The Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) is the second of the two great hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is parallel to the Song of Mary (the Magnificat, vv. 46-55), discussed in the prior study. It is part of the parallelism that runs through the narrative, with John-episodes alternating with Jesus-episodes. There are several ways that this parallelism may be outlined; in terms of the position of the two hymns, I would note the following parallel structure:
|The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Zechariah, following the basic Old Testament pattern for such appearances, with announcement of the (miraculous) birth of a child (John) to come—1:5-25||The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Mary, following again the Old Testament pattern, with the annunciation of the (miraculous) conception and coming birth of a child (Jesus)—1:26-38|
|The birth and circumcision/naming of John, with a visit of neighbors and relatives to the house of Zechariah, a word from Elizabeth, and the miracle of Zechariah’s speech returning —1:56-66||Elizabeth is pregnant with John, and receives a visit from her relative Mary in “the house of Zechariah”, and miracle of the baby John leaping in the womb (and Elizabeth giving a word of blessing)—1:39-45|
|The Song of Zechariah—1:67-79||The Song of Mary—1:46-54|
There is also a separate parallelism between the Song of Zechariah and the Song of Simeon (to be discussed)—those two hymnic oracles hold the same place within the narrative structure, each announcing the future destiny of the child following his circumcision and naming (see the setting of the episode in vv. 57-66, discussed in the previous study).
In the study on the Magnificat, I mentioned the critical theory that the hymns—the Magnificat and Benedictus, at least—were adapted from existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns. This can be seen by the thematic points of emphasis that the Lukan canticles share with these contemporary Jewish works. In general, the Magnificat and Benedictus draw from two different (albeit related) sets of motifs:
- The Magnificat emphasizes God showing mercy on the poor and lowly, raising them up (to take place of the rich and powerful) and blessing them by His own power and faithfulness.
- The Benedictus (especially, vv. 68-75) emphasizes more directly the salvation (or redemption) which God provides for His (oppressed) people, delivering them from the hand of their enemies. The salvation is the result of His “raising” up a Savior-figure (“horn of salvation”, v. 69a; cf. also vv. 78-79).
In this regard, the Magnificat especially is often related to so-called Anawim piety—±¦n¹wîm (with the parallel term °e»yônîm), that is, the “poor/afflicted” as a kind of self-designation for certain Jewish groups in the Second Temple period. The Qumran community identified themselves with these terms (see in the Hodayot [1QH], and e.g., 1QM 11:9; 4QpPs 37, etc); moreover, “the poor” held an important place in the teaching of Jesus, and it may have been used, in both a literal and symbolic sense, for early Christians in Jerusalem (cf. the early communalism in Acts [2:43ff; 4:32ff], Paul’s collection project [Gal 2:10], the epistle of James [2:2ff], etc).
The Benedictus-hymn appears abruptly, following the narrative episode in vv. 57-66, and yet the Gospel writer has prepared a dramatic setting for it with the return of Zechariah’s ability to speak (v. 64, “his mouth opened up…”). The hymn is introduced simply in v. 67:
“And Zakaryah his father was filled (with the) holy Spirit and foretold [i.e. prophesied], saying…”
The two points are significant. First, that Zechariah, like his wife Elizabeth, was “filled with the holy Spirit” and give forth an inspired utterance. On the importance of the role of the Spirit as a Lukan theme in the Infancy narrative, see the earlier study on vv. 39-45. Second, the hymn is prophetic, foretelling the future destiny of the child (John), and his Messianic role in the end-time deliverance God has planned for His people.
A literary-critical analysis must focus on the form and style of the poetry. Like the Magnificat, it is a hymn of praise to God, in the manner of a number of the Psalms, but utilizing a less precise bicolon/couplet format. Its lines are greatly influenced by the Scriptures, both in thought and wording. 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
Verses 68-75, which syntactically are a single sentence in Greek, can be divided into two roughly parallel strophes (as indicated above). Vv. 68-71 are connected by (aorist active) indicative verb forms, vv. 72-75 by infinitives. A number of scholars think that, according to a critical view of the text, verse 70 is a Lukan addition or insertion into the hymn; it does seem to upset the balance of the composition slightly, but the same could be said of the construction in vv. 73b-75. As with the Magnificat, the Benedictus contains many quotations or allusions to Old Testament passages:
- Well spoken of is [i.e. blessed/praised be] the Lord the God of Israel (v. 68):
A common opening or ending (doxology) of hymns, prayers, etc., presumably used throughout Israelite-Jewish history; for the same wording, see Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48 [LXX 40:14; 71:18; 105:48]; 1 Kings 1:48; also 1QM 14:4, etc.
