January 4: Psalm 89:47-49

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:47-49 [46-48]
Verse 47 [46]

“Until when, YHWH, will you hide yourself?
Will it burn to the (very) end,
like fire, your hot (anger)?”

It is proper to view vv. 47-49 as a distinct poetic unit within the division vv. 39-52. The Selah (hl*s#) pause-markers, after vv. 46 and 49, confirm this point. These verses follow the main strophe of vv. 39-46 (discussed in the previous two notes), and are parallel with the subsequent vv. 50-52. Indeed, one may treat vv. 47-49 and 50-52 as two short strophes, or as two units within a single strophe.

The distinctiveness of this unit is indicated by the metrical shift at v. 47. I parse this verse as an irregular (3+2+2) tricolon. It functions as a response to the situation described in vv. 39-46, where YHWH has (apparently) renounced His covenant with David, allowing the kingship (and the kingdom) to come to a destructive and shameful end. Clearly, the conquest of Judah is in view, and the Psalm (certainly the third division of it) is written from the standpoint of the Exile (or the post-Exilic period), when the kingdom (and thus also the Davidic line of kings) has ceased.

The Psalmist asks the plaintive question hm*-du^ (“Until when…?”, i.e., “How long [will this last]?”), which also occurs, equally painfully, in Ps 79:5 (cf. also 74:9). He describes the current situation of exile (and/or post-exilic poverty), which apparently has lasted now for a considerable time, in traditional terms—viz., of YHWH “hiding Himself” (vb rt^s*, Niphal stem) from His people. Dahood (II, p. 320) would parse the verb form as deriving from the root rWs (“turn aside/away”), but the meaning is much the same, in either case. For similar usage of rt^s* in the Psalms, cf. 13:1; 27:9; 44:24; the motif of God hiding His face signifies a situation where He is seemingly not responding to prayer (e.g., 55:1; 69:17; 88:14; 102:2; 143:7), and thus not giving help to His people in their time of distress.

In the second and third lines, the present suffering of God’s people is expressed in the traditional judgment-language of the “burning” (hm*j@, vb ru^B*) of His anger. As long as YHWH’s hot anger burns, the shame and ruin of the current situation will continue.

Verse 48 [47]

“Remember my trouble, (and) how short (is) life!
For what emptiness did you create (the) sons of man?”

This couplet, clearly drawing upon Wisdom tradition, seems to have been inspired by the reference in verse 46 (cf. the previous note), to the king’s “days of youth” having been “cut short”. The focus now shifts to the individual circumstances of the author-protagonist, much as we see in the majority of the lament-Psalms. The first line highlights two points frequently emphasized in the Wisdom texts—viz., (1) that a person’s life is (often) all too brief, and (2) is typically filled with toil and trouble.

I follow the suggestion of Dahood (II, p. 320) that MT yn]a* (“I”) in the first line should be revocalized as yn]a) (= yn]oa, “my trouble,” or “my sorrow”). The noun dl#j# is difficult to translate, though the basic meaning, as it is used here, seems clear enough—viz., a reference to the short/fleeting duration of a person’s life (Ps 39:6; cf. also 17:14; 49:2; Job 11:17; Isa 38:11). The “emptiness” (aw+v*) of life, particularly in terms of human pursuits and ambition, is also a frequent theme in Wisdom literature, though not typically expressed by the noun aw+v* which tends to have the more harshly negative connotation of wicked falsehood, deceit, idolatry, etc (but see its use in Job 7:3).

Verse 49 [48]

“Who (is the) strong (one who) lives
and does not see death?
Can he (truly) rescue his soul
from (the) hand of Še’ôl?”

Metrically, I parse this verse as a pair of short 2+2 couplets, patterned after the second and third lines of v. 47 (cf. above). It continues the Wisdom-orientation of v. 48, with the emphasis on the shortness of human life, in its mortality, and the inevitability of death as the common fate. Is there any human being, in the strength and vigor (rbg) of his youth, who can somehow avoid (“does not see”) death? The answer to this rhetorical question is an obvious “no”. No human being is able to rescue his soul—that is, enable it (somehow) to escape (vb fl^m*, Piel)—from the power (“hand”) of Death.

On loav= as a poetic term for death (and the realm of death), cf. my earlier note.

Comments for Christmas

The Wisdom-emphasis of these verses is generally absent from the Gospel Infancy Narratives; however, the idea of human mortality is present, to some extent. I would note two passages, in particular. The first is the narrative arc in Matthew 2, in which Herod, troubled by the prospect of losing his kingship (a theme relevant to vv. 39-46 of the Psalm), seeks to kill off the true king, the Messiah, born in Bethlehem. The Gospel’s poignant treatment of the death of the infants (vv. 16-18), with its citation of Jer 31:15, provides a powerful illustration of the brevity of human life (the infants truly had “the days of their youth cut short”, v. 46 of the Psalm).

The second passage to mention is the episode involving Simeon in Luke 2:25-35. The aged Simeon was keenly aware that his life was reaching its end, but the time of his death was related to his seeing the Messiah—the one who will fulfill the promise of the Davidic covenant, and thus bring about the restoration for God’s people (vv. 25-26). The encounter, with the aged Simeon holding the infant Jesus, is one of the most beautiful of the portraits in the Lukan Gospel, graced as it is by the canticle (“Nunc dimittis”) in vv. 29-32, which begins with a memorable statement regarding the acceptance of death (and human mortality) by a faithful believer:

“Now, may you loose your slave from (his service), O Master, according to your word, in peace…”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 29: Psalm 89:29-30

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:29-38 [28-37]
Verse 29 [28]

“Into (the) distant (future) will I guard for him my devotion,
with my binding agreement holding firm for him.”

In this second strophe of the second division (vv. 20-38) of the Psalm, the emphasis is on YHWH’s binding agreement (tyr!B=) with David, and, in particular, on its firm and enduring character. This strophe continues (and develops) the key theme of God’s firmness (hn`Wma$), both in the sense of His strength and His faithfulness. The theme, with its keyword(s), was established at the beginning of the Psalm (vv. 2-3), expressed by the word-pair ds#j# and hn`Wma$. The same pairing is present here in v. 29, but with the verb /m^a* in place of the noun hn`Wma$.

As previously noted, even though ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, it frequently (and especially in the Psalms) carries the connotation of faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., to the covenant)—a meaning comparable to that of hn`Wma$ (or the related tm#a#). I have translated ds#j# in the sense of “loyal devotion”, alternating between the renderings “loyalty” and “devotion”.

YHWH’s devotion (ds#j#) for David will last “into (the) distant (future)” —a literal, if somewhat verbose, translation of the expression <l*oul=. This means that His devotion applies, not only to David himself, but to subsequent sons of his line. This devotion will be preserved (“guarded”, vb rm^v*) into the future, for the generations to come.

YHWH’s loyal devotion to David (and his descendants) is defined in terms of a “binding agreement” (tyr!B=), rendered more conventionally as “covenant”. It is important to emphasize the etymological aspect of the binding force of the agreement (or covenant). At least from God’s own standpoint, His agreement with David is binding—He Himself will not violate it. This is important, since from the Psalmist’s frame of reference, writing in the exilic (or post-exilic) period, the promises in the Davidic covenant would seem to have been nullified. The question of how the agreement could still be binding (and in effect) is dealt with in the third division (vv. 39-52). For the promises of this covenant, as rooted and expressed in the Davidic traditions, see 2 Samuel 7:8-16, with vv. 12b-13 and 15-16 being most relevant to this unit in the Psalm.

