And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God, and it is he who will go as a forerunner before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Hey, this angel here is quoting from the book of Malachi. The 400 years of silence are over. God has just spoken for the first time through his messenger in 400 years. In his series called Prelude to Bethlehem, Stephen introduces you to some of the earliest and greatest Christmas carols ever written. These songs burst forth from the mouths of Old Testament men and women who were overjoyed by the thought of Christ's coming. Today we come to the song of a faithful old saint named Zacharias.
He longed for nothing else than to live long enough to see the promised Messiah. After centuries of silence and darkness, a light was about to shine. This message is called The Song of Zacharias. For 400 years the music had all but stopped. No prophet had spoken for God.
No composer had written new music from God. This time in history has been named the 400 silent years. These were the years beginning after the last page of Malachi and the beginning of the Gospel story. David Gooding wrote, the night had been long and for Israel at times very dark, but through it all, through times of national success and disaster, through the conquest and the monarchy, through the exile and return, hope had persisted that the night would end. As Malachi put it, the sun of righteousness would arise with healing in his wings. Yes, there was the promise of a coming dawn, the prophecy of Malachi. For the Jewish people, the dawning of Messiah's day is about to happen.
They just don't know it yet. Isaiah had prophesied that before Messiah's ministry, someone else would be born. Another boy, his name would be John, and this man would be a forerunner, a herald, an announcer, that the Messiah was finally here. And the birth of that forerunner would create a burst of music, this musical prelude to Bethlehem. It would be a song whose lyrics had not been sung for 400 years. And to this day, perhaps one of the most ignored Christmas hymns of all. Before we get to the lyrics, let's see what Luke has to say as he introduces to us the composer.
Chapter one, verse five. In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zacharias of the division of Abijah, and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord, that they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren. And they were both advanced in years. Stop for a moment. The composer and his wife were missing some music they had longed to hear.
The laughter of a child, the lullabies of bedtime. According to this chapter, we'll learn in a minute they had prayed long and hard for a baby. And like Hannah before her, Elizabeth no doubt shed bitter tears, begging the Lord for a child.
However, time had slowly erased their hope. Add to the fact that they were hurting the stigma of the old covenant during these silent years as traditions were piled one on top of another, having nothing to do with the scripture. The stigma and superstition related to barrenness, if we knew a little bit of it, perhaps we could understand how deeply they felt their sorrow. The Jewish rabbis during the days of Zacharias were speculating that there were seven kinds of people who could not know the intimacy of God's communion. They would teach from this list, and their list began, a Jew who has no wife. In other words, they believed that anybody who was single, a single man, was unable to worship God in an intimate or a close way.
Their speculations continued as they added to the list. Not only could a single Jewish man not know communion with God, but they believed and taught that a Jew who has a wife and has no child could not experience communion with God. And in this era, childlessness was considered valid grounds for divorce. Yet this couple, in light of that unbiblical teaching, they stayed together. And that's why verse six is so incredible to me.
Go back and look. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. And you read that, and knowing now what you know about the culture of their day, you think of asking the question, why bother? God isn't doing his end of the deal. Why serve him?
It isn't paying off. The thing they wanted most of all was the thing God withheld. And they were taught that it was because of his displeasure in them. And yet they continued to walk before him and to serve him. And it leads me to ask the question, what does it take to stop us from serving him and worshipping him?
What is the one thing that he may withhold from you that tempts you to stop serving and worshipping him? They stayed together and they stayed close and committed to the Lord. And what I love about this is that God would select from among all the thousands of potentially active priests, he would select this man named Zacharias.
In the eyes of his people, he was an old man who had made little distinction on the priesthood. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, we're told. In fact, she had the name of Aaron's wife, a good thing that a godly woman would be given. And yet she was surrounded by people who considered her to somehow be serving under God's displeasure. In fact, if you look ahead to verse 25 of this chapter, had what she says when she discovers she's pregnant. She says, this is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me to take away my disgrace among men. God is finally taking away my disgrace.
