Click here to join the effort!
(1) Forasmuch as many have taken in hand.—On the general bearing of this passage on the questions connected with the authorship and plan of the Gospel, see the Introduction. Here we note (1), what is visible in the English, but is yet more conspicuous in the Greek, the finished structure of the sentences as compared with the simpler openings of the other Gospels; (2) the evidence which the verse supplies of the existence of many written documents professing to give an account of the Gospel history at the time when St. Luke wrote—i.e., probably before St. Paul’s death in A.D. 65. The “many” may have included St. Matthew and St. Mark, but we cannot say. There is no tone of disparagement in the way in which the writer speaks of his predecessors. He simply feels that they have not exhausted the subject, and that his inquiries have enabled him to add something.
Of those things which are most surely believed among us.—Better, of the things that have been accomplished among us.
(2) Even as they delivered them unto us.—There is something noticeable in the candour with which the writer disclaims the character of an eyewitness. The word “delivered” is the same as that used by St. Paul when he speaks of the history of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) and of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-7), and, with its cognate noun “tradition” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), would seem to have been almost a technical term for the oral teaching which at least included an outline of our Lord’s life and teaching.
Ministers of the word.—The word used is that which describes the work of an attendant, something between a “slave” and a “minister,” in the later ecclesiastical use of the term as equivalent to “deacon” or “preacher.” It is used of St. Mark in Acts 13:5. On the opportunities St. Luke enjoyed for converse with such as these, see Introduction. The “word” is used in its more general Pauline sense (as e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 2:4), as equivalent to the “gospel,” not in the higher personal meaning which it acquired afterwards in St. John (1 John 2:14).
(3) Having had perfect understanding of all things.—Better, having traced (or investigated) all things from their source. The verb used is one which implies following the course of events step by step. The adverb which follows exactly answers to what we call the origines of any great movement. It goes further back than the actual beginning of the movement itself.
In order.—The word implies a distinct aim at chronological arrangement, but it does not necessarily follow, where the order in St. Luke varies from that of the other Gospels, that it is therefore the true order. In such matters the writer, who was avowedly a compiler, might well be at some disadvantage as compared with others.
Most excellent Theophilus.—The adjective is the same as that used of Felix by Tertullus (Acts 24:3), and implies at least high social position, if not official rank. The name, which means “Friend of God,” might well be taken by a Christian convert at his baptism. Nothing more can be known of the person so addressed beyond the fact that he was probably a Gentile convert who had already been partially instructed in the facts of the Gospel history.
(4) Wherein thou hast been instructed.—The verb used is that from which are formed the words “catechise,” “catechumen.” &c., and implies oral teaching—in its later sense, teaching preparatory to baptism. The passage is important as showing that such instruction mainly turned on the facts of our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection, and on the records of His teaching.
(5) There was in the days of Herod.—The writer begins, as he had promised, with the first facts in the divine order of events. The two chapters that follow have every appearance of having been based originally on an independent document, and that probably a Hebrew one. On its probable sources, see Introduction. On Herod and this period of his reign, see Notes on Matthew 2:1.
Zacharias.—The name (= “he who remembers Jehovah,” or, perhaps, “he whom Jehovah remembers,”) had been borne by many in the history of Israel, among others by the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20), and by the prophet of the return from the Babylonian Captivity.
Of the course of Abia.—The Greek word so translated implies a system of rotation, each “set” or “course” of the priests serving from Sabbath to Sabbath. That named after Abia, or Abijah, appears in 1 Chronicles 24:10 as the eighth of the twenty-four courses into which the houses of Eleazar and Ithamar were divided by David. On the first return from the Captivity only four of these courses are mentioned as having come back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:36-39), and the name Abijah is not one of them. It appears, however, in later lists (Nehemiah 10:7; Nehemiah 12:4; Nehemiah 12:17), and the four-and-twenty sets were probably soon re-organised.
His wife was of the daughters of Aaron.—The priests were free to marry outside the limits of their own caste under certain limitations as to the character of their wives (Leviticus 21:7), and the fact of a priestly descent on both sides was therefore worth noticing.
Her name was Elisabeth.—The name in its Hebrew form of Elisheba had belonged to the wife of Aaron, who was of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 6:23), and was naturally an honoured name among the daughters of the priestly line. It appears in an altered form (Jehovah being substituted for El) in Jehosheba, the wife of the priest Jehoiada (2 Kings 11:2).
(6) Commandments and ordinances.—The former word covered all the moral laws of the Pentateuch, the latter (as in Hebrews 9:1), its outward and ceremonial rules.
(7) Well stricken in years.—Literally, far advanced in their days.