Here, in the second division—and in this strophe—the focus is on the binding character of the agreement, which YHWH (speaking prophetically in the Psalm) declares will be “holding firm” for David’s line. This is expressed by the participle tn#m#a$n#, from the verb /m^a* (“be firm”), and from which also the noun hn`Wma$ is derived. The participle indicates a regular/continuing condition, while the passive (Niphal) stem suggests that this characteristic (“holding firm”) of the covenant is due to the action of YHWH (i.e., His guarding it), giving to the covenant its fundamental character.

Verse 30 [29]

“And I will set his seed (to be enduring) for ever,
and his throne like (the) days of (the) heavens!”

Both the dynastic line (“seed”) and the kingship (“throne”) of David will be preserved, according to the binding agreement, lasting into the far distant future. This temporal aspect is here expressed by du^l*, parallel to <l*oul= in v. 29. The noun du^ is a bit difficult to translate, essentially denoting something (i.e., a period of time) going on (and on); “for ever” is as good a translation of du^l* as any, the expression being somewhat more abstract in meaning than <l*oul=.

Dahood (II, p. 317) interprets du^ (±ad) here (and in v. 38) in relation to Ugaritic ±d  II. The precise meaning of that Canaanite term is not entirely clear, but in at least one instance (Kirta III, col. 6, line 22) the expression l±dh (comparable to du^l* in the Psalm) is clearly parallel to lksi mlk (“at/on [the] throne of kingship”), and also lkµ¾ drkt (“at/on [the] seat of dominion”), lines 23-24. Based on this parallel, one could see du^l* and having a meaning like “on the seat of rule”, corresponding with “his throne” in the second line. The essence of the promise would then be that there will always be a descendant of David (his “seed”) on the throne.

The Davidic kingship will be like “the days of the heavens” in its continuity and enduring character. The “firmness” of the heavens, reflecting YHWH’s own hn`Wma$ (as Creator), was a key theme in the opening section (vv. 6-9). The parallel between the heavens and the Davidic covenant was specifically established in the introduction (vv. 2-3, 4-5). This parallel is all the more significance since YHWH’s throne is in/over the heavens (vv. 8-9, 15); He is the King over the entire universe (heaven and earth), while the (Davidic) king, correspondingly, is the ruler on earth (over the people of God, and the nations).

Comments for Christmas

The identification of Jesus as the promised royal Messiah from the line of David is a key component of the Gospel Infancy narratives, particularly the Lukan narrative. This has been discussed in the prior notes. Here, in relation to vv. 29-30 of the Psalm, we must focus on three specific elements: (1) Jesus as David’s “seed”, (2) the motif of the ruler’s throne, and (3) the enduring character of this rule.

The first element is basic to the Gospel tradition in the Infancy narratives, establishing Jesus’ Davidic ancestry—from a legal, rather than biological standpoint—through his father Joseph (Matt 1:1, 6, 17, 20; Lk 1:27; 2:4; 3:31). The specific expression “seed of David” occurs in the New Testament, in a Messianic sense, in Rom 1:3, Jn 7:42 and 2 Tim 2:8, clearly being applied to the person of Jesus. The parallel between Rom 1:3 and Gal 4:4

    • “(hav)ing come to be out of (the) seed of David”
    • “(hav)ing come to be out of a woman”

raises the possibility that Paul may have understood Jesus’ mother (Mary) as being of Davidic descent—a belief which came to be accepted among early Christians, but which is absent from the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives. For further discussion on Jesus as the “son of David,” cf. Part 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The second and third elements mentioned above are hinted at at various points in the Infancy narratives; see, for example, the citation of Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:6, in light of the remainder of v. 2 and v. 4b (which are not cited). However, those themes are dealt with directly only in one passage—the Angelic announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. Verses 32b-33 could almost be read as a Christian commentary on vv. 29-30 of the Psalm:

“…the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father,
and he will reign as king over the house of Ya’aqob into the Age,
and of his kingdom there will not be (any) end!”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 26: Psalm 89:25-26

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:20-26, continued

(For verses 22-24, see the previous note)

Verse 25 [24]

“My firmness and my devotion (are) with him,
and in my name his horn shall (be) lifted high.”

The keyword of this Psalm is hn`Wna$, emphasizing the firmness of YHWH. That term combines both the idea of God’s strength and His faithfulness. The former has been the focus in verses 18-24, as also in the prior vv. 10-14; however, it is the latter that is emphasized by the pairing of hn`Wma$ and ds#j#. These same two nouns were paired at the opening of the Psalm, in vv. 2-3, and also in v. 15 (with the related tm#a# in place of hn`Wma$). Though hn`Wma$ has the basic meaning “firmness”, it frequently carries a meaning of “faithfulness, trustworthiness”; similarly, ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) often has the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. These are fundamental attributes of YHWH, relating particularly to the covenant loyalty that he shows to His people.

Here, in line 1, it is declared (and promised) that these attributes are with (<u!) the king—that is, the Davidic ruler, chosen by God, and expected to be a loyal servant to Him. The same preposition was used in v. 22 (cf. the previous note), where it was stated that YHWH’s strong and supporting hand/arm is “with him” (oMu!). This may allude to the statements regarding David in 1 Sam 18:12, 14; 2 Sam 5:10:

    • “And Ša’ûl was afraid from before (the) face of David, because YHWH was with him [oMu!]” (v. 12)
    • “And in all his ways David was having success, for YHWH (was) with him [oMu!]” (v. 14)
    • “And David kept on, going on and becoming great, for YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of (the) armies (was) with him [oMu!]” (2 Sam 5:10)

Much the same was said of the Judean king Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:7:

“For he clung on(to) YHWH; (and) he did not turn aside from following Him, but guarded His commands, (those) which YHWH had commanded Moshe. And YHWH was with him [oMu!], so (that), in whichever (way) he went forth, he had success…” (vv. 6-7)

The thought expressed in v. 7a, regarding Hezekiah, may well relate to the name la@ WnM*u! in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10 (cf. below).

The wording of the second line is similar to that in vv. 17-18, both with the idea of being/acting “in the name” of God, along with the specific idiom of one’s “horn” (/r#q#) being “raised/lifted high” (vb <Wr in the Hiphil stem). The horn-motif applies particularly to a ruler or king, and was applied specifically to the Davidic ruler in Ps 132:17; cf. also 148:14; a Messianic interpretation of the idiom is suggested by Ezek 29:21, and certainly in Luke 1:69 (cf. below). Being “in the name” of YHWH implies that the king is faithful and loyal to God, able to participate in the Divine blessing and protection that He provides.

Verse 26 [25]

“And I will set his hand on the sea,
and his right (hand) on the rivers.”

This couplet alludes to the imagery from vv. 10-11 (cf. the discussion in the earlier note), describing YHWH’s sovereignty over the universe in the terminology of cosmological myth—viz., His subduing of the primeval waters at the time of Creation. The Davidic king, drawing upon the strength of YHWH Himself, similarly has authority over the waters—described by the pair of terms <y` (“sea”) and torh*n+ (“streams, rivers”). An allusion to the cosmological myth of the Creator’s victory over the primeval waters seems all the more likely, given how, in the Canaanite Baal Epic, the foe defeated by Baal-Haddu is both called Sea (ym = <y) and River (nhr = rhn, “judge River”, ¾p‰ nhr); cf. Dahood, II, p. 317. For more on this subject, see my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In verse 11, the dark and unruly waters (a) are compared with hostile human adversaries (b), and the “waters” here in v. 26 almost certainly have the same significance. Through God’s strength, the king has protection from all enemies, and is able to achieve victory over them; thus his rule is allowed to extend over the surrounding nations. Historically, this may allude to the Israelite conquests under David, which allowed the kingdom to reach its zenith during the reign of Solomon.

Metrically, verse 25 follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet format that dominates this division of the Psalm; however, verse 26 has a shorted 3+2 meter.

