Prelude to Bethlehem Lesson 2 - The Song of Zacharias
Zacharias was given an unbelievable promise by God. He was told that before he died he would see the long-awaited Messiah. So join Stephen in this message to discover Zacharias' timeless response when God's promise is finally granted him.
“The Song of Zacharias”
There was a time in history when little singing was heard. For 400 years the music has all but stopped. No prophet has spoken for God, and no composer wrote down anything new from God.
This time in history has been named, the 400 silent years. These were the years between the last page of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.
The heavens were silent . . . these 400 years were dark years indeed.
David Gooding wrote, “The night had been long and, for Israel, at times very dark. But through it all – through times of national success and disaster, through the conquest and the monarchy, through the exile and return – hope had persisted that the night would end and, as Malachi put it, “the sun of righteousness would arise with healing in his wings.” (4:2) / Charles Swindoll, The Origination of Something Glorious (IFL Publishers, California) 1994, p. 19
Yes, there was this promise of a coming dawn. The rising of sunlight like the world had never seen before. The last Old Testament promise that the Messiah’s daybreak would appear on the horizon of history . . . eventually . . . no one knew when.
There was certainly little for the Jews to sing about in these days . . . their nation had become shackled by religious tradition and their spiritual leadership was corrupt.
Add to that the political challenges of their day. Luke’s Gospel opens in chapter 1 verse 5 with the words, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea. . .”
If there was ever a reason for singing to be silenced, it is the mention of Herod’s name.
He was the Roman ruler over Israel . . . a man insanely jealous of his throne. He had killed two of his sons who posed a threat to his rule. He executed his own wife after he heard a rumor that she was plotting to poison him. He placed his favorite son in jail and then had him executed after he tried to escape from prison.
He had taken the title, “King of the Jews,” and was seethed with rage when visiting dignitaries from Persia came to him, asking where the baby was born who was King of the Jews.
No one had the title, but him. He was the King of the Jews. And so he ordered that every little boy in the region of Bethlehem be put to death. . .and hundreds were killed.
The only music in these days was the dirge of Jews lamenting their children.
When Herod finally died, diseased and insane, Roman historians wrote that he had stolen to the throne like a fox, ruled like a tiger, and died like a dog.
For the Jewish people, the dawning of Messiah’s day is about to come to pass – they just didn’t know it yet, and would have never dreamed it possible.
But Isaiah had prophesied that before the daybreak of Messiah, a forerunner would be born whose task in life was to simply announce the coming of the Messiah.
The birth of this forerunner would bring about a burst of music – a musical prelude to Bethlehem – a song that had not been heard for 400 years.
And to this day, perhaps the most ignored Christmas song in the world.
Before we get to the lyrics of this song, let’s allow Luke to introduce the composer and his wife.
Luke chapter 1.
5. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.
Stop for a moment. The composer and his wife were missing the music they longed to hear.
The laughter of a child . . . the lullaby of mother.
According to the text, they had prayed long and hard for a child. Like Hannah before her, Elizabeth had begged God for a baby. But time slowly erased their hope.
Add to that the Old Testament stigma and superstition related to barrenness, and maybe we can understand their sorrow.
The Jewish Rabbis were speculating that seven people were unable to intimately walk with God. Their list began: “A Jew who has no wife.” In other words, single men were considered less able to worship God than married men. Their speculation continued as they added to the list, “A Jew who has a wife and has no child.”
Did you know, in this era, childlessness was considered valid grounds for divorce! / Ibid, p. 20
That why verse 6 is so incredible: They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.
Why bother?! God isn’t doing His end of the deal. Why serve Him? It isn’t paying off. The thing they wanted most of all and prayed for over the passing years of their lives to receive, was withheld from them.
What does it take to stop you from serving and worshipping God?
What is the one thing that He withhold from you that tempts you to stop singing in your heart unto the Lord.
