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Matthew Henry's Commentary on Luke 1:57-80 - Birth of John the Baptist and Zacharia's Song

Matthew Henry's Commentary - Luke 1:57-80

The narrative which this evangelist gives us (or rather God by him) of the life of Christ begins earlier than either Matthew or Mark. We have reason to thank God for them all, as we have for all the gifts and graces of Christ's ministers, which in one make up what is wanting in the other, while all put together make a harmony. In this chapter we have, I. Luke's preface to his gospel, or his epistle dedicatory to his friend Theophilus, ver. 1-4. II. The prophecy and history of the conception of John Baptist, who was Christ's forerunner, ver. 5-25. The annunciation of the virgin Mary, or the notice given to her that she should be the mother of the Messiah, ver. 26-38. IV. The interview between Mary the mother of Jesus and Elisabeth the mother of John, when they were both with child of those pregnant births, and the prophecies they both uttered upon that occasion, ver. 39-56. V. The birth and circumcision of John Baptist, six months before the birth of Christ, ver. 57-66. VI. Zacharias's song of praise, in thankfulness for the birth of John, and in prospect of the birth of Jesus, ver. 67-79. VII. A short account of John Baptist's infancy, ver. 80. And these do more than give us an entertaining narrative; they will lead us into the understanding of the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh.


The Birth of John the Baptist.

57 Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. 58 And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had showed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her. 59 And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. 60 And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. 61 And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. 62 And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. 64 And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. 65 And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judæa. 66 And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.

In these verses, we have,

I. The birth of John Baptist, v. 57. Though he was conceived in the womb by miracle, he continued in the womb according to the ordinary course of nature (so did our Saviour): Elisabeth's full time came, that she should be delivered, and then she brought forth a son. Promised mercies are to be expected when the full time for them is come, and not before.

II. The great joy that was among all the relations of the family, upon this extraordinary occasion (v. 58): Her neighbours and her cousins heard of it; for it would be in every body's mouth, as next to miraculous. Dr. Lightfoot observes that Hebron was inhabited by priests of the family of Aaron, and that those were the cousins here spoken of; but the fields and villages about, by the children of Judah, and that those were the neighbours. Now these here discovered, 1. A pious regard to God. They acknowledged that the Lord had magnified his mercy to her, so the word is. It was a mercy to have her reproach taken away, a mercy to have her family built up, and the more being a family of priests, devoted to God, and employed for him. Many things concurred to make the mercy great—that she had been long barren, was now old, but especially that the child should be great in the sight of the Lord. 2. A friendly regard to Elisabeth. When she rejoiced, they rejoiced with her. We ought to take pleasure in the prosperity of our neighbours and friends, and to be thankful to God for their comforts as for our own.

III. The dispute that was among them concerning the naming him (v. 59): On the eighth day, as God has appointed, they came together, to circumcise the child; it was here, in Hebron, that circumcision was first instituted; and Isaac, who, like John Baptist, was born by promise, was one of the first that was submitted to it, at least the chief eyed in the institution of it. They that rejoiced in the birth of the child came together to the circumcising of him. Note, The greatest comfort we can take in our children is in giving them up to God, and recognizing their covenant-relation to him. The baptism of our children should be more our joy than their birth.

Now it was the custom, when they circumcised their children, to name them, because, when Abram was circumcised God gave him a new name, and called him Abraham; and it is not unfit that they should be left nameless till they are by name given up to God. Now,

1. Some proposed that he should be called by his father's name, Zacharias. We have not any instance in scripture that the child should bear the father's name; but perhaps it was of late come into use among the Jews, at it is with us, and they intended hereby to do honour to the father, who was not likely to have another child.

2. The mother opposed it, and would have called him John; having learned, either by inspiration of the Holy Ghost (as is most probable), or by information in writing from her husband, that God appointed this to be his name (v. 60); He shall be called Johanan—Gracious, because he shall introduce the gospel of Christ, wherein God's grace shines more brightly than ever.

3. The relations objected against that (v. 61): "There is none of thy kindred, none of the relations of thy family, that is called by that name; and therefore, if he may not have his father's name, yet let him have the name of some of his kindred, who will take it as a piece of respect to have such a child of wonders as this named from them." Note, As those that have friends must show themselves friendly, so those that have relations must be obliging to them in all the usual regards that are paid to kindred.

