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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Benedictus

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BENEDICTUS.—The Song of Zacharias (wh. see), preserved in Luke 1:68-79, is usually spoken of under the name familiar to us in the offices of the Church—a name derived from its opening word in the Latin version. St. Luke introduces it immediately after his narrative of the circumcision and naming of the future Baptist, with the copulative and, in these terms: ‘And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying’ (Luke 1:67). But while he thus asserts the author’s inspiration, and claims the Song as an outcome thereof, it does not follow either that the Holy Ghost came on Zacharias then and there,—He may have rested on him during the whole period of his miraculous dumbness, teaching him in that penitential silence, and bringing to his remembrance the dealings and promises of God,—or that the Song was extempore (it was while the old psalmist was musing, that the fire burned, Psalms 39:3). Zacharias may have had it ready for the long anticipated moment; may have recited it then, and written it afterwards.

Nor, again, does the fullest acceptance of its inspiration as a fact forbid that it should bear the marks of the time at which it was composed, and of the feelings of devout Israelites under the trials of their age. The Holy Spirit speaks through men, not through pipes. Their character, proved and purified by calamities,—public as well as private,—is of no small importance to Him. They were ‘holy men of God,’ who ‘spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ (2 Peter 1:21). Zacharias was an old man (Luke 1:18); he might easily remember the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey (b.c. 63), and his pushing forward, like Antiochus Epiphanes, into the Holy of Holies. There were chief priests who ‘opened the gates’ to the heathen conqueror as ‘sons to receive a father’ (Ps-Sol 8:18–20); but among the ministering priesthood there then lived (as there still survived in Zacharias himself) a piety so genuine and fearless that, when the victorious Romans burst into the Temple courts, the officiating priests went on with the service as if nothing unusual were happening, and suffered themselves to be cut down at their posts. That awful day was the end of Jewish independence. Zacharias had lived through all the shame that followed, and the further Roman outrages of Crassus, who robbed the Temple (b.c. 54), and of Cassius, who sold 30,000 Jews into captivity (b.c. 51). The usurpations, the feuds, the subserviences to Herod and the Romans, the Sadducean unbelief of the high-priestly families, the immoralities which disgraced them,—must all have been fresh in his recollection, and may well have led him, as these things led the more quiet and religious Pharisees around him, to turn back for comfort to the Divine promise to David and his seed for evermore.

That such a terrible state of things should have deeply affected Zacharias was as right as it was natural. That it wrought within him affections altogether good and holy is just a sign that it was the Spirit of Christ who taught him by them. The book already referred to, the Psalter (or Psalms) of Solomon, is the nearest Jewish work in point of time to the Benedictus and its fellows in the first two chapters of St. Luke: it is also the likest to them in style and character. Like these Songs, the Psalms of Solomon are a proof that sacred poetry, so far from being extinct among the Jews at this period, was living, and was being made the vehicle of intensest religious feeling. Nor are these Psalms deficient in merit. They are forceful, vivid, full of noble indignation against Roman oppression and Jewish secularity alike, of shame for ‘the draggled purples’ of the Hasmonaean princes, of acknowledgments that God is justified in His chastening of Israel. They look, like the Benedictus, for a Messiah of the House of David. They assign to Him the double work of ‘thrusting’ sinners out of the holy place, ‘purging Jerusalem and making it holy as in the days of old,’ and of avenging her upon the Romans. But with all this, they lack the characteristic elements of evangelical prophecy. They have little insight and less foresight. They emanated from the better sort of Pharisees, and they betray all the elements of Pharisaism as we see it in the Gospels. The Messiah they expect is purely human (cf. our Lord’s contention on this point with the Pharisees, Matthew 22:41-46, Mark 12:35-37, Luke 20:39-44). Their idea of God’s salvation is political mainly: vengeance on their enemies rather than undisturbed devotion is the thing they long for. The whole tone of the book is fierce, narrow, separatist, self-righteous. The Benedictus, on the other hand, is in its closing notes very strikingly predictive: the father foretells, with proud exactness, the future ministry of his infant son. Even had this element been wanting, the Song is in the truest sense a prophecy, for it discerns the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom with a clearness unknown even to the Apostles after Christ had been some time with them. It tells of ‘salvation in the remission of sins’ (Luke 1:77 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885) through the mercy of God (Luke 1:79, cf. Titus 3:5) in Christ (Luke 1:69), of human need and darkness, of reconciliation to life and peace, and of the worship of God without fear (cf. 1 John 4:18) as its climax (Luke 1:74). There is deliverance from every enemy, not from the Romans only, but no hint of revenge upon them. The tone of the Song is eminently gentle. The salvation is from God, according to His promise by the mouth of all His holy prophets from the beginning of the world; it embraces in its range our fathers (Luke 1:72) who are gone, as well as the living (cf. 1 Peter 2:19, and Revelation 6:9); and is all given us through and in the Horn of Salvation, whom God has raised up ‘in the house of his servant David’ (Luke 1:69), indeed, but who Himself is ‘the Most High,’ and ‘the Lord’ (Luke 1:76), and ‘the Day-spring from on High’—not rising gradually as does Nature’s dawn, but bursting, as it were, upon our wondering eyes, full-orbed from the zenith (Luke 1:78). It is very remarkable how subordinate to Him who is the subject of his Song is the position assigned by Zacharias to his own miraculously-born child. Even while he predicts John’s office, it is in contrast with the greater dignity of the Redeemer. Alford justly remarks that the Benedictus ‘shows the exact religions view under which John was educated by his father.’ The fruit may be seen in all that is recorded of the Baptist (cf. Matthew 3:3; Matthew 3:11-12; Matthew 11:10, Mark 1:1-8, Luke 3:4-17, John 1:7-8; John 1:15; John 1:19-34; John 3:10). It is abundantly clear that the Song was composed in the light both of the Annunciation made to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35-38) and of the inspired salutation wherewith she was greeted by Elisabeth (Luke 1:43). The Benedictus is thus emphatically a ‘Hymn of the Incarnation’—‘Canticum de Evangelio,’ as the Antiphonary of Bangor styles it.

