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This hymn surveys God's plan through the forerunner and the anointed Davidic heir. The Lord, the God of Israel, is blessed for how he works through these two major agents. Where Mary's hymn was cosmic and personal, Zechariah's is cosmic and universal. Zechariah rejoices that God has raised up the Davidic horn to do his work of deliverance, as well as sending a prophet to prepare the way for him. That deliverance possesses both political and spiritual dimensions, as verses 71-75 and 78-79 show.
Luke describes the hymn as Spirit-inspired. In other Lukan accounts, often the Spirit's presence leads to a prophetic declaration or to praise (Acts 2:17-18; 11:27; 13:1; 19:6; 21:9). This hymn offers a divine commentary on God's plan. John is the prophet of the Most High pointing to Jesus, the bright Morning Star. So Zechariah highlights Jesus just as his son John will.
John's birth means that God is once again working actively to redeem his promise (vv. 72-73). Zechariah praises God, for he has come and has redeemed his people. What the NIV refers to as God's coming heralds an important Lukan concept, God's visitation (1:78; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14). This introduction makes the hymn a praise psalm. The theme of the praise occurs in verses 68-70, while the explanation of the theme involves the rest of the hymn. God's visitation comes in Messiah's visitation (Lk 2:26-32). God has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David. God often acted in history to "raise up" a prophet (Deut 18:15, 18), a judge (Judg 3:9, 15), a priest (1 Sam 2:35) or a king (2 Sam 3:10). Luke likes the idea as well (Acts 3:22, 26; 13:22), showing how God directs the events of his plan.
This Messiah is a picture of strength, which is why Zechariah mentions the horn. The horns of an ox are used for protection and for defeating opponents (Deut 33:17). The same image is used for a warrior (2 Sam 22:3; Ps 75:4-5, 10; 148:14) or a king who saves (1 Sam 2:10; Ps 132:17). Luke's starting point for thinking about Jesus is that he is a king.
God is doing what he promised. His word will come to pass. These events are as he said through his holy prophets of long ago. The promise involves rescue: God will save his people from their enemies and from all who hate them. Such salvation reflects the mercy of God and the recollection of the covenant made with Abraham. In this way the hymn actually combines two sets of divine promises--those about David's son and those made to Abraham. What God will do for his people he does through Messiah. The fresh fulfillment of both covenants begins with Jesus' arrival.
But what is the goal of this salvation? Here is perhaps the most insightful part of the hymn. Zechariah is not retreating from life or looking only to a future reward in heaven. His heart's desire is to serve [God] without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. This is the expression of an exemplary soul. The meaning of life comes in faithful service to a holy God. By saying our days, Zechariah represents many who share this desire. Salvation enables the child of God to serve God.
Who are the enemies referred to in the hymn? In the context it seems clear that Zechariah anticipates freedom from the opposition of enemies (v. 74). Possibly he hopes for rescue from Rome, much as John the Baptist seemed to anticipate when he asked Jesus whether he really was "the one who was to come" (7:18-23). Such a political deliverance for the people of God is also anticipated by John in Revelation 19.
But this is only a partial answer. Zechariah's hymn is an introduction to Luke's entire book. To ask what the hymn means for Luke, we need only to see how he develops the theme of enemies within his Gospel (Bock 1993:443-48). Such an examination shows that the enemy consists of supernatural opposition (11:14-23). Jesus is the "someone stronger" who overruns the strong man Beelzebub. To provide real victory Jesus will need to vanquish not only human opponents but the spiritual ones that stand behind them as well (Eph 6:10-18). Jesus' activity shows his goal to be the reversal of the effect of demonic presence (Lk 13:10-17). As the Davidic Son, he heals and shows his authority (18:35-42). The power of his horn extends even into these dimensions of reality. The miracles are not only events of deliverance but pictures of a deeper reality. To know Jesus is to have access to authority that can overcome the presence of evil. We are able, as a result, to serve God in holiness and righteousness.
Two agents are responsible for this work. John the Baptist, as prophet, will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him. In the context of the hymn, it is best to see the Lord as a reference to God the Father, since he is the source of all the activity the hymn describes (as also in 1:17). Luke 1:76-77 speaks of his way and his people, a reference that looks back to 1:68, where the people are God's. For Luke, God is the producer-planner and Jesus is the plan's directing agent. John's preparation involves giving knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Forgiveness is a major Lukan theme (Lk 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).
Forgiveness is also a principal component of the expression of God's tender mercy. He is the one who makes the dayspring dawn upon us from on high, or in the NIV rendition, the rising sun . . . come to us from heaven. This is a reference to the sun's dawning in the morning. The Davidic horn (v. 69) is an image of light (Num 24:17; Is 11:1-10). The image of light will be important in Acts (13:47; 26:17-20) as well as in Luke (2:32). The picture is of a world cloaked in darkness and death, desperate for someone to lead it into light and life. For Zechariah, this rescue is Messiah's mission. The Christ is the bearer of forgiveness as his day dawns. Once his day dawns, the light of the "Sun" never sets. He is the one who guides our feet into the path of peace. Even the righteous Zechariah recognizes the need to be totally dependent on the one God will send. Those who are righteous know that the only true journey in life is the one taken in the hands of God. In Luke 1, Zechariah has grown from a figure of doubt to an example of dependence.
So John and Jesus come by God's mercy to prepare and lead God's people. John will proclaim salvation, but Jesus will take them to it.
For this reason Luke notes John's growth briefly and ends the chapter by placing John in the desert, where he will minister to the nation. Then Luke turns the story's spotlight from John and his birth and shines it on the star of his narrative, Jesus, the Davidic horn and king who delivers his people into the light.