4. They appealed to the father, and would try if they could possibly get to know his mind; for it was his office to name the child, v. 62. They made signs to him, by which it appears that he was deaf as well as dumb; nay, it should seem, mindless of any thing, else one would think they should at first have desired him to write down his child's name, if he had ever communicated any thing by writing since he was struck. However, they would carry the matter as far as they could, and therefore gave him to understand what the dispute was which he only could determine; whereupon he made signs to them to give him a table-book, such as they then used, and with the pencil he wrote these words, His name is John, v. 63. Note, "It shall be so," or, "I would have it so," but "It is so." The matter is determined already; the angel had given him that name. Observe, When Zacharias could not speak, he wrote. When ministers have their mouths stopped, that they cannot preach, yet they may be doing good as long as they have not their hands tied, that they cannot write. Many of the martyrs in prison wrote letters to their friends, which were of great use; blessed Paul himself did so. Zacharias's pitching upon the same name that Elisabeth had chosen was a great surprise to the company: They marvelled all; for they knew not that, though by reason of his deafness and dumbness they could not converse together, yet they were both guided by one and the same Spirit: or perhaps they marvelled that he wrote so distinctly and intelligently, which (the stroke he was under being somewhat like that of a palsy) he had not done before.

5. He thereupon recovered the use of his speech (v. 64): His mouth was opened immediately. The time prefixed for his being silenced was till the day that these blessed things shall be fulfilled (v. 20); not all the things going before concerning John's ministry, but those which relate to his birth and name (v. 13). That time was now expired, whereupon the restraint was taken off, and God gave him the opening of the mouth again, as he did to Ezekiel, ch. iii. 27. Dr. Lightfoot compares this case of Zacharias with that of Moses, Exod. iv. 24-26. Moses, for distrust, is in danger of his life, as Zacharias, for the same fault, is struck dumb; but, upon the circumcision of his child, and recovery of his faith, there, as here, the danger is removed. Infidelity closed his mouth, and now believing opens it again; he believes, therefore he speaks. David lay under guilt from the conception of his child till a few days after its birth; then the Lord takes away his sin: upon his repentance, he shall not die. So here he shall be no longer dumb; his mouth was opened, and he spoke, and praised God. Note, When God opens our lips, our mouths must show forth his praise. As good be without our speech as not use it in praising God; for then our tongue is most our glory when it is employed for God's glory.

6. These things were told all the country over, to the great amazement of all that heard them, v. 65, 66. The sentiments of the people are not to be slighted, but taken notice of. We are here told, (1.) That these sayings were discoursed of, and were the common talk all about the hill-country of Judea. It is a pity but a narrative of them had been drawn up, and published in the world, immediately. (2.) That most people who heard of these things were put into consternation by them: Fear came on all them that dwell round about there. If we have not a good hope, as we ought to have, built upon the gospel, we may expect that the tidings of it will fill us with fear. They believed and trembled, whereas they should have believed and triumphed. (3.) It raised the expectations of people concerning this child, and obliged them to have their eye upon him, to see what he would come to. They laid up these presages in their hearts, treasured them up in mind and memory, as foreseeing they should hereafter have occasion to recollect them. Note, What we hear, that may be of use to us, we should treasure up, that we may be able to bring forth, for the benefit of others, things new and old, and, when things come to perfection, may be able to look back upon the presages thereof, and to say, "It was what we might expect." They said within themselves, and said among themselves, "What manner of child shall this be? What will be the fruit when these are the buds, or rather when the root is out of such a dry ground?" Note, When children are born into the world, it is very uncertain what they will prove; yet sometimes there have been early indications of something great, as in the birth of Moses, Samson, Samuel, and here of John. And we have reason to think that there were some of those living at the time when John began his public ministry who could, and did, remember these things, and relate them to others, which contributed as much as any thing to the great flocking there was after him.

Lastly, It is said, The hand of the Lord was with him; that is, he was taken under the special protection of the Almighty, from his birth, as one designed for something great and considerable, and there were many instances of it. It appeared likewise that the Spirit was at work upon his soul very early. As soon as he began to speak or go, you might perceive something in him very extraordinary. Note, God has ways of operating upon children in their infancy, which we cannot account for. God never made a soul but he knew how to sanctify it.


The Song of Zacharias.

67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, 68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, 69 And hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; 70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: 71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; 73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham, 74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. 76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; 77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, 79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. 80 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel.

