Zacharias and Elisabeth
Four long centuries had measured out their length since the voice of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, had been stilled in death, and now it was time for the first of the New Testament prophets to become conscious of the Divine fervour being kindled within him. In a very real sense the story of the New Testament began when Zacharias the aged priest saw the angel in the Temple. Fifteen months later and Jesus the Messiah, long expected by Israel, was to be born at Bethlehem. But Zacharias had no idea or thought of that in his mind on the day that he went into the Temple as usual to carry out his customary duty of offering incense at the Golden Altar during public prayers. Zacharias was an old man, somewhere between eighty and ninety years of age, and he had served God very faithfully in his appointed sphere, admittedly a humble sphere, for very many years. He was of the priestly line from Aaron and from the age of thirty had served as such; for over half a century he had filled a minor role in the priests' office and never dreamed that in the evening of his days he was to play a major part in the greatest event of all time, a part that would lift him up and set him apart from his fellow-priests for ever.
Luke says that he was "of the course of Abia(Hebrew Abijah). A thousand years before this time King David had divided the priests of Aaron's line, grown to a considerable number, into twenty-four divisions or "courses", each to take turn in discharging the ceremonial duties of the Temple which he purposed to build. Of these "courses" the eighth was that of Abijah (1 Chron.24.10). Sixteen courses were of the lineage of Eleazar and eight of Ithamar, sons of Aaron; there is no way of determining to which lineage Zacharias belonged, except that the probability is two to one in favour of Eleazar. By the time of the First Advent the Temple ceremonial had become greatly modified and changed from that instituted by Moses in the days of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, but it is clear that Zacharias, as a priest, by blood descent one of the sons of Aaron, had the right of entry into the Holy Place in front of the Vail that shrouded the Most Holy, there to perform his allotted share of the ceremonial. Twice in the year he took his turn in the service for a week, and alone in the Holy Place he offered incense.
Much had happened in Israel during the course of his long life. He was born, in all probability, during the time of the Maccabean priest-kings who ruled the independent Jewish state before the Romans came. Judea was, for a short period, a kind of theocracy; the sons of Aaron, represented by the Maccabean dynasty, combined within themselves the religious office of High Priest and the secular one of King. In all likelihood the reigning priest-king at Zacharias' birth was Alexander Jannaeus, proud of his descent from Aaron through the Davidic "course" of Jehoiarib, but equally proud of the fact that Judea, as a sovereign state, was in treaty relationship with the Roman empire as an equal. Under Alexander Jannaeus the frontiers of the State were extended to include Samaria, Edom, Trans-Jordan and half-way across Sinai to what is now El-Arish. The kingdom almost attained the extent it had enjoyed in the days of David and Solomon, and many believed that the time of Israel's prophesied supremacy over the nations had come and nothing now intervened before the coming of Messiah.
But before the lad Zacharias had outgrown his teens the Romans had torn up the treaty, Pompey had invaded Judea, attacked the Temple, committed the unforgiveable sacrilege of forcing his way into the Most Holy, and the bright vision faded. The brief period of independence, lasting only about a century, ended, and Judea became subject to Rome. At thirty years of age Zacharias assumed his duties as an Aaronic priest and commenced his ministry in the Temple, only to see it pillaged of all its wealth by Crassus the Roman general. Fifteen years later he experienced the terrors of war when the Parthians captured and plundered Jerusalem; within a few more years Herod the Edomite was laying siege to the Holy City. When Zacharias was about fifty an earthquake shook the country and thirty thousand perished; two years later came the horrors of pestilence. Another fifteen years, and he heard the news that Herod, now well established as Rome's puppet ruler of the land, was going to pull down the Temple, built by Nehemiah five hundred years earlier at the return of the Captivity, and erect a more magnificent one in its place. And now for nearly two decades he had been offering incense in Herod's new building; the glories of his youth had passed away, his nation was subject to an alien power, and still Messiah had not come. But with quiet faith he continued his allotted task in the daily ritual, doing that which lay to his hand to do and leaving the greater issues to God—until the day he saw the angel.
The wife of Zacharias was Elisabeth, also of the lineage of Aaron. "They were both righteous before God" says Luke (1.6) "walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless". Those two words indicate the moral and the ceremonial aspects of the law respectively. In every respect this aged couple were fit vessels ready for the Lord's hand for his use—yet He waited until nearly the end of their lives before He used them. But Elisabeth had no child, none whom they could train up in the nurture and reverence of the Lord and send out into the world to crown their life-long service with his own. Even their names testified to reverence and respect for the faithful of their own tribe of ancient times, for "Zacharias" is the Hebrew Zechariah, the name of the High Priest murdered in the Temple in the days of King Joash, and "Elisabeth" is the Hebrew Elisheba, the name of the wife of Aaron. There is not much doubt that these two were convinced of the imminence of Messiah's Advent, and numbered among the little band of Messianic believers who at that time "looked for redemption (deliverance) in Jerusalem". (Luke 2.38).
