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Note of the Day – December 7 (Luke 2:30-31)

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Luke 2:30-31

Today’s note is the third of four in this Advent series on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). In it I will be examining the second line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“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.”

Previously, I have treated verses 30-31 as separate lines, but, in terms of the structure of the hymn, they represent a single unit. A slightly more literal rendering is as follows:

  • (in) that my eyes saw your salvation
    • which you made ready against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples

The Greek is:

  • o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou
    • o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n

As in the case of the first line (v. 29), an initial particle (o%ti) governs vv. 30-31, though here it is a conjunctive particle, connecting it with the earlier line. It gives the reason why the speaker (Simeon) may now be released from his service to God. I have translated it literally as “(in) that”, i.e. “because”, though it is probably better to retain the temporal sense, as I do in the poetic rendering above—”(now) that”, i.e. “since”. The (chiastic) parallelism of the line is also expressed somewhat differently that that of v. 29; note the structure here:

  • my eyes saw
    —your salvation
    —you made ready
  • {before} the face of all the peoples

The framing motif is that of seeing—Simeon now sees what God has prepared for all people, and which soon will become visible/apparent to all. What he sees is clarified by the “inner” pairing of the line—”your salvation which you made ready”. The relative particle o% (“[that] which”) is at the center of the line (on this, cf. below). I will now briefly discuss each of the key words or phrases in vv. 30-31.

ei@don (“[they] saw”)—In English this is usually translated as though it were a perfect form (“have seen”), but it is actually an aorist form, suggesting an action which is completed or occurs (just) prior to the person’s speaking, i.e. “my eyes now (have) see(n)…”. This is the principal verb governing vv. 30-31, with the emphasis on seeing. The same emphasis (and verb) is found, twice, in the explanation given by the author in verse 26:

“it was given (as) information to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see [i&dein] death before he should see [i&dh|] the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

Almost certainly we should recognize an allusion to Gen 46:30. Simeon had been waiting, looking toward the coming of the “help of Israel” and (with Anna) the “redemption of Jerusalem”—both expressions referring to the deliverance (salvation) God will bring about for his people through the coming of the Anointed One (Messiah) at the end-time.

oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou (“my eyes”)—Instead of saying simply “I saw”, the hymn uses the more colorful (and dramatic) Semitic idiom “my eyes saw”, which gives greater emphasis, and a strong personal dimension, to the act and experience of seeing. The expression “my eyes” is used in this manner frequently in the Old Testament (more than 70 times), especially in a poetic setting (in the Psalms, Prophets and Wisdom writings). The idiom is relatively rare in the New Testament, but note the important saying of Jesus in Luke 10:23 par (cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; 1 Jn 1:1). To have one’s sight restored, or suddenly be able to see, is occasionally described as having “the eyes opened” (Mk 8:25; Matt 9:30 etc); while the expression “lift the eyes” means to look and see something (Lk 6:20; 16:23, etc). In Acts 26:18, as in the citation of Isa 6:9-10 (Acts 28:27, etc), opening the eyes is connected with experiencing or realizing salvation.

to\ swth/rio/n sou (“your salvation”)—Interestingly, while the noun swth/ria (“salvation”) is fairly common in the New Testament, the related neuter substantive [to\] swth/rion occurs only three times, all in Luke-Acts—here, and in Lk 3:6; Acts 28:28. All three times it is part of the expression “the salvation of God”, by which is meant, not God being saved, but rather the salvation/deliverance/protection which God brings. This is indicated by the neuter form with the definite article; it could relate abstractly to the means or act of saving, but also to a specific person who might serve as savior/protector. Here, of course, it is connected with the child Jesus in Simeon’s arms. Within the context (and theology) of Luke-Acts, the expression refers specifically to the salvation of the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) through the proclamation of the Gospel. This point will be discussion in the next note (on verse 32).

