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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Nunc Dimittis

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NUNC DIMITTIS (Luke 2:29-32), so called from the opening words in the Latin version, is the third and shortest of the hymns of the Incarnation preserved to us by St. Luke. Like the other two, it speaks of Christ; but whereas Benedictus, the Song of the priest Zacharias, is naturally of His Priesthood, and Magnificat, the Song of the royally-descended Virgin Mary, of His Kingdom, this, the Song of Simeon (wh. see), as beseems the utterance of a prophet, is of Messiah fulfilling the prophetic function assigned to Him in the OT (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15), and especially by Isaiah.

The feature in Simeon’s character which is to the Evangelist the climax of his virtues is that he was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel.’ The words are a reminiscence of Jacob’s, ‘I have waited for thy salvation, O Lord’ (Genesis 49:18); and they describe what was precisely the attitude of Abraham in regard to God’s promise of the land (Acts 7:9 and Hebrews 11:13), and of David in regard to the kingdom (1 Samuel 26:9-11), both of whom did not ‘fret themselves in anywise to do evil’ (Psalms 37:8), but waited till the Lord would give what He had spoken. So our Lord, speaking of those in danger of being led away by false Christs, bids His followers ‘in patience possess their souls’ (Luke 21:19). This was part of the faith of Simeon: his waiting for ‘the Lord’s Christ’ (Luke 2) saved him from going after any turbulent pretender, or accepting, with the Herodians, a mere king of this world. The ‘consolation of Israel’ was a phrase with the Rabbis for the times of Messiah: Lightfoot (Hor. Heb.) gives five illustrations of its use.

The repeated mention of the Holy Spirit guiding Simeon at each successive step evinces the fact that prophecy, silent since the days of Malachi, is again about to stir (de Wette, Oosterzee); yet the difference also is to be observed between the repeated comings of the Spirit upon Simeon, and His abiding on Jesus (John 1:33) and remaining with the Church (John 14:16). By what sign Simeon was taught of the Spirit to recognize the child of Mary as the Christ we are not told: perhaps the Virgin’s poverty, evidenced by her offering of doves, was the token to him, as the manger-cradle had been to the shepherds (Luke 2:12). Anyhow the Child was pointed out to him; he went up to Him, received Him in his arms, and, as he held Him, he ‘blessed God,’ and uttered his Nunc dimittis. There are no different readings in the text of it; but the Syriac renders the verb in the first clause, which in Greek, Latin, and English is in the indicative mood, by an optative, ‘My Lord, now release thou thy servant in peace.’ The mistake has been followed by several in this country who should have known better: e.g. by Logan, in the Scottish Paraphrases (Par. 38):

‘Now, Lord, according to thy word,

Let me in peace depart.

At length my arms embrace my Lord,

Now let their vigour cease,’

and even by John Keble, usually so accurate:

‘Whose prayers are struggling with his tears,

Lord, let me now depart.’

As a matter of fact, Simeon does not pray for death. He thanks God for permitting him to see, what many prophets and kings had desired to see and were not permitted (Luke 10:24), the salvation He had promised; and having seen it he says that he is ready to go when God wills.

The hymn is in three couplets:

(1) Thanksgiving for permission at last to leave his post, as the sentinel when the hour of his watch is over (Godet). Death will be to him as sleep to a labouring man (Bruce).

‘Now thou art letting thy servant depart, O Lord,

According to thy word, in peace.’

The ‘word,’ of course, is the promise of v. 26 that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s [own] Christ; and the fulfilment of the promise has brought him peace, because in Christ there is sure salvation for him and for all God’s people.

There are two fine Patristic comments—Cyprian’s (On the Mortality, 3), ‘He bears witness that the servants of God have peace, are free, and tranquil when, withdrawn from the whirlwinds of this world, they reach the port of the eternal home, and pass through death to immortality’; and Ambrose’s (Exposition of St. Luke, Bk. ii. ii. 59), ‘Let him who wishes to depart come into the Temple; let him come to Jerusalem; let him wait for the Lord’s Christ; let him take in his arms the Word of God, embracing Him by the arms of faith.’ Servant (δοῦλον), Lord (δέστοτα)—‘slave,’ ‘master’ are terms appropriate at all times to express the relation between God and men, yet savouring of the Law (Bruce).