What I love about this story, is that God would select, from among some 20,000 active priests, this man named Zacharias
In the eyes of his people he was an old man who hadn’t made any significant contribution in the priesthood. His wife was a descendant of Aaron himself – she even had the name of Aaron’s wife – but to all around her, she was serving under God’s displeasure.
In fact, when she does indeed conceive, she says in verse 25, “[God has] taken away my disgrace among men.”
Hovering over this godly couple were the clouds of sorrow and the rumors of shame. Who would have imagined that when God began to tune up the musical instruments of messianic songs, after 400 years of silence, He would choose that priest to deliver the music of hope to the world?!
8. Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division…
An estimated 20,000 men were serving as priests during the days of Zacharias. There were so many of them that they were divided into 24 divisions. On any given day, 56 priests would be serving in the temple for a one week period, 2 times a year. After their week of service, they would return to their village or home where they made their living.
So there wouldn’t be any contention or jealousy or jousting for position, lots were cast which determined what job the priests performed each day.
We know from Jewish writings that a priest could only have the honor of offering incense once in his lifetime. It was a ministry inside the holy place, just outside the Holy of Holies. The burning of incense signified that the prayers of all of Israel was ascending to the nostrils of God who was pleased with the offering.
Out of some 20,000 priest, many of them never had the honor.
Notice what had just happened in verse 9. according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
Suddenly, Zacharias is facing the most important moment of his priestly office. The incredible honor of standing for all of Israel inside the Holy Place, while the Jews knelt outside to pray.
Let me describe it for you.
The temple had been rebuilt by Herod in an attempt to win popularity with the Jews. It so it was a massive white structure with gold plated doors. When the priests who had been chosen to enter the Holy Place walked up the stairs to enter within, there at the door they would strike a gong. The sound would be heard throughout the city. And all of the people, who weren't able to make it to the temple, knew the time was near when they would fall on their knees and pray. Three chosen priests would walk into the Holy Place and one would clean the altar of incense, one would straighten the loaves of shewbread, the other one would trim the wicks on the candle stand and then they would retire and leave. Except for one priest. The only priest that would be left would be the priest that had the privileged position of sacrificing incense.
Once the other two priests had left, an instrument sounded, and upon that sound, the entire group of 52 priests would fall to the ground. And all of the people who had come to worship would prostrate themselves and everybody in the city would sort of pause kneel and silence would envelope the entire city. Why? Because this priest was about to sprinkle incense over a live coal on that special altar and the puffs of sweet smelling smoke going up would represent their worship and their prayers and their communion with a gracious and holy and forgiving God. What an awesome moment.
The heart of Zacharias was no doubt beating wildly . . . his aged hands trembling with awe and excitement.
Just as he poured out the incense, he became aware that he was no longer alone.
11. And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12. Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. (Why? Because this could have been a messenger of judgment . . . of God’s displeasure . . . not to mention that angels hadn’t been seen for 400 years!) 13. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Hey, the angel is quoting from the Book of Malachi! The 400 years of silence are over. God is speaking again!
And what’s the message Zacharias? You and Elizabeth are going to have a baby and that baby will become the prophet who will introduce the Messiah to the world.
Wow! What news . . . what incredible news.
18. And Zacharias said to the angel, “Praise be to God for He has answered our prayer and His power is able to bring the womb to life and perform His will among the sons of Israel.”
No . . . he didn’t say that did he?! That’s the revised version of what he wished he’d actually said in life.
Here’s what he actually said, “ 18. Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”
Just as Abraham and Sarah didn’t believe God’s promise of a baby boy born to their old age who would be the forefather of the Messiah, so Zacharias doesn’t believe he will have a son who will be the forerunner of the Messiah.
19. The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
There’s a play on words here, lost to the English reader. Zacharias said, “I am an old man.” The angel said, “I am Gabriel.”
In other words, “You might be an old man, but I am Gabriel. . .and your wife might be advanced in years, but I stand in the presence of an eternal God.”
