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Zacharias and Elizabeth
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
HIGH up in the hill-country of Judea there dwelt a certain priest named Zacharias with his wife Elizabeth. They were no longer young; they had lived a long and a happy lifetime together. The single shadow that had ever lain upon their serene and saintly life had been this that their house was childless. But all that was now long past-long past and quite forgotten. "For thus saith the Lord to them that choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant, even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." And while the Lord spake thus to them both, Zacharias in his holy office spake thus to Elizabeth: 'Why weepest thou, and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?' Thus the God of Israel spake to them both, and thus they spake to one another, till Luke is able to record this of them both, that they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
It is the fulness of time at last. It is at last the great day on which the New Testament has been predestinated to open. Zacharias has gone up to Jerusalem according to his course. The priestly lot has again been cast and has fallen this time on Zacharias. He is chosen of God and called upon to enter the Holy Place, to minister at the altar, and to make morning and evening intercession for the sinful people. Never before, in all his long lifetime, has Zacharias had this awful privilege; only once in a priest's whole lifetime was this great office put upon any son of Aaron. Clothed in his spotless robes, with his head covered and with his shoes off, this holy man and elect priest disappears within the golden doors of the Holy Place. As he enters he sees the golden candlestick, and the table of shewbread, and the altar of incense. From that altar there rises the sacred flame that had been lighted at the pillar of fire in the wilderness, and which has burned on unconsumed ever since. Taking his censer full of incense into his hand Zacharias pours it on the perpetual altar-fire, and says: Lord, let my prayer come before thee like this incense; and the lifting up of my hands like the evening sacrifice! And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto Zacharias an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him he was troubled and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him: Fear not, Zacharias; for thy prayer is heard and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God: to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Then follows Zacharias's fear, and doubt, and disbelief; and then his deafness and dumbness; and then the visit of Mary to the hill-country of Judah, where Zacharias and Elizabeth had hid themselves; and then the Magnificat, as we call it: and then the birth and the circumcision of Elizabeth's son; and then the opening of Zacharias's mouth and the loosening of his tongue, all wound up with his magnificent Benedictus. A splendid preface to a splendid book!
"They were both righteous before the Lord, and blameless," This is an excellent instance of the frank and fearless, if confessedly condescending, style of Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture has no hesitation lest it should contradict or stultify itself. Holy Scripture speaks out its whole heart on each occasion boldly, and leaves the reconciling and the harmonising of its strong and sometimes startling statements to those of its readers who feel a need and have a liking for such reconciling and harmonising. As a matter of fact that was the widespread good name and spotless character of Zacharias and Elizabeth, Zacharias among his brethren in the priesthood, and Elizabeth among her kinsfolk and neighbours in Hebron, were both blameless. Holy Scripture in saying this simply classifies Zacharias and Elizabeth with Abraham, and with Samuel, and with Job, and with all such Old Testament saints. And if such generous judgments are not so often passed on men and women in New Testament times, that is so for reasons that are very well known to every New Testament mind and heart. And if those noble tributes to Zacharias and Elizabeth stagger and condemn us; if we read of their righteousness and their blamelessness with envy and with despair; what is that envy and what is that despair but two of our finest New Testament graces through which we are being led on to a righteousness and a blamelessness that shall not be economical and of condescension, but shall be true and perfect and everlasting. That righteousness, in short, and that blamelessness of which a New Testament apostle prophesies in these so comforting words: "Nevertheless we according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that we look for such things, be diligent that ye be found of Him in peace, without spot, and blameless." Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
And the angel said unto him: Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard. Had the angel come with that answer forty years before he would have been welcomed and well entertained both by Zacharias and Elizabeth. But he has come too late. 'No,' said Zacharias; 'no. It is far too late. The time is past-long past. The thing is impossible-quite impossible. And, indeed-and let not my lord be angry-it is no longer desirable.' Zacharias had long outlived his prayer for a son. He had long retracted his prayer. He had a thousand times justified the Hearer of prayer for not hearing and not answering his too impatient prayer. He had long ere now seen some very good and sufficient reasons why he and Elizabeth should end their days together. And, even if it were still possible, Zacharias was not willing to be plunged back at this time of day into all the anxieties, and uncertainties, and responsibilities, and dangers he had now for so long left for ever behind him. 'My prayer is not to be heard,' Zacharias had long ago said to himself. 'Let me direct my prayer and look up for far better, and far more sure, and far more steadfast, and far more satisfying things. The will of the Lord be done,' be had said long ago. But behold, to Zacharias's confusion, his prayer has been heard all the time! All these long past years of prayer, and waiting, and ceasing from prayer and turning to other things-all that time Zacharias's answer has been ready before God, and has only been waiting till the best time for the answer to be sent down. Pray on, then, all you postponed and disappointed and impoverished people of God; pray on and faint not. Pray on: for the prayer is far better than the answer. And, besides, your answer may all the time be ready, as Zacharias's answer was. But other people's prayers and other people's providences may be so mixed up with yours that you will have to wait till their prayers, and their preparations, and their providences are all as ripe and as ready as yours. The fastest ship in the British fleet has to wait for the slowest, and that explains why that fine vessel is not led into battle and let home to harbour with its full and proper spoil. Zacharias and Elizabeth were ready long ago. But Joseph and Mary were not ready; they were still but new beginners in faith and in prayer, in righteousness and in blamelessness. And thus it was that, without knowing why, Zacharias and Elizabeth and John the Baptist had to wait in the hill-country of Hebron till Joseph and Mary were made ready for the Divine predestination and for their prayer away north in Nazareth.