(2) The reason of Simeon’s peace in the prospect of death:

‘For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou preparedst before the face of all peoples.’

What we see with our eyes is sure (cf. John 1:14; John 19:35 and 1 John 1:2). And Jesus Christ is salvation (Isaiah 49:6), for salvation is in Him and in none other (Acts 4:12). Moreover, He is the salvation which God Himself provided, not which man might have fancied. ‘Preparedst’ is a more correct rendering than Authorized Version ‘hast prepared,’ for the tense refers to a definite historical fact (cf. Luke 1:47); and this God means for all peoples (Luke 2:10) (plural)—both the sections of mankind of whom, in the next verse, Simeon is to speak, viz. the Gentiles and Israel. The Greek word used (λαός) usually means Israel only, the people [of the Lord]. But now the privilege is extended, and they who were not a people are to be the people of the living God (Hosea 2:1, Romans 9:25-26, 1 Peter 2:13).

(3) The different prophetic functions Christ is to discharge towards the Gentiles and the Jews respectively:

‘A light to lighten the Gentiles,

And the glory of thy people Israel.’

(a) To the Gentiles who sat in darkness (Isaiah 9:2) He is to be a Light (Isaiah 49:6); but not only by giving them light. The thought is greater than merely that Christ is to reveal truth to the Gentiles. He is a Light ‘for their revealing’ (εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν)—to show what the Gentiles are, how dear to Almighty God (cf. Romans 3:29), and how capable they are through His grace of producing saints. The prophecy of Simeon is thus akin to that of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7), and has its OT roots in such passages as Isaiah 25:7 and Hosea 2:3. How wonderfully has it been fulfilled—that out of Judaism He could bring a Peter, a John, a Paul; out of decadent Rome an Augustine and an Ambrose; out of the wild Irish a Columba; out of the Saxon ‘knife-men’ a Wilfrid and a Bede! We have yet to see what He will make of China and Japan, when they are Christianized, (b) Of Israel, who had produced so many saints, prophets, and teachers, the ‘lights of the world in their several generations,’ Christ is to be the supreme Glory, of more honour than Moses (Hebrews 3:3), with a better priesthood than Aaron (Hebrews 7:27), Himself the very Brightness of the Father’s glory (Hebrews 1:3), which was beheld in Him (John 1:14). St. Paul saw, in the 1st cent., how true is this prophecy of Christ (Romans 9:4-6), and all subsequent history is its confirmation.

A parallel is given by Carpenter (The Synoptic Gospels) from Buddhist legend of one who, discerning in a babe the signs of perfection, predicted, ‘Thou wilt be a Buddha, and remove the veils of sin and ignorance from the world.’ But the Indian seer could not rejoice with Simeon, he could only weep that he would not be alive to share the light; which reminds us that Simeon’s peace is through the Christian hope of a better life to come, when we shall be with Christ.

Simeon’s attitude towards the Gentiles, while in full accord with that of the OT (Genesis 22:18; Genesis 49:10, Psalms 98:3; Psalms 100:1, Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 60:3), is in striking contrast to that of the nearest contemporary Jewish writings, the Psalms of Solomon, in which, though there is the same longing for Messiah and His kingdom, the lot of the heathen is not light or salvation, but only judgment (Ps-Sol 16:4).

The singular sweetness—the calm beauty, as of a perfect pearl—of the Song of Simeon has always been recognized; and for ages it has entered into the evening service of the Church. Both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches have appointed it as a hymn at Vespers, teaching us (as it does) to live each day as if we knew it to be our last; and, embracing Christ by faith, to thank God for Him and be ready in peace to depart in Him. In the Church of Scotland, while Knox’s Prayer-Book held its place, and again after the introduction of the Paraphrases (1781), it became customary to use it at the close of the Communion Service; while in a few churches, both Episcopal and Presbyterian, it is sung at funerals when the body is being carried out of the church.

Literature.—T. A. Gurney, Nunc Dimittis (1906); A. M. Stewart, Infancy and Youth of Jesus (1905), 53; T. D. Bernard, Songs of the Holy Nativity (1895), 120, 131; S. Cox, Expositions (1888), iv. 1.

James Cooper.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nunc Dimittis'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/n/nunc-dimittis.html. 1906-1918.

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