How the Prophetic Word Was Restored –or-

The Slightly Embellished Tale of Zechariah the Priest

Dedicated to M. Banks Brazell

 

Luke 1:5-25, 59-80

 

templelayoutWould you like to know how the prophetic word was restored to Israel after three hundred years?  Ok.  It’s the thirtieth year in the reign of Herod the Great over Israel – 7 BC.  Zechariah is a priest of the temple.  Both he and his wife, Elizabeth, are descendants of Aaron, the very first priest of Yahweh and brother to Moses, the Lawgiver.  All priests since had been required to prove direct bloodline from Aaron before they could be trained and installed in the priesthood – Zechariah is no exception.  He was dedicated to the temple at birth, raised accordingly, matched with a daughter of Aaron, Elizabeth, and married at the age of thirteen.  That was nearly forty years ago.  One of Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s greatest assets was their common heritage and upbringing.  They could trace their begets back over fourteen hundred years to Aaron himself through his son, Abijah. 

 

Zechariah and Elizabeth live in complete obedience to the Torah.  (Remember, the Bible defines sin as disobeying the Torah - i.e. the instructions of Yahweh found in the first five Bible books.)  Despite their heritage, long years together and faithful service to G-d and the people of Judea, Zechariah and Elizabeth are under a cloud of suspicion simply because Elizabeth hasn’t borne a child.  This is a great liability.  In fact, it’s thought to be god’s curse.  However, Elizabeth, though almost past the age of childbearing, still holds out faith for a son to carry on the ministry.  Though scorned, she’s in good company with Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, the wife of Manoah and Hannah.  See, all these women were thought to be barren and all thought to be too old, yet they courageously held out in prayer and faith and were vindicated in the end, bearing sons and daughters who changed the course of history.  Elizabeth gains strength through the stories of these strong women as she prays and hopes.

 

As a priest, Zechariah is a religious professional – a clergyman.  His trade is in saying patent prayers and singing psalms, wearing official robes, reciting ritualistic formulas and traditional teachings, lighting incense and oil lamps and adjudging the quality of sacrificial animals - bulls, cattle, sheep, goats, birds.  He is also expert in the use of the ceremonial daggers and butchers’ tools for when sacrificial bloodletting and slaughter are required.  But today, there was to be none of that mess.  Today, Zechariah has a much tamer role to play in the drama of corporate worship and in the destiny of the universe.

 

There were many priests needed to fulfill the multitude of chores associated with the largest religious establishment on earth – the Jerusalem Temple.  So many priests were required that there were twenty-four “divisions” (1 Chronicles 24), each division named after one of Aaron’s sons.  Zechariah’s in the “Abijah” division.  (“Abijah” means “Father Yahweh,” an appropriate appellation considering Zechariah’s part in the Father’s drama of salvation.)

 

Duties of the priest for a particular season are drawn by lot; Yahweh chooses his own man.  Zechariah’s ‘lot’ is to attend to the Holy Place, a room in the inner sanctum of the temple that houses two tables – one of gold, the other of marble.  Upon the tables are the magnificent golden lampstand with its many torches (menorah), two priceless frankincense cups and the golden plate displaying the showbread.  There is also a golden incense altar (replacing that of shittim wood – Exodus 30:7). 

 

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A veil covers the front entrance of the Holy Place – nobody’s allowed in there but priests assigned duties.  The back exit hallway ends in a huge double veil.  On the other side is a very famous room: the “Holy of Holies.”  (There is therefore the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies – two different rooms.)  Worshipers believed Yahweh lived in and ruled from the Holy of Holies, a barren area into which no one dared go under the penalty of death. 

 

Though Zechariah will never see the inside of the Holy of Holies, offering incense during the hours of prayer in the Holy Place is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Zechariah drew good duty and Yahweh chose him through the lot.  No doubt Zechariah felt extremely privileged and enormously fearful in fulfilling this particular calling.  Aaron’s sons and several others had been struck dead when they hadn’t done the job as instructed.  Zechariah might also be anticipating the supernatural; after all, this was the place where the great prophet Samuel received his calling from Yahweh.  Nah!  As a Sadducee, Zechariah doesn’t believe much in angels and the supernatural, but just maybe he too will be called – called or killed.  {music}

 

Zechariah reminisces about the story of Eli and Samuel in those ancient days of a thousand years before.  That the voice of Yahweh hadn’t been heard in Israel for many years because Eli’s sons, like Aaron’s before, were derelict in their duties and immoral in their actions.  Eli, though he was himself righteous, just went along with whatever his sons did – even sacrilege.  Eli lost favor with the Almighty, who would no longer speak to Israel through him until these sons were disciplined.  Alas, Eli was more interested in pleasing his rotten children than pleasing his god.  So Yahweh raised up a boy, Samuel, to hear his words and to tingle the ears of Israel (1 Samuel 3:11). 

