Zechariah’s Song: Benedictus

Pastor Craig Carter

Last week we observed that music plays a big role in our Christmas celebrations. The reason we’re putting so much emphasis on the Songs of Christmas during this Advent season (the four Sundays prior to Christmas), is because they’ve been front and center since the Nativity itself. 

Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth includes 4 songs being sung by the cast of characters. Last week, we looked at Mary’s Song, commonly called the Magnificat (its Latin title). In the coming weeks, we’ll explore the Angels’ Song and Simeon’s Song. But today we’re going to turn our attention to Zechariah’s Song.  

Luke introduces Zechariah in this way:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. (Luke 1:5-7 NIV)

So we have a priest, Zechariah, married to the daughter of a priest, Elizabeth. You’d expect a couple of such lineage to be truly blessed by God. But in the Jewish mindset of the day, they were anything but. 

Couples living in that era saw children as the ultimate blessing from the Lord. So Jewish women tried to give birth to as many children as possible. In a practical sense, to care for the needs of the household, especially the parents. In a spiritual sense, each son had the potential of being the Messiah. 

If there was ever a couple that had all the ingredients for a blessed family, it was Zechariah and Elizabeth. They had the right pedigree and were righteous and obedient. But despite all they had going for them, they probably felt like complete failures. Elizabeth was unable to conceive and now they were past child-bearing age. Some traditions hold that Zechariah was 92 years old at this time. 

Imagine their disappointment, frustration, and unanswered questions. On top of that, they would’ve been viewed by others with skepticism … “Apparently they’re not as righteous as they appear, for God has passed over them.”

But remember, with God nothing is impossible so He still had great plans for them. The Lord, in His infinite mercy, chose these two unlikely persons to become the parents of John the Baptist, the mighty prophet and forerunner of the Messiah. 

Here’s how that news was revealed to them and how the story unfolded.

One day while serving in the Temple, Zechariah was selected to offer incense in the sanctuary. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and occurred when his name was chosen in a lottery among all of the available priests (and there were many of them in Jerusalem at the time). While he went inside, his fellow priests and onlookers prayed outside. 

As Zechariah approached the altar, an angel appeared to him and informed him that his prayers had been answered. He went on to tell Zechariah that he and Elizabeth would have a son who was to be named John, and this child would have a special place in human history by preparing the way for Jesus. 

When the angel informed Zechariah of the miracle that was about to take place, he found the news too good to be true and said so. As a result of his unbelief, Zechariah incurred God’s judgment and became mute for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. 

Nine months later, Elizabeth gave birth to a bouncing boy and on the eighth day, as was Jewish custom, the child was circumcised and officially named. All of their friends and family members began to call the infant, Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them and said he would be called John. When they questioned this choice of names, Zechariah confirmed what she had said by writing on a tablet … “His name is John.” 

Acting now in accordance to God’s will, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.” (Luke 1:64 NIV). 

Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel…” (“Blessed be the Lord”). The Latin word for this is Benedictus.

The full song as recorded in Luke 1:68-79 NIV:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 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, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

You would expect this proud father to sing a tribute to his newly born son, but Zechariah only mentions John in the second half of his song. Instead, most of his chorus focuses on God and His saving work. 

The Benedictus is more than a hymn of praise – it is a revelation of what is to take place through God’s Anointed One.

When and where did Zechariah receive this divine insight? Through his months of silence. While his inability to speak was God’s rebuke for his unbelief, it gave Zechariah time to meditate, pray, and read the Holy Scriptures.  

I’m sure the old priest spent the initial days “beating himself up” for his foolish skepticism, but then his attention turned to God and His divine plan. Unable to communicate with his wife and friends (he may even have been deaf, see v. 62), Zechariah began to see things in a different light and gained a godly perspective on what was taking place.  

Let’s pause and make a quick application to our own lives. Unless we spend some time in silence we’ll probably miss the significance of what God is doing all around us. This is especially true during this particular time of the year. 

Amid all of the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s easy to lose sight of the eternal meaning of the season. Yet, it’s most oftentimes in times of peace and quiet that we gain a sense of the truly stupendous work of God. You and I may not be able to be silent for nine months, but surely we can enjoy a few minutes – now and then – on a regular basis. 

Through his days of silence, Zechariah was filled with God’s Holy Spirit and inspired to tell of the Lord’s work in song. As I’ve already mentioned, it is not as much a song about the work of Zechariah’s son, John, as it is a song about the work of God’s Son, Jesus.

Let’s look at what The Benedictus tells us about His coming. 

