by Beth Piepenburg
While the story is about Elisabeth’s conception, and the magnificent appearance of the angel Gabriel, the central theme is about the words of Zacharias. Scratching my head and pondering why the words of Zacharias were the theme, I began to understand that he represented Israel at a time when believing in God’s promises was difficult.
ELISABETH WAS BARREN
Zacharias and his wife were well advanced in years. In their younger days they had lived under the independent Jewish kingdom with the reigning Hasmonean dynasty. In 63 BC, Pompey conquered Jerusalem, making the Jewish kingdom a Roman client state. In 40 BC the Parthians (Persians) invaded and drove out the Romans in many of the eastern Roman provinces. The Hasmonean dynasty was reestablished under Antigonus II Mattathias, a pro-Parthian monarch. Fleeing to Rome, Herod was proclaimed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 39 BC. Fighting for control of Judea, Herod was entrusted to govern the province by Antony in 35 BC, and remained in power shortly after the eclipse in 1 BC. So, Zacharias and his wife had seen much conflict in their land over the years. Where was God in all this turmoil?
Both Zacharias and his wife were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest of the tribe of Levi. Zacharias’ name meant Yah has remembered, but did Zacharias wonder if God had remembered him as he had prayed for his country and for a child? Elisabeth was named after Aaron’s wife, Elisheba, meaning God has sworn. Zacharias served in the eighth division of Abijah, which these priestly divisions had been originally instituted by King David. The number eight signifies the Resurrection. Zacharias would serve in the Temple at Jerusalem when the time came for his division to be present.
When life has its hardships, Job’s comforters will contribute their unwarranted explanation. Barrenness obviously has to do with God’s lack of blessing because of sin, right? I’m sure many wondered about Zacharias and Elisabeth and why they had failed to be blessed by God. However, Scripture clearly indicates that they were both righteous before God and that they were blameless in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. What a high recommendation!
Elisabeth’s barrenness served as a reflection of the barrenness of Israel. Throughout the ages, God had promised the Messiah to the nation of Israel. Any hope of being liberated from Rome and from the Edomite King Herod seemed futile. The life of Elisabeth and Zacharias appeared fruitless without any children. Was there any hope left?
THE PEOPLE WERE PRAYING
Only the descendants of Aaron could enter the Holy Place to offer incense, but after four hundred years the number of descendants had grown. When David was king, he appointed 24 divisions with each division serving twice a year besides the Feasts. With thousands of Aaronic descendant, the chance that a priest would offer incense might be once in a lifetime. Had Zacharias ever served before?
When did the eighth division serve? Besides the major feasts, the eighth division would have served either in the third or eighth Jewish month. Since the Annunciation of Mary has been reckoned to be first day of the ancient seventh month of 3 B.C., Elisabeth would have conceived sometime after the preceding Passover. Thus, the angelic visitation to Zacharias might have fallen in the third month (May-June) of 4 B.C., the eighth month (October-November) of 4 B.C., or during the Passover (March) of 3 B.C.
Twice a day incense was burnt, which were made of four precious spices: stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense. Chosen to serve on this particular morning, Zacharias must have been somewhat unnerved to follow protocol as prescribed. He would enter into the Holy Place alone and have the privilege to burn incense to the Lord!
While the priest would offer incense to the Lord, the people would be praying outside. Besides personal prayers, many offered prayers for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel and for the coming Messiah.
WORDS OF THE ANGEL
The angel addresses Zacharias’ present state of fear, his past years of prayers that seemed to have gone unheard, and the future about a son. However, this son was to be named John, meaning Yehovah-favored. The importance of naming the child John pertained to God’s destiny rather than family tradition.
Of course, this child would bring joy and gladness to this elderly couple because they would enjoy their remaining lives with their son and never live to see his imprisonment or death. Yet, many would rejoice at his miraculous birth because they would know that God had not forgotten his people.
John’s destiny was to be great in God’s presence, but he was expected to live a life of a Nazarite, not partaking in liquor and possibly never having his hair cut. Even Elisabeth would abstain from liquor until she had weaned John. To fulfill his godly purpose, John would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit in the womb. Could that have happened when he was conceived or on the Shavuot (Pentecost)?
How would John return the people to their God? He never performed the miracles that Elijah had done, but called Israel to repentance like Elijah. He would speak to their hearts in three ways: by turning the hearts of the fathers toward their children, by turning the heart to seek righteous wisdom, and by preparing the hearts of the people for the Messiah.
WORDS OF ZACHARIAS
What a question to ask an angel? Zacharias would have been well versed in Jewish scripture. Besides the story of Abraham and Sarah having Isaac in their old age, he would have known the prophecy of Malachi that an Elijah would return for the purpose of turning the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. Could it be that his heart was hardened with the sadness of life that he lacked any faith? Even an appearance of an angel failed to generate faith.
Why is this verse the theme for this passage about the birth of John the Baptist? Perhaps, Zacharias exemplified Israel, an older nation compared to Rome. For centuries, they had awaited the Promise of a Savior and the return of the Kingdom of David. Had God forgotten his people and his promises?
WORDS OF THE ANGEL GABRIEL
For God to work in Zacharias’ and Elisabeth’s lives, he would need cooperation from Zacharias. By silencing Zacharias, the angel put a damper on Zacharias’ unbelief, which would have affected the future of Israel.
THE PEOPLE ARE WAITING
Can you imagine after the hour of incense that the people wondered what had happened to Zacharias? Although he was older, Zacharias was in good health. What should be done? In order to enter the Holy Place, another priest would have to cleanse himself. At last, Zacharias exited, and the crowd wondered what happened. He responded only with signs because he was struck mute. What people had waited for through the centuries was to be accomplished.
While his service at the temple was fulfilled, Zacharias with his wife Elisabeth awaited for the fulfillment of the angel’s words. After she conceived, why did she hide herself five months? By the Jewish lunar-solar calendar, the end of five months would be twenty weeks, exactly half of her pregnancy. At twenty weeks, she would began to show and would experience a “quickening” when the first movements of her child could be felt. She had waited for the Lord to fulfill what the angel Gabriel had spoken to her husband. Although she had been righteous before God, she would no longer bear the criticism of people
Copyright by Beth Piepenburg, 2015. All rights reserved.