 

Zechariah realizes that these days are like Eli’s days - worship is as corrupt as that of Eli’s sons because those who rule the temple are whitewashed sepulchers – scrubbed clean outside, full of bones and stench inside (himself excluded, of course).  No, the Holy Spirit will never speak through such except in condemnation.  Likewise, there isn’t much hope that, when Zechariah goes into the Holy Place, Yahweh will have much to say to him, either.  He has no sons at all, bad or good, to offer for Yahweh’s service – he surely must be cursed.  Would that Yahweh raise up some little Samuel from the loins of Zechariah and Elizabeth!  They’d prayed and prayed – and they’d tried and tried – for forty years they’d tried! 

 

Finally, the time for Zechariah to fulfill his ministry in the Holy Place arrives, and he departs the pack of fellow clergymen who’ve wished him well and sent him forth on the behalf of the whole people of Israel.  He is to burn the holy incense, symbolic of the prayers of the people: that sweet unction that pleases the Almighty so greatly.  As Zechariah makes his way up the porch through the Nicanor Gate past the Altar of Sacrifice through the robed clerics in the Court of Priests to the steps leading upward to the Holy Place, he can hear and feel the air reverberating with the loud, fervent prayers of those below - calling out for a Savior –like thunder shaking the firmament of air. 

 

There’re thousands of voices resounding the chant of prayer, the petitions of the desperate, the exultation of the thankful.  Prayer comes forth like monstrous gusts.  Zechariah begins to tremble as the gravity of his mission sinks in.  Momentarily, he’s forced to stop on the porch; the sonic boom of human voices feels to him like a paralyzing earthquake.  “I’m having a stroke!” he stammers.   “No, it’s just my nerves.  My nerves are shot!”  And, in this state, he stops short of the entrance to the Holy Place for a moment.  Impressions of his uneventful life, serving this place so faithfully, start to filter into his consciousness – then his thoughts shift to his wife’s sorrow, scorn and loneliness – then his heart asks Yahweh a question, “Why?”  Yet the duty for which he has prepared his entire life calls out even louder than his heart.

 

He takes another step and begins to chant the psalm he’s sung as a prayer a thousand times before. 

Shiyr ha-Ma`alot!  I lift up my eyes to you who are enthroned in heaven.  Just as the eyes of slaves are on their masters' hand and the eyes of a slave-girl on the hand of her mistress, so my eyes are on Yahweh my Elohim, for him to take pity on me. 

Zechariah loses the rhythm of the psalm and swoons, bloodying his knees there on the rough steps.  He hoarsely shouts the rest of his psalm, as the clamorous boom of the peoples’ response grows yet more thunderous.  His fellow priests look on in horror, some run to his rescue.  But Zechariah’s mind is on Elizabeth as he continues his entreaty:

Chanenu Yahweh!  Have pity on me, have pity, for we have had our full share of scorn and more than our share of jeers from the self-righteous.  (Psalms 123)

His fellow priest, Annas, was one of these self- righteousness up-and-comers.  Annas is immediately at his side, but he’s no friend of Zechariah’s.  He coyly shouts over the crowd into Zechariah’s ear: “Brother, perhaps you’ve forgotten the last words of your lament.  ‘Scorn is for the proud’ (Psalms 123:4b NJB).  May god strike you dead on account of this prideful moment, Zechariah.  Now go on in, you old coward.”

 

These hateful words are exactly what Zechariah needs to hear to get his strength back and stumble on up the steps.  “Will Yahweh now strike me dead for entering this holy place in my pride and thus leave another grieving widow in Israel?”  Zechariah turns his head back to Annas. “Yes, may he strike me dead,” he shouts as he stumbles through the veil into the unknown.  {music}

 

Hours have passed.  The praying crowd is now hushed – most folks disbursed long ago.  But the lawyer Jethro has ascended up the temple steps to the Court of the Priests, called up by Annas and some of the others.  You see, there’s a point of law that needs confirming before they can proceed further.  This situation hasn’t occurred in recent memory; that is, what to do when a priest has been struck dead in the Holy Place.  How can they get him out?  They know someone just can’t up and go in and look around – only one priest can go in on this occasion by lot.  {Yes, I know this isn’t really the case.}

 

The priest named Levi is for taking a chance and just going on in and dragging Zechariah out.  “After all, he might not be quite dead yet.  He might have just been struck with the palsy.  Maybe he needs help.” 

