In this article the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist will be considered, followed by an analysis of the remarkable words which follow from the mouth of his father under inspira­tion of the Holy Spirit, once his tongue was loosed.

The Birth of John the Baptist

We are not told whether Mary stayed with Elisabeth her cousin right up till the time of the birth of John. We do know she abode with her for three months and that when she had first come, Elisabeth was six months with child (Luke 1:36, 56). It is hard to imagine that she did not wait till the birth actu­ally took place and was involved in the rejoicing that followed, but we do not know for sure. Other reasons may have required that she be not subject to the exposure of this event.

Mary and Elisabeth were not the only ones excited by the birth of John. Her neighbours and relatives knew how much she had desired children and rejoiced with her in the prospect of this one who was so clearly the result of “great mercy” from God (v57,58). On the eighth day a large assembly of folk from the small town in the hills assembled for the child’s circumcision. The circumstances were exceptional. They had no doubt heard something of Zacharias’ encounter with the angel, and the remarkable prognostications that had been revealed on that occasion relating to his role and mission (v13–20). Following his circumcision, “they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father” (v59). They reasoned that Zacharias was a good name, and belonged to his father and many honourable Israelites had borne it; and it seemed appropriate: “Yahweh hath remembered”—the desires of Zach­arias and Elisabeth. Like friends and relatives can, they took matters into their own hands without even consulting the wishes of poor Elisabeth! They had forgotten it was her baby! When she heard what they had decided, she remonstrated, “Not so; but he shall be called John” (v60). This raised a storm of protest, in the face of which an appeal was made to Zacharias, who was aware of all the arguing but could not speak his mind! They made signs to him “how he would have him called”, being sure he would agree with them. They crowded around him anxiously awaiting what he would write. To their astonishment he wrote, “His name IS John”, mean­ing “Whom God hath given”. In endorsement of his decision, which also corroborated what Elisabeth had said, his mouth was immediately opened, and his tongue loosed, and he spake and praised God (v64).

This incident added to the strange and forebod­ing circumstances of the child’s generation, and he became the topic of conversation. From an early age John was the object of curiosity as people wondered, “What manner of child shall this be!”

Zacharias Speaks

Zacharias had witnessed in silence and absence of verbal expression the fulfilment of all that the angel had said. His pent up feelings now broke forth as the Holy Spirit came on him and he spoke words of thrill­ing import and far reaching prophetic significance relating to the redemptive work of Christ, and the part his own newborn son would play in preparing the nation for him. These words are recorded in Luke 1:68–79. While there are only twelve verses record­ing what he said, which take only a minute or two to read, we cannot imagine that we have the full text of what was said. As with the speeches in Acts we have a condensation, the essential essence of what was said. And yet Luke, the physician, was clearly not present to witness and hear what Zacharias said. How did he know what was spoken, and how could he record accurately the message? As in the case of Zacharias who spoke the words, so also in the case of Luke who wrote them many years later, we have the power of inspiration at work, the Holy Spirit guiding, composing and ‘editing’ what should be recorded for posterity.

We will see that, as in the case of Mary’s Song, so also in Zacharias’ words there are numerous references to the Old Testament. Jesus Christ is the one about whom prophecy was principally given for he is the focus and linch pin of Yahweh’s purpose. The references to him are so numerous that only a few words from some of them are recorded. It now becomes our quest to identify these references from what we do have recorded. Our method will be to quote Zacharias’ words in italics, and to list under bullet points the Old Testament references, and in some instances to make comments.

“And Zacharias… filled with the Holy Spirit… prophesied”

Verses 68 to 75 concern the mission and purpose of Jesus Christ.

Verse 68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel

These glorious words are first recorded in 1 Chroni­cles 16:36, being the concluding words of the psalm David composed on the occasion when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. It was committed into the hands of Asaph that they might learn it and use it to thank Yahweh for His wonderful works. They are also found in Psalm 106:48, where the Psalm is in part repeated, and also in Psalms 72:18 and 41:13. They are appropri­ate opening words for the most significant step in the Divine purpose—the birth of John the Baptist, forerunner of the Saviour and Messiah of Israel, had just taken place.

Significantly, too, today we sing them at bap­tisms, where we celebrate the saving work of God in Christ.

“… for he hath visited

The word “visited”, also found in verse 78, recalls the great redemptive work when Israel, Yahweh’s people, were delivered from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:16; Genesis 50:24). Now a greater re­demption involving all nations was being initiated by the Saviour, the Son of God.

and redeemed his people

Psalm 111:9, “He sent redemption unto his people”

Verse 69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David

Psalm 132:17,18 “There will I make the horn of David to bud… his enemies will I clothe with shame” (v71)

Ezekiel 29:21 “In that day will I cause the horn of the house of Israel to bud forth, and I will give thee the opening of the mouth in the midst of them; and they shall know that I am Yahweh.”

