Zechariah's Song

Be open to the new ways in which God may be acting in our lives

Old man with white beard like Zechariah
Photo by Donald Teel on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 24, 2023

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Commentary on Luke 1:5-13 [14-25] 57-80

With the story of John the Baptist’s birth, Luke reveals how the God of Israel is a God who acts in both expected and unexpected ways. Luke portrays the expected, yet unexpected, nature of God’s actions at the very outset of his Gospel with the story of John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25), and he continues this theme with his account of John’s birth (1:57–66) and Zechariah’s subsequent song (1:67–80). By beginning his Gospel in this manner, Luke prepares the way for the story of Jesus’ birth and reminds his hearers that the advent of the Messiah also brings a series of surprises. 

According to Luke, Jesus is the promised, long-awaited Messiah, yet he does not always act in ways that adhere to our expectations. Instead, Jesus is a messiah who turns our notions of what it means to be “saved” upside down and who compels us to be open to the new ways in which God may be acting in our lives. 

Zechariah and Elizabeth

Luke first signals the expected, yet unexpected, nature of God’s actions with his account of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous before God,” Luke tells us, “but they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years” (Luke 1:6–7). During Zechariah’s routine service in the Jerusalem temple, however, the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces that Elizabeth will bear a child, whose name will be John (1:11–13). As Zechariah’s response to Gabriel demonstrates, this is surprising news indeed, for he says, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (1:18). 

Despite their advanced days, Elizabeth and Zechariah are to have a child. And despite the fact that God is acting in response to Zechariah’s prayer—presumably, for a child (1:13)—Zechariah does not seem to be expecting this news. Instead, he poses an objection, and to be fair, his objection seems to make sense: couples do not usually have children when they are old and have a history of infertility. 

At the same time, Gabriel’s news that an elderly couple will miraculously bear a child is not altogether unexpected, for it recalls the similar story of Abraham and Sarah. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah also receive surprising news that they will bear a son in their old age (Genesis 18:1–15), a birth that establishes a pattern throughout the Old Testament of God opening wombs for the sake of fulfilling divine promises (for example, Genesis 25:21; 29:31–30:24; Judges 13:2–25; 1 Samuel 1:1–2:10; 2 Kings 4:8–37). 

With Luke’s account of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s impending parenthood, therefore, we find God continuing to intervene in the lives of God’s people for the purposes of salvation history, in this case through a hoped-for, yet still surprising, pregnancy. By continuing this biblical pattern of God “blessing the barren,” Luke indicates that we can expect God to be faithful to God’s people and true to God’s promises—promises that Zechariah himself recollects when he sings of God’s oath to Abraham (Luke 1:72–73). God’s promises may be fulfilled in ways we do not expect, but through the birth of an unexpected child, God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and has remembered his holy covenant” (1:72). 

John the Baptist

Like his parents, John the Baptist also points to how God’s promises in Scripture are fulfilled in unexpected ways. On the one hand, John fulfills the prophet Isaiah’s words about the one who will “prepare the way of the LORD” (Isaiah 40:3), or the one who will usher in God’s restoration of Israel. Gabriel speaks of this restoration when he says that John will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17), and Zechariah confirms that John will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (1:76). When John grows up, his ministry of baptizing and his proclamation of repentance bring these words to fruition, and Luke reminds us of this by quoting these verses from Isaiah in full (Luke 3:4–6; see also Isaiah 40:3–5). 

On the other hand, however, John’s fulfillment of Isaiah moves the prophet’s words in a new direction because of the identity of the one called “Lord.” As the narrative progresses, we learn that Gabriel’s reference to “the Lord” does not just refer to God but to Jesus, since “the Lord” (ho kyrios) is one of Luke’s favorite christological titles (a title that Elizabeth first proclaims to Mary in 1:43: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”). The “way” that John prepares, therefore, is not just for God but for Jesus, whose identity as kyrios inextricably links him to God’s own self. With this shockingly high Christology, Luke insists that Jesus, though born of the virgin Mary, is also inseparably bound to the God of Israel.


Finally, Jesus himself, like his predecessor John, also exemplifies how God’s promises are fulfilled in surprising ways. Although we see this tension unfolding throughout the entirety of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah especially sounds this theme in his prophetic, Spirit-inspired song (Luke 1:67–79). At the beginning of the song, Zechariah first underscores how Jesus is the promised Messiah. “The Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah sings, “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (1:68–70). Just as the prophets foretold, Zechariah assures us that Jesus is the anticipated Messiah, or the “righteous Branch” of David, of whom Jeremiah spoke (Jeremiah 33:15).

But as Zechariah continues to sing of this “mighty savior,” his words start to take on an ironic tone, especially for those of us who know the rest of Luke’s story. Zechariah says that God’s act of raising up this savior will rescue the Jewish people from the hands of their enemies (1:71, 74), but this rescue occurs later in Luke by Jesus falling into enemy hands, namely the hands of the Romans. Zechariah also says that this savior, or “the dawn from on high,” “will give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:78–79), yet Jesus ultimately provides that light by undergoing death himself. 

As Luke’s Gospel reveals, Jesus is not a messiah who conquers Israel’s enemies through war and violence. Jesus is instead a messiah who conquers violence itself through his death and resurrection; he is the one who “guide[s] our feet into the way of peace” (1:79). For Luke, this is “the Lord.” This is the Messiah who embodies God’s faithfulness to God’s people and who can be expected to act in unexpected ways. 


God of the prophets, you sent John into the world to proclaim the coming of your son. Give us ears to hear the proclamations of your promises and eyes to see your presence in this world. Amen.


Lo, how a rose e’er blooming   ELW 272, GG 129, H82 81, NCH 127, UMH 216
Blessed be the God of Israel   ELW 250
Christ, mighty savior   ELW 560, H82 34, NCH 93, UMH 684
He Came Down   ELW 253, GG 137, TFF 37
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel   ELW 257, GG 88, H82 56, NCH 116, UMH 211


Gabriel’s Message, Stephen Paulus