Well, that was disgrace they had imposed upon her that he had not. But hovering over this godly couple and sort of following them around were these clouds of sorrow and these rumors of shame. Who would have imagined that when God began to tune up the musical instruments of messianic songs after 400 years of silence, he would choose that priest to deliver the music of hope to the world. I love the selection of God related to this entire story. He chooses ones we would not choose.
He honors those that are often ignored. Now it happened, Luke goes on to say in verse eight, that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by a lot to enter into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. Now you need to know that suddenly here Zacharias is at the apex of his own life. He is facing the most important moment of his priestly office.
Now let me explain why. The temple during Zacharias' day had been rebuilt by Herod in an attempt to win their popularity. He built this massive temple made of white stone and marble and its massive doors that led into the holy place were overlaid with gold. Well, the lot would be cast and it would determine which priest would serve and what they would do. During the days of Zacharias, there were an estimated 20,000 men serving in the priesthood.
So they were divided into 24 divisions. On any given day, 56 priests would be serving in the temple. Most of them would deal with the people and the animal sacrifices, but three priests had a unique privilege and one and even more special privilege. And that was burning incense inside the holy place.
In fact, we know from Jewish writings that a priest could only have the honor of offering incense one time in his lifetime. And so, according to this verse, we're told that the lot fell on Zacharias. He is now the one that is going to go into the holy place just outside that beautifully embroidered veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies.
And he would stand alone as the representative of the people in that unique position. And he would pour incense over the live coal that they had brought in from the altar outside representing that something had died so that those who were living could be forgiven. So here he is at this incredible moment, walking up the stairs with two other priests, opening those massive gold-covered doors and walking in. One priest would arrange, perhaps replace the loaves of showbread. Another would cleanse the altar of incense. And the third priest would trim the wicks on the candle stand. And then two of them would retire and leave, except for the one priest. The only priest that would be left would be the priest who had the privileged position of sacrificing incense. And at this part in the story with what we know, what little we already know about Zacharias, it's like the clouds parted just a little bit.
Zacharias was finally chosen. So many priests, many of them never had the opportunity, but just for a moment, he's given a sense that God, God really does know who I am. And now the other priests have left. By the way, when they entered, just before they opened those doors, they struck a gong and that sound would reverberate around the temple proper and people would begin to kneel and they would begin to pray. When the other two priests left and shut the doors behind them, leaving Zacharias in there alone, another musical instrument sounded, and at that sound, all 55 priests would fall prostrate on the outer courtyard and all those who'd come to worship.
And wherever you were in the city, you heard that music. You would also fall down as it were before God and begin to pray. So here he is, old Zacharias in there. I can imagine his old hand trembling as he began to pour the incense over that live coal, knowing that all those outside the temple were praying and I'm sure his heart was beating wildly and he was trembling with awe and excitement. And just as he poured out the incense and the smoke began to ascend at that moment, he realized he was not alone in the holy place. Verse 11 tells us, an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. And Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel and fear gripped him.
Why? Angels haven't been seen for hundreds of years. Suddenly he's there. Maybe he's a messenger of doom. Maybe God is not pleased.
Maybe he has chosen to reject the offering, but he is overwhelmed with fear. The angel said to him, do not be afraid Zacharias for your petition has been heard and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son and you will give him the name John and you will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth for he will be great in the sight of the Lord and he will drink no wine or liquor and he will be filled or anointed with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb as all the Old Testament prophets were anointed by the Spirit of God. And he will turn back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God and it is he who will go as a forerunner before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Hey this angel here is quoting from the book of Malachi. The 400 years of silence are over. God has just spoken for the first time through his messenger in 400 years. And what's the message Zacharias? You notice how he gives him a personal message before he tells him anything related to the nation. He says if you missed it you and Elizabeth are going to have a son and you're going to name him John.
