George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(4) “A Horn of Salvation” (Luke 1:57-80)

The impending birth to the long-married couple Zechariah and Elizabeth was a source of much excitement to their friends and relatives in the little town of Judah. Everyone knew how ardently they had desired and prayed for a child.

At last the full time came, and Elizabeth gave birth to a son. The angel Gabriel had said that many would rejoice at his birth (Luke 1:14), and it was true. The whole village rejoiced with them (v. 58).

The law of Moses required that every baby boy be circumcised the eighth day (Lev. 12:3). This was a token of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:10-14). It graphically taught Israel what God required of them, not just physically but also morally: the “cutting off” or repudiation of the desires of the flesh.

Over the generations this simple ceremony had grown more and more elaborate. Friends and relatives would gather together to witness it. It was traditional, since prayer was to be offered for the new son as he entered the covenant, that he be named on the eighth day. (Since there was no corresponding ceremony for a girl baby, her naming was often deferred until she was weaned.)

Zechariah was still unable to speak, and so someone else, probably the nearest male relative, officiated. It seems to have been assumed by all present, since the child was the son of his father’s old age and potentially an only child, that he would be called Zechariah, after his father. As is usual at such affairs, much attention was lavished on the new-born, but very little notice was taken of the mother. Apparently no one thought to ask Elizabeth what name she had in mind. Matters were proceeding along quite well when Elizabeth intervened: “No! He is to be called John” (Luke 1:60). This sudden intrusion met with a storm of protest. None of his family were called by that name. To settle the matter, an appeal was made to Zechariah, who called for a writing tablet (v. 63) and wrote: “His name is John”.

The name could not have been more significant. This child was to herald the end of the age for the law and the prophets, and the beginning of a new dispensation. How fitting, therefore, that the first word of the new age was “John” — grace! “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached” (Luke 16:16); “for the law was given through Moses, [but] grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The conferring of the name upon the child signaled the end of the dumbness as a sign (v. 20). At once Zechariah spoke, praising God (v. 64) in words of song (vv. 68-79). The words had a striking effect, even a fearful one, on his audience, and news of these things was spread abroad through Judea. It was clearly recognized that the hand of God was upon the child John. It was evident that he was to be no ordinary man.

From an early age John demonstrated strength of spirit and independence of mind. In the rugged country on the western shore of the Dead Sea, he grew up lean and hard. Like other men of austere faith, he was purged and purified in the hot, dry air and the clean, open distances of the desert. There he was prepared for his coming manifestation to Israel (v. 80).

The song of Zechariah

There is much in the wonderful song of Zechariah to attract our close attention. Zechariah signifies “Yahweh remembers”, or “Yahweh’s memorial”. Elizabeth (or Eli-sheba) signifies “the oath, or vow, of God”. John, of course, signifies “Yah is gracious”. Thus the memorial of God and the oath of God, combined, produce grace. These names embody the theme of the song, expressed in verses 72,73: God will “show mercy to our fathers and... remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham”.

V. 68: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people.”

This is language borrowed from the Exodus. In the burning bush God revealed Himself to Moses by His memorial name Yahweh (Exod. 3:15) and sent him to the enslaved Israelites with the words, “I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt” (vv. 16,17). God did redeem His people out of bondage by the blood of the passover lamb and the death of the firstborn; these things are incontestably an allegory of redemption in Christ.

V. 69: “A horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”

In Scripture “horn” is a symbol of power, strength and exaltation, as the power of an animal was in its horn, or horns (Psa. 75:4,5; 89:17,24; 112:9). David used a similar phrase: “God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation” (2 Sam. 22:3). The figure of speech was used also by Hannah in her rejoicing at the birth of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1,10).

The parallels between Samuel and John the Baptist are striking:

Both were conceived miraculously.
Both were of the tribe of Levi.
Both demonstrated precocious intelligence.
Both were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Both pronounced judgment upon an evil nation.
Both called the people of Israel to repentance.
Both marked the end of an era: Samuel the end of the Judges period; John the end of the age of the prophets.
Both prepared God’s way by fearlessly declaring His Word.
Both were “forerunners” of righteous kings.
Both anointed kings: Samuel anointed David at Bethlehem, and John “anointed” Jesus, by baptism, in Jordan.

V. 71: “Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

Much could be elucidated from the prophets on this majestic theme, but it might be sufficient to cite God’s promise to Abraham:

“I swear by myself... that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies” (Gen. 22: 16,17).

Many were the enemies of Israel, but the greatest “enemies” were sin and death. True salvation was achieved by Jesus, the seed of Abraham, in his defeat of the power of sin and his conquest, by resurrection, of the grave. The “gate of his enemies” captured by Christ is the “gate” of the grave and death (1 Cor. 15:26,55,56; Rev. 1:18; 20:6).

V. 74: “To rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear.”

The Mosaic covenant brought fear to those who observed it, because it emphasized the essential sinfulness of all men. Zechariah in his song implies that that fear will have an end in God’s new visitation. And it was so, for Christ came under the curse of the law to redeem those in bondage to that law (Gal. 3:13), who were bound in a spirit of fear (Rom. 8:15).

“Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil —and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14,15).

V. 76: “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”

From a contemplation of the work of the coming Messiah, Zechariah now turns with loving affection to his own little son. The prophecies particularly relevant here are Isaiah 40:3-8 (“A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD’ ”) and Malachi 3:1,2 (“See, I will send my messenger”).

V. 77: “To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.”

The remission of sins is the keynote here. Sin is the root cause of all bondage, oppression and fear. The Romans and the Herods were only secondary causes. The Coming One would not, like so many would-be “Messiahs”, hack away profitlessly at the “branches” of evil in government and society. He would instead cut out sin at its “root”, or source — the human heart. And he would provide his followers with the only deliverance worth seeking, the forgiveness of sins:

“For this is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).

V. 78: “By which the rising sun will come to us from heaven” or “The dayspring from on high hath visited us.”

Anatole, sometimes translated “east”, may also signify “sun-rising” (Rev. 16:12, RV), a reference to Malachi’s promised “Sun of righteousness” (4:2). But also, in a secondary sense, it signifies the “Branch” — from the idea of “springing up”. (This same word, anatole, appears in the Septuagint in the Messianic passages of Jeremiah 23:5 and Zechariah 3:8, as a way of referring to the One whom the Hebrew prophets called the “Branch”!)

V. 79: “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

The prophecy is Isaiah 9:2, and the fulfillment is in Matthew 4:12-16. John’s life’s work was short and fierce, but Israel had never seen a greater prophet. The courtiers of evil felt the sting of his tongue. And the common people listened to his words and looked up in hope.

John, the great forerunner, was finally cast into prison. His work had come to an end, but God’s purpose was not bound. John had been God’s instrument to prepare the way for a more glorious manifestation:

“When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali — to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ ” (Matt. 4:12-16).

There will be no more occasion to refer to John the Baptist. But let us not leave him in prison awaiting execution. Let us instead remember him as he strode with firm step across the bare Judean hills, a burning fire in his eyes. Not for him the pleasures of kings’ palaces. Not for him the half-way measures of accommodation that stifle the spirit of sacrifice. Not for him soft raiment and delicate food; but rather sun, wind, camel’s hair, and locusts. His was a lonely path through the “wilderness”, where the noise of man was quieted, but the voice of God could be heard.

‘Was this a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.’ He was the messenger of the Messiah, and among them that are born of woman there were none greater. And the death that he died we should be happy to have for our own, if we could but live his life.

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