 

Annas asks Levi, “Do you also want to be struck dead?  Certainly he cursed himself before he went in.  We’re best to check for sure what to do – to err on the side of caution – rather than profane the Holy Place.”  But Annas is really stalling for more time in hopes that Zechariah will be most assuredly dead.

 

Then the priest Yahu offers his two mites: “Suppose we find a law that tells us how we can go in there, and we go in, but we find Zechariah is a pillar of salt.  Shouldn’t we have the lawyer check how we can get a wheelbarrow in there just in case?”  Annas replies, “Not a bad idea.  Go look it up. will you?” 

 

Eliazar the priest says, “What if he was taken up before he could light the incense properly, like Enoch or Habakkuk, and he’s just vanished?  He is a righteous man, you know.  What then?  Will our prayers be in vain?”  Annas again replies, “Not likely, brother.  He’s a cursed man, remember.  Somebody in his family sinned or his wife would be, well, you know . . .  I’m certain he’s dead in there.”  

 

Zadok the priest now speaks up, “Give it some time.  If he’s dead, he’s dead.  We’ve got all day to look up procedure.  Consider this: there is the remote possibility that Yahweh or his angel is speaking to him right now.  That’s what’s supposed to happen in there, you know.  That’s what used to happen!  Yahweh used to speak in there.” 

 

Annas tells Zadok, “Brother, we do not use that sacred name anymore.  You know it’s a curse to speak THE NAME.  Will you also be struck dead?  Besides, everyone knows that prophecy and revelation passed away with the last Bible prophet Malachi, who, under the inspiration of the Holy One, said to prepare his way for a return.  When he returns, then we shall use his name and hear his voice, but not  now!  Not until he returns!  You got that?” 

 

Now Zadok is a righteous man, but can’t help taking this opportunity: “Well said, brother Annas.  Was it not this same prophet, Malachi, who wrote the words of YAHWEH about you?”  Annas was puzzled, “What do you mean, about me?” 

 

Zadok rebukes him: “Thus saith Yahweh ‘O you priest who despises my name.  You have offered polluted meat upon my table.  With such a gift from your hand, will I show you any favor at all?’”  Zadok and Annas stare angrily at each other and posture themselves for a tussle.  (Years later, when Annas is high priest, he’ll get his revenge by throwing Zadok off the temple’s pinnacle.)

 

Now the lawyer Jethro breaks the tension by forcing the law scroll between the two combatants.  “Friends, this’ll get us nowhere.  We must do something now.  The man’s been in the Holy Place for three hours.  Obviously, he’s either dead or ...”  “Wait a minute,” cries Yahu.  “Look!  Brother Zechariah is alive!  Here he comes!  Why, he looks like a dead man, but he’s on his feet, so he’s either the living dead or the dead living!  (I’m not sure which.)” 

 

At that moment, a very disheveled Zechariah lurches out from behind the curtain, stumbles down the steps into the Court of the Priests, motions briefly at his cohort, and says absolutely nothing as he retreats through the Nicanor Gate.  He looks like a ghost with a stroke!  No one dares follows him – he’s obviously cursed – besides, the other priests and the lawyer are dumbfounded.  And Zechariah is struck dumb.  He’ll not speak again to anyone for a year - and nobody but Elizabeth will learn why. {music}

 

Now, do you want to know what happened to Zechariah in that Holy Place that caused him to be struck dumb?  What’s that?  ~~ Of course you do!  Did Yahweh curse him through the words of his archenemy, Annas?  No.  Did he have a stroke?  No.  The Bible relates that the following occurred: 

As he was igniting the incense, Yahweh’s angel Gabriel appeared and stood beside the altar.  Zechariah, who was shaky enough in entering, was paralyzed with fear. But the angel said,

