Commentary on Luke 1:68-79
Luke 1:68-79 marks the Benedictus—also known as the song of Zechariah.
It is one of three canticles—the other two being Mary’s Magnificat and the Song of Simeon—in the first chapter of Luke. This song pronounces praise for the birth of John the Baptist. John’s birth marks a reversal of fate for Zechariah and Elizabeth after their period of lack, and it announces the beginning of a reversal of fate for humanity, who stands in a period of spiritual lack in need of God’s deliverance.
The Benedictus receives its name because of its beginning with “Blessed be…” (helogetos).
The liturgical format is reminiscent of the barakah formula in the Hebrew Bible which begins with an initial statement of praise (Luke 1:68a) followed by the reason for said praise (1:68b-74) and concluding with a formula for praise (1:75-79). Francois Bovon’s observation that the passive verb “blessed” leaves the subject of the blessing in “theological suspense.”1 Consequently, both the works of God and the audience of God’s work can express praise.
Here, the works of God are not only God’s blessing of Israel and their deliverance from enemies but also the maintenance of the covenant and the birth of John. In this way the author signifies human capacity to be God’s praise in our ability to live in communion with God. Similarly, but with some nuance, we as human beings have the ability to bear witness to God’s work in history. We see God’s ability to step, to be attentive, to deliver, and redeem; and as a result of what we see, we are able to offer praise. In this text, such praise unfolds in three parts in this Lukan text—through God’s visit, God’s deliverance, and God’s might.
In verse 68 the verb (episkeptomai) often translated “looked favorably upon” may also be translated as “to visit.” This verb appears in the Septuagint (LXX) in Genesis 21:1 when God shows up for Sarah and interrupts her prolonged season of bareness. In like manner it is the same verb in Ruth 1:6 when God ends the famine in Bethlehem. God’s visit is something more than simple presence; it is about more than merely seeing. When God visits God’s people, God makes God’s self manifest in their lives. God shows up to interrupt misery and lack with an intention to restore and sustain the people.
And so, the author reminds us that God visited Israel and “redeemed them” (Luke 1:68b). This redemption takes the form of a raising up a “horn of salvation” (commonly translated as “might savior”). The horn in ancient Israel signifies a show of strength. Most often this strength was demonstrated in military might. For example, in Deuteronomy 33:17, the author says of Joseph, “his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he gores people.” Here the author signifies God’s chosen as having a superhuman strength that pushes back their opponents. Joseph’s victory is assured because God has endowed him with these horns of strength. In a more militaristic context, in Joshua 6:20 the priests’ blowing of the horn is a sign for the people that there is an impending sign of God’s might. Following this sound, the walls of Jericho fall. The horns are signal of Israel’s strength as they prepare to invade this territory. There is no counter-response significant to subdue them.
In Luke 1 the horn is placed in the “house of his servant David.” Such an allusion points the reader to 2 Samuel 2; in Hannah’s prayer, she speaks of God’s ability to reverse fortunes and bring about unexpected outcomes for those who live for God. This prayer culminates with 2 Samuel 2:10 with God’s horn (LXX) resounding which is a sign of the king’s strength on earth.
In Luke 1 the horn become a signification of a different manifestations of God’s strength. Here God’s might is a signal of redemption and salvation.
All of this theological reflection in Luke 1:68-79 happens outside of time. Prior to this text and following it there is a narrative chronology. However, in this moment the author breaks time to speak to God’s amazing capacity to operate across and within chronological time. This brief text takes it reader through the exodus, into the monarchy, across the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel and into the hope for a new promise fulfilled first through John the Baptist and then through Jesus. As such, the text reminds us that we live in a cycle of both the declaration and fulfillment of God’s promises in prophetic utterances.
1 Francois Bovon. Hermeneia: Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Helmut Koester, ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 72.