But above all things it is evident that Zacharias possessed the prophetic power; his life was lived so much in tune with God that he could hear things and see things that other men could not hear or see. The voice of the prophets had been silent for four hundred years and perhaps men in Israel had ceased to expect that it would ever be heard again. In Zacharias it was heard again. The time had come when a messenger was to be sent to Israel and a message given, a herald of the fulfilment of so much that the earlier prophets had predicted, and as a first step to the raising up of that messenger the Lord sought for a clean vessel, a righteous environment in which the messenger would be born and spend his formative years, before the time came for "his shewing unto Israel" (Luke 1.80). He found a man for his purpose, not among the decadent and corrupt relics of the Aaronic line manifested in the descendants of the Maccabean priest-kings, soiled and polluted by their contact with and involvements in the political manoeuvers and alliances of the day, but in the person of this humble and faithful man who had served so faithfully in his obscure position, but always close to God, always attending on the altar. So the angel was sent to Zacharias.
It was a thrilling message he brought. The boy that was to be born to them was destined to be "great in the eyes of the Lord". He was to stand before God in the spirit and power of Elijah, the rugged old prophet who once converted the whole nation from Baal worship in a single day; he was to turn many of the people to the Lord their God, and he was to herald the coming of Messiah and prepare the people for his Advent. Wonderful news indeed; so wonderful that it is perhaps understandable that Zacharias, in mingled wonder and incredulity, asked for a sign to establish the angel's authority and convince him that he was not in fact the victim of a hallucination. It was not that he had no faith; he knew God could do this thing, but in asking for some material evidence that would linger with him after the messenger had departed he was but following the example of earlier worthies faced with similar situations. He got the sign he wanted, but it was accompanied by a reproof. The measure of doubt implied by his request was not justified after the lifetime he had spent in the service of God. As a man possessed of the prophetic spirit and living his life "in tune" with God his spiritual discernment should have been sufficiently clear to perceive the authority in the angel's words and accept them without question. There is a difference between Zacharias' question "How shall I know this, for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years" and the quiet rejoinder of Mary to the same angel six months later, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Zacharias wanted proof of the angel's veracity; Mary accepted his word without question and only asked how the wonder was to come about.
Zacharias was to be dumb until the birth of his son. That was a sign to the people as well as himself. Upon his emergence from the Temple they saw that some great thing had happened to him, alone in there. "They perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple". Not until his son was born was his speech restored and he could tell to the full what had taken place that eventful day.
This is the point at which Zacharias takes his place among the prophets. The glowing rhapsody of Luke 1.68-79 is not only a song of praise; it is also a prediction of things to come. Right at the outset he declared that God had "raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David". The obvious reference is to Messiah, but Jesus had not yet been born; how then did Zacharias know anything about it? The obvious answer is given in verse 67; he was inspired by the Holy Spirit and empowered to see things that were yet to come. He saw the Advent of the Deliverer; he saw Israel saved from her enemies and the fulfilment of the Divine promise to Abraham; he saw Israel exalted in prosperity and he saw the coming of the light to the whole world that was sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. And then, turning towards his new born son, he predicted that he should be the Prophet of the Highest, to herald the Messiah and prepare the nation for his coming, to turn the people from the bondage of sin to serve the living God. A wonderful day was that and a wonderful prophecy. Thirty long years were to pass before it could begin to be fulfilled and many of those who heard it were destined to finish their lives and rest in death before that fulfilment commenced, but who can doubt that the story was handed down from father to son and from mother to daughter in those families that "looked for deliverance in Jerusalem" so that when one day, a young man startled the nation with his clarion (trumpet) cry "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," there were those who at once were ready to listen and to follow him.
By that time Zacharias and Elisabeth were probably dead. Luke (1.80) tells us that "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel." That does not sound as though he had known a settled home life in one of the towns of Judah. Quite possibly he was an orphan from his teens. He might well have been a member of the community of Essenes at Masada, made so famous in recent years by the discovery of the "Dead Sea Scrolls". That would account very well for his characteristic outlook and ministry, and would well explain the expression "in the deserts". Like Elijah his prototype, he was a son of the mountainous and desert places, having no place in the cities and haunts of men—and all Israel went out into the desert to hear him.
John the Baptist was the last of the prophets and it is customary to say that he was the successor of Malachi. That is not strictly true, for Zacharias and Elisabeth came in between and they also were of the prophets. Elisabeth had the same spirit of prediction as her husband; when Mary, immediately after the Annunciation, journeyed into Judea to visit her aunt, the older woman knew at once that the mother of the Messiah had come to her (Luke 1.43) and invoked the blessing of the Lord upon Mary. She, too, must have known, by the Holy Spirit indwelling in her, that her son was to be the herald foreseen by Malachi four hundred years earlier when he declaimed "Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom ye seek, shall suddenly (presently) come in his temple" (Mal.3.1). John was both "Elijah that should come" and the "herald to prepare the way of Messiah" and he fulfilled both offices faithfully as was ordained.
John is the last of the sons of Aaron recorded in Scripture. Of his precise relation to the High Priestly line nothing is known. The true succession was lost a hundred or more years before John was born and the last officiating High Priest of Aaronic descent was Aristobulus in 35 B.C. For all that is known to the contrary it might well be that John's pedigree was nearer the legal line of High Priests than that of the Maccabean priest-kings who held the office for the last century or so. We do not know; it would be very appropriate, though, if it was the rightful High Priest after the order of Aaron in the days of the First Advent who announced to Israel the coming of the Lord. Only God knows; whether of High Priestly lineage or not, these three, Zacharias, Elisabeth and John, priests and prophets, were faithful to their calling and in that faithfulness brought the Old Dispensation to a close and prepared the way for the New, the Dispensation of the Gospel