(8) In the order of his course.—This was settled by rotation. Attempts have been made by reckoning back from the date of the destruction of the Temple, when it is known that the “course” of Joiarib was ministering on the ninth day of the Jewish month Ab, to fix the precise date of the events here narrated, and so of our Lord’s Nativity, but all such attempts are necessarily more or less precarious.
(9)His lot was to burn incense.—The order of the courses was, as has been said, one of rotation. The distribution of functions during the week was determined by lot. That of offering incense, symbolising, as it did, the priestly work of presenting the prayers of the people, and joining his own with them (Psalms 141:2; Revelation 5:8), was of all priestly acts the most distinctive (2 Chronicles 26:18). At such a moment all the hopes of one who looked for the Christ as the consolation of Israel would gather themselves into one great intercession.
Into the temple of the Lord—i.e., the Holy Place, into which none but the priests might enter.
(10) The whole multitude.—Knowing as we do from this Gospel, what hopes were cherished by devout hearts at this time, we may well believe that the prayers of the people, no less than those of the priest, turned towards the manifestation of the kingdom of God. In that crowd, we may well believe, were the aged Simeon (Luke 2:25), and Anna the prophetess (Luke 2:36), and many others who waited for redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:38). What followed was, on this view, an answer to their prayers.
(11) The altar of incense.—The altar stood just in front of the veil that divided the outer sanctuary from the Holy of Holies. It was made of shittim wood, and overlaid with gold, both symbols of incorruption (Exodus 30:1-7; Exodus 40:5; Exodus 40:26). Its position connected it so closely with the innermost sanctuary that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 9:4; but see Note there) seems to reckon it as belonging to that, and not unto the outer. It symbolised accordingly the closest approach to God which was then possible for any but the high priest, when, in his typical character, he entered the Holy of Holies on the day of Atonement.
(12) He was troubled.—It lies in the nature of the case that during all the long years of Zachariah’s ministration, he had seen no such manifestation. As far as we may reason from the analogy of other angelic appearances, the outward form was that of a “young man clothed in white linen,” or in “bright apparel” (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5)—a kind of transfigured Levite, as One greater than the angels, when he manifested himself amid the imagery of the Temple, appeared as in the garments of a glorified priesthood (Revelation 1:13).
(13) Thy prayer is heard.—The words imply a prayer on the part of Zacharias, not that he might have a son (that hope appears to have died out long before), but that the Kingdom of God might come. Praying for this he receives more than he asks, and the long yearning of his soul for a son who might bear his part in that Kingdom is at last realised.
Thou shalt call his name John.—The English monosyllable represents the Greek Joannes, the Hebrew Jochanan. The name appears as belonging to the men of various tribes (1 Chronicles 3:15; Ezra 8:12; Jeremiah 41:11). As the meaning of the Hebrew word is “Jehovah is gracious,” the announcement of the name was in itself a pledge of the outpouring of the grace of God.
(14) Many shall rejoice.—The words point to what had been the priest’s prayer. He had been seeking the joy of many rather than his own, and now the one was to be fruitful in the other.
(15) And shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.—The child now promised was to grow up as a Nazarite (Numbers 6:4), and to keep that vow all his life, as the representative of the ascetic, the “separated,” form (this is the meaning of the term) of a consecrated life. He was to be what Samson had been (Judges 13:4), and probably Samuel also (1 Samuel 1:11), and the house of Jonadab the son of Rechab (Jeremiah 35:6). The close connection between the Nazarite and the prophetic life is seen in Amos 2:11-12. The absence of the lower form of stimulation implied the capacity for the higher enthusiasm which was the gift of God. The same contrast is seen in St. Paul’s words, “Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).
He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost.—The words would be understood by Zacharias from the Hebrew point of view, not as seen in the fuller light of Christian theology. As such they would convey the thought of the highest prophetic inspiration, as in Isaiah 11:2; Isaiah 61:1; Joel 2:28.
Even from his mother’s womb.—The thought of a life from first to last in harmony with itself and consecrated to the prophet’s work, had its prototype in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5).
(16) Shall he turn to the Lord their God.—The opening words of the message of the New Covenant spring out of the closing words of the last of the prophets (Malachi 4:6), and point to the revival of the Elijah ministry, which is more definitely announced in the next verse.
(17) To the wisdom of the just.—The margin, by the wisdom, is undoubtedly the right rendering.