What incredible news. And what does Zacharias say? Verse 18. And Zacharias said to the angel praise be to God for he has answered our prayer and his power is able to bring the womb to life and perform his will among the sons of Israel praise be to Yahweh. That's what he wished he'd said. In that revision that revised version that's what he wished he had said you have a book like that the things you wished you'd said but you didn't at the moment and it's gone forever.
Here's what he actually said. Zacharias said to the angel how am I going to know this is really going to happen. I need some proof for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years literally translated my wife's time is just about up. We are old.
We need some proof. You know I find it interesting just as Abraham and Sarah disbelieve the message of the Lord that they would have a son because of their advanced years. The son who had become the forefather of course of the Messiah. So also now Zacharias doesn't believe he's going to have a son is going to be the forerunner of the Messiah but isn't it interesting that God does this.
He brings the redemptive message through people that could not do it on their own. The angel verse 19 answer and said to him I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God and I've been said to speak to you. There's a play on words here that's lost to the English reader Zacharias uses a verb he says I am an old man. The angel uses the same verb and says I am Gabriel. You're an old man. I'm Gabriel.
Your wife is advanced in years. I stand in the presence of eternal God. Gabriel says listen I've come from God. He is without time.
It doesn't matter to him how old you are. This is his will. By the way this is the same angel who appeared centuries before to a man named Daniel.
Daniel was also gripped with fear. In fact Daniel fell down and he delivered to Daniel the news of the messianic era. Now he's come and he's delivering to Zacharias the news of the Messiah's coming birth.
So you want some proof. Here it is verse 20. Behold you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place because you did not believe my words which shall be fulfilled in their proper time.
In other words your tongue that uttered faithlessness will now not speak for a while. Now the people were waiting verse 21 for Zacharias and wondering at his delay in the temple. It only takes so long to pour the incense over the live coal and and get out and they're beginning to worry now.
Maybe he didn't survive. It was the role of the priest at that moment to come and and open those doors step outside on the porch and give a blessing to all of the people signifying that God has heard their prayers. There's no Zacharias and finally he comes out shuts the doors and stands there and he can't say anything. He's unable to deliver to them a blessing. Can you imagine this frustration?
You've got the scoop. God hasn't spoken for 400 years and you've got the message that the Messiah will be born soon and you can't utter a sound. He's got a little more than nine months to think it over. Verse 23 when the days of his priestly service were ended he went back home.
I imagine he's driving that mule way over the speed limit. He hurries through the front door. He calls Elizabeth out of a rocking chair, brings her over into the light and begins to motion to her. Maybe she's gotten word something's up and he can't communicate with her and so he I don't know what he does. You know it's two syllables and and and sounds like maybe and second word is be and you know she doesn't get it so he writes it down. He gets something to write and he furiously writes you're gonna have a baby. I imagine she patted him on the head and said you need a good cup of tea. It's been a long trip for you.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. He thumps it. You're gonna have a baby. Read it and she says who told you? An angel. Well that helps. An angel told you.
Well you need something more than tea. Yes he writes. An angel told me and this baby boy's name is going to be John. He's going to be like Elijah of old. He will bring revival to Israel. He's going to introduce the Messiah to our people.
Was he telling the truth? Verse 24 after these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant and she kept herself in seclusion for five months saying this is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when he looked with favor upon me and you could almost insert the word finally to take away my disgrace among men. Not disgrace with God. Disgrace among superstitious people who'd long since left the word of God behind.
Now skip to verse 57. Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth and she brought forth the son and her neighbors and her relatives. I mean the whole family's here. They heard that the Lord had displayed his great mercy to order and they were rejoicing with her and it came about that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child and that's when they named him according to Hebrew culture and custom. They were going to call him Zacharias after his father. He's going to be little Zach or big Zach or whatever in honor of his father this aged priest and his mother answered and said no indeed but he shall be called John and all the family said to her there is no one among your relatives who's called by that name. They're just shocked by the thought that they're going to name him something other than Zacharias. That's not what the family does. And how do you tell the family to take a hike here?
