Luke 1:68, 76-77
The next two notes in this series deal with the hymn of Zechariah in Lk 1:67-79, the Benedictus. It is the second of four hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and, like the Magnificat (vv. 46-55), is best known from the title based on its opening words (in Latin). I addressed the critical question of the origin and composition of these hymns briefly in the earlier note on vv. 46ff. The hymns of Mary and Zechariah run very much in tandem, as part of the larger John-Jesus parallel in the narrative. The hymn is spoken by the person who received the Angelic announcement of the child’s coming birth, and each hymn ultimately relates to the child in question—Jesus and John, respectively. As even a casual reading (in translation) will make clear, the two hymns have much in common, both in terms of outlook, religious sentiment, and language, drawing heavily on verses and phrases from the Old Testament Scriptures. There is also a parallel to the Benedictus in the Song of Simeon (2:29-32). If we were to combine the Magnificat with the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), the result would be a hymn (related to Jesus) of similar scope as the Benedictus (related to John). One finds an echo of the Magnificat already in verse 58, in the use of the verb megalu/nw (“make [something] great”, or “show [something] to be great”), and in the reference to the mercy (e&leo$) of God (cf. vv. 46, 50).
The setting of the Benedictus is particularly dramatic in the narrative context, as it follows immediately after Zechariah’s speech is restored, marking the fulfillment of the sign given by God (through the Angel) regarding the miraculous nature of John’s conception and birth. The text indicates that the hymn uttered by Zechariah is a divinely-inspired poem: “And his [i.e. John’s] father Zecharyah was filled by the holy Spirit” (v. 67). It is also characterized as an oracle or prophecy—”and he foretold [i.e. prophesied]”. This returns to the prophetic theme which characterized the birth announcement in vv. 13-17.
The overall structure of the hymn is relatively straightforward, and may be outlined as follows:
- An opening line, a declaration of praise to God (v. 68a)
- First Part [Strophe 1] (vv. 68b-71)
—A declaration of God’s actions on behalf of his people, marked by a series of aorist indicative verb forms
- Second Part [Strophe 2] (vv. 72-75)
—A declaration of the purpose of God’s saving action, marked by a series of infinitives
- Third Part [Strophe 3] (vv. 76-79)
—A declaration of the child John’s future role in God’s saving action, marked by an initial future verb form followed by a series of infinitives
Today I want to look briefly at the opening line (v. 68a) and the initial statement in vv. 76-77 regarding John’s destiny. Verse 68 begins:
“Well-counted [eu)loghto/$] is the Lord God of Yisrael”
This verb eu)loge/w was discussed in the earlier note on verse 43; it means “give a good account, i.e. speak well of (someone)”. Here it is the related adjective eu)loghto/$, which, when used in a religious context, in addressing God, should be understood in the more exalted sense of giving honor or praise—i.e. “Worthy of praise is the Lord God of Israel”, “Praise be to the Lord God of Israel”, etc. The specific expression “the Lord God of Israel” (ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ tou= )Israh/l), like the shorter “the Lord God” (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32 (cf. also vv. 46-47), reflects the ancient Israelite religious identification of Yahweh (YHWH) as the one true God (cf. the earlier article on this divine Name). The expression itself is found in passages such as Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48, and 1 Kings 1:48. It goes back to the older formula °E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra¢l (“°E~l God of Israel”, Gen 33:20) and the identification of Yahweh with the Creator God °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”). Yahweh is not only the one true God (worshiped by Abraham and the Patriarchs), he is also specifically Israel’s God. There is a general parallel here to the opening line of the Magnificat (vv. 46-47), where praise is given to “the Lord…God the Savior”.
