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Luke 1:69, 78-79

In the previous note, I looked at the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, vv. 67-79), focusing especially on the opening lines (v. 68) and the beginning of the third part (vv. 76-77) dealing specifically with John the Baptist. Today, I will continue and supplement that study, examining the verses which follow—v. 69 and 78-79, respectively.

To set verse 69 in context, here is the opening line (v. 68a), along with the first section (or strophe), vv. 68b-71:

“Well-counted [i.e. worthy of a good account] is the Lord God of Yisrael!
in that [i.e. because] He looked upon and made (the) release for His people
and raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of Dawid His child
even as He spoke through (the) mouth of His holy Foretellers from (the) Age—
Salvation out of our hostile (foe)s(‘ grasp)
and out of the hand of all the (one)s hating us”

Verse 69 is parallel to the declaration in 68b:

  • He looked upon and made the release for his people
  • He raised a horn of salvation for us

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. The two verbs, used in tandem in v. 68b, are:

e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”)—this compound verb carries the sense of examining something closely or carefully, often in the context of an authority figure coming to examine or inspect a situation. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, it is sometimes used in a specific theological sense—of God manifesting himself to give help to his people (Lk 7:16; Acts 15:14), sometimes in a distinctive eschatological (and/or Messianic) context as here in the hymn. The related noun e)piskoph/ carries a similar meaning in Lk 19:44 and 1 Pet 2:12. For more, cf. on verse 78 below.

poie/w (“make, do”)—the common action verb here is used with the noun lu/trwsi$, which refers to action which effects the release (lit. “loosing”) of a person from debt or bondage. Typically it would indicate the payment made to free a person from his/her bond. The word is rare in the New Testament, occurring only three times (here and in Lk 2:38; Heb 9:12), always referring to the salvation or deliverance worked by God (through Christ) for his people.

In verse 69, the verb is:

e)gei/rw (“raise, rise, lift [up]”)—this common verb of motion was frequently used in reference to God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Here it is used in the general (figurative) sense of causing a situation to come about, of bringing a person into prominence or a position of power, etc. The object of the verb is the expression “horn of salvation”, making the phrase parallel to the prior one in v. 68—”he raised…salvation” = “he made release/redemption”.

This expression “horn of salvation” (ke/ra$ swthri/a$) is an idiom taken from the Old Testament, in which the horn (ke/ra$) refers to that of a strong adult (male) animal, such as a bull. It signifies both power and prominence, and, as such, is a fitting symbol for a strong and virile king or ruler. The specific expression is found in Psalm 18:2 (2 Sam 22:3), where it refers to God (Yahweh) as a powerful protector. In Psalm 132:17, God declares:

“I will make a horn sprout for David, I have set in place a light for my anointed (one)”

This declaration of blessing and protection for the (Davidic) king, came to be understood in a future (Messianic) sense, such as we see already in Ezekiel 29:21. By the time of the New Testament, the idea was already well-established, as indicated by the 15th of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) in Jewish tradition. The specific idea of “raising” the horn (of salvation) most likely alludes to 1 Sam 2:10, in the song of Hannah, upon which the earlier Magnificat was patterned (at least in part):

“He [i.e. the Lord] will judge the ends of the earth,
and he will give strength to his king
and will raise the horn of his anointed (one)”

The Messianic context in the Benedictus is confirmed by the qualifying phrase “in the house of David his child [pai=$]”. The Greek word pai=$ can also mean “a (young) servant”, but here it is best to retain the literal sense, as it alludes both to (1) the king (or Messiah) as God’s “son”, and (2) the narrative setting of Jesus’ birth. The Messianic type of Davidic ruler—i.e. future king from the line of David—is clearly in view, being introduced already in the Angelic announcement to Mary (vv. 27, 32-33).

When we turn to verses 78-79, the focus of the hymn has shifted to the newborn child John. For commentators who hold that these Lukan hymns are earlier productions which the author (trad. Luke) has adapted and incorporated into the narrative, verses 76-77, which relate specifically to John, must be secondary. However, taking the hymn as it stands, these verses work to form a vital third section (or strophe) which makes a fitting conclusion. I translate the section here, with vv. 78-79 marked in italics:

“And you also, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller of the Highest
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the sight of the Lord
to make ready his ways
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in (the) release of their sins
through (the) inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which a rising-up out of the height will look upon us
to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death
(and) to put down our feet straight into (the) way of peace

The future role and work of John are described in verse 77, by the two verbal infinitives—”to make ready” (the ways of the Lord) and “to give knowledge” (of salvation to his people). This salvation (swthri/a), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lu/trwsi$) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release [a&fesi$] of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

Each of the phrases and expressions in verse 78-79 builds upon the earlier imagery of the hymn, and continues the Messianic association (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 388-9):

  • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [spla/gxna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc). There is similar phrasing (and Messianic/eschatological context) in the Jewish Testament of Zebulun 8:2 (cf. also the Christianized Testament of Levi 4:4).
  • The verb e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (e)piske/yetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
  • The word a)natolh/ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4, and note also the references cited above).
  • The expression “out of the height” (e)c u%you$) is related to the divine title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in verse 76 (and cf. the note on vv. 32, 35). For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
  • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
  • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuqu/nw probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the note on Lk 2:10-14.

In verses 68 and 78 we find two words which, if not exactly proper names, certainly would have been understood as Messianic titleske/ra$ (“horn”) and a)natolh/ (“rising/sprout[ing]”). Interestingly, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) seems to have understood a)natolh/ in v. 78 as a kind of name (i.e. Anatol¢); in this he may be following Zech 3:8; 6:12 LXX (cf. Dialogue with Trypho §121.2).

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).

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