To commemorate the New Year, over the next four days I will be presenting a short series of notes on Luke 2:29-32, the “Song of Simeon”. The first note (today) will focus on the hymn as a whole, its setting, background, etc, before examining each line in detail in the three successive notes. I have discussed this passage on several occasions before, including during prior Christmas seasons (cf. the recently posted articles here).
One of the most distinctive features of the Infancy Narrative in Luke (chapters 1-2), is the sequence of canticles, or hymns, which punctuate the account. There are four such hymns, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and known by its Latin title (the first word[s] as rendered in Latin)—Magnificat (1:46-55), Benedictus (1:68-79), Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). The Gloria, part of the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, is extremely brief; but the other three are substantial hymns, which, in the narrative context, are presented as inspired oracles by the speaker—Mary (or, possibly, Elizabeth), Zechariah, and Simeon. In the case of Zechariah and Simeon, the oracle properly includes a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future of the child (John / Jesus).
The narrative setting for the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) is established in verses 22-28. In all likelihood, the author (trad. Luke) has combined the Simeon tradition (beginning in v. 25) with a separate notice in vv. 22-24 which serves two basic purposes: (a) it explains how Mary and Joseph came to be in the Temple with the child Jesus, and (b) it depicts Jesus’ parents as faithful Israelites who are fulfilling the religious obligations of the Law. Indeed, it may be said that these two elements—the Temple setting and fulfillment of the Law—are both essential themes within the Lukan Infancy narrative, and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Consider:
- Mary and the child (along with Joseph) fulfill the requirements of the Law (vv. 22-24). Two basic laws are mentioned, apparently combined or conflated by the author:
(i) the sacrifice for purification (from uncleanness) for the mother following childbirth (vv. 22, 24; cf. Lev 12:6-8)
(ii) the consecration (redemption) of the firstborn son (v. 23, cf. Exod 13:1-2, 11-13; Num 18:15-16)
At the same time, Simeon functions as a prophet who also cites the Old Testament Prophets (as will be discussed), applying them to Jesus. Thus, here in the narrative, it can be said that Jesus “fulfills the Law and the Prophets” (cf. Luke 16:16; 24:44; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23)
- The Temple setting is likewise a key motif in Luke-Acts, and is found in three different scenes in the Infancy Narrative (here, and in Lk 1:8-23; 2:41-50). Probably the author has in mind Malachi 3:1ff, with the idea of the Lord coming to the Temple. This distinctive prophecy, also related to John the Baptist as the Messenger who prepares the way (Lk 1:16-17, 76-77; cf. 3:4ff) for the Lord, is, in a sense, fulfilled by Jesus already as a child.
There is another important connection between the Temple scenes in 1:8-23 and here in 2:25ff, involving the parallelism between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus which runs all through the narrative. There is a specific parallel between Zechariah, father of John, and Simeon; both are:
- Devout, aged men who serve in the Temple or frequent it (1:8-9ff; 2:25-27)
- Each is specifically referred to as “just/righteous” (di/kaio$) (1:6; 2:25)
- Each man is touched/filled by the Spirit and utters an inspired oracle (1:67; 2:27)
- Each oracle includes a prophecy regarding the destiny of the respective child (John/Jesus) and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of His people (1:76-79; 2:30ff, 34-35)
- In the narrative, each man is associated with a corresponding female figure (Elizabeth/Anna) who also is inspired or functions as a prophet (1:5, 41ff; 2:36ff)
- Linguistically, their names have a similar meaning:
- Z§½aryâ[hû] (Why]r=k^z+)—”Yah(weh) has remembered”
- Šim®±ôn, presumably shortened for Š§ma±-°E~l or Š§ma±-Yah—”El/Yah has heard”
Indeed, both pairs of aged figures—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna—represent faithful Israel of the Old Covenant (1:6; 2:25, 37), those who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. This latter theme becomes more specific with Simeon/Anna, but it is foreshadowed already with Zechariah/Elizabeth in the earlier portions of the narrative—note the motifs of waiting and expectation (1:13, 20-21, 24-25, 57ff, 70-76). There can be no doubt that Messianic expectation—i.e., awaiting the coming of God’s Anointed (Messiah) who will rescue/deliver his people at the end-time—is associated with the faith/devotion of Simeon and Anna. Two parallel phrases (in vv. 25 and 38) make this clear:
- V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel”
- V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem”
The same verb prosde/xomai is used, which indicates a person who is waiting with eagerness or readiness, looking forward to (lit. “toward”, pro$) receiving someone or something. In the case of Simeon, this expectation is related directly to his righteousness and devotion. The two parallel expressions are especially worth noting here:
- “the para/klhsi$ of Israel“—the noun para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) derives from the verb parakale/w, literally to “call (someone) alongside”, often in the sense of offering help and encouragement, etc. It is difficult to translate with a single word in English, and is typically rendered “comfort” or “consolation”, but the idea of offering help is paramount here—i.e., the aid God will give to his people in rescuing/delivering them.
- “the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem“—the noun lu/trwsi$ (ultimately derived from lu/w, “[to set] loose”) relates to the process by which someone is loosed (i.e. set free) from bondage or debt, etc. It generally refers to the paying of ransom/redemption (lu/tron), i.e. the price paid to loose/redeem a person from bondage, and is often translated as “redemption”.
Both expressions stem from portions of (Deutero-)Isaiah—40:1; 52:9; 61:2; 66:12-13—which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition. This is important to keep in mind when studying the Song of Simeon itself, which likewise makes use of several such passages from Isaiah. Simeon and Anna essentially function like the Isaian herald, announcing the good news for God’s people (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7).
Returning to the parallel between Zechariah and Simeon, in at least one respect the author draws a contrast:
- Zechariah is unable to deliver the (priestly) blessing to the people (1:22)
- Simeon does pronounce a blessing, on Mary & Joseph (2:34a)
Simeon actually speaks a two-fold blessing, introducing each of the two portions of his oracle with a blessing—one addressed to God (v. 28) which precedes the Song, and one addressed to Mary (and Joseph) prior to prophecy in vv. 34-35. This act of blessing—literally, to “give a good account”, i.e. speak good (words) to, or over, a person—should be considered alongside the Song and prophecy, as part of the inspiration given to Simeon through the Holy Spirit. This is the notice at the end of verse 25: “…and the Holy Spirit was upon him”. In fact, there are three references to the Spirit in vv. 25-27, each of which is important in light of the theme of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:
- “the holy Spirit was upon [e)pi] him” (v. 25)
- “it was given (as) information to him under [u(po] the Spirit” (v. 26)
- “he came in [e)n] the Spirit…” (v. 27)
Note the similar references to the Spirit in relation to Jesus in Lk 3:22; 4:1, 14, and also to the first believers in Acts 1:8; 2:4, 17ff, etc. This may be a subtle way by which the author transitions from the old faith of Israel to the new covenant centered on the person of Jesus. As Simeon encounters the child Jesus (in the Temple, the point of contact between old and new, v. 27), holding him in his arms (v. 28), this new covenant is glimpsed and realized, at least for a moment. At any rate, it is the Spirit which inspires the Song which follows in vv. 29-32, and it is to the first line of the song that I will turn in the next daily note.
For an excellent overview and discussion of the passage, which I have found most helpful in preparing these notes, cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993), pp. 436-60.