In both hymns, salvation is a central theme, characterizing the action (and promises) of God on behalf of his people. In the Benedictus, his action is marked by as series of aorist verbs—indicating past action, though this can mean immediate action, i.e. occurring just prior to the time of the speaker’s words. In other words, God’s past actions for his people now come to be fulfilled in a new way at the present moment. This is expressed initially (and summarized) in verse 68b with a (two-fold) aorist pair:
e)piske/yato kai\ e)poi/hsen
“He looked upon and made/did”
The principal object of the these verbs is “His people” (o( lao\$ au)tou=), though the positioning after the second verb turns this into an indirect (dative) object—i.e. “He looked upon (his people) and made/did…for his people”. The immediate direct object (of the second verb) is the noun lu/trwsi$, which is ultimately derived from the verb lu/w (“loos[en]”), and signifies the act or means by which a person is loosed from bondage, debt, etc. It can refer specifically to the payment (i.e. ransom, redemption price) made in order to free the person from his/her bond. Here, as in 2:38, it is used with the figurative meaning of the deliverance God will bring to his people, especially in the eschatological context of the coming of the Messiah at the end-time. Thus, while the hymn (with its aorist verb forms) begins with God’s past saving action, the focus is ultimately on his impending future action on Israel’s behalf. This will be discussed further in the next note (on v. 69).
When we turn to verses 76-77, we see the future aspect come more clearly into view. This last strophe (vv. 76-79) functions as an oracle (or prophecy) regarding the child John’s destiny and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of his people:
“And even you, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest,
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead, in front] in the sight of the Lord”
Here John is identified specifically as a prophet—literally, profh/th$ means “(one who) tells (things) before”, i.e. “foreteller”, but here the prefixed particle pro/ (“before”) should be understood not so much in terms of time (speaking beforehand), but rather of position (speaking ahead of, in front of). Here we run into the dual-meaning of the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) for early Christians. While it most commonly was used in reference to God the Father (Yahweh), it also came to be used as a title for Jesus. As previously discussed, Psalm 110:1, and a Messianic interpretation of the passage (as applied to Jesus), was highly influential in establishing this two-fold application of the title Ku/rio$. Almost certainly, this wordplay, at the literary level, is intentional. The author, if not the speaker (Zechariah), was certainly aware of the dual-meaning and plays on it. John will function as God’s spokesperson (ay!bn`, prophet), declaring His word before the people, preparing them for His impending manifestation (Judgment) at the end-time, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff. At the same time, according to the Messianic interpretation of this passage by early Christians, John will precede and “prepare the way” for Jesus, the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) who serves as God’s (Divine) representative to usher in the Judgment and rescue/deliver the faithful ones among God’s people. For more on this subject, cf. in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.
In verse 76, John is called “prophet of the Highest” (profh/th$ u(yi/stou). This adjective (u%yisto$, “high[est]”), as a substantive and title (or name) for God, was already used, in reference to Jesus, in verse 32 (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt of a parallel here—as well as a definite point of contrast—between the two children, Jesus and John. Note the similarity of expression:
ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (v. 32)
“he [i.e. Jesus] will be called son of the Highest”
profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh| (v. 76)
“you [i.e. John] will be called prophet of the Highest”
Within each phrase, the corresponding words ui(o/$ (“son”) and profh/th$ (“foreteller, prophet”) are in the first (emphatic) position. It is tempting to see here an emphasis on the greater, more exalted position of Jesus in relation to God (The Highest); however, while this is certainly true, I am not so sure that it is the main point of contrast the author is making. Rather, Jesus as “son” emphasizes the royal, Davidic (Messianic) role, according to the interpretation given to Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2. The Davidic king and Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah) was called by the title “Son”—that is, God’s son, primarily in a figurative sense. Early Christians, of course, recognized in Jesus something more than this, but the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke), I would maintain, is not giving readers the full picture here in the Infancy narrative. He leaves something in reserve, to be ‘discovered’ as one proceeds through the Gospel and into the book of Acts. What is prefigured in the narrative here, and in the hymn of Zechariah, is not so much the deity of Christ, but rather his role as Savior. This will be discussed further in the next note (tomorrow) on the Benedictus. In closing, however, it is worth pointing out the way John’s role is characterized and described in vv. 76-77, with a pair of infinitives expressing purpose (and result):