"Zechariah, don’t be scared. I’m Gabriel and I’ve come to bring good news.  You’re not cursed, but your prayer’s been heard.  Elizabeth will bear a son.  You’ll name him Yah-chanon – John.  He’ll be mighty: filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb.  He’ll lead many back to Yahweh.  In the spirit of Elijah, he’ll be the forerunner, reconciling fathers to sons and the sinful to right living, preparing a people fit for Yahweh.  Since you don’t believe your eyes and ears, you’ll be silenced until this has all come to pass.  Farewell." (Luke 1:11ff paraphrase / excerpts)

 

So this is why Zechariah can’t speak!  He’s a Sadducee.  He doesn’t believe in this sort of thing.  To tell the tale might ruin his reputation.  Elizabeth isn’t speaking either.  She doesn’t need an angel to tell her she’s with child – she’s reminded every morning now.  Yet she still didn’t tell for five more months.  Then she told everyone of her good fortune, giving her Heavenly Husband all the credit: “Yahweh has done this for me; it’s pleased him to wipe away my humiliation" (Luke 1:25).

 

Four months later, a son is born; Zechariah’s still dumb as a post.  However, in the mirth of the greatest event of his life (for this is even greater than his angelic visitation), he remembers Gabriel’s words: “The child will be your joy and delight at his birth; moreover, many will rejoice with you.”  For eight days the priest and his wife rejoice in the dance, having premonitions of their son’s importance, but not yet understanding the full measure of his future mission.

 

On the eighth day of  the child’s life, the circumcisor, a local rabbi, attends to the family with prayer and his little knife.  The rite of circumcision (like baptism of today) marks the babe as being born under the covenant of Yahweh.  Part of the rite is the naming of the child, usually after his father, since it was presumed that the babe, as a Levite, would eventually take up his father’s temple duties.  The rabbi proclaims, “He will be called Zechariah.”  But Elizabeth protests: “No sir.  He is to be called Yah-chanon.”  The rabbi now protests: “Woman, no one in your family bears that name,” and he signals dumb Zechariah to name him.  He’ll no longer deal with this disrespectful woman.  Zechariah takes up the clay tablet hanging around his neck and writes with a stick, to the amazement of all these bystanders, “His name is Yah-chanon – John – for Yahweh had mercy upon us.”

 

Now this is the point in which Yahweh does something that will affect all the generations of the world for thousands of years.  When Zechariah drops the writing stick, his tongue is loosed after a year of silence, having formerly had only that tablet of clay to speak for him.  And with this loosing, Yahweh’s tongue is also set free after three hundred years of silence with only tablets of stone to speak for him.  At the application of the name Yah-chanon, which means “The mercy of Yahweh,” Zechariah opens his mouth – no longer a mere priest, but a true man of Yahweh Most High – and the first thing that comes out is an anointed prayer of thanksgiving:

Ha shem Yahweh m’borak!  (Job 1:21)  Blessed be Yahweh, the Elohim of Israel, for he has visited his people, he has set them free, and he has established for us saving power just as he said by the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient times, that he would grant us freedom from fear of the hands of our enemies, to serve him in holiness and uprightness all our days.

 

Now Zechariah is overcome by the miraculous Glory of the Almighty.  He now begins to shine.  In tears of joy, his prayer turns into prophecy, the word of Yahweh springs forth from his mouth like a calf from the stall.

And you, child, you’ll be called “The Prophet of El Elyon,” for you will prepare a highway for Yahweh, to teach his people salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, to give light to those who live in the darkness of death’s shadow and guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Of course, this child Yah-chanon is John the Baptist, the forerunner of Yahweh and a prophet in his own right; born to be chased down by the soon-to-be high priest Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas, who proclaimed that one man should die for all the people.  The story of John soon gets back to the omnivorous King Herod and his treacherous sons, who will consume any threat to their control.  Elizabeth has no choice but to send the babe into the desert to preserve his life until the time of his public appearance, Israel’s visitation and his eventual martyrdom at the hands of Antipas.

 

But until that fateful day when John would cry out for evil men such as these to repent in the name of Yahweh and be baptized, there is today a prophet -- and a voice Israel hasn’t heard for centuries.  That voice belongs to the Almighty Creator of the Cosmos, and Yahweh is his name – and his word and his name shall be projected for many years to come from the mouth of an old man named Zechariah – a man who was blessed by a curse – a man who was made a head from a tail.  Amen.

 

And with this said, the slightly embellished tale of Zechariah the Priest, we learn how the prophetic word was restored.