Following on last week’s post on the Magnificat, from our church’s Advent sermon series on the “Gospel in Song,” we now consider the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah, from Luke 1:68-79. The Benedictus is the great prophecy given by Zechariah regarding the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1).
In the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, in the very last few verses, we read:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6 ESV).
After this, the prophetic voice found in sacred Scripture is silent for some four hundred years. When would this “Elijah the prophet” come and prepare the way for the Lord?
Readers of the New Testament understand that this new “Elijah” is none other than John the Baptist. Zechariah, the boy’s father, would sing of the “blessing”, or “benedictus”, in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, of the coming prophet who would announce that the Lord “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (verse 69), where the “horn” is a reference to the deadly weapon and tremendous power of Jesus, the coming Messiah.
However, it is important to set the Benedictus within its proper historical context. Many Christians assume that since there is a Scriptural gap between Malachi and the New Testament, that nothing of significance happened here. But this would be terribly wrong.
A body of Jewish writings, primarily written in ancient Greek, did appear during this four hundred year “silent” period. Many of these writings found their way into the Septuagint, a collection of Greek translations of the Old Testament that effectively became the “Bible” for the early Christian movement. These writings that were not of Hebrew origin are typically known as the Apocrypha. In Roman Catholicism, the Apocrypha are considered to be deuterocanonical, or “second canon,” whereas for Protestants, these writings are simply known for being useful in terms of spiritual edification, but not sufficient for establishing doctrine. Consequentially, the lesser status of these writings has meant that the significance of these writings are often forgotten in our churches today.
But one very important incident, the Maccabean revolt, is preserved for us in the apocryphal writings of 1 and 2 Maccabees. When the Syrian Greeks led by Antiochus Epiphanes took over the land of Israel, they desecrated the Jewish temple and forbade the worship of the one True God. In response, Jewish revolutionaries led by a Judas Maccabeus resisted and successfully defeated the pagan invaders, against tremendous odds. This remarkable incident in Jewish history became the foundation for the celebration of Hanukkah. Jesus Himself celebrated Hanukkah during his earthly ministry (John 10:22-23).
Some scholars have even suggested that the Benedictus, and perhaps the Magnificat, as well, have their historical roots, in some way, as Maccabean war songs. One might be able to see a connection here when Zechariah sings “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us “(verse 71). Whether or not these scholars are correct, is not so important. What is important is that we can surely appreciate how the early Jewish followers of Jesus saw that the message of Christmas was not simply about a sweet boy lying in a manger. Rather, they could see that the message of the Gospel, as announced by Zechariah, was a bold cry for light in the midst of a dark and hopeless world, which dovetails in rather nicely with the celebration of Hanukkah. Zechariah ends his song with:
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:79).
May we better understand that revolutionary message today, too.
The following 4-minute video from a Messianic Jewish community in Israel sums up the connection between Hanukkah and Yeshua (Jesus) rather well.