Textually, it is interesting to note that, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsx, verse 26 appears between vv. 22 and 23, and that vv. 24-25 appear to be missing.

Comments for Christmas

Verse 25b, repeating as it does the horn-motif from v. 18, can be understood in a Messianic sense. This motif was applied to Jesus in Luke 1:69, as mentioned in the prior note. The added promise in v. 25a, that YHWH’s strength and devotion will be with the Davidic king (“with him,” oMu!), naturally reminds one of the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) in Isa 7:14; 8:8 (cf. also 8:10), and the identification of Jesus with the promised child of 7:14 (on which, cf. my earlier study and notes). This identification features prominently in the Matthean Infancy narrative (1:22-23), with Isa 7:14 representing the first of the Gospel’s Scripture citations. There is likely a similar use of the “God-with-us” motif in Luke 1:28, which clearly occurs in a Messianic context, identifying Jesus with the promised Davidic Messiah (vv. 27, 32f).

As for the extent of the Davidic ruler’s kingdom, and of his reign over the nations (symbolized by the waters), this is indicated in Luke 1:33. The worldwide scope of the Messiah’s rule, which the Lukan author compares (implicitly) with that of Augustus (and the Roman Empire), is established in 2:1ff, 10ff, and then is further interpreted in 2:30-32 as a foreshadowing of the early Christian mission. For more on the parallels between Jesus and Augustus, in the context of 2:1ff, 10ff, cf. my earlier note on the subject.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 24: Psalm 89:20-21

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Part 2: Verses 20-38 [19-37]

Psalm 89:20-26 [19-25]
Verse 20 [19]

“Then you spoke in a vision to your devoted (one)s,
and said:
I have set a youth over a mighty (warrior),
I have lifted high (one) chosen from (the) people.”

The division of vv. 20-38 deals principally with the covenant YHWH made with David (and his descendants). This involves promises regarding the kingship over Israel. Here, in verse 20, we have a reference to the historical tradition of God’s choice of David for the kingship, in place of Saul; on this, cf. the narrative in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

The initial line emphasizes how YHWH’s choice of David was revealed to the people. Specifically, it refers to a vision, through which God spoke, given to the “devoted ones” (<yd!ys!j&). In the context of the Psalm, such a substantive use of the adjective dys!j* (“good, kind,” but here with the meaning “faithful, loyal, devoted”) would refer to the faithful/righteous ones among God’s people.

However, if the tradition in 1 Samuel 16:1ff is being referenced here, then <yd!ys!j& may specifically designate YHWH’s chosen prophets—as represented by the figure of Samuel. The Qumran manuscript 4QPsx reads iyrjb (“your chosen [one]s”), rather than iydysj (“your devoted [one]s”). Dahood (II, p. 316) explains how iydysj could be understood in a singular sense, with the form either seen as preserving an archaic genitive (singular) ending, or being read as a plural of majesty (in reference to the king). Some manuscripts, in fact, do read the singular form idsjl.

The second line, following the MT, reads:

“I have set [i.e. given] help [rz#u@] upon (the) mighty (one)”

However, it would seem preferable to understand rzu in relation to the term ²zr in Ugaritic, meaning “youth” (sometimes in the sense of a young hero). If this is correct, then the line would presumably allude to the contrast between David and Saul (in 1 Sam 16ff), and possibly also to the famous events in chap. 17. YHWH set this youth (David) over (lu^) a mighty warrior (roBG]). Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 401) suggests that MT rz#a@ should be emended to rz#n@ (“crown”), in which case the line would read “I have set a crown on (the) mighty (one) [i.e. David]”.

The third line speaks of David as chosen (passive participle rWjB*) from the people, by God, to be king. Sometimes the root rjb (“choose”) can be used in reference to a strong/vital youth—especially a young man of fighting age.

Verse 21 [20]

“I have found David, my servant, (and,)
with (the) oil of my holiness, I anointed him.”

The anointing of David is narrated in 1 Samuel 16:13. It is indicated here that YHWH anointed him, but clearly (in the tradition) this was actually carried out by Samuel (one of YHWH’s prophets). The reference to David as God’s servant (“my servant”) carries several levels of meaning:

    • The king is a servant of YHWH in the general sense that his kingship and authority comes from YHWH, who exercises authority over all things.
    • The Israelite king is (to be) a loyal/faithful servant within the covenant bond; this refers both to the covenant God has made with His people, and to the specific covenant made with David (and his descendants).
    • The ideal king is patterned after David, in his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH; in this regard, the king represents all those among the people who are faithful/loyal to the covenant.

The oil, with which David was anointed king, is qualified here by the term “my holiness” (yv!d=q*), yielding the expression “(the) oil of my holiness” (i.e., my holy oil). The implication is that the holiness of YHWH, the attribute of Divine holiness, is communicated—ritually and symbolically—by the anointing. The association of such oil with holiness is mentioned in a number of Torah references involving ritual anointing (cf. Exod 29:21; 30:25, 31; 31:11; 37:29; 40:9; Num 35:25). It is significant that, in the tradition, the Spirit of God comes upon David immediately after he is anointed (1 Sam 16:13). Throughout the Old Testament, the king is referred to as God’s anointed (“my/His anointed”); this terminology occurs dozens of times in the books of Samuel and Kings (1 Sam 2:10, 35; 12:3, et al), but also a number of times in the Psalms, where it specifically centers around the figure of David—2:2; 18:51[50]; 132:10, 17; cf. also 20:7[6]; 28:8; 84:10[9].

Comments for Christmas

The figure of David plays an important role in the Gospel Infancy narratives, relating to the birth of Jesus. This is part of the wider Gospel tradition, and shows how early Christians recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the various Messianic figure-types—notably, the royal Messiah from the line of David (cf. the discussion in Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Messiah”).

Apart from the location of Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus (cf. 1 Sam 16:4ff; 17:12ff; Micah 5:2), the underlying traditions of the Infancy narratives clearly identify Jesus as a “son [i.e. descendant] of David”, legally, through the line of his father Joseph. This detail is emphasized in both the Matthean and Lukan narratives (Matt 1:20 [cf. vv. 1, 6, 17 in the context of the genealogy]; Luke 1:27; 2:4; cf. also 3:31). The citation of Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:5-6, along with the context of the entire narrative episode (in 2:1-12), unquestionably identifies Jesus with the Davidic Messiah of Jewish expectation.

This thematic orientation features even more prominently in the Lukan narrative—due largely to the explicit references in the angelic annunciations (1:32-33; 2:10-11). The allusions in the canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus), in 1:69ff, are closer in tone and spirit to Psalm 89:20ff. We might note, in particular, the specific reference to David as God’s “servant” (cf. above on the first line of v. 21), and to God “raising up” a “horn” of salvation for His people (cf. the previous note on v. 18).

The themes of David as God’s chosen, and of God’s anointing him with the oil of His holiness, are also important components of Jesus’ Messianic identity. In this regard, it is not Jesus’ birth, but his baptism where these themes are most closely associated with him in the Gospel tradition. For the idea of Jesus as the “Chosen [One]”, cf. John 1:34 v.l.; Luke 9:35 (realizing the parallels between the baptism and the transfiguration; cp. 23:35). With regard to the Messianic context of the baptism, the Lukan narrative particularly brings out the association with anointing (by the Spirit)—Lk 3:22 v.l. (citing Ps 2:7, cp. verse 2); 4:18ff (citing Isa 61:1ff), and the context of vv. 1ff, 14; Acts 4:26-27; 10:38. It was noted above how, in the 1 Samuel narrative, after David was anointed (as the future king), it is said that God’s Spirit came upon him (1 Sam 16:13).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 2:25-32)

The Simeon Episode

The concluding episode of 2:22-38 brings together a number of important Lukan themes and motifs, developed throughout the Infancy narrative. Central to this episode is the encounter with Simeon (vv. 25-32). The pair of Simeon and Anna (vv. 36-38) forms a literary match with Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary—all three representing the righteous ones of the Old Covenant who are, with the birth of Jesus, experiencing the end of the Old and the beginning of the New Covenant. They are transitional figures, who embody the Lukan theme of continuity with the Old Covenant; in this regard, the Temple setting, as in the first episode (1:5-25, and the subsequent scene of 2:40-52), is most significant.