Zechariah’s song begins: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come to his people and redeemed them.” (Luke 1:68 NIV)

Notice anything interesting about his assertion? It is in the past tense. Nine months earlier, Zechariah could not believe his wife would have a child. Now, filled with God’s Spirit, he is so confident of God’s redeeming work in the coming Messiah he speaks of it in the past tense (even though Jesus was not even born). 

Through the eyes of faith, God’s promises are as good as done. Zechariah learned to take the Lord at His word. 

We’d do well to do the same.  “God’s Word says it. I believe it. That settles it!” Actually, that’s not true. “God’s Word says it. That settles it!”

Also, notice what the Messiah is going to do – come and redeem. The coming of Christ represents a divine visitation to our world. We know longer have to wonder what God is like – Jesus has shown us. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

And why is the Lord’s Anointed One coming? To redeem God’s people. The word “redeem” can have two meanings. It can mean “to claim or re-claim something” or “to buy back something.”

In this regard, Christ redeemed us by re-claiming us from our lost, sinful state. We were held in bondage to sin; He paid for our release. 

It can also mean “to salvage from a hopeless situation or losing effort.” In this case, Jesus redeemed us by bringing us victory from an otherwise hopeless situation; He saved us when we could not save ourselves. 

Zechariah probably thought of redemption as a form of deliverance from the political oppression the Jews were experiencing at the hands of the Romans. But we now understand Jesus provides redemption from sin and death itself. Christ came to Planet Earth to redeem us by bringing freedom to the captives, hope to hopeless, and help to the helpless. It’s done! Praise the Lord! 

Zechariah then tells us how God’s visitation and redemption will occur: “[God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us…” (Luke 1:69a NIV)

According to this song, Jesus is the horn of salvation. So what? Well, the kind of horn Zechariah is speaking about is not a musical instrument or container. Instead, it is the deadly weapon of a large animal. In the ancient world, where there were no warplanes, tanks, or rockets, the horn symbolized strength, power, and victory. 

“But my horn [my emblem of strength and power] You have exalted like that of a wild ox…” (Psalm 92:10a AMP)

There are numerous Old Testament references to horns as metaphors for strength, but there are only two instances where a “horn of salvation” is talked about. Not surprisingly, both phrases are connected to God and His work. 

“The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” (Psalm 18:2 NIV) 

To David, God was his defense (i.e. shield) and his offense (i.e. horn). 

Bringing this Old Testament concept to Zechariah’s song, we discover that Jesus is the horn of salvation because He is God’s deadly weapon and exerts God’s power to save His people from their enemies.

… salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. (Luke 1:71 NIV) Of course, our greatest enemy is Satan. 

And the goal of this deliverance is “to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve Him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (Luke 1:74-75 NIV)

God sent His Son into the world, not only to liberate an oppressed people but to create a holy and righteous people who are unafraid because they trust in Him. 

Doesn’t this concept add a twist to the stereotypical Christmas story?

Jesus is not so much a sweet, innocent baby in a manger as He is a strong, mighty warrior. He has come to deliver God’s people from their fearfulness and unrighteousness in order to make them fearless and righteous. 

Christ is the powerful “horn of salvation” for all who call upon Him and trust in Him. 

The good news of Zechariah’s song is that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us” and offered Him to us as His Christmas gift. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t much demand for horns of salvation today. 

Have you ever received a Christmas gift that was totally useless to you? Someone thought it was a wonderful present but you saw it as having absolutely no value because it didn’t meet a need or satisfy a desire.

I’m afraid a lot of folks view the Christmas message in a similar way – a nice thought, but of very little value or usefulness. It’s why Santa wins out over Jesus in a landslide in our modern celebrations. We want what Santa has to give, but who needs what Jesus has to offer? You won’t find a “horn of salvation” on many people’s wish list. It is a meaningless gift that is likely to be stuck in a closet with all of the ugly ties and fuzzy slippers their aunts have given them. 

I don’t know how you feel about the subject, but I personally love Zechariah’s Song. I am well acquainted with the deadly disease called sin and I need a cure. I’ve tried to win the battle over temptation and sin and failed miserably time and time again. I believe in a fearful enemy called Satan and I want a mighty conqueror on my side. I know firsthand what it’s like to be held captive by unrighteousness and I long for a Deliverer to set me free to live a holy life. 

So I want to sing along with Zechariah when he says, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us … salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us … to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God …” (Luke 1:68-69, 71, 77-78a NIV)

Let that song of Christmas be in our hearts as we celebrate the Good News of Jesus Christ and rejoice that God has provided us with exactly what we needed – a horn of salvation.