(19) I am Gabriel.—No names of angels appear in the Old Testament till after the Babylonian Exile. Then we have Gabriel (= “the strong one—or the hero—of God”), in Daniel 8:16; Michael (= “who is like unto God?”), in Daniel 10:21; Daniel 12:1; Raphael (= “the healer of God”—i.e., the divine healer), in Tob. 12:15, as one of the seven holy angels which present the prayers of the saints. As having appeared in the prophecies which, more than any others, were the germ of the Messianic expectations which the people cherished, there was a fitness in the mission now given to Gabriel to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming.
That stand in the presence of God.—The imagery was drawn from the customs of an Eastern Court, in which those stood who were the most honoured ministers of the king, while others fell prostrate in silent homage. (Comp. the “angel of His presence “in Isaiah 63:9, with our Lord’s language as to the angels that “behold the face” of His Father, Matthew 18:10.)
To shew thee these glad tidings.—Literally, to evangelise. The word is memorable as the first utterance, as far as the Gospel records are concerned, of that which was to be the watchword of the kingdom. It was not, however, a new word, and its employment here was, in part at least, determined by Isaiah’s use of it (Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 61:1).
(20) Behold, thou shalt be dumb.—The question was answered, the demand for a sign granted, but the demand had implied a want of faith, and therefore the sign took the form of a penalty. The vision and the words of the angel, harmonising as they did with all Zechariah’s previous convictions, ought to have been enough for him.
(22) A vision.—The word is used as distinguished from “dream,” to imply that what had been witnessed had been seen with the waking sense. The look of awe, the strange gestures, the unwonted silence, all showed that he had come under the influence of some supernatural power.
He beckoned unto them.—The tense implies continued and repeated action.
(23) The days of his ministration.—The word used for “ministration” conveys, like the ministering spirits” of Hebrews 1:14, the idea of liturgical service. The “days” were, according to the usual order of the Temple, from Sabbath to Sabbath (2 Kings 11:5).
(25) To take away my reproach among men.—The words express in almost their strongest form the Jewish feeling as to maternity. To have no children was more than a misfortune. It seemed to imply some secret sin which God was punishing with barrenness. So we have Rachel’s cry, “Give me children, or else I die” (Genesis 30:1); and Hannah’s “bitterness of soul” when “her adversary provoked her to make her fret” (1 Samuel 1:6-10).
(26) And in the sixth month.—The time is obviously reckoned from the commencement of the period specified in Luke 1:24.
A city of Galilee, named Nazareth.—The town so named (now en-Nazirah) was situated in a valley among the hills that rise to a height of about 500 feet on the north of the Plain of Esdraelon. The valley itself is richly cultivated. The grassy slopes of the hills are clothed in spring-time with flowers. On one side there is a steep ridge that forms something like a precipice (Luke 4:29). In the rainy season the streams flow down the slopes of the hills and rush in torrents through the valleys. From a hill just behind the town, the modern Neby Ismail, there is one of the finest views in Palestine, including Lebanon and Hermon to the north, Carmel to the west, with glimpses of the Mediterranean, and to the south the Plain of Esdraelon and the mountains of Samaria, to the east and south-east Gilead, and Tabor, and Grilboa. It is a three days’ journey from Jerusalem, about twenty miles from Ptolemais, and eighteen from the Sea of Galilee, six from Mount Tabor, about six from Cana, and nine from Nain. The name, as stated in the Note on Matthew 2:23, was probably derived from the Hebrew Netzer (= a branch), and conveying something of the same meaning as our -hurst, or -holm, in English topography.
(27) To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.—Of the parentage of Mary the canonical Gospels tell us nothing, and the legends of the apocryphal have no claim to credit. That her mother’s name was Anna, that she surpassed the maidens of her own age in wisdom, that she went as a child into the Temple, that she had many who sought her hand, and that they agreed to decide their claims by laying their rods before the Holy Place and seeing which budded, and that Joseph thus became the accepted suitor—this may be worth mentioning, as having left its impress on Christian art, but it has no claim to the character even of tradition. The scanty notices in the Gospels are (1) that she was a “cousin,” or more generally a “kinswoman,” of Elizabeth, and may, therefore, have been, by her parentage, wholly or in part of the daughters of Aaron. (2) That she had a sister who, according to a somewhat doubtful construction of an ambiguous sentence, may also have borne the name of Mary or Mariam (the “Miriam” of the Old Testament), and been afterwards the wife of Cleophas, or, more correctly, Clopas (John 19:25). The absence of any mention of her parents suggests the thought that she was an orphan, and the whole narrative of the Nativity presupposes poverty. Assuming the Magnificat to have been not merely the sudden inspiration of the moment, but, in some sense, the utterance of the cherished thoughts of years, we may think of her as feeding upon the psalms and hymns and prophecies of the Sacred Books, and knowing, as she did, that the man to whom she was betrothed was of the house of David, this may well have drawn her expectations of redemption into the line of looking for the Christ, who was to be the son of David. Of Joseph, we know that he was, possibly by a twofold lineage (but see Note on Luke 3:23), the heir of that house, and must have known himself to be so. He was but a carpenter in a Galilean village, probably older than his betrothed, possibly a widower with sons and daughters, possibly the guardian of nephews and nieces who had been left orphans, but the documents which contained his genealogy must have been precious heirlooms, and the hopes that God would raise up the tabernacle of David that had fallen, to which one of those sons or nephews afterwards gave utterance (Acts 15:16), could never have been utterly extinguished.