The Simeon episode includes a poetic oracle (vv. 29-32), one of four inspired oracles uttered by these characters in the narrative; note the pairings:

There is also a certain thematic symmetry to the oracles, in the context of the narrative:

    • Elizabeth—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus
      • Canticles of Mary & Zechariah, expressing the coming of the New Age in terms of the Old
    • Simeon—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus

Simeon’s encounter (with Mary and the child Jesus) parallels that of Elizabeth, but infused with much of the Messianic idiom that fills the intervening canticles by Mary (the Magnificat) and Zechariah (the Benedictus), as well as the Angels’ song in 2:10-14. A number of key Messianic themes also are expressed in this episode—themes which relate to the Old Testament and Jewish traditions regarding the Spirit (cf. the points outlined in Part 1). These include:

    • An emphasis on holiness and purity, alluding to the specific idea of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God’s holiness. This is expressed here by: (a) the Temple location, (b) the Temple-piety of Simeon and Anna (and others like them), and (c) the fulfillment by Joseph and Mary of the Torah regulations (relating to ritual purity), vv. 22-24.
    • The coming of God’s Spirit upon prophets and gifted/chosen individuals—here, specifically Simeon, vv. 25-27. The oracle that follows represents his inspired/prophetic announcement, centered on the person of Jesus.
    • The role of the Spirit upon God’s people in the New Age. Simeon stands as a transitional figure in this regard (cf. above), fulfilling the Old and prefiguring the New. The onset of the New Age is anticipated by the Messianic expectation of Simeon and Anna, referenced in vv. 25 and 38.
    • The figure of Jesus as the Messiah, upon whom the Spirit rests, who ushers in the New Age—a theme substantially expressed in the oracle of vv. 28-32 (cf. also the words to Mary, vv. 34-35)
Luke 2:25-27

Let us now consider the three-fold description of Simeon’s experience with the Spirit in 2:25-27. Three aspects are mentioned, one in each verse:

    • “…and the holy Spirit was upon him” (v. 25)
    • “and (the matter) was declared to him under [i.e. by] the Spirit…” (v. 26)
    • “and he came in the Spirit…” (v. 27)

The wording suggests that this was not a one-time event, but rather that Simeon may have had regular experiences of this sort. Two distinct modes of Spirit-experience are mentioned, both of which were introduced earlier in the Infancy narrative, and continue to be developed throughout Luke-Acts.

The first is the Spirit being upon (e)pi/) a person, just as it was said that the Holy Spirit would “come upon” (e)pe/rxomai) Mary (1:35, cf. the prior note). The second mode involves a person going about in (e)n) the Spirit, being led/guided by the Spirit. It was said of John the Baptist that he would go about in the prophetic spirit (1:17, meaning that the Spirit of God would be in/on him). The language for this mode is expressed more directly in the case of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (4:1, 14).

In the middle reference, Simeon is given special information from the Spirit; the verb xrhmati/zw is used, which here indicates a declaration of how certain business (i.e., a particular matter) will come out; it may also imply a decision (by God) regarding the matter. In this particular instance, the content of the message relates precisely to the Messianic expectation of Simeon (cf. above). Through the Spirit, God promises him that he will not die (lit. “is not to see death”) before he sees “the Lord’s Anointed (One)”. This (private) prophetic message is fulfilled by Simeon’s encounter with Jesus, which explains why the Spirit leads him into the Temple precincts at that moment.

He comes into the Temple “in the Spirit”; the expression is also important because it indicates the inspired character of the oracle that he utters in vv. 29-32. It is not said of Simeon specifically that he was filled with the Spirit, but given the parallel with the oracle of Zechariah, this may fairly be assumed. It is possible, however, that the idea of being in the Spirit is indicative of a longer-term experience, rather than a sudden and momentary burst of inspiration. Certainly, the oracle that he utters represents the culmination of a lifetime of faithfulness and devotion to God.

Luke 2:28-32

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

With regard to the poetic oracle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittus), it is worth noting that the Old Testament quotations and allusions in the hymn are all from the second (and third) part of the book of Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66)—so-called Deutero- (and Trito-)Isaiah. There are many themes in chapters 40-55, especially, which are appropriate to an exilic setting—a message of comfort, the hope and promise of restoration, and so forth. It is not surprising that these chapters had an enormous influence on Jewish and early Christian thought.

In terms of the Lukan Infancy narrative here in in this section (Luke 2:25-38), the Isaianic theme is established in the figures of Simeon and Anna, who are encountered within the Temple setting:

    • Simeon (vv. 25-35) who:
      (a) was righteous/just and took good care [to observe the Law, etc]
      (b) was [looking] toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel
    • Anna (vv. 36-38) who:
      (a) was in the Temple ‘day and night’, serving with fasting and prayer
      (b) was [with those looking] toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem

The latter point (b) refers to the ‘Messianic’ hope and expectation shared by many devout Jews at the time; consider the parallel phrases in (b)—Simeon and Anna were among those looking toward receiving [i.e., waiting for]:

    • the para/klhsi$ of Israel (v. 25)
    • the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem (v. 38)

The word para/klhsi$ in this context is usually translated “comfort” or “consolation”. In the second phrase, the parallel noun lu/trwsi$ refers to the payment of ransom (and the corresponding release) for someone in bondage, etc., and is normally translated “redemption”. The phrase “comfort of Israel” probably finds its origin in the Isaian passages 40:1-2 (which also mentions Jerusalem) and 61:2, cf. also 57:18; 63:4; 66:13. “Redemption of Jerusalem” would seem to be derived from Isa 52:9, which also mentions ‘comfort’ for God’s people. This message of hope and restoration is described in terms of “good news” for Jerusalem (cf. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7). Interestingly, the phrase “redemption of Israel” and “freedom of Jerusalem” are found in documents from the Wadi Muraba’at in the context of the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.).

Let us now look briefly at each of the six lines in the Song. For those interested in a more detailed study, consult my earlier series of notes on the passage.

Verse 29a: “now you [may] loose your slave from [service], Master” —the verb a)polu/w is conventionally translated in English as “release, dismiss”, etc. For similar use of the verb in the Old Testament (LXX) see Genesis 15:2; Numbers 20:29; Tobit 3:6; cf. also Gen 46:30. The use of despo/th$ in reference to God is relatively rare in the LXX (Gen 15:2,8, etc) and in the New Testament (Acts 4:24), but is occasionally used of Christ as well (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10). The image is that of a household master releasing his slave from service; since “slave” in English often carries the connotation of abuse and mistreatment, typically dou/lo$ is translated here as “servant”.

Verse 29b: “according to your utterance, in peace” —for the comparable idiom of departing “in peace”, see of Abraham in Gen 15:15 (note also the use in context of despo/th$ and a)polu/w in Gen 15:2 LXX). r(h=ma is usually translated “word”, being roughly equivalent to lo/go$ in such contexts; however it is frequently used specifically in instances of a prophetic “utterance”, a slightly more literal translation which captures something of this sense.