o% (“which”)—The use of this relative particle is important, both for the flow of the line, but also, more significantly, as a way to connect Jesus (the means of salvation which Simeon now sees) with the deliverance promised to God’s faithful ones (his people) in the Scriptures. It is particularly the prophecies in the latter chapters of Isaiah (40-66) which are in view here in the Song of Simeon, as throughout the other hymns of the Lukan Infancy narrative. There is a clear allusion to Isa 40:5 in vv. 30-31, as well as to 46:13; 49:6b, and 52:10. One may also note the reference to seeing salvation in the deutero-canonical Baruch 4:24. The revelation of salvation—i.e., its becoming visible to humankind—is part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, as we see in a number of the Qumran texts (e.g., CD 20:20, 34; 1 QM 5).

h(toi/masa$ (“you made ready”)—There is a distinct theological sense of the verb e(toima/zw (“make ready, prepare”) in the New Testament. It is frequently used of God, in an eschatological context—i.e. of what God has prepared (ahead of time) for the faithful, and also for the wicked, at the end (following the final Judgment). For its occurrence in sayings by Jesus, cf. Mk 10:40 par; Matt 22:4; 25:34ff; Jn 14:2-3. On God preparing blessing/reward for believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; Heb 11:16; Rev 21:2. The eschatological sense is especially prominent in the book of Revelation (8:6; 9:7, 15; 12:6; 16:12; 19:7). In the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Luke, the verb is related to the idea of “preparing the way of the Lord”—i.e. of the messenger who prepares God’s people (and humankind) for His coming (in Judgment) at the end time. This eschatological and Messianic tradition was strong in Judaism and early Christianity, combining the language and symbolism from Isa 40:3ff and Mal 3:1ff. According to the early Christian interpretation, John the Baptist was identified as the messenger who prepares the way for the coming of Christ (the Lord), as in Luke 3:4 par. The two Old Testament traditions are combined specifically in Mark 1:2-3, but also, less directly, here in Luke. Note especially the language in Luke 1:16-17 and 76-77ff. It is in the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) that salvation in the person of Christ (vv. 76-79) is tied back to the promised deliverance of God’s people (vv. 68-75), representing the two halves of the song respectively. For more on the parallel between Simeon and Zechariah, cf. my previous note.

kata\ pro/swpon (“against [the] face”)—Concretely, the preposition kata/ would here indicate something God brings down on the face, but more properly means “against” in the sense of “before, in front of, in the sight of”. The use of the noun “face” (pro/swpon, lit. “toward [the] eye[s]”) continues the motif of seeing in this line. The expression “against/before the face” is a Semitic idiom which means “in the presence of”, but also indicates something directed right at a person (cf. Gal 2:11), as in English we might say “right to his face” or “in his face”. Thus, there are two aspects which should be isolated here: (1) that God has prepared this salvation in the presence of all the peoples, i.e. during their history and lifetimes, and (2) that it is directed at the peoples, i.e. made ready for them and their benefit. Also, there is likely a foreshadowing of the idea that this salvation will soon become visible to all people, through the life and work of Jesus, and, subsequently, in the proclamation of the Gospel.

pa/ntwn tw=n law=n (“of all the peoples”)—There is allusion in vv. 30-31 to Isa 52:10 (cf. above); note the parallel, citing the LXX:

“against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples” (v. 31)
“in the sight [e)nw/pion] of all the nations” (Isa 52:10a)

Interestingly, however, the Gospel writer (and/or Simeon as the speaker), uses “peoples” (laoi/) instead of “nations” (e&qnh). The parallel use of the plural “peoples” in Acts 4:25-27 might suggest that the reference here is to the Jewish people (i.e. Israelites/Jews). It seems best to understand the term in the context of what follows in v. 32, were two groups are mentioned in tandem—(a) the nations (e&qnh), that is, Gentiles or non-Jews, and (b) the people (lao/$) Israel. These two comprise the “peoples” in v. 31—in other words, all humankind (that is, all believers), Jew and Gentile both. The expression “all the peoples” should be understood as synonymous with “all flesh” (pa=$ sa/rc) in Luke 3:6 (again citing Isa 52:10): “all flesh will see the salvation of God”.