(28) Highly favoured.—The verb is the same as that which is translated, “hath made us accepted “in Ephesians 1:6; and, on the whole, this, which is expressed in one of the marginal readings, seems the truest. The plena gratiâ of the Vulgate has no warrant in the meaning of the word.
The Lord is with thee.—Better, the Lord be with thee, as the more usual formula of salutation, as in Ruth 2:4.
Blessed art thou among women.—The words are omitted in many of the best MSS.
(29) she was troubled at his saying.—The same word is used as had been used of Zacharias. With Mary, as with him, the first feeling was one of natural terror. Who was the strange visitor, and what did the strange greeting mean?
(30) Thou hast found favour with God.—The noun is the same as that elsewhere translated “grace,” but the latter word, though fit enough in itself, has become so associated with the technicalities of theology that it is better, in this place, to retain “favour.”
(31) Behold, thou shalt conceive.—St. Luke does not refer to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, but it is clear from Mary’s answer that she understood the words of the angel in the sense which St. Matthew gives to those of the prophet. What perplexed her was the reference to the conception and the birth in a prediction which made no mention of her approaching marriage. The absence of the reference is at least worth noticing, as showing that men were not necessarily led by their interpretation of the prophecy to imagine its fulfilment.
Shalt call his name JESUS.—See Note on Matthew 1:21. The revelation of the name, with all its mysterious fulness of meaning, was made, we may note, to Joseph and Mary independently.
(32) Shall be called the Son of the Highest.—It is noticeable that this name applied to our Lord by the angel, appears afterwards as uttered by the demoniacs (Mark 5:7). On the history of the name, see Note on Mark 5:7.
The throne of his father David.—The words seem at first to suggest the thought that the Virgin was of the house of David, and that the title to the throne was thus derived through her. This may have been so (see Note on Luke 3:23-38), and the intermarriage which had taken place in olden times between the house of Aaron and that of David (Exodus 6:23; 2 Kings 11:2) show that this might be quite consistent with the relationship to Elizabeth mentioned in Luke 1:36. On the other hand, it must be remembered that the genealogies, both in St. Matthew and St. Luke, appear, at first sight, to give the lineage of Joseph only, and therefore that, if this were, as many have believed, the Evangelist’s point of view, our Lord, notwithstanding the supernatural birth, was thought of as inheriting from him. The form of the promise, which might well lead to the expectation of a revived kingdom of Israel after the manner of that of David, takes its place among the most memorable instances of prophecies that have been fulfilled in quite another fashion than those who first heard them could have imagined possible. That the Evangelist who recorded it held that it was fulfilled in the Kingdom of Heaven, the spiritual sovereignty of the Christ, is shown by the fact that he records it in the same Gospel as that which tells of the Crucifixion and Ascension.
(33) He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever.—Here, again, the apparent promise is that of a kingdom restored to Israel such as the disciples expected even after the Resurrection (Acts 1:6). It needed to be interpreted by events before men could see that it was fulfilled in the history of Christendom as the true Israel of God (Romans 9:6; Galatians 6:16).
Of his kingdom there shall be no end.—The words of St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28, seem at first to point to a limit of time when the kingdom of the Christ shall find an end, but a closer study of his meaning shows that he is speaking of that kingdom as involving contest with the hostile forces of evil. The exercise of sovereignty may, in this sense, cease when all conflict is over, but it ceases by being perfected, not by passing away after the fashion of earthly kingdoms. The delegated or mediatorial headship of the Christ is merged in the absolute unity of the monarchy of God.
(34) How shall this be?—The question of the Virgin is not altogether of the same nature as that of Zacharias in Luke 1:18. He asks by what sign he shall know that the words were true which told him of a son in his old age. Mary is told of a far greater marvel, for her question shows that she understood the angel to speak of the birth as antecedent to her marriage, and she, accepting the words in faith, does not demand a sign, but reverently seeks to know the manner of their accomplishment.