Verse 30: “[now] that my eyes have seen your salvation” —this phrase is an allusion to Isaiah 40:5 and/or 52:10 (LXX); see also Psalm 98:3; Gen 49:18; Baruch 4:24; Ps Sol 17:50.

Verse 31: “which you have made ready in the sight of all the peoples” —this, along with verse 30 (above), is drawn largely from Isaiah 52:10. The use of laoi/ (“peoples”) is interesting (Isa 52:10 uses e&qnoi, “nations”); most likely it is meant to encompass both the “nations” (e&qnoi) and the “people” (laoi/) of Israel in verse 32. The italicized expression (“in the sight of”) is a more conventional rendering of the idiom, which I translated above quite literally as “according(ly) toward the eye/face of”.

Verse 32a: “a light unto uncovering [i.e. revelation] for the nations”
Verse 32b: “and glory for your people Israel”
There has been some question whether do/can is parallel to fw=$ (“light”), or is governed (along with a)poka/luyin) by the preposition ei)$; almost certainly the latter is correct—i.e., “a light unto uncovering…and (unto) glory…”. The first phrase is more or less a quotation of Isaiah 49:6b (cf. also Isa 42:6); the second may be derived from Isaiah 46:13b (for the overall image in this verse, see also Isa 60:1). The noun do/ca is actually rather difficult to translate literally into English—the original sense is of a (favorable) opinion, and so indicates the honor, esteem, etc. in which someone or something is held; but just as often it refers to the reputation, dignity, honor, etc. which someone possesses.

How closely should one treat the parallel between a)poka/luyi$ and do/ca? It is natural to think this of “revelation” in terms of the truth (the Gospel) being presented to the Gentiles; but I believe the image is rather one of uncovering (i.e. the literal sense of the word) the nations who are in darkness. So, following the parallelism, the light God brings (in the person of Jesus) has a two-fold purpose and effect:

    • It will uncover the nations who are in darkness, shining light upon them
    • It will shine light upon ‘Israel’ (i.e. God’s people), giving to them an honor and esteem which they would not otherwise have

From the standpoint of the Gospel, of course, these are two sides of the same coin, for in Christ all people—whether from Israel or the nations—are the people of God.

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:41, 67)


The comparison of John and Jesus, in terms of their respective Messianic identities, is an important aspect of the parallelism of the two Annunciation scenes (as discussed in the previous notes on 1:15-17 and 1:35). But it also features in the poetic oracles uttered (in the narrative) by the parents of John the Baptism, Elizabeth (vv. 42-45) and Zechariah (vv. 68-79). In the narrative introduction to each oracle, the poetic and revelatory inspiration is attributed to the presence of the Holy Spirit filling the speaker.

Luke 1:41, 67

“….and Elisheba was filled with (the) holy Spirit…and she gave up a great cry (with her) voice and said…” (v. 41f)
“And Zekharyah was filled with (the) holy Spirit and he foretold [i.e. prophesied], saying…” (v. 67)

Like John the Baptist, who was filled (vb plh/qw) with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb (cf. the prior note on v. 15ff), so also his parents (Elizabeth and Zechariah) were filled by the Spirit. This Spirit-motif, introduced in the earlier episode, continues here. It will be further developed in the figure of Simeon (2:25-27), who serves as a pattern for the relationship of the Spirit to believers, and also in the person of Jesus himself (4:1ff, cf. also 10:21).

As previously noted, the idea of a person being filled by the Spirit of God is an important aspect of the Lukan Spirit-theme. It is one of three primary modes of Spirit-experience featured in Luke-Acts. It is also, however, part of an ancient line of tradition regarding the manifestation of the Spirit of God (YHWH) upon chosen individuals in the Old Testament. Indeed, there was a strong tradition of charismatic (and prophetic) leadership in ancient Israel, whereby chosen individuals were gifted with the Divine Spirit, enabling them to function as inspired leaders over God’s people. This was true in the case of Moses and his successor Joshua, as well as the Judges and the early kings of Israel (Saul, David). The specific idiom of being filled, however, is only mentioned in the case of Joshua (Deut 34:9).

Mention should also be made of the references in Exodus (28:3; 31:3; 35:31), of the artisans and craftspeople who made the priestly apparel and the tent-shrine (tabernacle) furnishings. They were uniquely filled with the divine Spirit, giving them the skill and artistry to perform this work. This relates to the situation here with Elizabeth and Zechariah, where the filling by Spirit enables them to exercise a poetic art. Within the narrative context, Zechariah utters a great hymn (the Benedictus, vv. 68-79), and Elizabeth, in her own way, also gives out a short poetic exclamation (vv. 42ff). It should also be noted that the inspired hymn attributed to Mary (the Magnificat, vv. 46-55) is, in a handful of manuscripts and other witnesses, attributed to Elizabeth instead.

There are three aspects of this mode of being filled by the Spirit that I would emphasize here.

1. Ecstatic inspiration. In the ancient prophetic tradition, the divine Spirit comes upon the individual and overwhelms him/her, producing a state of ecstasy, in which the prophet begins to speak with the voice of the deity. Sometimes this is characterized by unusual (or supernatural) signs, as well as strange behavior. In the Pentecost scene in Acts, this aspect of the prophetic experience is realized primarily through the phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

More commonly, however, in both the Gospel and Acts, this ecstatic experience is manifest by a sudden exclamation, made at the spur of the moment, under the influence of the Spirit. We see this, for example, in Luke 10:21f, where the saying of Jesus is presented as an inspired exclamation. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, the ecstasy results in a poetic oracle. This is certainly true in the case of the canticles by Zechariah and Simeon (and also the Magnifcat [by Mary]), which are genuine poems, composed much in the pattern of the Scriptural Psalms. In this regard, it is worth noting the statement in Acts 4:25, how David, as the chosen servant of God, composed the Psalms (specifically Psalm 2) under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

2. The Prophetic communication of the will and purpose of God. This is the fundamental meaning of prophecy, especially as expressed by the Hebrew root abn. A ayb!n` properly denotes, in a religious context, someone who is a spokesperson for God, communicating His word and will to the people. The Greek term profh/th$ has a corresponding meaning, depending on how one understands the prepositional prefix pro/ (“before”). The prefix can mean “beforehand” (that is, predictive prophecy, announcing future events), but it can also be understood in the sense of speaking the message before (i.e., in front of) a gathered audience (such as the Christian community/congregation).

There is certainly a predictive component of the prophetic oracles by Elizabeth and Zechariah (and also Simeon). Far more important, however, and central to the place of the oracles in the Lukan narrative, is what the oracles communicate regarding what God is doing (and is about to do) through the chosen (Messianic) figures of John and Jesus. This will be discussed further in the next note (on 2:25-27ff).

3. Prefigurement of the Gospel. The prophetic oracles uttered by Elizabeth and Zechariah, etc, foreshadow the proclamation of the Gospel by the early believers. In particular, the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narratives find their parallel in the sermon-speeches of Acts. Both are Spirit-inspired utterances made publicly, presented as occurring on the spur of the moment, before an audience. In particular, the utterances by Elizabeth and Zechariah declare the Messianic identity of Jesus, which is also the fundamental message of the early Gospel preaching.

Elizabeth and Zechariah represent the faithful and devout ones under the Old Covenant; but they also, like their child John (also their relative Mary), are transitional figures who stand at the threshold of the New Covenant. Thus, it should be no surprise that, in the context of the Lukan narrative, their Spirit-inspired prophecy anticipates the Gospel preaching of the first believers.