This is a notable quotation as Ezekiel’s mouth was to be opened after a long period of dumbness, as was Zacharias’. Ezekiel was smitten with dumbness because of Israel’s sins (ch 24), and he bore the bad news of the coming destruction of Jerusalem; but Zacharias was dumb because of his own unbelief (Lk 1:20), and by contrast he bore the good news of the advent of the Messiah.

Verse 70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began

This is almost the identical statement Jesus Christ made to his followers after his resurrection, and Pe­ter, too, after he healed the lame man (Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 3:21). Clearly the coming of the Lord was the greatest event in the history of man, fulfilling, confirming and illuminating all the Scriptures.

Verse 71 That we should be saved from our en­emies

Psalm 18:3 “I will call upon Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies”. Note that Yahweh is called “the horn of my salvation” in Psalm 18:2 (cp v69).

and from the hand of all them that hate us

Psalm 106:10 “And he saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy” (Pharaoh, at the Red Sea). The language is similar and the event typical of the great salvation wrought in Christ.

Psalm 89:22,23 “The enemy shall not exact upon him [David’s seed]; nor the son of wickedness afflict him. And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him.”

Verse 72,73 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; The oath which he sware to our father Abraham

Micah 7:20 “Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.”

Psalm 105:8,9, 42 “He hath remembered his covenant forever… which covenant he made with Abraham, and his oath unto Isaac… For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham his servant.”

Psalm 106:4, 45 “Remember me, O Yahweh, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation… And he remembered for them his covenant”.

An interesting reflection on the words of verses 72 and 73 is the apparent incorporation of the mean­ing of the names of the three people making up the family of Zacharias. His name means “Yahweh hath remembered”, Elisabeth means “the oath of God” (El), and John, “the gift, or grace of Yahweh”.

Verse 74 That he would grant unto us, that we be­ing delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear

The prophecy of Amos further illuminates the wealth and luxury of Israel at this time. He speaks of those “that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches…That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of musick, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (Amos 6:4–6). The blatant lack of faithful response to the mercy of God would lead to the end of the house of Jeroboam, and exile for Israel (Amos 7:7,8,17).

So Jonah had two Divine commissions. He was sent to Samaria with a message of mercy and prosperity for Israel. Yahweh’s overshadowing providence granted those blessings but there was no corresponding response of repentance and worship by the king or the people. And he was sent with a message of judg­ment to Nineveh, and met with an astonishing response led by the king himself.

Assyria

The origins of Assyria go right back to Nimrod that “mighty one in the earth”, the first man in Scripture described as having a kingdom: “the beginning of his kingdom was Babel” (Gen 10:10). Hence as Brother Thomas observes: “The Kingdom of Men was founded by Nimrod…” From the land of Shinar, Nimrod proceeded north to the region of Assyria “and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah, and Resen…” (Gen 10:11,12). Thus is re­corded the evil beginnings of what was to become the mighty Assyro-Babylonian empire, itself the prototype of the latter-day Assyrian.

It was Tiglath-Pileser I who ruled from 1114–1076 BC who established the Assyrian empire. His death saw the kingdom diminished until the emer­gence of Ashurnasipal II in 883 BC who extended Assyrian power as far as the Mediterannean. His son Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) carried out repeated campaigns against Syria and Israel, making Jehu his vassal. The famed Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser found by Layard in 1846 depicts Jehu kneeling be­fore the Assyrian ruler while the inscription reads: “Tribute of Jehu, son of Omri. Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, lead, staves for the hand of the king, javelins, I received from him”.

A succession of weak kings, Shalmaneser IV (783–773 BC), Ashurdan III (772–755 BC) and Assur-nirari V (754–745 BC) followed. During this time the nations of the Urartu to the north and the Hittites from the north west were pressing upon the borders of the Assyrian empire. Civil unrest, famine, and, for a superstitious people, the portentous omen of a total solar eclipse in the tenth year of Assurdan III added to the issues facing the Assyrian empire in this period. Jeroboam II was able to take advantage of this short-lived weakness in the Assyrian empire to consolidate the position of Israel.

One historian summarises this period thus: “The reign of Ashur-dan III (772–755 B.C.), was marked by unsuccessful campaigns in central Syria and Ba­bylonia, an epidemic of plague and revolts in Assur, Arrpha (Kirkuk) and Guzanna (Tell Halaf)—not to mention an ominous eclipse of the sun. As for Ashur-nirrari (754–745 B.C.), he hardly dared leave his palace and was probably killed in a revolution which broke out in Kalhu and put upon the throne his younger brother, Tiglathpileser III. Thus for thirty six years (781–745 BC). Assyria was practi­cally paralysed” (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq).

