"And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she, coming in at that instant, gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spoke of him to all them that looked for deliverance in Jerusalem" (Luke 2.36-38).
So short a passage! So little said but how eloquent! She comes in without having been previously introduced to the reader of the sacred story. She goes out ‑ and is never heard of again. But within that short space of a few minutes during which she occupies the Scripture stage, she does something that makes her brief appearance immortal for evermore.
Anna is the only one of that name in the New Testament. One in the Old Testament, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, has the same name in its Hebrew form; Anna is the Greek form. In both languages the word means graciousness. Both women "spoke of him". Hannah was the first in all the Scriptures to use the name "Messiah" to describe the one that should come. Abraham and others in earlier days had rejoiced to see His day and Moses had spoken of the Prophet that should arise, like unto himself but greater. No one before Hannah applied the word "Messiah" to Him and that is significant. Hannah was as truly a prophetess as was Anna a thousand years later. "The Lord shall judge the ends of the earth" she sang "and he shall give strength unto his king and exalt the horn of his Messiah" (1 Sam. 2.10). Now the later Anna stood in the temple courts holding in her arms the tiny babe that was the fulfilment of the prophecy, Messiah had come, and Anna knew it!
How did she know? By what process of reasoning did this aged saint connect that helpless child with the Messiah of prophecy, the One coming from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah, travelling in the greatness of his strength, proclaiming his mightiness to save? What convinced her that here in this little family group lay, not only the doom of the mighty empire of Rome, but also of all the "kingdoms of this world" and all the forces of wickedness and powers of evil everywhere? In what way did that small innocent face show her the lineaments of a King?
It could only have been, as it was with Simeon on the same occasion, a direct revelation of the Holy Spirit. God had answered her long-continued prayers and fasting, her patience and expectation, with a word from Himself. It had been revealed to Simeon by the Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord Christ ‑ the Messiah. He came "by the Spirit" ‑ by the direct leading of the Holy Spirit ‑ into the Temple just at the time Mary and Joseph were there with her first-born child. In that moment, as Simeon's old eyes fell upon the little group, there came an inward word, and his heart overflowed with reverent joy as he realised the dream of a lifetime fulfilled. So it must have been with Anna, coming in just as Simeon was pouring out his heart in his wonderful praise ‑ prayer ‑ prophecy, the Spirit spoke to Anna and she too knew that the consolation of Israel had come. The time was fulfilled; the hope for which the twelve tribes, instantly serving God day and night, waited to come was realised. God at last had visited His people. Anna had spent a long life waiting. Eighty-four years a widow, seven years a wife before that, for such is the meaning of the Greek expression: not that she was merely eighty-four years old. She had been married at the age of sixteen, a common age for Jewish girls to be married at that time, so Anna must have been one hundred and seven years old at the time of this incident. It is not stated, but it is implied and may reasonably be accepted as a fact, that she had served God in the Temple and waited for the promised Messiah for at least the major portion of that time. What had she seen in all those years?
Anna was born when Judea was very different from its condition at the birth of Jesus. Rome had not yet appeared on the scene. Judea was an independent State under the rule of John Hyrcanus, the son of Simon, one of the Maccabean patriots who delivered the country from its foreign oppressors. She was perhaps five years of age when Aristobulus succeeded John, and then in the following year, Alexander Janneus succeeded Aristobulus. That part of Jewish history, lying as it does between the Old and New Testaments, is not so well known to many of us as the days before Malachi or after Jesus. In the reign of Alexander the boundaries of Judea were extended, by means of conquest or treaty, to the limits that had been reached by David and Solomon in olden times. In Alexander a Jewish king reigned from Sinai to the Euphrates, and Judea was the most powerful State in the Middle East. So influential was she, in fact, that the Roman Empire entered into treaty alliance with her. The text of the treaty is still preserved and is curiously like modern ones, both nations binding themselves not to make war upon the other and to help each other with military assistance should one be attacked by a third party. Jewish ambassadors were resident at Rome. It was a time of high hopes on the part of all true Jews that the Kingdom of God, the day of Israel's triumph, was at hand. It only needed the appearance of Messiah to take over the reins of government. The Land of Promise as defined to Abraham ‑ from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates ‑ was under their control. Greek power was declining, and Rome, the only other great Empire, treated Judea as an equal. Surely it could not be long now before the great Senate of Rome would listen with dignified respect to the orders of King Messiah, transmitted by the Jewish ambassador in the city, and Jerusalem replace both Athens and Rome as the world's seat of government. In those stirring days, ninety years or so before the angels sang at Bethlehem, men went about in daily expectation of the revelation of Messiah.