The content of this message is also shaped according to the literary theme and structure of the Infancy narratives. This means, primarily, that it is predicated upon the relationship between John and Jesus. John was a Spirit-filled (and guided) messianic figure, but one who is surpassed by, and subservient to, the greater Messianic identity of Jesus. John himself, in the womb of Elizabeth responds to the presence of Jesus (in the womb of Mary). His ‘jumping’ (vb skirta/w) in the womb (v. 41) is a manifestation of the presence of the Spirit (v. 15). Elizabeth’s prophecy confirms, and develops this theme: Mary is declared blessed because of the “fruit of her belly” (i.e., the infant Jesus), and she is specifically declared to be “the mother of my Lord”.

In the Benedictus of Zechariah we find a much more extensive poetic development, replete with many allusions to Scripture and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. For a detailed study of these allusions, specifically with regard to their Messianic significance, cf. my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”. It is in vv. 76-79 that the traditional language (and Messianic imagery) is applied directly to the narrative context of the relationship between John and Jesus. These are examined in a separate article (in the aforementioned series).

The the traditional themes, developed by Luke, regarding the Messianic significance of Jesus, are brought together in the Simeon episode—the final episode of the Infancy narrative proper. These Messianic themes are connected with the presence and work of the Spirit, and will be discussed in the concluding note of Part 2.

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:35)

Luke 1:35

The second Annunciation scene in the Lukan Infancy narrative is in 1:26-38. The Angelic announcement regard the birth of Jesus, and follows immediately after the announcement of John’s birth (cf. the previous study on 1:15-17). This establishes the John-Jesus parallelism that runs throughout the narrative, along with the implicit comparison, emphasizing the superiority of Jesus as a Messianic figure.

This second Annunciation scene may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27)—summarizing the setting for the heavenly Messenger Gabriel’s appearance to Mary
    • The Angel’s Greeting (v. 28)
      —Mary’s response: surprise and uncertainty (v. 29)
    • The Angel’s announcement (vv. 30-33), prefaced by the traditional assurance (“Do not fear…”)
      —Mary’s response: question (“How will this be so…?” v. 34)
    • The Angel’s response: the sign (vv. 35-37)
      —Mary’s response: acceptance (v. 38)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 38b)

This follows the basic narrative pattern in the Old Testament for Angelic appearances (including birth announcements), as I have discussed in prior notes (and cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1977, 1993,  pp. 155-60, 296-8). The core announcement of verses 30-33 may further be divided:

    • Assurance (v. 30)— “Do not fear, Maryam, for you have found favor alongside [i.e. before] God”
    • Birth announcement (v. 31)— “And, see! you will take/receive together in (the) womb and you will produce a son, and you will call his name ‘Yeshua'”
    • Fivefold promise/prophecy of the child’s future (vv. 32-33)—
      • “he will be great”
      • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest'”
      • “the Lord God will give to him the (ruling) seat of his father Dawid”
      • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Ya’aqob into the Age”
      • “there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom”

There are unquestionable Messianic phrases and concepts in the prophecy of vv. 32-33. Mary’s response (question) relates to the apparent impossibility of her having a child: “How will it be so, seeing (that) I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Here the verb “know” preserves a Semitic idiom for sexual relations, and expresses the tradition of Mary’s virginity prior to bearing Jesus (also found in Matt 1:18). In verses 35-37 the Messenger gives a three-fold sign, explaining or confirming the truthfulness of the announcement:

    • Prophecy regarding the Divine source of Jesus’ conception (v. 35)
    • The miraculous conception by Elizabeth, who (being old/barren) similarly could not naturally bear a child (v. 36)
    • A declaration of the power of God to bring about anything he has uttered, i.e. through His Messenger (v. 37)

The reference to the Holy Spirit is in the prophecy of verse 35:

“The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you—therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

The first part of the verse presents two synonymous phrases in (poetic) parallel:

    • The holy Spirit—will come upon [e)pi] you
      The power of the Highest—will cast shade upon [e)pi] you

Despite an orthodox tendency to relate these two phrases with different members of the Trinity (“power” being associated with the Son), there can be little doubt that “holy Spirit” and “power of the Highest” are more or less synonymous expressions here. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the Spirit was not so much a distinct person as a manifestation of the presence and (life-giving) power of God (YHWH). This is important in light of how the concept and theme of the Holy Spirit is developed throughout Luke-Acts. The Infancy narratives preserve much of the Old Testament/Jewish background from which the new Faith (Christianity) would come forth—indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the important religious forms and patterns found in Old Testament tradition.

The reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (“out of the holy Spirit”) simply indicates the divine source of Jesus’ conception, without saying anything about how this takes place. By contrast, in Luke’s account, the Angel provides vivid and colorful imagery—but how exactly should we understand these two verbs (e)pe/rxomai [“come upon”], e)piskia/zw [“cast shade upon”]) as they are used here?

e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”)—of the nine New Testament occurrences of this verb, seven are in Luke-Acts, most notably a parallel reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in Acts 1:8. This prophecy by Jesus, similar and with a position in Acts comparable to the prophecy of Gabriel, will be discussed in an upcoming note. The verb can have the sense of something literally (physically) coming upon a person, but more commonly in the general sense of something happening (i.e. coming near) which will dramatically affect the person. It is used several times in the Old Testament in a sense similar to that of Acts 1:8 (cf. 1 Sam 11:7; Isa 32:15 LXX).

e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon”)—this verb really only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (with two parallel references), including twice in Luke-Acts in a context that is especially relevant to its use here:

    • Luke 9:34 par—the cloud in the Transfiguration scene is said to “cast shade/shadow upon” the three disciples; this image, of course, alludes to the Old Testament theophany of YHWH at Sinai and in the Desert (cf. Exod 13:21ff; 19:9, 16). For the verb used of the divine Cloud in the LXX, cf. Exod 40:34f.
    • Acts 5:15—it is related that Peter’s shadow was thought (by the people) to bring healing to the sick when it “cast shade/shadow upon” them. It is not clear from the context of the narrative whether this genuinely took place, or reflects a popular belief associated with Peter.

These two occurrences inform its use in Lk 1:35; the basic meaning is two-fold, as a vivid expression for the manifestation to human beings of (a) the presence of God (i.e. the Cloud), and (b) the power of God. It is unwise to read anything further than this into the text. The result of this divine “overshadowing”, of course, is declared in the last portion of verse 35: “therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, the Son of God”. It is probably best to read the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) as a substantive in apposition to “Son of God”, both being predicate to the verb “will be called”; in other words, we have here two names or titles which (will) belong to Jesus:

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 2 (Luke 1:15-17)

The Spirit in the Lukan Infancy Narrative

The Holy Spirit features more prominently in the Lukan Infancy narrative, which, in large part, reflects the greater role of the Spirit in Luke-Acts as a whole. The lines of tradition, regarding the Spirit, discussed in Part 1 are also reflected in the Lukan narrative. Special importance is placed on the identification of Jesus as the Messiah, and his role in ushering in the New Age, in which the Spirit will be manifest in a new way among God’s people. This Messianic identity is primarily expressed according to two distinct thematic structures in the Lukan Infancy narrative:

    • The superiority of Jesus in comparison with John the Baptist (John being viewed as a Messianic prophet-figure)
    • Jesus as the Royal Messiah from the line of David

As an organizing device within the narrative, the Jesus-John comparison is more significant. The birth narratives of John and Jesus are essentially presented side-by-side, following a similar pattern, being intercut (and interrelated). In terms of the Messianic identity of the two children, there are two main points of comparison: (1) the parallel Angelic announcements, and (2) the two inspired oracles by John’s parents (Elizabeth / Zechariah). In each of these literary structures, the Holy Spirit plays a significant role and must be examined in some detail. Let us begin with the first of these.

The Angelic Announcements

The parallelism of the John and Jesus narratives, establishing the John-Jesus comparison, begins with the annunciation scenes, which follow one after the other, from John (1:5-25) to Jesus (1:26-38). For a discussion of the literary and thematic aspects of the John annunciation scene, see the earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” (cf. also the entry in last year’s Saturday Series Christmas studies).