(35) The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee.—See Note on Luke 1:15. Here, however, the context would suggest to one familiar with the sacred writings, another aspect of the Spirit’s work, as quickening the dead chaos into life (Genesis 1:2), as being the source of life to all creation (Psalms 104:30).
The power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.—The divine name is used in obvious harmony with “the Son of the Highest” in Luke 1:32.
Therefore also . . . shall be called the Son of God.—The words appear to rest the title, “Son of God,” rather on the supernatural birth than on the eternal pre-existence of the Son as the Word that was “in the beginning with God and was God” (John 1:1), and we may accept the fact that the message of the angel was so far a partial, not a complete, revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation. It gave a sufficient reason for the name which should be given to the Son of Mary, and more was not then required.
(36) Thy cousin Elisabeth.—See Notes on Luke 1:27; Luke 1:32. Taking the word in its usual sense, it would imply that either the father or the mother of Mary had been of the house of Aaron, or that the mother of Elizabeth had been of the house of David.
(38) Behold the handmaid of the Lord . . .—The words seem to show a kind of half-consciousness that the lot which she thus accepts might bring with it unknown sufferings, as well as untold blessedness. She shrinks, as it were, from the awfulness of the position thus assigned to her, but she can say, as her Son said afterwards, when His time of agony was come, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” It may be that the more immediate peril of which St. Matthew speaks (1:19). flashed even then upon her soul as one that could not be escaped. (Comp. Luke 2:35.)
(39) The hill country . . . a city of Juda.—The description is too vague to be identified with any certainty. The form of the proper noun is the same as that in “Bethlehem, of the land of Juda,” in Matthew 2:6. The city may have been one of those assigned to the priests within the limits of the tribe of Judah, and if so, it is interesting to think of the Virgin as undertaking a journey which brought her not far from the very spot in which she was to give birth to the divine Child. No city of the name of Juda is known, but there is a Juttah in Joshua 15:55; Joshua 21:16, in the neighbourhood of Maon and the Judæan Carmel, and therefore in the “hill country,” which may possibly be that which is here referred to.
(41) The salutation of Mary.—The words of the greeting were, we may believe, the usual formula, “Peace be with thee,” or “The Lord be with thee,” possibly united with some special words of gratulation on what she had heard from the angel.
Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.—What had been predicted of the Child (Luke 1:15) was now fulfilled ex abundanti in the mother. The fact related, so far as we look to human sources of information, must obviously have come to St. Luke, directly or indirectly, from the Virgin herself.
(42) Blessed art thou among women.—The language, like that of most of the utterances in these chapters, is taken from the poetry of the older Scriptures, but there is a singular contrast between its application there to the murderess Jael (Judges 5:24), and here to the mother of the Lord.
(43) Whence is this to me . . .?—The sudden inspiration bids Elizabeth, rising above all lower thoughts, to recognise that the child of Mary would be also the Son of the Highest. The contrast leaves no room for doubt that she used the word “Lord” in its highest sense. “Great “as her own son was to be (Luke 1:15) in the sight of the Lord, here was the mother of One yet greater, even of the Lord Himself.
(45) Blessed is she that believed.—The two renderings, “for there shall be,” and “that there shall be,” are equally tenable grammatically. On internal grounds there seems a balance in favour of the latter, as the other interpretation appears to make the fulfilment of the promise dependent upon the Virgin’s faith.
(46) My soul doth magnify the Lord.—We come to the first of the great canticles recorded by St. Luke, which, since the time of Cæsarius of Arles (A.D. 540), who first introduced them into public worship, have formed part of the hymnal treasures of Western Christendom. We may think of the Virgin as having committed to writing at the time, or having remembered afterwards, possibly with some natural modifications, what she then spoke. Here the song of praise is manifestly based upon that of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), both in its opening words and in much of its substance, and is so far significant of the hopes, and, if we may so speak, studies, of the maiden of Nazareth.
(47) In God my Saviour.—We may well believe that this choice of the name was determined by the meaning of the name, implying God’s work of salvation, which she had been told was to be given to her Son.
(48) The low estate of his handmaiden.—Note the recurrence of the word that had been used in Luke 1:37, as expressing the character which she was now ready to accept, whatever it might involve.
All generations shall call me blessed.—The words have, of course, been partly instrumental in bringing about their own fulfilment; but what a vision of the future they must have implied then on the part of the village maiden who uttered them! Not her kinswoman only, but all generations should join in that beatitude.
