Among the four gospels Luke is unique in offering readers four canticles, along the lines of those found in the Old Testament. The best known of these is the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary (1:46-55), whose structure and content is patterned after the ancient Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10). Another is the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), the elderly man who rejoiced that his eyes had at last seen in Jesus the salvation God had “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” The Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:14) would come to be elaborated and extended, finding its way into the ordinary of the mass in the western church.
Then there is the Benedictus of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, who sang it on the occasion of his son’s birth, shortly after his voice had returned to him (Luke 1:68-79). In the Orthodox tradition John is called Prodromos (Πρόδρομος) or Forerunner. He is portrayed in icons with long unkempt hair and beard, and with a cloth cloak covering a blue fleecy camel hair shirt. He is sometimes given angelic wings, as Jesus had identified him as the promised messenger (Greek: άγγελος) sent before him (Malachi 3:1; Matthew 11:10). Sometimes John is even shown carrying his own severed head in a dish!
During his lifetime, John was popularly recognized to be a prophet, and even the sceptical authorities were reluctant to deny it outright for fear of the people (Mark 11:32). Zechariah himself had prophesied that his son would be “called the prophet of the Most High” and “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (76). Jesus identified John with Elijah, whose coming “before the great and awesome day of the LORD” Malachi had forecast centuries earlier (Matthew 11:14; Malachi 4:5).
Nearly a decade ago I wrote a metrical versification of the text of Zechariah’s song, to be sung to the tune, AN WASSERFLÜSSEN BABYLON, by Wolfgang Dachstein, organist for Martin Bucer who contributed to the metrical psalter used in 16th-century Strasbourg. The text follows below:
Praise to the Lord, to Israel’s God
who came to bring us redemption,
for he has raised from David’s house
a mighty power for salvation.
He spoke through prophets long ago
that he would free us from the foe.
He promised father Abr’ham
that he would save us, free of all fears,
from every enemy that appears,
that we might serve in holiness before him.
You, little child, are called of God
to prophesy to the nation,
to go before the Saviour’s way
and gladly herald salvation;
to tell abroad to all that live
that God is anxious to forgive;
for through his mercies tender,
his rising sun will shine from above,
illuming those who strayed from his love,
to guide their feet in peace with his own splendour.
Copyright © 2000 by David T. Koyzis.