We have here the song wherewith Zacharias praised God when his mouth was opened; in it he is said to prophesy (v. 67), and so he did in the strictest sense of prophesying; for he foretold things to come concerning the kingdom of the Messiah, to which all the prophets bear witness. Observe,

I. How he was qualified for this: He was filled with the Holy Ghost, was endued with more than ordinary measures and degrees of it, for this purpose; he was divinely inspired. God not only forgave him his unbelief and distrust (which was signified by discharging him from the punishment of it), but, as a specimen of the abounding of grace towards believers, he filled him with the Holy Ghost, and put this honour upon him, to employ him for his honour.

II. What the matter of his song was. Here is nothing said of the private concerns of his own family, the rolling away of the reproach from it and putting of a reputation upon it, by the birth of this child, though, no doubt, he found a time to give thanks to God for this, with his family; but in this song he is wholly taken up with the kingdom of the Messiah, and the public blessings to be introduced by it. He could have little pleasure in this fruitfulness of his vine, and the hopefulness of his olive-plant, if herein he had not foreseen the good of Jerusalem, peace upon Israel, and blessings on both out of Zion, Ps. cxxviii. 3, 5, 6. The Old-Testament prophesies are often expressed in praises and new songs, so is the beginning of New-Testament prophecy: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel. The God of the whole earth shall he be called; yet Zacharias, speaking of the work of redemption, called him the Lord God of Israel, because to Israel the prophecies, promises, and types, of the redemption had hitherto been given, and to them the first proffers and proposals of it were now to be made. Israel, as a chosen people, was a type of the elect of God out of all nations, whom God had a particular eye to, in sending the Saviour; and therefore he is therein called the Lord God of Israel.

Now Zacharias here blesses God,

1. For the work of salvation that was to be wrought out by the Messiah himself, v. 68-75. This it is that fills him, when he is filled with the Holy Ghost, and it is that which all who have the Spirit of Christ are full of.

(1.) In sending the Messiah, God has made a gracious visit to his people, whom for many ages he had seemed to neglect, and to be estranged from; he hath visited them as a friend, to take cognizance of their case. God is said to have visited his people in bondage when he delivered them (Exod. iii. 16; iv. 31), to have visited his people in famine when he gave them bread, Ruth i. 6. He had often sent to them by his prophets, and had still kept up a correspondence with them; but now he himself made them a visit.

(2.) He has wrought out redemption for them: He has redeemed his people. This was the errand on which Christ came into the world, to redeem those that were sold for sin, and sold under sin; even God's own people, his Israel, his son, his first-born, his free-born, need to be redeemed, and are undone if they be not. Christ redeems them by price out of the hands of God's justice, and redeems them by power out of the hands of Satan's tyranny, as Israel out of Egypt.

(3.) He has fulfilled the covenant of royalty made with the most famous Old-Testament prince, that is, David. Glorious things had been said of his family, that on him, as a mighty one, help should be laid, that his horn should be exalted, and his seed perpetuated, Ps. lxxxix. 19, 20, 24, 29. But that family had been long in a manner cast off and abhorred, Ps. lxxxix. 38. Now here it is glorified in, that, according to the promise, the horn of David should again be made to bud; for, Ps. cxxxii. 17, he hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (v. 69), there, where it was promised and expected to arise. David is called God's servant, not only as a good man, but as a king that ruled for God; and he was an instrument of the salvation of Israel, by being employed in the government of Israel; so Christ is the author of eternal redemption to those only that obey him. There is in Christ, and in him only, salvation for us, and it is a horn of salvation; for, [1.] It is an honourable salvation. It is raised up above all other salvations, none of which are to be compared with it: in it the glory both of the Redeemer and of the redeemed are advanced, and their horn exalted with honour. [2.] It is a plentiful salvation. It is a cornucopia—a horn of plenty, a salvation in which we are blessed with spiritual blessings, in heavenly things, abundantly. [3.] It is a powerful salvation: the strength of the beast is in his horn. He has raised up such a salvation as shall pull down our spiritual enemies, and protect us from them. In the chariots of this salvation the Redeemer shall go forth, and go on, conquering and to conquer.