(50) His mercy is on them that fear him.—The words, as read by those for whom St. Luke wrote, would seem almost to foreshadow the Gospel of the Apostle of the Gentiles. Those that “feared God” were to be found not only among the children of Abraham, but also among “every nation” (Acts 10:2; Acts 10:35), and He would shew forth His mercy to all in whom that temper should be found.
(51) He hath shewed strength.—Literally, He wrought strength. Here the parallelism with 1 Samuel 2:3 becomes very close. Of whom the speaker thought as among the “proud,” we cannot know. They may have been the potentates of the world in which she lived, Herod and the Emperor of Rome. They may have been the men of Jerusalem, who despised Galilee; or those of the other towns and villages of Galilee, who despised Nazareth; or, though less probably, those of Nazareth itself, who despised the carpenter and his betrothed.
(52) The mighty.—The word (that from which we get our English “dynasty”) is applied to the eunuch “of great authority” under Candace, in Acts 8:27, and is used as a divine name in “the blessed and only Potentate” of 1 Timothy 6:15. Here it is used generally of all human rulers.
From their seats.—Better, their thrones, as the word is for the most part translated. (Comp. Matthew 19:28, and in this very chapter, Luke 1:32.)
Of low degree.—The adjective is that from which the noun translated “low estate,” in Luke 1:48, had been formed.
(53) He hath filled the hungry.—It is interesting to note the manner in which the song of the Virgin anticipates the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Plain as reported by St. Luke (Luke 6:21). The words, like those of the beatitudes, have both their literal and their spiritual fulfilments. Both those who trusted in their earthly riches, and those who gloried in their fancied spiritual wealth, were sent empty away, while the “hungry,” those who craved for a higher blessedness, were filled with the peace and righteousness which they sought.
(54) He hath holpen his servant Israel.—Up to this point the hymn has been one of personal thanks-giving. Now we find that all the soul of the maiden of Nazareth is with her people. Her joy in the “great things “which God has done for her rests on the fact that they are “great things “for Israel also. The word which she uses for her people is that which expresses their relation to God as “the servant” of Jehovah, who is prominent in the later chapters of Isaiah, and is in Isaiah 41:8 identified with the nation, as elsewhere with the nation’s Head (Isaiah 42:1). One may see in the utterance of this hope already seen as realised, an indication of the early date of the hymn. At the time when St. Luke wrote, the rejection, not the restoration of Israel, was the dominant thought in men’s minds.
In remembrance.—Literally, in order to remember. He helped Israel, as with the purpose to prove Himself not unmindful of His promised mercy.
(55) As he spake to our fathers.—As the sentence stands in English, the words “Abraham and his seed” seem in apposition with “forefathers,” and to be added as explaining it. In the Greek, however, they are in a different connection, and belong to what had gone before, the construction being as follows: “To remember His mercy (as He spake unto our forefathers) to Abraham and his seed for ever.” The mercy that had been shown to Abraham was, as it were, working even yet.
(56) And Mary abode with her about three months.—This brings the time so close to the birth of the Baptist that we might well deem it likely that the Virgin waited for it. On the other hand, the next verse seems almost to imply her previous departure. In any case, we may think of the three months as a time of much communion of heart and hope on the great things which God had done and was about to do for Israel.
(58) Her neighbours and her cousins.—Better, her kindred, as including a wider range of relations than that which comes within our definition of cousinship. The words imply that they had heard something of the vision in the Temple, and of what had been foretold of the future greatness of the child then born.
Had shewed great mercy upon her.—Literally, had magnified His mercy. The verb is the same as that which opens the Magnificat, and may well be looked upon as a kind of echo of it. The phrase is essentially a Hebrew one. (Comp. 1 Samuel 12:24.)
(59) They came to circumcise the child.—The day of circumcision, as the admission of the child into God’s covenant with his people, was, like the day of the baptism of infants among Christians, one on which relatives were invited to be present as witnesses, and was commonly followed by a feast. It was also, as baptism has come to be, the time on which the child received the name which was to bear its witness of the prayers of his parents for him, and of his personal relation to the God of his fathers.
They called him . . .—The Greek tense is strictly imperfect—they were calling him. The choice of the name commonly rested with the father, but the kinsfolk seem to have assumed that, in the dumbness of the father, the duty devolved on them, and they, according to a custom not uncommon, showed their respect for the father by choosing his name.
(60) Not so; but he shall be called John.—It is obvious from what follows that the writing-tablet had been in frequent use, and in this way the husband must have told the wife of the name which had been given by the angel.
(61) There is none of thy kindred . . .—The fact is not without interest, as probably showing that Zacharias did not come within the circle of those related to the Sadducean high priests, among whom (some thirty years later, it is true) we find that name (Acts 4:6; Acts 5:17).