- he looked closely upon… [epesképsato]:
This verb (often translated “visited”), more literally means “look/examine closely, inspect, etc.”, but sometimes has the sense of “look after, help, care for, etc.” In the LXX, sometimes is God the subject, either in a positive (Gen 21:1; Deut 11:12, etc) or negative (Ex 32:34, et al.) sense, or both (Zech 10:3). By the time of the New Testament, it was a term (along with the related noun episkop¢¡) used to signify the eschatological day of salvation/judgment (Luke 1:78; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14; 1 Pet 2:12).
- Made ransom/redemption for his people:
See Psalm 111:9 [LXX 110:9]: “he sent forth from (him) ransom/redemption for/to his people”.
- Raised [¢¡geiren] a horn of salvation (v. 69):
“Horn” (Gk. kéras) is used in a salvific and/or ‘Messianic’ sense, most notably in 1 Sam 2:10 (“he will lift high the horn of his Anointed”), as well as Psalm 132:17 (see below) and Ezek 29:21 (“I will make rise a horn”, using forms of the verb anatéllœ [cf. anatol¢¡ in Luke 1:78]). The phrase “horn of salvation” occurs in Psalm 18:2 [LXX 17:3], and in early Jewish liturgy (the 15th of the “Eighteen Benedictions” [Shemoneh Esreh]).
- House of David:
This phrase occurs frequently in the Old Testament; as a reference to the Davidic king and family line, it would come to have a Messianic connotation—as an interesting connection to the Infancy narratives, it specifically appears in Isa 7:13. The “horn” (of salvation) is often referenced in connection with David, as indicated above (Psalm 132:17; Fifteenth Benediction).
- Through the mouth of… holy foretellers [i.e. ‘prophets’] (v. 70):
“Through the mouth of” is a poetic/dramatic way to describe speech (2 Chron 36:21-22; Ezra 1:1; Jer 44:26; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25). Similarly, the phrase “holy prophets” appears in common usage by the time of the New Testament (Wisdom 11:1; Acts 3:21; 2 Pet 3:2, etc).
- Salvation (out of) the hand of our enemies… hating us (v. 71):
This is similar to the wording in Psalm 18:17; 106:10 [LXX 17:18; 105:10].
- Mercy with our fathers… remember his holy agreement [i.e. ‘covenant’] (v. 72):
The line as a whole seems to echo Psalm 106:45 [LXX 105:45], with the first phrase (along with v. 73) also similar to Micah 7:20. Here I have translated diath¢¡k¢ in the sense of Hebrew b®rî¾ (“agreement”, often translated “covenant”), though the Greek word (something “set/arranged [in order]”) more typically means “disposition, testament, will/contract”, etc. The idea of God “remembering” his agreement with Abraham and the “Fathers” appears in numerous places in the OT (e.g., Ex 2:24; Lev 26:42; Psalm 105:8ff; 106:45, etc).
- The oath which he swore to Abraham… (v. 73):
A phrase parallel to that in v. 72 (some might question if it should be treated as a separate line), see esp. Gen 26:3 for the precise wording.
- Rescued… enemies (v. 74):
See on verse 71 above. The theme of rescue/deliverance from enemies appears often in Scripture, most dramatically in the Psalms (e.g., 18:17 [LXX 17:18]).
- Do service for him in holiness and justice… for all our days (v. 74-75):
The phrase “holiness and justice” is perhaps an echo of 1 Kings 9:4 (LXX: “…walk… in holiness and straightness [i.e. uprightness]”); see also Joshua 24:14 (LXX: “… do service for him in straightness and in justice”). There is an relatively close parallel to vv. 74-75 in the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) from Qumran: “…you [protect] the ones who serve you loyally, [so that] their posterity is before you all the days” (1QH IV [formerly XVII] 13-14 [transl. García Martínez & Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition 1997/2000 p.149]).
- Well spoken of is [i.e. blessed/praised be] the Lord the God of Israel (v. 68):
As in the Magnificat hymn, 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:
episképsato kai epoí¢sen
“He looked upon and made/did”
The principal object of the these verbs is “His people” (ho laós autoú), 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 lýtrœsis, which is ultimately derived from the verb lýœ (“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.
Thus, there is a strong Messianic emphasis in the Benedictus, much more so than in the Magnificat. It fits the context, in which Zechariah declares the future destiny of the child, which includes his Messianic role of “Elijah” (vv. 16-17). This thematic aspect will be examined in the next study, as we continue our literary analysis of the Benedictus.