The Service, Silence and Song of Zacharias The Priest LK. 1:5-25, 57-80
As the golden glow of the morning light streaked through the eastern sky, the priests, clothed in white linen, pressed the silver trumpets to their lips and delivered the familiar threefold blast. The people of Jerusalem were alerted to the fact that the Temple services were ready to begin. For an aged priest from the Judean hills, this day would be the fulfillment of a life’s desire, and for the nation of Israel it would mean the realization of a long-awaited hope.
Life in Judea was turbulent. Herod the Great ruled the people with sadistic cruelty. Greed, hatred, murder and political intrigue were common features of daily life. Due to various warring sects, biblical Judaism was leveled to mere empty forms of ceremonies and rites. The society’s morality was disgraceful.
Yet, in the midst of spiritual poverty. God had always reserved for Himself a group who waited and watched faithfully for “the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25). Zacharias, the priest, and his wife Elisabeth were of this devout remnant. “. . . they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless” (Lk. 1:6).
However, together they bore a silent sorrow. From the Jewish point of view, childlessness was considered a great calamity, being interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure. Every Jewish family hoped for a son who would prove to be the Messiah. But, “. . .Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years” (Lk. 1:7). In spite of the obvious obstacles, they demonstrated great faith in prayer that God would look upon them and take away their reproach.
Zacharias made the rugged trip up to Jerusalem. His course, the course of Abijah, was assigned to perform Temple services for the week. As a family, the house of Abijah had the sacred task of preparing the incense used in the Temple. Zacharias was a Maamad for this family. Maamad means place of standing and was a name given to a group of common representatives from outlying areas composed of priests, Levites and Israelites. Each of the courses recorded in 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 had its own Maamad to represent it in the Temple. Zacharias could have claimed more honor since, as a priest, he was married to a daughter of the descendants of Aaron. Graciously, however, he accepted his humble position as God’s will. He felt that the Lord had blessed him by placing him in Israel’s most coveted duty — the lighting of the incense which symbolizes Israel’s prayers.
Early that morning, the first and second lots were cast to determine who would clean the brazen altar, offer the sacrifice and clean the golden candlestick and golden altar of incense. The casting of the third and most important lot was now to begin. Zacharias and others, representing the house of Abijah, assembled in the Hall of Polished Stone.
This hall, sometimes referred to as the Chamber of Hewn Stone., was located just south and above the area known as the Court for the Priests, It was here that the daily lots were cast. Quickly, a circle was formed comprised of young and old priests. In the center stood a priest called the Officer. Since it was considered unlawful to number persons in Israel (cf. 1 Chr. 21:1-8), each of the priests was required to hold up one, two or more fingers to be counted. With a predetermined number in his mind for the lot, the Officer began to count the fingers. Anxiety ran high as he slowly moved around the circle. The lighting of the incense was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. The Officer continued his count and then stopped. Zacharias could scarcely believe it as he looked up and saw the Officer standing in front of him! The common priest of Judea, often treated with benevolent contempt by the higher order of priests, was honored this day with the highest mediatorial act of his life. ”. . . his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord” (Lk. 1:9).
After changing from their ordinary clothing into the fine linen garments, Zacharias and his two assistants approached the brazen altar. One of the priests ascended the ramp to the top of the altar and with a silver firepan scooped up some of the hot coals. Carefully he turned and descended from the altar. The coals were then emptied into a golden firepan which he would carry into the inner altar. Zacharias held in his hands a large golden bowl filled to capacity with sweet incense. Together they walked around the brazen altar until they were standing in front of the steps leading to the sanctuary.
Using an ancient musical instrument called the Magrefah, the other assistant gave the signal that they were about to ascend the steps and walk into the Holy Place. Quickly, the priests and Levites scurried to their respective courts and areas. The people gathered themselves in front of the Nicanor Gate. A deep silence rested upon the worshiping multitude as they watched Zacharias and his assistants circumspectly walk up the twelve steps and enter through the multicolored veil.
Two other priests, who had just cleaned and prepared the inner altar and candlestick, were leaving as Zacharias and his assistants entered the sanctuary. The chamber was strangely silent. The light of the candlestick (Menorah), as it reflected off the smooth pavement, gave the room a warm and tranquil sensation. On the right side was the table of showbread. In front, just beyond the altar, was the thick curtain which separated the Holy of Holies. Reverently they approached the altar of incense. He who had carried the hot coals place them evenly on the altar. Quickly he bowed and left the chamber. Zacharias cautiously scooped up some of the incense with a gold dish which was in the bowl. He gave the bowl to the other assistant who then bowed and left Zacharias was now standing all alone with the incense in his hands before the golden altar As he waited for the signal, the silence intensified and he concentrated his thoughts around the words of the psalmist, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense. ..”(Ps. 141:2).
With downcast eyes and hands crossed over their breasts, the multitude also waited for the signal from the Officer to start their prayers. The prayers recited by the people were an ancient Jewish liturgy later referred to as the Shemoneh Esreh. The phrase literally means eighteen and refers to the eighteen ancient eulogies recited by Israt during solemn and festive occasions. They expressed confidence in God and the eventual fulfillment of His promises. During the time of the incense, Zacharias was required to recite parks of the Shemoneh Esreh. He was to emphasize the petition which addressed the longing for the Messiah to come. The prayer reads:
Speedily make to shoot forth the Branch of David, Thy servant, and exalt Thou his horn by Thy salvation, for in Thy salvation we trust all the day long. Blessed art Thou, Jehovah! Who causeth to spring forth the Horn of Salvation.
The signal was given. Carefully he scattered the incense over the hot coals of the altar. Almost immediately the room was filled with the sweet cloud of odors rising up before the Lord. As he concluded his prayers, suddenly, from within the hazy smoke, the angel Gabriel appeared before him standing on the right side of the altar. Zacharias was startled and terrified! Could this heavenly manifestation be God? Who can see the face of God and live (cf. Ex. 33:20)?
Zacharias’ fear was quieted as the messenger from Heaven told him that his prayer had been answered. He was bewildered. Was it possible that the “Branch of David … the Horn of Salvation” had come? The angel continued his message, informing Zacharias that his wife Elisabeth would have a son. Zacharias listened in astonishment as he heard of the unique ministry his son would have: ” … he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:17). Zacharias wondered: what he had seen and heard were really true, and so he requested a sign.
Meanwhile, the people outside marveled that Zacharias stayed so long in the Temple. With each passing moment, the crowd grew more uneasy. Their prayers had been offered, and they anxiously gazed toward the entrance of the sanctuary. What could have happened to the old priest?
Zacharias’ request for a sign stemmed from the fact that he and his wife were well advanced in years. How could they possibly have a child who would be the Messiah’s forerunner? And yet, without the herald the Messiah could not come. His rejection of the angels message was very serious and would have its consequence. Since he did not rejoice at the good news, but required a sign, Zacharias received it and was forced into the silent world of the deaf and dumb. In the quietness of his own heart during the months ahead, he would have plenty of time to ponder the events of this day as well as the words of the Shemoneh Esreh, so often recited and, as in this instance, in unbelief.
Gabriel was gone. Again he was alone in the chamber. Unaware of the fact that his sign had gone into effect, Zacharias slowly bowed and noted every step as he departed from the chamber. He stepped outside the veil, and the crowds gave a sigh of relief. He lined up on the top step with his fellow priests for the closing benediction. As the incensing priest, Zacharias was privileged to recite the Aaronic benediction, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24-26). He moved forward and raised his hands, but he could not speak! Helplessly he stood there trying to communicate with the waving of his hands, but to no avail. It was evident to the awestricken assembly that something had happened to him in the Temple. By means of whispers, the news spread through the crowd that he must have seen a vision. Another priest stepped forward and uttered the benediction, and the formal morning services were over. Everyone dispersed from the Temple area with much to ponder.
The birth of the child several months later quickly became a matter of widespread interest in the Judean hill country. When the child was eight days old, the hour for the joyous ceremony of circumcision arrived. It is during this ceremony that a Jewish boy receives his name, which is usually taken from a family member whom the parents desire to honor and remember. All the friends and relatives gathered for this special occasion. During the opening prayer, when the child’s name was first uttered, Elisabeth emphatically rejected the name of Zacharias for the child. “… he shall be called John” (Lk. 1:60), she said. This drew an immediate objection, for it was contrary to tradition and the name John was not a family name.
The commotion was obvious to Zacharias. To settle the matter, he was given a hollowed-out piece of wood that had been filled with wax on which to write how he would have the child named. With complete faith in the fulfillment of the word of the angel, he wrote, “His name is John” (Lk. 1:63). Everyone was astonished, and their astonishment only deepened when Zacharias, who could not even verbalize his son’s name, now burst into praise for the name of the Lord!
His faith restored his speech. His last words in the Temple were words of unbelief and doubt. His first words after his speech was restored were a hymn of praise and assurance. To those gathered around, the opening words of his song and prophecy were familiar, but there was something excitingly different.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed Ms people, And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant, David (Lk. 1:68-69).
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias transformed the fourteenth eulogy of the Shemoneh Esreh from the spirit of expectancy to a praise of realization!
During the months of his enforced silence, he watched Elisabeth bear testimony, like Abraham and Sarah (cf. Gen. 17:15-16; 21:1-5), that God is able to do that which seems humanly impossible. But, unlike Abraham, he looked at his present circumstances of being too old and responded in unbelief. But, worse yet, as he was representing the nation with all their aspirations before God at the altar of incense, he succumbed, perhaps just for a moment, to the faithlessness of his generation. They had lost sight of Messiah’s coming in their day. Prayers, such as the Shemoneh Esreh, were offered in the midst of religiosity but were laced with the spirit of unbelief.
God silenced Zacharias as a lesson for him, the multitude and the generations to follow. Unbelief has nothing to say! Faith, however, opens one’s heart and loosens one’s tongue to sing and say much to a world about the Messiah who, in accordance with God’s timing, has come and will come again — the Lord Jesus!
Editor’s Note; The fascinating Jewish customs described in this article developed during the days of the Second Jewish Temple following 538 B.C. These customs are described by the Jewish historian Josephus and in the Jewish legal code called the Mishnah. Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple: Its Ministry and Services describes many of these customs.