(62) They made signs to his father.—It seems probable—almost, indeed, certain—from this, that Zacharias was deprived of the power of hearing as well as speech, and had passed into the condition of one who was naturally a deaf mute.
(63) A writing table.—The tablets in common use at this time throughout the Roman empire were commonly of wood, covered with a thin coat of wax, on which men wrote with the sharp point which has left its traces in our language, in the word “style,” in its literal and figurative senses.
His name is John.—There is something emphatic in the use of the present tense. It was not a question to be discussed. The name had been given already.
And they marvelled all.—This confirms the view given above as to the previous deafness of Zacharias. There would have been no ground for wonder, had he heard the discussion. It was the coincidence that surprised them, hardly less than the utterance.
(64) His tongue loosed.—The verb is supplied by the translators because the one previously used applied strictly only to the mouth.
He spake, and praised God.—Probably, in substance, if not in words, as in the hymn that follows. The insertion of the two verses that follow seems to imply that some interval of time passed before its actual utterance.
(65) All the hill country of Judæa.—The district so designated included the mountain plateau to the south of Jerusalem, which reaches its highest point at Hebron. (See Note on Luke 1:39.) The whole verse describes the gradual spread of the report of the events from the immediate neighbourhood to the wider district of which it formed a part.
(66) What manner of child shall this be!—Better, what shall this child be! The question was not, what kind of child He should be, but what the child would grow to.
And the hand of the Lord was with him.—Some good MSS. give, “for the hand of the Lord,” as giving the reason for the previous question. The “hand” implies, in the familiar language of the Old Testament (e.g., Judges 2:15; 2 Chronicles 30:12; Ezra 7:9), what we more commonly call the “guidance” or the “providence” of God. The phrase was essentially a Hebrew one; one of the vivid anthropomorphic idioms which they could use more boldly than other nations, because they had clearer thoughts of God as not made after the similitude of men (Deuteronomy 4:12).
(67) Was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied.—The latter word appears to be used in its wider sense of an inspired utterance of praise (as, e.g., in 1 Samuel 19:20; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25). The hymn that follows appears as the report, written, probably, by Zachariah himself, of the praises that had been uttered in the first moments of his recovered gift of speech. As such, we may think of it as expressing the pent-up thoughts of the months of silence. The fire had long been kindling, and at last he spake with his tongue.
(68) Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.—The whole hymn is, like the Magnificat, pre-eminently Hebrew in character, almost every phrase having its counterpart in Psalm or Prophet; and, like it, has come to take a prominent place in the devotions of the western Churches. Its first appearance, as so used, is in Gaul, under Cæsarius of Aries.
Visited.—Better, looked upon, regarded. The four centuries that had passed since the last of the prophets are thought of as a time during which the “face of the Lord” had been turned away from Israel. Now He looked on it again, not to visit them (as we more commonly use the word) for their offences, but to deliver.
Redeemed his people.—Better, wrought redemption for His people. The noun is formed from that which is translated “ransom” in Matthew 20:28, where see Note. Its occurrence here is noticeable as showing how large an element the thought of deliverance through a ransom was in all the Messianic expectations of the time. (Comp. Luke 2:38.) The past tense (in the Greek the aorist) is used by Zacharias as, in the joy of prophetic foresight, seeing the end of what had been begun. The next verse shows that he looked for this redemption as coming not through the child that had been born to him, but through the Son, as yet unborn, of Mary.
(69) Hath raised up an horn of salvation.—The symbolism of the horn comes from Psalms 132:17, where it is used of the representative of the House of David, and answers to the “Anointed” of the other clause of the verse. It originated obviously in the impression made by the horns of the bull or stag, as the symbols of strength. Here, following in the steps of the Psalmist, Zacharias uses it as a description of the coming Christ, who is to be raised up in the House of David.
(70) His holy prophets, which have been since the world began.—The words were probably more than a lofty paraphrase of the more usual language, “of old time,” “of ancient days,” and imply a reference to the great first Gospel, as it has been called, of Genesis 3:15, as well as to those made to Abraham, who is the first person named as a prophet (Genesis 20:7).
(71) That we should be saved from our enemies.—Literally, salvation from our enemies, in apposition with “the horn of salvation” of Luke 1:69. The “enemies” present to the thoughts of Zacharias may have been the Roman conquerors of Judæa; the Idumæan House of Herod may have been among “those who hate.”
