Today’s note is on Luke 2:29-32, the Song of Simeon. I dealt with this passage extensively in a series of Advent notes. Here I will be looking it from the standpoint of the Messianic expectation, common among Jews and Christians of the period, and how it has been modified in the Lukan Infancy narrative, being reflective of early Christian belief and expression. The last two lines of the Song of Simeon (vv. 31-32), in particular, manifest this new understanding, much as we see also in the last lines of the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, 1:78-79). The early Christian (and Lukan) interpretation is rooted in the use of certain key passages from the book of Isaiah, especially the so-called “Servant songs” of Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-55, etc).
In yesterday’s note, I mentioned again the parallels between Zechariah and Simeon, and the two oracle-hymns (Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis) attributed to each. It will be helpful to examine the relevant (concluding) lines of each hymn, to gain a better sense of how this Messianic expectation was applied to Jesus. There were a number of Messiah figure-types known from the Qumran texts and other writings of the period, but two were especially prominent in the Gospel tradition (cf. the series “Yeshua the Anointed“):
- The Prophet like Elijah who would appear prior to the great Judgment, bringing God’s people to repentance—drawn primarily from Malachi 3:1ff and the interpretation in 4:5-6 [Heb 3:23-24].
- A coming Ruler (King) from the line of David who will judge/subdue the nations, deliver God’s people, and bring about the restoration of Israel. For the Scriptural background of this figure, cf. Part 6 of the aforementioned series.
By the time the Gospels came to be written, early Christian tradition had identified these two figure-types as being fulfilled by John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively. Here in the Lukan Infancy narrative, the hymn of Zechariah focuses on John the Baptist, while the Song of Simeon is centered on the child Jesus.
In Luke 1:76 John the Baptist is clearly identified as the Messenger (Elijah, cf. verse 17) who prepares the way before the Lord, as we see well-established in the Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2-3ff par; Lk 7:27; Jn 1:19-23ff). Through his preaching and ministry of baptism, John turns the hearts and minds of people back to God, preparing them for the coming of the Lord, the Anointed One (Christ). This emphasis on repentance introduces the motif of salvation from sin—”to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins” (v. 77). The religious (and eschatological) background of this idea of salvation is very much related to the coming Judgment—only those who repent and return to God will escape (i.e. be saved from) the anger and judgment of God upon humankind. In verse 78, however, the emphasis shifts to salvation as an expression of God’s mercy; for similar wording, cf. the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Zebulun 8; Levi 4). The judgment imagery and vocabulary is transformed, centered here on the verb e)piske/ptomai (“look [carefully] upon”), which came to be a technical term for the end-time appearance (visitation) of God, both to help/save his people and to bring the Judgment. Only now, a different sort of visitation is described—of a revelatory light from heaven, shining upon human beings (God’s people) trapped in darkness. As previously discussed (cf. the note on vv. 69, 78-79) the “rising up” (a)natolh/) is best understood by the image of a sun or star which gives the light (of God) from out of heaven (Num 24:17; Isa 60:1ff; Mal 4:2, etc). The image of people—God’s people—sitting in darkness and shadow comes primarily from Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7 (cf. also Psalm 107:9-10).
