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Note of the Day – December 6 (Luke 2:29)

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Luke 2:29

In the previous Advent note, I discussed the overall background and setting of the Song of Simeon (2:29-32); beginning today, the next three notes will discuss the Song in detail. The hymn is comprised of three lines (distychs or bicola), which I render here somewhat conventionally, to preserve the poetic rhythm and feel:

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Today I examine the first line (bicolon) in verse 29, which I now translate more literally:

  • Now you loose your slave from (his bond), O Master,
    • according to your utterance, in peace

The corresponding Greek is:

  • Nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou, de/spota
    • kata\ to\ r(h=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh|

Each of the key words will be discussed in turn, beginning with the particle nu=n (“now”). This temporal particle functions as an adverb, governed by the verb which follows. It is set in emphatic position at the beginning of the line—i.e., “now you loose your slave…”. This emphatic particle sets the hymn in motion. Note the important (chiastic) symmetry of the remainder of the line:

  • you loose from (bondage/service)
    —your slave
    —according to your word
  • in peace

This structure reflects the precise word order of the line, and should be kept in mind when studying the verse in detail.

a)polu/ei$ (“you loose from [bondage/service]”)—the verb a)polu/w literally means “(set) loose from”, i.e. from bondage or service (as a slave); in English idiom we would say “release from”, i.e. from the obligation. The reference is to the period of service for a slave, who could be released (set free) from that bond only by permission of the master, or when an agreed upon time of service had elapsed. Here it is also used as an idiom for the end of a person’s life, marking the end of his/her (earthly) service to God, often implying hard work and suffering (i.e. bondage). Death is viewed as a release, a loosing from bondage—cf. Gen 15:2; Num 20:29; Tobit 3:6; 2 Macc 9:9.

to\n dou=lo/n sou (“your slave”)—the word dou=lo$ (“slave”) is typically translated “servant” in order to soften the expression, and to avoid comparisons with the more oppressive/abusive forms of slavery known from U.S. history and elsewhere. Simeon considers himself a slave (or servant) of God, just as Paul, along with other early Christians, called themselves slaves of God, or of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; 6:16ff; 1 Cor 7:22; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10, etc).

de/spota (“[O] Master”)—here the word should be understood in its literal sense of owner, i.e. one who possesses and has authority over a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18). It was often used in the broader sense of “master, lord”, etc., and could apply as an honorific title of address for any ruler. It translates the Hebrew /wda* (“lord”), and occasionally is used in the LXX in place of the divine name YHWH (Prov 29:25, cf. Isa 1:24; Jon 4:3). The author of the Gospel uses it again in a similar context in Acts 4:24. It is applied as a title of Christ in Jude 4, and is found in the context of believers as slaves of God (and Christ) in 2 Tim 2:21; 2 Pet 2:1. According to the structure indicated above, the vocative de/spota (“O Master”) is at the center or heart of the line.

kata\ to\n r(h=ma/ sou (“according to your utterance”)—r(h=ma, usually translated “word”, properly means something which is spoken out, uttered by a person. Here it relates to the authority the master/owner has over the slave. A casual reading of the line would indicate that the focus is on the slave being released by the word of the master. And yet, the structure of the line (cf. above) rather suggests that the emphasis is on the authority (and ownership) the master has over the slave; note again the parallel:

  • your slave…
  • …according to your word

Because the master has authority over the slave, only his word—that is, an agreement or command declared by him—can release the slave. The narrative context of verse 26 relates this to a promise by God to Simeon, made through the Holy Spirit:

“and (the) information had been (giv)en to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death before he should see the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

This is the explanation or interpretation given by the author.

e)n ei)rh/nh| (“in peace”)—Again, if we consider the structure of the line (cf. above), this phrase qualifies the primary verb:

  • you loose (him) from (service)…
  • …in peace

This reflects the basic idea of blessing—of a person departing, or being sent off in peace. As an idiom for death, cf. Gen 15:15. Very likely, there is also an allusion here to the Joseph narrative (Gen 46:30), where the elderly Jacob (Israel) declares that he can die (i.e. in peace) now that he has seen his son (Joseph) again:

“from now [nu=n] (on) I shall [i.e. I can] die away, since I have seen your face (and) that you still live!”

Jacob, like Simeon, is one who is waiting for the deliverance (salvation) of God (49:18). Returning to the interpretation in Lk 2:26, Simeon’s desire, in terms of Messianic expectation, should be related to Messianic (Jewish) thought of the period. In the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:50), we find the idea that the person is truly blessed who is able to witness the coming of the Messianic Age and the deliverance of God’s people (cf. also Lk 10:23-24). Ps Sol 17:34 draws upon the same Isaiah traditions as the Song of Simeon (vv. 30-32), which will be discussed in the next two notes. There is also a strong Messianic motif involving the bringing and establishment of peace—cf. Psalm 72:7; Isa 9:5-6; Zech 8:12, etc. The birth of the Messiah (Jesus) in the Lukan narrative is accompanied by an announcement of peace on earth (Lk 2:14), so that those who serve God (i.e. believers) may now do so in peace (cf. 1:74). The transition from the old covenant (e.g. Simeon) to the new (believers in Christ) takes place in a moment of peace, as the aged Israelite, standing in the Temple, holds the baby Jesus in his arms.

December 6 is the traditional date in the West commemorating St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (in Lycia, Asia Minor) who, through an unusual set of circumstances, came to be the basis for the figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas was among the bishops present at the landmark council at Nicea, but otherwise we have very little reliable information about his life, though, of course, numerous legends have been preserved. Of the many familiar Christmas customs, it is perhaps only the practice of placing gifts in stockings which may be said to relate back directly to the old Nicholas traditions.