‘In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.’(Luke 1:5-7)
I’ve already suggested that the ambiguity in Luke 1 over whose prayers are actually being answered points to the fact that the prayers of the couple and the prayers of the nation are interwoven in the birth of John the Baptist. Many people had been praying for the consolation of Israel, including the gathered crowd in Luke 1:10, and Anna and Simeon who we meet in Luke 2:22-38.
Given how many people had been praying for the Messiah, you’ve got to wonder, why did God not bless any of them with the birth of the preparatory prophet? Why this couple Elizabeth and Zechariah? There are probably many answers – who can know the mind and motives of God? – but here are five suggestions:
First of all, God is a God of compassion, who cares about the longings and cries of His people, and loves to give good gifts. Whatever strategic and symbolic reasons God may have had for choosing this couple, it’s worth remembering this fact first and foremost. This was not a coldly calculated choice; a means to an end. God cares about our pain, and He hears our prayers.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be righteous in the sight of God. Not that they were entirely without fault or sin – the unbelieving response of Zechariah shows that much. But they had proven themselves to have the right kind of hearts for the task of raising God’s prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord.
This is also a good reminder to us not to confuse external blessedness with genuine righteousness. That is, it is so easy to look at people who are blessed with good gifts and assume it’s because of their righteousness, and conversely to assume that those who don’t receive the blessings for which they long and pray must be somehow unrighteous. No. We do not earn God’s mercy. This couple was blessed yet broken; righteous in the midst of their pain.
Luke makes the point that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were descendents of Aaron. They continued the line of the priests, and preserved the line with purity. But I think the link to Aaron is also significant because of the role their offspring would play.
When God sent Moses to Pharaoh to rescue His people through the Exodus, He says:
“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.”(Exodus 7:1)
A slightly older, close family member, who has a prophetic role, accompanying the saviour (who is himself ‘like God’) and preparing the way for deliverance. Sound familiar? Since Jesus is the long-awaited prophet like Moses, it makes sense that he might need a prophet/priest like Aaron.
This is not the first time in Scripture that God has given a child to a barren couple. It seems to be a favourite miracle of His! We previously noted the echoes of Genesis 18 in this story, with Zechariah and Elizabeth being an inverted Abraham and Sarah. But the other story to which this strongly alludes is that of Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Samuel. Look at the parallels between the stories:
- There is a couple, the woman of whom is barren (1 Sam 1:1, 5; Luke 1:7)
- There is a divine encounter in the temple (1 Sam 1:9-18; Luke 1:8-23)
- …which results in the birth of a miracle child (1 Sam 1:19-20; Luke 1:13)
- …who is a prophet (1 Sam 3; Luke 1:76-80; 3;1-18)
- …in a time when the word of God was rare (1 Sam 3:1; cf. the 400 years of silence from Malachi to Luke)
- In both cases there is a song of triumph (1 Sam 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55)
This is significant because the role Samuel had to play in the Old Testament is similar to the role John plays in the gospels. Both prophets had a precursory ministry, preparing the way for the King (1 Sam 2-16; Luke 3:4-6). As Samuel anointed David, so John baptised Jesus, and the Spirit came upon him (1 Sam 16:13; Luke 3:21-22) resulting in the declaration that this King is the ‘Son of God’ (2 Sam 7:11b-14; Luke 3:21-22).
The identification of Zechariah and Elizabeth with Elkanah and Hannah prepares us for the fact that John is the new Samuel, and Jesus the long-awaited Davidic King.
My fifth suggestion for why God chose this couple is that their very predicament was symbolic of the situation in which Israel found herself. The Hebrew Bible contains stories of six barren woman: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Manoah’s wife and Hannah; the matriarchs, the mother of Samson and the mother of Samuel. Then in Isaiah 54, the prophet declares:
‘“Sing, barren woman,(Isaiah 54:1)
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labour;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,”
says the Lord.’
Zion herself is depicted as the seventh barren woman of the Hebrew Bible. Having been given promises of offspring as numerous as the stars and the dust – offspring through whom all the world would be blessed – it seems that those promises are unfulfilled. Israel is like a barren woman.
But God chose to give a child to an infertile couple as a symbol of what He was about to do for Israel as a whole. He was about to do for the nation what they were unable to do for themselves. And it would not come through human effort, will, or power, but only through divine intervention.
Hence Zechariah’s song recognises that the birth of his son and the fate of the nation were intertwined (Luke 1:67-79). John’s birth and preparatory ministry is a symbol that God has not given up on His promises to bring about redemption greater than that which came through Moses; a Kingdom which will never fail, as promised to David; and the fulfilment of the oaths made to Abraham.
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