SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:67-79 (continued)

Luke 1:67-79, continued

The main point of difference between the Benedictus and the Magnificat, in terms of the thematic development of the Lukan Infancy narrative, is the Messianic emphasis that runs through the hymn. This was touched on in the previous study, but it needs to be examined further as part of our literary analysis and exegesis.

Let us begin with verse 69, which needs to be understood in tandem with v. 68b, as parallel declarations regarding what God has done:

    • He looked upon and made the release for his people
    • He raised a horn of salvation for us

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. In verse 69, the verb is:

egeírœ (“raise, rise, lift [up]”)—this common verb of motion was frequently used in reference to God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Here it is used in the general (figurative) sense of causing a situation to come about, of bringing a person into prominence or a position of power, etc. The object of the verb is the expression “horn of salvation”, making the phrase parallel to the prior one in v. 68— “he raised…salvation” = “he made release/redemption”.

This expression “horn of salvation” (kéras sœthrías) is an idiom taken from the Old Testament, in which the horn (kéras) refers to that of a strong adult (male) animal, such as a bull. It signifies both power and prominence, and, as such, is a fitting symbol for a strong and virile king or ruler. The specific expression is found in Psalm 18:2 (2 Sam 22:3), where it refers to God (Yahweh) as a powerful protector. In Psalm 132:17, God declares:

“I will make a horn sprout for David, I have set in place a light for my anointed (one)”

This declaration of blessing and protection for the (Davidic) king, came to be understood in a future (Messianic) sense, such as we see already in Ezekiel 29:21. By the time of the New Testament, the idea was already well-established, as indicated by the 15th of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) in Jewish tradition. The specific idea of “raising” the horn (of salvation) most likely alludes to 1 Sam 2:10, in the song of Hannah, upon which the earlier Magnificat was patterned (at least in part):

“He [i.e. the Lord] will judge the ends of the earth,
and he will give strength to his king
and will raise the horn of his anointed (one)”

The Messianic context in the Benedictus is confirmed by the qualifying phrase “in the house of David his child [país]”. The Greek word país can also mean “a (young) servant”, but here it is best to retain the literal sense, as it alludes both to (1) the king (or Messiah) as God’s “son”, and (2) the narrative setting of Jesus’ birth. The Messianic type of Davidic ruler—i.e. future king from the line of David—is clearly in view, being introduced already in the Angelic announcement to Mary (vv. 27, 32-33).

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. When we turn to the final strophe of the hymn (vv. 76-79), we see the future aspect come more clearly into view. The strophe functions as an oracle (or prophecy) regarding the child John’s destiny and the (Messianic) 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, proph¢¡t¢s 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” (kýrios) 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. 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 Kýrios.

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 (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, see the articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verse 76, John is called “prophet of the Highest“. This adjective (hýpsistos, “high[est]”), as a substantive and title (or name) for God, was already used, in reference to Jesus, in verse 32. 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:

“he [i.e. Jesus] will be called son of the Highest” (v. 32)
“you [i.e. John] will be called prophet of the Highest” (v. 76)

We have already discussed the John-Jesus parallel that runs throughout the Infancy narrative, and an important aspect of this parallelism is the superiority of Jesus, in terms of his Messianic status and role. 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.

Along these lines, 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):

    • “to make ready [hetoimásai] his ways” —i.e. the ways of the Lord (cf. Mal 3:1ff; Isa 40:3ff)
    • “to give [doúnai] knowledge of salvation to his people” —which is further qualified by the phrase “in (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins”

This salvation (sœt¢ría), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lýtrœsis) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

Each of the phrases and expressions in verse 78-79 builds upon the earlier imagery of the hymn, and continues the Messianic association (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 388-9):

“And you also, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller of the Highest
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the sight of the Lord
to make ready his ways
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in (the) release of their sins
through (the) inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which a rising-up out of the height will look upon us
to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death
(and) to put down our feet straight into (the) way of peace

    • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [splángchna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc).
    • The verb episképtomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (episképsetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
    • The word anatol¢¡ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4).
    • The expression “out of the height” is related to the divine title “Highest” in verse 76. For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
    • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
    • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuthýnœ probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the next study (on Lk 2:1-20).

The summary statement in verse 80, which brings the John-side of the Infancy narrative to a close, will be be discussed in tandem with 2:39-40, in an upcoming study.

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