Some there were ‑ as some there have been in every age ‑ who knew from their deeper understanding of the things of God that the coming of the Kingdom could not be thus. History reveals the fact that behind the pomp and glitter of the rapidly growing State, the marching and shouting of armed men, the glowing speeches and lavish promises of Judea's politicians, there was a nucleus of devout souls, chiefly the poor of this world, looking for a Messiah who would be first of all a Teacher of righteousness. They knew that all was not well with their homeland and its people. They knew that sin covered them with its heavy hand, and that not until sin was removed could the glowing promises of the prophets be fulfilled. So they studied the old prophecies and told each other of the golden time that would come when God arose to shake terribly the earth and reveal to all men the King who would reign in righteousness. Even then their vision was limited and they could hardly begin to see how these things could be. But they would have nothing to do with the politicians, nor yet very much with the established forms of religion, insincere and corrupt as they had become with the nation's rise to temporal prosperity. Zadokites, as these faithful few were called in their day, had found a substantial following among the ordinary people in that time, a century before the Messiah whom they believed was to manifest himself.
It is very possible that Anna came of a family that adhered to this faith and expectation. Her steadfastness through the years might very well have been due to parental influence and training. Phanuel might possibly have been an early leader among the Zadokites. If so, and Anna grew into early womanhood, married and widowed before she was twenty-four, neither she nor her fellows would have been unduly distressed or cast down at the rapid change of fortune which befell the triumphant State when Alexander Janneus died in BC 75. Then war, disruption and anarchy set in. The enemies of the nation were not laid low after all; they had only been quiescent. Men who had so fondly imagined that their victorious military Messiah was coming soon to place himself at the head of the nations saw their territories invaded, their conquests wrested from them, and the ever growing threat of foreign oppression looming over them more menacingly every day. In another eight years, when Anna was in her early forties, the crash came. The death of Queen Alexandra of Judea was followed by the submission of her sons to Pompey, the victorious Roman. From that time Judea became a Roman province, and hopes of the Messianic Kingdom were rudely dashed. But the Zadokites still believed, for their faith was not founded on the fortunes of war or the virtue of political arrangements. As Anna quietly went about her duties in the Temple she prayed and fasted and waited still for "He that should come", not knowing how much longer He would tarry. Another ten or twelve years went by with Judea helpless in the grasp of her Roman master. Away in the far north-west Julius Caesar was invading Britain, and our own ancestors in these islands were undergoing their first experience of the power which already held Judea in a grip of iron. Anna, past fifty years of age now, endured the horror of seeing the Temple itself, the centre of all her hopes and those of her countrymen, desecrated and plundered by Crassus the Roman general. Would Messiah never come? Had God forgotten to be gracious? The question must at times have come to her mind but she put it from her knowing that the word of the Lord could not return to Him void, but must at the end prosper in the thing whereto it was sent. So through the years, until Herod the Edomite came, to rule the country under title from Rome, a would-be king even though a tributary king. Perhaps at that the hopes of some began to rise again.
When, eighteen years before the birth of Jesus, Herod announced his intention of pulling down the decaying fabric of Nehemiah's Temple, which had stood on Mount Moriah for five hundred years ever since the return from Babylon, and erect a magnificent new Temple in its place, many must have wondered if this was indeed a preparation for Messiah. Anna and her friends must often have talked about it. There would be Simeon, like herself, well in the eighties; a middle aged couple, Zachariah and Elisabeth, hoping against hope for the child that never seemed to come, but hoping with greater intensity for the coming of Messiah: Jacob and his small son Joseph, and another Joseph, a wealthy young man from Arimathea, all waiting for His appearing and His Kingdom. As the splendid structure of the Temple grew under the industry of Herod's builders and stone-masons their hearts would swell with anticipation and they would say one to another "Surely He will come soon!"
Then one day, coming into the Temple court, Anna saw a little group. Simeon, the friend and counsellor of many years, was holding a little child in his arms. His face was upturned to heaven as if in thanksgiving and praise. Anna recognised the parents in an instant; Joseph the son of Jacob, grown to manhood now, and his seventeen year-old wife Mary, both zealous and devout believers in the coming of the Lord, both of them brought up from childhood to look and wait for His coming. Anna had known them both since they were born ‑ it seemed only yesterday. She had known their parents, too. She had known their grandparents. Her tired old mind travelled back over the years and she thought of her own friends of youth, long since laid aside to sleep in the hope of a promise of which they had never seen the realisation. She saw the new generation before her, the young people who were destined to carry the hope of Messiah onward into the coming years, years which she knew she herself would not live to see. A thought dashed into her mind; she looked more closely at the little group, at the rapt expression on Simeon's countenance, the sweet, eager face of the young mother, the grave, reverently proud features of Joseph; and she looked at the Babe.
And in that moment she knew that the Messiah had come.