They don't. She says no it's John. So they go over to Zacharias and they ask him what will he be named? And he, verse 63, asked for a tablet and he wrote his name is John and they were all astonished and at once his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed and he began to speak not in questioning of God's sovereignty not now.
He's had nine months to think that one over. Now he speaks in favor of God and he praises him and from his heart under the influence of the Holy Spirit will come this magnificent hymn that he will sing in that chanting fashion before them. Let's quickly look at at least four stanzas as I have outlined it. There is a stanza about Israel's salvation. Verse 68, blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he has visited us and accomplished redemption for his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David his servant as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. We have a stanza about God's sovereignty to show mercy, verse 72, toward our fathers and to remember his holy covenant the oath which he swore to Abraham our father to grant us that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him this sovereign God all our days. There's a stanza about Zacharias' own son and you notice the shift he is singing to them and now he sings evidently he is holding perhaps in his own arms the little boy the little baby John and he sings and you child huh can you imagine this and you child will be called the prophet of the most high for you will go on before the Lord to prepare his ways to give to his people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sin.
Wow what a calling what a privilege. The last stanza is about the Savior himself, verse 78, because of the tender mercy of our God with which the sunrise from on high shall visit us to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death to guide our feet into the way of peace. You know there's a great name of the Savior that is often overlooked that appears in his hymn.
It's in verse 78 there. Jesus is called the sunrise. The night is dark and long but all the sunrise is coming in the person of the Messiah to shine upon those who sit in darkness. Who is it that sits in darkness?
The whole world. Those who believe, Peter wrote, are taken from darkness and they are ushered in to this marvelous light so the sunrise will come. He's coming.
He's on his way. I want to tell you the meaning of the composer's name. Names in the Word of God are often significant in their meanings and they are highly significant here for they tell the story just in their names. Zacharias means God remembers.
What a name. I imagine he was confronted every day with the truth of that attribute of God and yet challenged every day because of all he would have been one who would have considered that God had forgotten. Had forgotten them. God remembers. Elizabeth means the covenant or the promise of God and John the grace of God. You put them together and you have the story of redemption. God remembers his promise and delivers grace.
I love that. God remembers his promise and delivers grace. That is true for them and for you. God remembers you too. God has not become so busy that he has overlooked your disappointment. He has not become so overworked that he has misplaced your prayer request. The stack is so high and there's so much to answer.
No, no. He knows he knows. He knows his plan, his will, the revelation of his design. We do not know when it will come for many it will all unfold when they see him and upon seeing him discover he is the only explanation they really needed anyway. But like Zacharias and Elizabeth we are challenged to keep serving, to keep walking, to keep worshiping, to keep trusting and when you're like them you won't be perfect for you remember he failed this test but you just might find God's spirit composing in your own heart a song unique to you. It'll say much of the same thing. It will sing of his sovereignty and his safety, his salvation. It'll sing of the Savior. It'll be a song like the song of old Zacharias but it'll be a hymn all year round because that sunrise has risen in your own heart. The gospel of this one who has become your everlasting daybreak. The light of the world, the Savior, not just of mankind but yours. It's your song.
These are your lyrics. He is your Savior because you have invited him in and for those who have you can sing a song like the song of Zacharias. Zacharias gives word to the cries of our hearts doesn't he? I hope you've placed your faith in Jesus and that you approach this coming holiday season with the knowledge that the song of Zacharias is your song as well.
You're listening to Wisdom for the Heart. Our teacher for these daily Bible messages is Steven Davey. Steven is the founding pastor of the Shepherd's Church in Cary, North Carolina. If it's possible for you to visit Steven would love to meet you and have you join him for a worship service on a Sunday morning. You can call us at 866-48-Bible. Again that's 866-482-4253. If you prefer to communicate by email our address is info at wisdom online.org.
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