My favorite songs are the old hymns in the old hymnal that we never use anymore. Now we have the great big ten pound “Songs of Faith and Praise” hymnal (your may be gray or blue; ours are maroon). A lot of the are more focused on praise and adoration which is a good thing. But my favorite songs will probably always be those “old time religion” songs like “Sing to me of Heaven,” “Old Rugged Cross,” and “The New Song.”
When we read in Scripture about people singing, I wonder if these were songs that were common to the time. We know they had hymns. In fact, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn before they left for the garden (see Matt 26.30) But then you read the words and the actions behind them and you can come to the conclusion that they probably were not “Song of the Synagogue.” In fact, when you read Zechariah’s song (called Benedictus because of its opening word in Latin), there are some characteristics that make it unique.
A Horn of Salvation
Immediately we identify the inspriation behind this song: the Holy Spirit. These are therefore words of prophecy which praise God for his revelation, namely the coming Messiah and the one who is to prepare his way. In fact, in English the song begins with “Praise…the God of Israel.” Zechariah understands that this event has been divinely established and acknowledges God’s intervention in Elizabeth and his life.
Notice why God is to be praised – he has come near his people. This is a theme abundant in Scripture, that is God visiting his people. Paul explains that that was his situation even in chains: when all others had fled, God came near (2 Tim 4.17). God is a God who makes house calls. When his people are in need of comfort, encoruagement, even salvation (Luke 1.69), God shows up and supplies his people with what they need. But in addition to this, Zechariah says we have a God who “redeems his people.” There was a price on our head that we could not pay and God stepped into history to pay that price. In order to buy us back from a world of sin, God sent Jesus. And so the idea is that we were redeemed at a high price. Absolutely God is to be praised for these reasons.
Moreover, God has “raised up a horn of salvation” and this came through “the house of David.” This is a reference to Jesus. As one commentator has written: “The horn was a symbol of strength (as with the horn of a bull), so that a horn of salvation means ‘a mighty salvation’ or ‘a strong salvation.'” When God acts he does it mightily. And so when he brought us salvation, he rolled up his sleeve and went to work – some of the hardest work that can be done: human salvation.
Zechariah also acknowledges that God promised all this in the past through the prophets. This was a promise of salvation from enemies and from those who hate us (in the context, the Jews. Jesus picks this up in 6.22 and applies it to kingdom people). Zechariah then presents a four-fold purpose for the raising of the horn of salvation.
The Fulfillment of Promises
Zechariah was a priest in the temple. That meant he knew the promises of God of a coming Messiah, he knew who the promises had been made to (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and he had prayed for the coming of the Messiah (see Luke 1.13). And so, filled with the Holy Spirit, he details how the coming of the deliverer was fulfillment of promises and oaths in the past.
First, the coming of the Messiah is to “show mercy to our fathers.” Hence, Jesus’ coming was not merely for those living but was for all men of all time (the Hebrew writer says this was HAPAX, or “once for all.”). And so this touches those “fathers” both Patriarchal and Mosaic who had waited for this. Again, this is a portrait of the mercy God has for his people.
Second, God made specific promises to his people which Zechariah calls his “holy covenant” and “oath.” This demonstrates the faithfulness of God. He spoke a promise, cut a covenant, and it came about. God’s word never fails.
Third, Zechariah acknowledges that man is need of rescuing. Man has been enslaved by Satan from the beginning and was therefore a captive in the kingdom of Satan. But God came and brought redemption with him. We were then rescued from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of Jesus (Col 1.13). The greatest enemy to defeat was death and Jesus gained the victory over that through his resurrection.
Finally, God seeks for his people to serve him without fear. And therefore, to give us this freedom and fearlessness, he sent Jesus, the horn of salvation.
A Prophet for the King
Zechariah now details the mission of his son, John. John is the spokesman for God pointing toward the coming king. He is preparing the king’s people for his arrival. John also has the mission of pointing the people toward forgiveness of sins. This will be realized in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Without these components, there can be no salvation, no forgiveness of sins (cf. Heb 9.22). And so John’s mission is clear: preparing the people, teaching the people of the coming salvation. Jesus is the light of the world (John 8.12) and he shines into the darkness (John 3.19). He illuminates the path we are to walk in and that is the pathway of peace. Paul picks up this idea in Ephesians as well (Eph 5.19).
Luke sums up the years of John until his adulthood. One commentator believes that John’s elderly parents died and he was raised in the wilderness by Essenes (who did raise other people’s children). This is uncertain. What we do know is that he did grow and would become a preacher of repentance in the desert.