(72) To perform the mercy.—The verse has been thought, and with apparent reason, to contain a reference, after the manner of the ancient prophets (comp. Isaiah 8:3; Micah 1:10-15), to the name of the speaker, of his wife, and of his child. In “performing mercy,” we find an allusion to John or Jochanan (= “The Lord be merciful”); in “remembering His holy covenant,” to the name Zacharias (= “Whom Jehovah remembers”); in the “oath” of Luke 1:73, to that of Elizabeth or Elisheba (= “The oath of my God”). The play upon the words would, of course, be obvious in the original Hebrew (i.e., Aramaic) of the hymn, which we have only in its Greek version.
His holy covenant.—The covenant is clearly that made with Abraham in Genesis 15:18. In thus going back to that as the starting-point of the New Covenant which was to be made in Christ, Zacharias anticipates the teaching of St. Paul in Galatians 3:15-19.
(73) The oath.—The noun is in apposition to the “covenant” of the preceding verse, though not grammatically in the same case with it.
(74) That he would grant unto us . . .—The form of the Greek indicates even more definitely than the English that this was the end to which the “covenant” and the “oath” had all along been pointing.
Might serve him without fear.—The service is that of worship as well as obedience. This was the end for which deliverance from enemies was but a means. Here, again, the form of the hope points to its early date. What prospect was there, when St. Luke wrote his Gospel, of any deliverance of the Jews from their earthly enemies? By that time, what was transitory in the hymn had vanished, and the words had gained the higher permanent sense which they have had for centuries in the worship of the Church of Christ.
(75) In holiness and righteousness.—The same combination is found, though in an inverted order, in Ephesians 4:24. “Holiness” has special reference to man’s relations to God; “justice” to those which connect him with his fellow men; but, like all such words, they more or less overlap.
(76) Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest.—Note the recurrence of the same divine name that had appeared in Luke 1:32; Luke 1:35.
Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord.—The verse is, as it were, an echo of two great prophecies, combining the “going before Jehovah” of Malachi 3:1, with the “preparing the way” of Isaiah 40:3.
(77) To give knowledge of salvation.—This, as the form of the Greek verb shows, was to be the object of the Baptist’s mission. Men had lost sight of the true nature of salvation. They were wrapt in dreams of deliverance from outward enemies, and needed to be taught that it consisted in forgiveness for the sins of the past, and power to overcome sins in the future.
The remission of their sins.—Historically, this was the first utterance of the words in the Gospel records, and we may well think of it as having helped to determine the form which the work of the Baptist eventually took. It is interesting to compare it with our Lord’s words at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28), and so to think of it as being the key-note of the whole work from the beginning to the end. Different in outward form as were the ministries of the Baptist and our Lord, they agreed in this.
(78) Through the tender mercy.—Literally, on account of the bowels of mercy of our God. After this manner the Jews spoke of what we should call “the heart” of God. The word was a favourite one with St. Paul, as in the Greek of 2 Corinthians 7:15; Philippians 1:8; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12. The pity that moved the heart of God is thought of, not as the instrument through which, but that on account of which, the work of the Baptist was to be accomplished.
The dayspring from on high.—The English word expresses the force of the Greek very beautifully. The dawn is seen in the East rising upward, breaking through the darkness. We must remember, however, that the word had acquired another specially Messianic association, through its use in the LXX. version as the equivalent for the “Branch,” “that which springs upward,” of Jeremiah 23:5; Zechariah 3:8. Here the thought of the sunrise is prominent, and it connects itself with such predictions as, “The glory of the Lord hath risen upon thee” (Isaiah 60:1), “The sun of righteousness shall rise” (Malachi 4:2). What had become a Messianic name is taken in its primary sense, and turned into a parable.
Hath visited us.—Better, hath looked upon us.
(79) To give light to them that sit in darkness.—The words are an echo of those of Isaiah 9:2, which we have already met with in Matthew 4:16, where see Note. Here they carry on the thought of the sunrise lighting up the path of those who had sat all night long in the dark ravine, and whose feet were now guided into “the way of peace,” that word including, as it always did, with the Hebrew, every form of blessedness.
(80) And the child grew.—We have no materials for filling up this brief outline of the thirty years that followed in the Baptist’s life. The usual Jewish education, the observance of the Nazarite vow, the death of his parents while he was comparatively young, an early retirement from the world to the deserts that surrounded the western shores of the Dead Sea, study and meditation given to the Law and the Prophets, the steadfast waiting for the consolation of Israel, possible intercourse with the Essenes who lived in that region, or with hermit-teachers, like Banus, the master of Josephus (Life, c. 1), whose form of life was after the same fashion as his own: this we may surmise as probable, but we cannot say more. Whatever may have been the surroundings of his life, he entered upon his work in a spirit which was intensely personal and original.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 1". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent