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Zechariah’s Muteness

Most expositions of Zechariah’s story in Luke 1:1-25 assume two things:

  1. Zechariah prayed for a child and his prayer got answered.
  2. His muteness was a punishment for his unbelief.

Last Sunday as I was listening to the sermon, I questioned these two traditional assumptions and came up with some new thoughts that deserve more investigation. Frankly, I haven’t done any further research yet, but I’d like to share my thoughts and see if anyone has any feedback.

  1. First of all, nowhere says Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a son. We only know that they are righteous and blameless in front of God (1:6), and they are childless and well advanced in years (1:7). If Zechariah really prayed for a son, why would he be so surprised and doubtful of God’s ability when his prayer was answered (1:18)? Shouldn’t he be happy and praise God instead?

    I think it’s much more likely that he DID NOT pray for a son, but prayed for what every faithful Jew would pray for in that context–the coming of the Messiah and God’s vindication for Israel. (Afterall, we know that he’s a righteous and blameless Jew serving in the priesthood.) What actually surprised him then, I think, was HOW God would achieve His plan, i.e. through a son, bore by his barren wife, to become the forerunner of the coming Messiah. That’s why he was a bit perplexed and doubtful of Gabriel’s message. I think this explanation is more logical and congruent to the context. So no, I don’t think they ever prayed for a son. They knew their condition (barrenness & old-age) and accepted it as their fate.

  2. Most preachers would introduce the background of this story by saying that there was a famine of God’s word for almost 400 years (Amos 8:11). God stayed mute to His people for 400 years. I suddenly connected the dots and wondered if Zechariah’s muteness has anything to do with God’s muteness. Was it only a punishment for his unbelief, or more like a chance for him to experience what it is like to stay mute and be patient until the appointed time of the fulfillment of things? God stayed mute for 400 years. Zechariah stayed mute for 40 weeks. I don’t know, but I always think that God does not do things randomly without reason. If God wanted to punish Zechariah, he could do it a thousand ways differently. Why must it be muteness? There must be some connection between his muteness and God’s muteness prior to this event…

    No matter what, the effect of Zechariah’s muteness was that this miracle caused him, first of all, to praise God when he opened his mouth (1:64), and more importantly, the people in all the hill country of Judea to start fearing God (1:65). So part of what John was supposed to do (1:17) was already accomplished through his father’s incident. Even punishments can have positive and constructive purposes.

So that’s what I thought. What do you think, my friends? Have you come across any commentaries that connect God’s muteness with Zechariah’s muteness? I’ll check out some Luke commentaries from the library tomorrow. Will see…

Posted in Biblical, Posts in English.

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4 Responses

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  1. Samuel says

    Hey Anson, good thoughts on these two which make lots of senses to the text’s context… I have never thought of them in this way either… you sound like “N.T. Wright” in a certain sense here… read his “Simply Jesus” and you will see … I am also waiting for his upcoming “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels”

  2. Edmund says

    Interesting thoughts and observations. Whether their prayers were about Elizabeth’s barrenness, or the vindication of Israel, we need to think through Gabriel’s remarks that Zechariah “did not believe” (20). The barrenness interpretation is obviously tied with the story of Hannah (& of Samuel), which also linked to your second point about God’s muteness (1 Samuel 3:1).

    And I agree that Zechariah’s punishment is indeed for constructive purposes, much like Saul/Paul’s blindness caused him to quiet down and think through what had happened in his life and in God’s unfolding drama of salvation.

  3. Alan yu says

    Interesting. I just preached on this story a few weeks ago.

    Point 2 is insightful. But I do not agree with point 1. It s unlikely that any barren couple would not pray for a son. But it is likely that they have stopped praying after menopause (I suspect Elizabeth was in such state…). His disbelieve is much like the disbelieve of Abraham and Sarah, I’d say. He did not believe in a miracle.

  4. Bonnie says

    I actually never thought of his muteness having to do with the Lord being patient until the fulfilled time the Messiah was to come. I’ve often figured that him being quiet did have something to do with either watching the Lord constantly show that He is greater than creation (like when the pregnant virgin Mary came to visit), as well as help him overcome his future doubts about the Lord unable to do the “impossible”, and to quietly give him a glimpse of the Messiah coming. I love what you put up!