Similarly, in the Simeon episode, the child Jesus is identified as the Anointed One (2:26)—that is, the Messianic figure-type of the end-time ruler from the line of David (cf. 1:32-33, 69; 2:11). An interesting shift has taken place, however; instead of the idea of salvation from the wicked nations (the enemies of Israel, cf. 1:70-71) etc, this figure is now identified with salvation itself. Note the similarity of language between 2:26 and 30:
“…until he should see the Anointed of the Lord”
“…my eyes have seen your Salvation“
Two parallel expressions are involved:
- the Anointed (One) [xristo/$] of the Lord
- the Salvation [swthri/a] of the Lord
In other words, the salvation which the Lord (Yahweh) brings for his people is embodied in the person of the Anointed One (Jesus). The “Lord” in vv. 29ff is referenced, not by the regular Greek term ku/rio$ (ky¡rios), but by the less common despo/th$ (despót¢s). This word more properly means “master, owner”, and better fits the master-slave motif in verse 29. However, it is generally synonymous with the Hebrew °¹dôn (cf. the earlier article on this title), and, occasionally, like ku/rio$, was used to render the divine name YHWH (cf. the prior note on v. 29 and the article on Yahweh). Earlier in the hymn of Zechariah (v. 69), the Messiah (Jesus) was described as a “horn of salvation” raised up by the Lord—not just the means of deliverance, or the one who accomplishes it, but salvation itself, from the power of sin enslaving all of humankind. This reflects the essential meaning and character of the name Yeshua/Jesus (Matt 1:21 [note], and cf. Luke 2:11).
- Light/Darkness imagery, and
- The people (of God) / peoples on earth
Light—specifically light to/for the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 52:10), an extension of the basic image in 1:78-79 (Isa 9:2ff, cf. Matt 4:15-16). This clearly relates to the early Christian motif of revelation through the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:1-6). I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in a recent article, and you will find there an extensive listing of relevant Scripture references. In particular, note the strong identification of Jesus himself as light in the Gospel (and letters) of John—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5-7; 2:8-10.
People(s)—In the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition, the original idea of the “people of God” was based on the ethnic-religious premise that God chose Israel out of all the peoples (nations) on earth, and established a special covenant with them. That the Messiah (i.e. the Davidic ruler) would come out of Israel—that is, out of Judah (the line of David), to rule over all Israel—was axiomatic, and would scarcely have been questioned by anyone at the time. This meant that salvation and deliverance comes out of Israel (Isa 46:13; Rom 4:5; Jn 4:22, etc), and, in the traditional religious sense, was intended primarily, if not exclusively, for the faithful among God’s people (Israel). In the (later) Prophets, however—and, especially, in the second half of the book of Isaiah (‘Deutero-Isaiah’)—the idea becomes more prevalent that this covenant relationship will reach outward to the surrounding nations, and that other peoples will come to join Israel as part of God’s people (cf. Isa 49:6, 22; 56:3-8; 60:3-7; 66:18ff, etc).
This shift in focus was an important element of early Christian thought, associated with the mission to the Gentiles—cf. throughout the book of Acts, and, especially, in two key passages: (1) Paul’s statement regarding the inauguration of his mission to the Gentiles (13:46ff, citing Isa 49:6), and (2) the declaration by James in 15:14-17 (citing Amos 9:11-12). The reference to “all the peoples” in Lk 2:31 is parallel to the expression “all flesh” in 3:6: “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (cf. Isa 40:5). Thus it is declared that the nations will join with Israel—and this is to Israel’s honor/glory (v. 32)—to become the people of God. This new religious identity is no longer ethnic, but multi-national and trans-ethnic—it belongs to Jews and Gentiles equally, and is based on trust/belief in Jesus Christ. This, of course, will be developed considerably throughout the Gospel and Acts (not to mention the letters of Paul), but is foreshadowed and foretold by Simeon here. From the standpoint of the (historical) narrative, the process of people coming to trust in Christ begins with the people of Israel (Israelites and Jews). This is the basis of the second part of Simeon’s oracle in vv. 34-35:
“This (child) is laid out unto the falling and rising-up of many in Israel, and unto a sign being counted [i.e. spoken] against…so that the counting through [i.e. thoughts, reasoning] out of many hearts will be uncovered.”
We have come a long way here from the traditional Messianic figure-types (cf. above); the concept of salvation has even shifted from the idea of repentance and salvation from sin to something subtler and more universal—the very thought-process, the mind and thinking, of human beings. The light of Christ reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of the person. The faithful ones, the believers, will respond to that light (Jn 3:19-21), and so become the true people of God in Christ.