Luke 1:15-17

“For he will be great in the sight of [the] Lord, and wine and liquor he shall (surely) not drink,
and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother.” (v. 15)

This contains the first two declarations made by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Zechariah, announcing the conception (and coming birth) of John. The statements are made with verbs in the future tense: (i) “he will be…” (e&stai), (ii) “he will be filled…” (plhsqh/setai). They announce both John’s birth and his future destiny. He will be a chosen servant of God, a role that has genuine Messianic significance, within the context of the Gospel Tradition. This is the primary meaning of the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord”. It is also said of Jesus that he will be “great” (me/ga$, v. 32), but in a way that surpasses the greatness of John the Baptist, an absolute attribution that would normally be predicated of God (YHWH).

The second declaration involves the Holy Spirit:

“and he will be filled (with the) holy Spirit, even (coming) out of (the) belly of his mother”

Before examining the significance of John being “filled” by the Spirit, let us consider the final two declarations (in vv. 16-17):

“and he will turn many of the sons of Yisrael (back) upon the Lord their God,
and he will go before in the sight of Him, in (the) spirit and power of ‘Eliyyahu, to turn (the) hearts of fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded (one)s in the mind-set of (the) righteous, to make ready for (the) Lord a people having been fully prepared.”

These statements describe (and define) the Messianic role of John the Baptist—certainly as it was understood in the early Gospel Tradition. It can be summarized by the expression “in the spirit and power of Elijah”. In order to gain a proper understanding of the place of the Spirit in this passage, we must join together these two aspects of the annunciation, where the noun pneu=ma is used:

    • “(filled) by the holy Spirit”
    • “in the spirit…of Elijah”

The principal association is between the Spirit and prophecy. John will be among the greatest of prophets (7:26-28 par), fulfilling the role of the end-time (Messianic) Prophet, according to the figure-type of Elijah (for more on this, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). More than this, he may be regarded as the last of the prophets of the old covenant (16:16 par), standing on the threshold of the new covenant. This sense of continuity between the old and new covenants is especially important in terms of how this passage fits in with the Lukan view of the Spirit.

This is the first occurrence of two distinct modes, in the Lukan narratives, whereby the Spirit is present and active. The first mode involves the idea of filling—i.e., being filled by the Spirit. Here the verb plh/qw is used. The idiom occurs numerous times in the book of Acts, but in the Gospel only within the Infancy narratives (1:41, 67) and the Lukan description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:1).

The second mode involves being (and walking) in the Spirit. Here it is said that John will go about in the spirit of Elijah, which is a very specific way of referring to the spirit of prophecy—which, in turn, is brought about by the presence of God’s own Spirit. The expression “the spirit of Elijah” can be understood two ways, as it relates to the person of John the Baptist: (1) the same Spirit (of God) that inspired Elijah also is present in John; or (2) that John is essentially a new manifestation of Elijah himself, inspired by the distinctive prophetic spirit that Elijah possessed (and which he gave to Elisha, 2 Kings 2:9-12).

Either way, the “spirit of Elijah” involves the presence of the Spirit, so we may fairly claim that the wording here in v. 17 is an example of the Lukan motif of persons going about “in (or by) the Spirit” (2:27; 4:1, 14; 10:21).

If we are to isolate the main Lukan themes that are introduced here, they would be as follows:

    • The association of the Spirit with prophecy—John is the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant; with Jesus and his disciples (believers), the time of the New Covenant begins, and, with it, a new understanding of the nature of prophecy.
    • The Messianic role of John as “Elijah”, who will appear prior to the end-time Judgment (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6)—this reflects the fundamental eschatological understanding of early Christians, which Luke develops powerfully in his 2-volume work, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the early Christian mission.
    • The person of John as a transitional figure, emphasizing the continuity between the Old and New Covenant—he embodies the prophetic Spirit of the Old and, at the same time, points toward the manifestation of the Spirit in the New.

Another minor theme could also be mentioned, which is as much traditional as anything distinctly Lukan. In v. 15 the Spirit is associated with John the Baptist’s ascetic behavior (cf. Mk 1:6 par; Lk 7:33 par), but reflecting specifically the religious vow of the Nazirite (cf. Num 6:3). This detail may have been influenced by the Samuel and Samson narratives (Judg 13:4; 1 Sam 1:11, 22 [v.l.]), but there is no reason that it could not also be an authentic historical detail in the case of John. The principal idea here is twofold: (a) purity/holiness, and (b) consecration to God. Both of these motifs are central to the idea of the presence and activity of God’s Spirit (the holy Spirit, Spirit of holiness), are emphasized, to varying degrees, in the Lukan narratives. On the Nazirite motif, in association with the birth of Jesus himself, cf. my earlier note on Matthew 2:23 (in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”).

The Spirit and the Birth of Jesus: Part 1

For this Christmas season—from Christmas Day through Epiphany—I will be presenting a series of articles on the relationship between the Spirit and the Birth of Jesus. I have discussed this topic in two prior series— “The Birth of the Son of God” and “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition”. However, here I wish to examine the subject in more detail, with a special focus on the development of the early Christian idea of (and belief in) the Holy Spirit. This is intimately connected with the wider view of the relationship between the Spirit and the person of Jesus Christ. It thus is an important component of the early Christology, as it developed during the first century.

This study is predicated upon two critical principles (and presuppositions): (1) that the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives represent a relatively late layer of the Gospel narrative, and (2) that the tradition of Jesus’ miraculous conception (and birth) itself is older, having gained relatively wide acceptance a number of years before either Infancy narrative was composed.

The Spirit in the Matthean Infancy Narrative

As noted above, it is generally agreed by commentators that the Infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 & Luke 1-2 represent a later level of Gospel tradition than, for example, the Passion and Resurrection narratives or most of the sayings/parables of Jesus, etc. This does not mean that they are unhistorical, only that the traditions likely were collected, developed and given basic written/narrative form at a slightly later point in time. As a basic estimate, if the core Passion narrative took shape c. 30-40 A.D., then the Infancy narrative(s), by comparison, may have developed c. 50-60 A.D.

This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that no reference is made to the birth of Jesus in early preaching recorded in the book of Acts (at the historical level, c. 30-50+ A.D.), and is scarcely mentioned in the letters of Paul, etc. The story of Jesus’ birth would seem to have played little or no role in the earliest Christian preaching and instruction. Despite this fact, it is clear that both Matthew and Luke draw upon a common set of basic traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, which must pre-date by a number of years the written Gospels (i.e. sometime before 70 A.D.).

A central tenet and belief in this Gospel tradition is the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ birth. This is recorded in three verses—twice in Matthew’s narrative, and once in Luke (part of the famous Angelic annunciation to Mary).

