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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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ZACHARIAS (Ζαχαρίας).—Father of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25; Luke 1:57-80); a Jewish priest, who was an old man at the close of the reign of Herod the Great [Note: reat Cranmer’s ‘Great’ Bible 1539.] (b.c. 4). ‘The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,’ and, even in that evil time of wickedness in high places in Church and State, there lived in Palestine no inconsiderable number of just and devout persons both among priests and people. Of such was Zacharias. A Jewish priest, a member of the family of Abijah, Zacharias had been so careful to observe the law regarding the marriage of priests (Leviticus 21:7-14), that he chose for wife one of the sacerdotal house, a daughter of Aaron (Luke 1:5), named after Aaron’s wife (Exodus 6:23), Elisabeth, who was as pious as himself. They were righteous not only in the sight of men but of God, and blameless in their care to observe all His commandments and ordinances; but notwithstanding this, and the promise of God by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33:18), and their eager desire, and Zacharias’ lifelong prayer (Luke 1:18), their union was not blessed with offspring. It was due to Elisabeth’s barrenness (Luke 1:7); and she keenly felt the reproach which it occasioned (Luke 1:25), for it was a common opinion among the Jews that childlessness was God’s punishment for guilt. They had both reached old age when the miraculous event occurred which surpassed all they could have looked for.

Zacharias had left his home in the hill-country of Judah to fulfil in the Temple at Jerusalem his week of service; and it fell to his lot to perform the very special duty of burning incense in the Holy Place, separated only by the veil from the Holy of Holies. It was a very notable occasion in a priest’s life, which did not come at all to many a priest (it is said there were 20,000 of them altogether about this period), and it was not likely the lot would ever fall on him again to offer it. The offering of incense was symbolical of prayer (Revelation 5:8); the people worshipping in the courts outside were praying while the smoke was rising from his censer within (Luke 1:10); it was impossible that he should not be praying too, and if only by the force of long habit, the old petition rose once more to his lips. Suddenly there stood in front of him, on the right side of the altar of incense (Luke 1:11), where no mortal man should be, an angel of the Lord. In the presence of the supernatural, Zacharias feared and trembled; but the angel reassured him, told him that his prayer was heard, that his wife Elisabeth should bear him a son, whom he should live to see, and name John (= ‘the grace of Jehovah’), which would be no barren title, but describe his character and mission: ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord’ (cf. Matthew 11:11, Luke 7:28). This son must be brought up as a Nazirite in the highest form of Levitical devotion (Numbers 6:4, Judges 13:4, Lamentations 4:7, Amos 2:12); he should, like another Elijah (1 Kings 18:37), turn many of the children of Israel unto the Lord, and be the forerunner, as foretold by Malachi, to Messiah Himself (Luke 1:15-17).

Zacharias had not the faith of Abraham, who staggered not through unbelief (Romans 4:19) at a promise of God exactly similar, ‘involving human generation, but prophetically announced and supernatural’ (Alford). He asked for a sign (κατὰ τί;), and pointed out the difficulties in the way. Some (e.g. Bruce) have expressed surprise that ‘so natural a hesitation’ should be treated, and punished, as a sin’; but to whom much is given, of him much shall be required. Others have asked why Zacharias should be censured here, and not the virgin Mary (Luke 1:34-35), not observing that hers was not a question of doubt, ‘Whereby shall I know?’ but a request for direction (πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο;), ‘How is it to be brought about?’—a question implying faith as to the event itself. She got a sign too, though she had not asked one; but hers was joyful, Zacharias’ punitive, yet merciful. ‘Thou shalt be dumb, not only as one stupefied with wonder, but also ‘unable to speak’; yet for a season merely, till, at the proper time, the promise has its fulfilment. Thus, on the threshold of the Gospel, at the very outset of its great series of miracles, is unbelief chastised. The soul that will not believe shall not be allowed to speak (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:13).

It was not, the Talmudists inform us, the custom of the priests, when officiating inside the Holy Place, to make their own devotions long, lest the people outside should be anxious; but Zacharias’ interview with Gabriel, and perhaps the feelings it awakened, caused him to delay. The worshippers in the Temple courts marvelled why he tarried so long; the thought likely to occur to them was that God had slain the priest as unworthy (Bruce); and when at last he did make his appearance, he could neither explain the reason for his delay, nor give them the Aaronic benediction (Numbers 6:22-24), which was pronounced after every morning and evening sacrifice by the priest with uplifted hands, the people responding to it with a loud Amen (Keil, Bibl. Archœol.). Like the dying St. Columba before the altar at Iona, though for a different reason, Zacharias signed with his hand the blessing which he could not speak (Numbers 6:22). As soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he returned to his home; the tokens of his wife’s pregnancy soon added a sign of joy to the sign of punishment which he bore about with him. The promised child was born, but the chastisement was not taken off till the hour arrived when he had his predicted function to fulfil, by calling the infant by his appointed name.

Godet remarks on the pleasant picture of family life presented by the scene of the Baptist’s circumcision, It had been a custom since the birth of Isaac (who received his name at his circumcision) to give a child his name on the same day in which he was signed as one of God’s people: for a similar reason, Christian children are named on the occasion of their entrance by baptism into the Church. A difficulty which some have felt, that Zacharias was dumb only and not deaf, yet is treated by the company as if unable to hear, is met by Olshausen with the remark that these two afflictions go so frequently together, that men easily accustom themselves to treat dumb persons as deaf.

The heart of Zacharias had been gathering thoughts to itself through all those months of silence, and no sooner was his mouth opened than he poured forth to God the hymn of priestly thanksgiving which we call, from its first word in the Latin version, Benedictus (wh. see). Here we need only note in it an evident allusion to his own name (signifying ‘Remembered by Jehovah’) and his wife’s (Elisabeth = Eli-sheba = ‘the oath of God’)—‘to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham’ (Luke 1:72-73).

Nothing is said of Zacharias after this. The statement of several of the Fathers (Origen, Greg. Nyss., Cyr., and Pet. Alex. [Note: Alexandrian.] ), though accepted by Baronius, that this Zacharias was slain by Herod between the Temple and the brazen altar, has no historical basis; it is a mere guess to explain the difficulty, that whereas many of the prophets were martyred at a later date than Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20), yet our Lord, summing up the list of such murders, begins with Abel and ends with Zechariah (Matthew 23:35). See Barachiah. Zacharias having been by this mistake made a martyr, his relies were forthcoming, and Cornelius a Lapide speaks of seeing and venerating his head in the Lateran basilica at Rome.

James Cooper.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Zacharias'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​z/zacharias.html. 1906-1918.
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