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.
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