(4.) He has fulfilled all the precious promises made to the church by the most famous Old-Testament prophets (v. 70): As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets. His doctrine of salvation by the Messiah is confirmed by an appeal to the prophets, and the greatness and importance of that salvation thereby evidenced and magnified; it is the same that they spoke of, which therefore ought to be expected and welcomed; it is what they enquired and searched diligently after (1 Pet. i. 10, 11), which therefore ought not to be slighted or thought meanly of. God is now doing that which he has long ago spoken of; and therefore be silent, O all flesh, before him, and attend to him. See, [1.] How sacred the prophecies of this salvation were. The prophets who delivered them were holy prophets, who durst not deceive and who aimed at promoting holiness among men; and it was the holy God himself that spoke by them. [2.] How ancient they were: ever since the world began. God having promised, when the world began, that the Seed of the woman should break the serpent's head, that promise was echoed to when Adam called his wife's name Eve-Life, for the sake of that Seed of hers; when Eve called her first son Cain, saying, I have gotten a man from the Lord, and another son, Seth, settled; when Noah was called rest, and foretold that God should dwell in the tents of Shem. And it was not long after the new world began in Noah that the promise was made to Abraham that in his Seed the nations of the earth should be blessed. [3.] What a wonderful harmony and concert we perceive among them. God spoke the same thing by them all, and therefore it is said to be dia stomatos, not by the mouths, but by the mouth, of the prophets, for they all speak of Christ as it were with one mouth.

Now what is this salvation which was prophesied of?

First, It is a rescue from the malice of our enemies; it is soterian ex echthron hemon—a salvation out of our enemies, from among them, and out of the power of them that hate us (v. 71); it is a salvation from sin, and the dominion of Satan over us, both by corruptions within and temptations without. The carnal Jews expected to be delivered from under the Roman yoke, but intimation was betimes given that it should be a redemption of another nature. He shall save his people from their sins, that they may not have dominion over them, Matt. i. 21.

Secondly, It is a restoration to the favour of God; it is to perform the mercy promised to our forefathers, v. 72. The Redeemer shall not only break the head of the serpent that was the author of our ruin, but he shall re-instate us in the mercy of God and re-establish us in his covenant; he shall bring us as it were into a paradise again, which was signified by the promises made to the patriarchs, and the holy covenant made with them, the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, v. 73. Observe, 1. That which was promised to the fathers, and is performed to us, is mercy, pure mercy; nothing in it is owing to our merit (we deserve wrath and the curse), but all to the mercy of God, which designed us grace and life: ex mero motu—of his own good pleasure, he loved us because he would love us. 2. God herein had an eye to his covenant, his holy covenant, that covenant with Abraham: I will be a God to thee and thy seed. This his seed had really forfeited by their transgressions; this he seemed to have forgotten in the calamities brought upon them; but he will now remember it, will make it appear that he remembers it, for upon that are grounded all his returns of mercy: Lev. xxvi. 42, Then will I remember my covenant.

Thirdly, It is a qualification for, and an encouragement to, the service of God. Thus was the oath he sware to our Father Abraham, That he would give us power and grace to serve him, in an acceptable manner to him and a comfortable manner to ourselves, v. 74, 75. Here seems to be an allusion to the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, which, God tells Moses, was in pursuance of the covenant he made with Abraham (Exod. iii. 6-8), and that this was the design of his bringing them out of Egypt, that they might serve God upon this mountain, Exod. iii. 12. Note, The great design of gospel grace is not to discharge us from, but to engage us to, and encourage us in, the service of God. Under this notion Christianity was always to be looked upon, as intended to make us truly religious, to admit us into the service of God, to bind us to it, and to quicken us in it. We are therefore delivered from the iron yoke of sin, that our necks may be put under the sweet and easy yoke of the Lord Jesus. The very bonds which he has loosed do bind us faster unto him, Ps. cxvi. 16. We are hereby enabled, 1. To serve God without fear—aphobos. We are therefore put into a state of holy safety that we might serve God with a holy security and serenity of mind, as those that are quiet from the fears of evil. God must be served with a filial fear, a reverent obedient fear, an awakening quickening fear, but not with a slavish fear, like that of the slothful servant, who represented him to himself as a hard master, and unreasonable; not with that fear that has torment and amazement in it; not with the fear of a legal spirit; a spirit of bondage, but with the boldness of an evangelical spirit, a spirit of adoption. 2. To serve him in holiness and righteousness, which includes the whole duty of man towards God and our neighbour. It is both the intention and the direct tendency of the gospel to renew upon us that image of God in which man was at first made, which consisted in righteousness and true holiness, Ps. l. 14. 3. To serve him, before him, in the duties of his immediate worship, wherein we present ourselves before the Lord, to serve him as those that have an eye always upon him, and see his eye always upon us, upon our inward man, that is serving him before him. 4. To serve him all the days of our life. The design of the gospel is to engage us in constancy and perseverance in the service of God, by showing us how much depends upon our not drawing back, and by showing us how Christ loved us to the end, and thereby engaged us to love him to the end.