It differs from the other hymns in these two chapters of St. Luke mainly in this, that whereas the Magnificat (St. Mary’s Song) is of Christ’s kingship, whereby He casts down the proud and exalts the humble, and the Nune dimittis (Simeon’s) is of His prophetic or enlightening office, the Benedictus, as beseems the song of the blameless priest, is of Christ’s priesthood. It is priestly throughout; it begins with blessing and ends with peace. The work of the Deliverer is remission of sins and reconciliation with God, and its culmination is seen in a people of priests ‘serving God (i.e. worshipping Him—λατρεύειν, same word as in Revelation 2:28) in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of their life.’ It is evident that Zacharias has in his mind the history of Melchizedek (Genesis 14) and the oracle, even then ascribed to the pen of David, which forms so important a commentary on that history (Psalms 110).

The ‘sources’ of the Song, as of the two chapters of which it forms an integral part, will be discussed in art. Luke (Gospel of). It may be mentioned here that the text of the Benedictus varies little either in MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] or Versions. The one reading which exhibits an important difference from that of the Textus Receptus is in v. 76, where a future tense takes the place of a past. This has been adopted in the Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885, but with a marginal note, ‘Many ancient authorities read hath visited us.’

The structure of the Benedictus is simple. It consists of three stanzas—the first (Luke 1:68-70) setting forth the fact of God’s interposition in the approaching birth of the long-looked-for Saviour; the second (Luke 1:71-75) telling the purpose of His incarnation; and the third (Luke 1:76-79) an apostrophe to Zacharias’ babe, declaring his office as the forerunner of Christ.

The references in the hymn are marvellous alike in their number, range, and depth. The opening words remind us of the opening of Melchizedek’s address to Abram (Genesis 14); ‘visited and redeemed,’ of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt (Exodus 4:31; Exodus 6:6); the ‘Horn of Salvation,’ of Hannah’s Song at the beginning of the story of the kings (1 Samuel 2:10); ‘in the house of David’ is from 1 Chronicles 17:4; in ‘from the beginning of the world,’ ἀπʼ αἱῶνος, we have possibly an allusion to the Protevangelium (Genesis 3:15); in ‘in holiness’ we may see reference to Psalms 110:3; while the Baptist’s mission is described by quotation from Isaiah 40:3. Nor is the opinion of Bishop Wordsworth, accepted somewhat grudgingly by Alford, to be dismissed as fanciful, that in Luke 1:72-73 there is a paronomasia on the three names of the parties chiefly concerned with the Baptist’s birth. The name of John had been fixed by the Angel (Isaiah 40:13); Zacharias knew that it must be significant, and it means ‘the grace or mercy of God,’ ἕλεος. He could hardly help reflecting that his own name Zacharias (from וָבַר recordatus fuit, and יָהּ; (Jehovah), means θεὸς ἐμνήσθη; while (from אֽל. , and שָׁבַע shâba‘ juravit) is just ὅρκος θεοῦ. He puts all these together. ‘… The tender of our God … in e of his holy covenant … the which he sware.’ If the paronomasia as a literary figure is out of fashion for the moment, we may remember that neither Dante nor Shakespeare thought it beneath their genius; and Zacharias had sacred precedents for employing it in the histories of the births and blessings of the twelve patriarchs (Genesis 30, 49), and still more strikingly in Isaiah 7, 8, where, as Matthew Arnold has observed, the significant names are the keynote of the whole prophecy,

Literature.—Plummer, ‘St. Luke’ (Internal. Crit. Com.), 38 ff.; Godet, Com. on St. Luke, i. 110 ff.; Wilkinson, Johan. Document in Lk i., p. 17.

James Cooper.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Benedictus'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/benedictus.html. 1906-1918.

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