And Zacharias and Elizabeth hid themselves up in the hill-country for the next five months. Look at them. Look at Zacharias with his writing table, and Elizabeth with her needle. And never one word spoken between them all that time, only smiles and tears. What, do you suppose, was Zacharias doing all that time with no altar to minister at, and no neighbours to talk to, and no tongue, indeed, to talk with? "I have no books," said Jacob Behmen, "but I have myself." And Zacharias had himself. Zacharias had himself, and the wife of his youth, who was also the light of his eyes: he had himself and all those past years of prayer, and waiting, and resignation, and peace of mind. And then he had these past overwhelming weeks also. Do you still ask what Zacharias was doing all that time? Has your New Testament a margin with readings? Your so instructive margin, if you will attend to it, will tell you the very Scriptures over which Zacharias spent his days and nights all that silent time in Hebron. All you have got to do some day, when you are in the mind, is to consult the margin over against Zacharias's prophetical song, and you are in that as good as looking over his shoulder at his writing table. You are as good as walking out alone with him when he goes abroad among the sunsetting rocks of Judea to wonder, and to praise, and to pray over Elizabeth and himself and their unborn son.
Zacharias and Elizabeth were sitting alone with their own thoughts one day when who should knock at their door but the Virgin Mary herself all the way from Nazareth. Luke takes up his very best pen as Elizabeth and Mary embrace one another. He had it all long afterwards from an eye and ear witness, so that we might know the certainty of all that took place that day in Zacharias's house up in the hill-country. With the embrace and with the authority of a prophetess Elizabeth saluted Mary, and said: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" What a day! What a dispensation! What a meeting! What a household! What a predestination descended on that roof! What unsearchable riches! What great and precious promises! What prayers! What psalms! What laughter! What tears! And Mary said: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour." And Mary abode with Elizabeth about three months, and then returned to her own house.
And it came to pass, that on the eighth day Elizabeth's neighbours and her cousins came to the circumcision of the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. But his mother answered and said: "Not so; but he shall be called John," that is to say, The-Grace-of-God. And they said unto her: "But there is none of thy kindred that is called by that name." And they made signs to his father what he would have the child called, and he asked for his writing table and wrote, saying; "His name is The-Grace-of-God." And they marvelled all. They marvelled all because it was a new name to them, and it offended them to hear it. It was to them an outlandish and an unintelligible name. They had never prayed for a son, or for anything else. They had never been visited of an angel. They had never hid themselves five months. Their husbands had never been struck deaf and dumb for their doubt. No babe had ever leaped in their womb because they were filled with the Holy Ghost. No. None of all their kindred had ever been called by this so stumbling name. Fathers and mothers of new-born children, be like Elizabeth and Zacharias in the naming of your children. Be very bold, if need be, in the naming of your children. Be original and independent in the naming of your children. Be truthful. Be thankful. Be believing. Be hopeful, and be assured. Be not afraid to write an altogether new name in your Family Bible. Go back to your true ancestors for a name sometimes, and not to those of flesh and blood only. Fish no more for testaments in the waters of baptism. Or if for a testament at all, then secure, as far as your naming of him lies, that your son shall be an heir of God, and a joint-heir with the Son of God. Name the name of God over your son. Name over your son what God has done for your soul. Name over him some secret of the Lord with you. Name him something that God has showed you out of His holy covenant. Elizabeth was very bold. She named her little son after no man on earth, but, actually, after Almighty God Himself in heaven. And her husband Zacharias was of one mind with her in that, as soon as he got his writing table into his hands. The God-of-all-Grace was thus made Sponsor and Name-Father to Elizabeth's only son, who was born of her so out of all ordinary time. Elizabeth and Mary had spent three months together since Gabriel's visit to them both. And all those three months-morning, noon, and night-when they talked together, it was about nothing else but about the angel, and his visits, and his messages. And among other things that they less talked about to one another than whispered to themselves, was the naming of their unborn sons. "Immanuel!" and "Jesus Christ!" Mary would whisper to herself, with an ever-increasing wonder and awe at the awful words. While "The-Grace-of-God" was Elizabeth's holy secret. And, then, how the two children were born, and how they were brought up, and how they both justified, and fulfilled, and adorned their new and unheard-of names, let Luke and his fellow-evangelists say. And they will tell you, to begin with, how John-The-Grace-of-God-grew and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Zacharias and Elizabeth'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​z/zacharias-and-elizabeth.html. 1901.