2. He blessed God for the work of preparation for this salvation, which was to be done by John Baptist (v. 76): Thou child, though now but a child of eight days' old, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest. Jesus Christ is the Highest, for he is God over all, blessed for evermore (Rom. ix. 5), equal with the Father. John Baptist was his prophet, as Aaron was Moses's prophet (Exod. vii. 1); what he said was as his mouth, what he did was as his harbinger. Prophecy had now long ceased, but in John it revived, as it had done in Samuel, who was born of an aged mother, as John was, after a long cessation. John's business was,

(1.) To prepare people for the salvation, by preaching repentance and reformation as great gospel duties: Thou shalt go before the face of the Lord, and but a little before him, to prepare his ways, to call people to make room for him, and get ready for his entertainment. Let every thing that may obstruct his progress, or embarrass it, or hinder people from coming to him, be taken away: see Isa. xl. 3, 4. Let valleys be filled, and hills be brought low.

(2.) To give people a general idea of the salvation, that they might know, not only what to do, but what to expect; for the doctrine he preached was that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. There are two things in which you must know that this salvation consists:—

[1.] The forgiveness of what we have done amiss. It is salvation by the remission of sins, those sins which stand in the way of the salvation, and by which we are all become liable to ruin and condemnation, v. 77. John Baptist gave people to understand that, though their case was sad, by reason of sin, it was not desperate, for pardon might be obtained through the tender mercy of our God (the bowels of mercy, so the word is): there was nothing in us but a piteous case to recommend us to the divine compassion.

[2.] Direction to do better for the time to come. The gospel salvation not only encourages us to hope that the works of darkness shall be forgiven us, but sets up a clear and true light, by which we may order our steps aright. In it the day-spring hath visited us from on high (v. 78); and this also is owing to the tender mercy of our God. Christ is anatole—the morning Light, the rising Sun, Mal. iv. 2. The gospel brings light with it (John iii. 19), leaves us not to wander in the darkness of Pagan ignorance, or in the moonlight of the Old-Testament types or figures, but in it the day dawns; in John Baptist it began to break, but increased apace, and shone more and more to the perfect day. We have as much reason to welcome the gospel day who enjoy it as those have to welcome the morning who had long waited for it. First, The gospel is discovering; it shows us that which before we were utterly in the dark about (v. 79); it is to give light to them that sit in darkness, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; the day-spring visited this dark world to lighten the Gentiles, Acts xxvi. 18. Secondly, It is reviving; it brings light to them that sit in the shadow of death, as condemned prisoners in the dungeon, to bring them the tidings of a pardon, at least of a reprieve and opportunity of procuring a pardon; it proclaims the opening of the prison (Isa. lxi. 1), brings the light of life. How pleasant is that light! Thirdly, It is directing; it is to guide our feet in the way of peace, into that way which will bring us to peace at last. It is not only a light to our eyes, but a light to our feet (Ps. cxix. 105); it guides us into the way of making our peace with God, of keeping up a comfortable communion; that way of peace which as sinners we have wandered from and have not known (Rom. iii. 17), nor could ever have known of ourselves.

In the last verse, we have short account of the younger years of John Baptist. Though he was the son of a priest, he did not, like Samuel, go up, when he was a child, to minister before the Lord; for he was to prepare the way for a better priesthood. But we are here told,

1. Of his eminence as to the inward man: The child grew in the capacities of his mind, much more than other children; so that he waxed strong in the spirit; had a strong judgment and strong resolution. Reason and conscience (both which are the candle of the Lord) were so strong in him that he had the inferior faculties of appetite and passion in complete subjection betimes. By this it appeared that he was betimes filled with the Holy Ghost; for those that are strong in the Lord are strong in spirit.

2. Of his obscurity as to the outward man: He was in the deserts; not that he lived a hermit; cut off from the society of men. No, we have reason to think that he went up to Jerusalem at the feasts, and frequented the synagogues on the sabbath day, but his constant residence was in some of those scattered houses that were in the wilderness of Zuph or Maon, which we read of in the story of David. There he spent most of his time, in contemplation and devotion, and had not his education in the schools, or at the feet of the rabbin. Note, Many a one is qualified for great usefulness, who yet is buried alive; and many are so long buried who are designed, and are thereby in the fitting, for so much greater usefulness at last; as John Baptist, who was in the desert only till the day of his showing to Israel, when he was in the thirtieth year of his age. Note, There is a time fixed for the showing of those favours to Israel which are reserved; the vision of them is for an appointed time, and at the end it shall speak, and shall not lie.

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