of Israel’s own unrighteousness. Israel’s sin had led to its downfall time and time again throughout its history. When God saves his people, they will live as God intended, enjoying the fruits of righteousness and no longer endangering their own future. God will shine his light on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide their feet into the way of peace.

The direct instrument of God’s deliverance will be the “horn of salvation in the house of David.” What Zechariah is alluding to is the prophet Nathan’s promise to King David: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2d Samuel 7:16).  Even though there had not been a Davidic king on the throne of Judah or Israel for centuries, many faithful people still expected God to fulfill his promise by sending a descendant of David to lead and deliver them. Zechariah’s song proclaims that the time of fulfillment and renewal has arrived.

Because we are familiar with the rest of the story, we know that savior-king is Jesus. Jesus qualifies and transforms the messianic hope on which Zechariah’s song is based. Luke later tells us that the the temple will be destroyed and that the Gentiles will trample on Jerusalem until the time of the Gentiles is complete. Jesus won’t stop the army of Titus from capturing Jerusalem and destroying the temple in 70 AD.

Our hope for deliverance, however, is not inferior to that which Zechariah’s song envisions; it is even greater. At Christ’s appearing, God will indeed crush oppression in its basest form. He will also crush every social, mental, emotional, physical and spiritual power that threatens human well-being. That includes my own sin. That includes physical infirmities. That includes structural evil in society. That includes whatever spiritual powers of evil there might be. That includes death itself. Christians don’t spiritualize away the political and economic elements of Zechariah’s revolutionary vision; they embrace the vision of peace and righteousness. The problem, however, goes deeper than the presence of Roman soldiers, tax collectors and a few corrupt priests and politicians.

The indirect instrument of God’s salvation will be Zechariah’s son. John will be a prophet who prepares the way for God’s salvation. John’s role is to tell the people what God is going to do, and then call them to repentance. John’s call for repentance presupposes that the people themselves are a significant part of the problem. It’s not just the politicians. It’s not just the priests. It’s not the 1% at the top. It’s us. It’s me. Without God’s grace, we’re all sunk. But, as Zechariah proclaims, he is a God of “tender mercy.” He prepares the way, giving us yet one more chance to submit ourselves to his gracious reign.