Before turning to the Matthean account, it is worth considering the main lines of Old Testament (and Jewish) tradition, regarding the Holy Spirit, which influenced the Infancy narratives (and the Gospel Tradition as a whole). The representative citations from the Old Testament, and other Jewish writings, have been discussed in my earlier series on the Spirit in the Old Testament, and links are provided to the relevant notes (for further reading and study):

    • The role of God’s Spirit in the Creation of humankind—Genesis 2:7; Job 33:4, etc [note]
    • The coming of God’s Spirit upon prophets and other gifted/chosen leaders—Numbers 11:10-30; 24:2; 1 Samuel 10:6ff; 16:13-15, etc [note 1, 2, 3]
    • The Holy Spirit is fundamentally identical with the Spirit of God, focused specifically on the attribute of God’s holiness and purity—cf. on the expression “Spirit of [His/your] holiness” (= “holy Spirit”) in Psalm 51:11 [note]
    • A new presence and work of the Spirit among God’s people (poured out on them) will occur in the New Age, with the establishment of a New (and/or renewed) Covenant between God and His people. This was an important theme in the writings of the exilic and post-exilic Prophets—Isa 32:15; 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Ezek 36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29; Zech 12:10 [note 1, 2, 3, 4]
    • Following upon several of the above lines of tradition, the presence of the Spirit was thought to be specially present upon the Messiah (i.e., the Messianic figure-types in Judaism during the 1st centuries B.C./A.D.)—cf. especially the Isaian references, 11:2; 28:6; 42:1ff; 59:21; 61:1ff [note 1, 2]

All of these lines of tradition can be found in Jewish writings of the first-century B.C./A.D., most notably in the texts of the Qumran scrolls. There are many interesting and significant parallels between the Qumran Community and the Early Christian Community—including the way that their respective views of the Holy Spirit developed from the earlier Old Testament traditions. The expression “Spirit of [God’s] Holiness” (= “Holy Spirit”) occurs more frequently in the Qumran texts. I have discussed this subject in an earlier article. This January, I will also be presenting a series of daily notes on references to the Spirit in the Qumran texts.

Let us now turn to the Matthean Infancy narrative.

Matthew 1:18ff

Matthew 1:18—Following an introductory genealogy (vv. 1-17), the Infancy narrative proper begins in verse 18:

“The coming-to-be [i.e. birth] of Yeshua (the) Anointed was thus: His mother Maryam being called to mind (for marriage) [i.e. betrothed/engaged] to Yôseph, (but) before their coming together, she was found holding (child) in (the) womb out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:20—Verse 19 briefly narrates Joseph’s character (di/kaio$, “just/right[eous]”) and his decision to loose Mary from the engagement quietly/secretly. In verse 20, a Messenger of the Lord (i.e. Angel) appears to Joseph in a dream and makes the following declaration:

“Yôseph, son of Dawid, you should not fear to take along Maryam (as) your woman [i.e. wife]: for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Both passages use the specific phrase “out of the holy Spirit” [e)k pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou]. For the idea of being born out of the Holy Spirit, see the important references in John 3:5-6, 8, where it is applied to believers. Here it refers to Jesus, and to his actual (physical/biological) birth. When we turn to the Lukan narrative (in Part 2), we find the reference to the Holy Spirit in a very similar context—as part of an Angelic announcement, but to Mary rather than Joseph.

How does the Matthean narrative relate to the lines of tradition (regarding the Holy Spirit) outlined above? Four of the five bulleted points may be seen as applicable to the Matthean Infancy narrative (reduced here to three thematic points):

    • The coming of God’s Spirit upon prophets and other gifted/chosen leaders—specifically, Moses (cf. Numbers 11:10-30). The narrative clearly is shaped to bring out parallels with the birth/childhood of Moses, implying that Jesus is a ‘new Moses,’ almost certainly in the sense of a Messianic prophet—i.e., the “prophet like Moses” who is to come (Deut 18:15-19). For more, cf. Part 3 of “Yeshua the Anointed,” and, on the Moses parallels in Matthew 2, cf. the relevant articles in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.
    • The Holy Spirit as an attribute of God’s holiness and purity—this is implied in the very tradition regarding Jesus’ virginal conception; however the theme of purity is much more prominent in the Lukan Infancy narrative.
    • The presence and work of the Spirit among God’s people that will occur in the (Messianic) New Age (cf. 1:21)this theme, too, is featured much more prominently in the Lukan narrative. Jesus, in this regard, is clearly identified as the Messiah (spec. the royal/Davidic Messiah) in Matthew’s narrative, no less than in Luke; cf. the Scriptures cited in 1:23 [note], 2:6 [note], 2:23 [note], and again in 4:14-16 [note].

Early Christian Use of Isaiah 7:14

It is hard to know just when early Christians began to view Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth, as we see in Matthew 1:22-23; it is possible, though quite uncertain, that the Gospel writer was the first to make the connection. Here I place side-by-side, the Hebrew (MT), the Greek (LXX) and Matthew, in a rather literal translation, with the Hebrew/Greek given below:

As explained in the main note, “virgin” is not particularly appropriate for translating hm*l=u^; nor exactly is “young girl/woman”. As no English word or phrase entirely fits, I have somewhat reluctantly opted for “maiden” as the least unsatisfactory solution.

For my Lord Him(self) will give for you a sign: See—the maiden (is [becoming]) pregnant and (is) bearing a son, and (she) will call his name “God-with-us”
toa <k#l* aWh yn`d)a& /T@y] /k@l* /B@ td#l#y)w+ hr*h* hm*l=u^h* hN@h! la@ WnM*u! ov= tar*q*w+
Through this (the) Lord Him(self) will give you a sign: See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and she will call his name ±Immanû¢l
dia\ tou=to dw/sei ku/rio$ au)to\$ u(mi=n shmei=on i)dou\ h( parqe/no$ e)n gastri\ e&cei kai\ te/cetai ui(o/n kai\ kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou= Emmanouhl
{first part of the verse is not cited} See—the virgin will have in womb and will bring forth a son, and they will call his name ±Immanû¢l, which is being explained across [i.e. translated] (as) “God with us”

The LXX is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew (MT), the difficulties surrounding the use of parqe/no$ notwithstanding, and apart from the very different idiom used for conception and childbirth. The citation in Matthew is identical to the LXX, but for one difference (indicated in italics above): “they will call” instead of “you will call”. The MT has regularly been understood as a 2nd person form, but most scholars today read it as a 3rd person feminine. Manuscript 1QIsaa reads arqw (“and he will call”), apparently in an indefinite sense, which may be reflected in the Syriac )rQtNw (wntqr°, “and he will be called”), and possibly is the basis for the rendering in Matthew (“they will call”). The Gospel writer also provides an explanation of the Hebrew term.

This citation in the Gospel is one of a number which occur especially in the Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23):

With the possible exception of 2:5-6 (Micah 5:2), these Scripture passages were taken and applied in a sense altogether different from the original context. This was discussed already for Isaiah 7:14; I will treat the remaining verses in upcoming notes.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catch-phrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.  This is indeed what has happened: for believers, who ‘find’ Jesus in the Scriptures, apply those texts to him—whether or not the original context truly warrants it!

Even in the early years of the Church there were questions (by both Jews and Greco-Roman ‘skeptics’) about such use of the Old Testament, and even about the Isaian passage in particular. Isa 7:14 is not cited in the New Testament outside of Matt 1:22-23, but then the birth of Jesus in general is scarcely mentioned apart from the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Nor is it used by the so-called Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early/mid-second century (except for the ‘long’ form of Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians §18). By the late-second and into the third-century it appears more frequently, corresponding both with an increased interest in traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, as well as more ‘systematic’ attempts to defend (proto-)orthodox Christian beliefs in the face of Jewish and pagan objections. Justin Martyr gives perhaps the earliest [c. 140-160], and most noteworthy, surviving treatments of Isa 7:14: in his First Apology §33, and especially in the Dialogue (with Trypho) §§43, 66-67. The Jewish interlocutor “Trypho” in §67 (at first) offers an interpretation of Isa 7:14 similar to that of modern scholars (that is, according to the original historical sense); Justin has no interest in responding to this view, but rather reacts to the notion that beliefs such as the Virgin Birth are derived in imitation of pagan myths, provoking a lengthy discussion. While earlier generations of critical scholars occasionally posited similar explanations for the “origin” of the Virgin Birth, they have been almost entirely abandoned by serious commentators today.

In conclusion, let me return to the interpretive crux—believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.