12 December 2022

Zechariah’s song: What does God have in store for you?

Captain Mark Cotterill

Captain Mark Cotterill discovers silence is broken with a sign that God is birthing something new.

Key text

In Jerusalem, a city under Roman occupation, Zechariah, a priest, is carrying out his duties in the Temple. He and his wife, Elizabeth, both from priestly families, are described as ‘righteous in the sight of God’ (v6).

Although they have longed for and prayed for a child, ‘Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old’ (v7).

Over the years, in response to their childlessness, tongues would have wagged questioning what sin they had committed for God to punish them in this way.

Their situation appears hopeless, but Zechariah is faithful in service to God and patient in prayer and sustained by old songs of hope that God would come to the rescue of Israel once again.

Pause and reflect

  • Is faith just about longing, hope and trust? Or are there some things we can know or be assured of?

As Zechariah burns incense in the Temple and ‘the assembled worshippers were praying outside’ (v10), he is totally freaked out by an encounter with the angel Gabriel. The news is staggering.

Gabriel announces that God has heard their prayers. Elizabeth will bear a son, John, who will be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born’ (v15) and who will ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’ (v17). John is to play an important role in the salvation of Israel.

You may sense echoes and parallels with older stories such as Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac in their old age – this is exactly the connection that Luke is wanting his readers to make.

Photo shows light breaking through dark clouds

Luke 1:68

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

Read the passage

As this centuries-old story comes bursting out of the darkness into the light, coupled with racing thoughts of becoming a father, Zechariah finds such good news hard to believe.

He questions: ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years’ (v18). He is silenced until the child’s birth.

Pause and reflect

  • Why do you think Zechariah questioned Gabriel’s message?

Zechariah’s silence also mirrors what was going on in Israel at the time. People believed God’s prophets had been silent for a long time and, sensing God’s absence, many increasingly felt they had no one to turn to. In the midst of seemingly overwhelming injustice and irreversible oppression, Elizabeth gives birth to her son.

On the eighth day – when the child is presented to be circumcised and named – the expectation is for him to be named after his father, Zechariah. Elizabeth speaks up: ‘No! He is to be called John’ (v60).

Then all eyes in the room turn to Zechariah, who signals for a writing tablet and, to everyone’s astonishment, writes: ‘His name is John’ (v63). His tongue is immediately set free and he begins to speak, praising God, and the place is filled with wonder and worship.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah bursts into song and the excitement heightens as his listeners begin to grasp its meaning. The silence, possibly seen as a form of punishment, is broken – an unmistakable sign that God is birthing something new.

As Zechariah sings, old memories are evoked: God’s holy covenant with Abraham, God’s promise to raise up a saviour from the house of David and God’s promise to enable his people to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness.

As Zechariah’s song comes to a climax, its message of salvation goes way beyond earthly liberation to the forgiveness of sins and even rescue from death itself.

For Luke’s audience, these are not only reminders of the great tradition they are part of, but also a reminder that Jesus is the powerful fulfilment of these promises.

Pause and reflect

  • Zechariah prays about the future as an event that will happen. What might that mean for the way we pray?

At a new moment of history, Zechariah was called to trust God. In the big picture it is the smaller human stories that really matter. Like many, it is a story of hesitating between faith and doubt.

Reflecting on Zechariah’s song, Alexander John Shaia says: ‘There is something in the Christian tradition that goes beyond hope and longing – to knowing in the very cells of your body.’

Pause and reflect

  • What does this story teach us about God?
  • Are you in a season of silence or salvation?

While the truth and beauty of God’s purposes can be held back for a while, they can never be done away with – and that is something worth singing about.

Bible study by

Captain Mark Cotterill

Captain Mark Cotterill

Corps Officer, Helsingborg, Sweden

Let's pray

Lord, we pray that you will place a song of thanksgiving in our hearts for all that you do for us. Help us to live holy and righteous lives that will be a shining witness to others of your saving grace.


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