It may well be that in part at least the weakness of the Assyrian empire during this period came about due to a change of focus in this cruel and aggressive empire as a result of the repentance and change of ways following the successful preaching of Jonah most likely at the time of Ashurdan III.

“The Sign of the Prophet Jonas”

It was the Lord Jesus Christ who pointed out to “certain of the scribes and Pharisees” the “sign of the prophet Jonas” (Matt 12:38–41), and then repeated the allusion (Matt 16:4 and Lk 11:29–32). The record of Jonah, the storm, the great fish, his deliverance and remarkable preaching success with the Ninevites was vivid and memorable. But Christ’s generation had in their midst the very Son of God, working miracle after miracle, finally raised up, not from the belly of a fish but from death itself—and still they would not believe!

Consider some of the remarkable elements of this sign:

  • Refer to notes on verse 71
  • There are a number of references in Isaiah to Israel being called upon to “Fear not” for Yahweh would be with them (43:5; 41:10,13,14)

Verse 75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (Gk pasais tais hemerais hemon)

  •  Jeremiah 32:39 “I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me forever [mrg ‘all days’; lxx pasas tas hemeras], for the good of them, and of their children after them”.

The context deals with the regathering of Israel, their conversion and the great good that Yahweh will bring upon them in that day. It elaborates the thoughts of Zacharias expressed here.

Verse 76 And thou, child, shall be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways

  • • The term “prophet of the Highest” makes the exalted calling and work of John clear. He was plainly the greatest of the prophets and Jesus al­luded to this when he said, “But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet”. Then he, like Zacharias, cites the words of Malachi of John, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee” (Matt 11:9,10).
  • Isaiah 40:3 “… the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of Yahweh, make straight …”

Verse 77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins

  • Jeremiah 31:34 “… for I will forgive their in­iquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Verse 78 Through the tender mercy of our God” (Gk dia splagchna eleous theou hemon)

  •  There is reference here to the strong feelings of God for His people, the Greek word splagchna re­ferring to the bowels (mrg ‘bowels of the mercy’ Col 3:12). These deep emotions Yahweh has for Israel are strongly expressed in Hosea 11:8 and Jeremiah 31:20, in contexts relating to the glori­ous destiny of the seed of Abraham.

“… whereby the day spring [anatole] from on high

Anatole literally means “sunrising”, as the margin indicates. But it is more significant in this context because it makes reference to the Son of God who is the “Sun of righteousness who will arise with healing in his wings” (Mal 4:2). See also Revela­tion 16:12, “Kings who are from the Sun-rising” (anatolon Diaglott).

hath visited us” —refer to verse 68.

Verse 79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace

Isaiah 9:2 “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

These words were also later cited of Messiah’s work in Galilee (Matt 4:13–16).

  •  Isaiah 42:7 “… to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.”
  •  Isaiah 59:7,8 “their feet run to evil … the way of peace they know not.” Reference to feet and “the way of peace” in the passage emphasizes the past waywardness of God’s people. John would teach and convert, so the Spirit declares that John would “guide our feet into the way of peace”, peace with God through faith in Christ (Rom 5:1,2).

With this sentiment Zacharias concluded his prophecy. We can appreciate the depth of his words, their profound significance and their remarkable backgrounds. Two amazing men would soon appear to Israel and so change the world that it would never be the same thereafter. The world awaits today the advent of the Lord and his forerunner as its only hope of moral reform, stability and peace. Happy is the people that know this joyful sound.

John grew up possessing the Spirit from the womb (Luke 1:15), which assisted and educated him in Divine ways, for which he had an amazing aptitude. He was so different from his contem­poraries with whom he had little in common. He removed himself into the desert country of Judah, away from the hustle and bustle of human activity and institutions, where he could think and meditate upon his forthcoming mission. He lived by depend­ence upon the God of Israel: his food was locusts and wild honey.

Luke summarises the years of preparation thus: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing [Gk anadeixeos, public manifestation or appearance] unto Israel” (v80).

Conclusion

There are numerous references and allusions in Zacharias’ words to Old Testament backgrounds. His words bring together much Scripture and his application of them to the missions of the Son of God and his own son, John, seal the meaning and interpretation of the prophecies. We should observe how wonderfully these prophecies were fulfilled by the mighty power of God. Clearly God knows all things and controls the destiny of the world. Our faith and conviction should be strengthened by reflection on these things, and our hopes and expectations for the future galvanized. Our hearts should be continually praising and thanking the Father for His wondrous works.