This is the same angel who stood before Daniel and announced the Messiah’s kingdom. Now he stands before this country priest and announces the soon coming birth of the Messiah.
20. And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” 21. The people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute.
It was the custom of the priest to stand on the porch, having left the Holy Place, and give a blessing to the people. But Zacharias’ tongue which had uttered unbelief, was struck speechless – and he would have nine months of silence. / R. Kent Hughes, Luke, Volume One (Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL), 1998, p. 26
Can you imagine his frustration. He was supposedly the mouthpiece for God – and he had the news of the century – news from God that hadn’t been heard for 400 years . . . and he can’t utter a single sound.
23. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.
I imagine he’s driving that mule way over the speed limit. He hurries through the front door motioning for Elizabeth to get off her rocking chair and come over into the light . . . he tries to talk with his hands – “What is it Zacharias?!” He’s motioning, “Two syllables, first letter is B – rhymes with maybe . . . she just can’t guess it . . . she isn’t getting the story, so finally he writes it out for her.
“You’re going to have a baby.”
Elizabeth patted him on the head and probably said, “You need a good cup of tea.”
“No, no, no, I know it’s true – you’re going to have a baby?”
She asked, “Who told you?”
“And angel told me.”
She said, “Maybe you need something stronger than tea; an angel told you I was going to have a baby?
“Yes! And this baby will be named John. He’s going to be like Elijah of old – he will bring revival to Israel and introduce the Messiah to our people.”
24. After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25. This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”
Now skip ahead to verse 57. Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she gave birth to a son. 58. Her neighbors and her relatives heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her; and they were rejoicing with her. 59. And it happened that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him Zacharias, after his father. 60. But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” 61. And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” 62. And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. 63. And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. 64. And at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God.
Through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, a joyful Zacharias begins to sing this prophetic hymn, probably chanting it like the priests did in this day . . . probably broken periodically by emotion and tears.
There are at least 3 stanzas:
A stanza about Israel’s salvation (vv. 68-71)
68. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69. And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant— 70. As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old— 71. Salvation from our enemies, And from the hand of all who hate us;
A stanza about God’s sovereignty (vv. 72-75)
72. To show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant, 73. The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, 74. To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, 75. In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
A stanza about Zacharias’ own son (76-77)
Notice how Zacharias now begins to sing to little baby John . . .
76. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on Before the Lord to prepare His ways; 77. To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins,
A closing stanza about the Savior (78-79)
- Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79. To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
What a great name of our Savior that is often overlooked – Sunrise. “. . .to shine upon those who
sit in darkness . . .” Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:9 that that “. . . we might show forth the praises of
Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.”
Before we close, I want to tell you the meaning of the composer’s name, his wife’s name, and their son’s name. Thy are highly significant:
Zacharias means – God remembers.
Elizabeth – the promise of God
John – the grace of God
Put them together and you have the story of redemption. God remembers . . . His promise . . . and delivers to mankind . . . His grace.
That’s not just true for them, by the way. Just as God remembered them, so He remembers you. God has not become so busy that he has overlooked your disappointment; He has not become so overworked that he has misplaced your prayer request. He knows. God’s plan, God’s way, has simply yet to be revealed.
Like Zacharias and Elizabeth . . . keep serving . . . keep worshipping . . . they kept trusting. And they learned to desire Him more than anything or anyone else.
And when you’re like them, you won’t be perfect, but you just might find God’s Spirit composing within your own heart, a song that you can also sing. A song like the song of old Zacharias. A hymn to sing, all year round.
A hymn of your own . . . of your own salvation . . . of the demonstration of God’s sovereignty in your own life . . . about the wonderful timing of God in delivering not only to the world the news of the Messiah – but to your own heart, the gospel of this one who is your everlasting Sunrise . . . the light of the world . . . the Savior . . . the One who brought you out of darkness and into a marvelous light.
Sing the song of Zacharias.
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