Light from the Canticles 11: Horn, House, Oath, and Dayspring

Luke 1:68-79; Genesis 12:1-3; Gen 22:16-17; Psalm 18/LXX 17:3; 2 Samuel/Kingdoms 7:1-17; 2 Samuel/Kingdoms 22:3; Isaiah 9:2, Malachi 3:1; 4:2-5

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for He has visited and redeemed His people

and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of His servant David,

as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old,

that we should be saved from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us;

to show the mercy promised to our fathers

and to remember His holy covenant,

the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

might serve Him without fear,

in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to His people

in the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

whereby the dayspring shall visit us from on high

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The righteous Zechariah’s song, traditionally called the Benedictus, found in Luke 1:68-79, is replete with echoes from the Old Testament: Genesis 12:1-3; Gen 22:16-17; Psalm 18/17:3; 2 Sam 7:1-17; 2 Sam 22:3; Isaiah 9:2, and Malachi 3:1; 4:2-5.  Here is a prophet who has so ingested and digested the written Word of God that he cannot help but overflowing with praise when he sees, in his son the forerunner, the promise of the incarnate Word, the LORD among us.  We are enthralled by a paeon of praise that stretches in its scope all the way from Eden to the New Jerusalem.  He begins by blessing “the God of Israel,” and ends by speaking about the merciful God who will visit all people from on high, guiding their feet into peace.  And Zechariah knows that he comes close to the end of a long line of prophets, with his own child being set apart to prepare the way of the LORD, as the “prophet of the Most High.”

We will highlight only some of the Old Testament references, showing why Zechariah has incorporated them into his blessing.  Let us recall, too, the astonishing humility of our God, who delights not only to bless us, but to receive, as an offering, as a blessing, our human praises!  The prophet begins by reminding us of the historical context of God’s direct actions—among His people, Israel, whom now, in the coming Messiah, He will visit and redeem, as a “horn of blessing.”  The word “horn” is not easily understood in our culture, and perhaps evoked two different pictures for the ancients. David, on being delivered from the hands of Saul and the hands of his enemies, exclaimed: “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior. You save me from violence! (2 Samuel/2 Kingdoms 22:2b-3). These words are personalized further when they are gathered into the collection of the Psalms, where the pictures of God are enhanced by reference to the worshipper “loving” Him, and by the action of calling upon the One who is worthy to be praised:

I love you, O LORD, my strength.

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,

my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,

my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,

and I am saved from my enemies. (Psalm 18:1b-3/17:2b-4)

Rock, Fortress, Deliverer, Shield, Stronghold, Refuge, Savior –and Horn of Salvation!  Clearly all these metaphors speak of God’s merciful protection, but how does the horn fit in?  Animal horns, usually of rams, were used for many things in the OT, including sounding the battle cry, but they are used symbolically, in poetry and in visions, to represent strength or assurance.  There are also four significant horns on the corners of the Ark of the Covenant, which speak of God’s power, but also are smeared with blood for atonement.  Used negatively, the word “horn” refers to the arrogant who try to exalt themselves –like the beast we find in the book of Daniel or Revelation.  Used positively, the “horn” evokes the strength given by God, or God’s very own strength and power. Hannah, too, spoke of the power given by God to her to proclaim the truth as “her horn” being raised high.  But here, the word “horn” is particularized—it is the “horn of salvation, and describes the LORD himself.  St. Jerome puts it this way: “Unless one has a horn with which to rout his enemies, he is not worthy to be offered to God. That is why the Lord is described as a horn to those who believe in Him; and it was with the horns of the cross that He routed his enemies. On the cross he confounded the devil and his entire army. To be sure, Christ was crucified in His body, but on the cross, it was He who was crucifying there the devils. It was not a cross; it was a symbol of triumph, a banner of victory. His whole purpose in mounting the cross was to lift us up from earth” (Homily on Psalms 91/2, FC 48. 170-171).

For Jerome, then, the horns of the Ark of the Covenant are fulfilled in the Horn of the cross, by which Christ defeated the enemy, and lifted us up to be with Him. Connected with this powerful Horn of exaltation is the idea of the “house of David.”  This may seem self-evident, since Christ our LORD is the descendant, in human terms, of King David. We see more, however, when we recall the what the holy God said to the king, who wanted to build a “house” for the Him.  At first David gets a green light from the prophet Nathan, who says “the LORD is with you!”  But then the word of the LORD comes to Nathan, that he should tell David this:

“Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling…. Did I [ever] speak a word… saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’…. I took you from … following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you…. I will give you rest from all your enemies…. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled…I will raise up your seed after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son…. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel/2 Kingdoms 7:1-17)

David is not to build God a house, but the LORD will make of David a house.  And there will come a seed, a descendant, who will build the LORD a house and establish David’s house and kingdom forever.  Of course, the immediate historical fulfillment of this is in Solomon, who does build the Temple of the LORD.  But the language points us forward to Christ himself, the true seed of David, who alone establishes the promise that God has made.  The language of “seed” reminds us of St. Paul’s interpretation concerning God’s oath to Abraham (Gal 3:16), that by Abraham’s “seed” (singular) all the nations will be blessed—this “seed,” the apostle proclaims, is none other than Jesus.  And Zechariah, too, remembers “the oath that God swore to our father Abraham, to grant that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.

This “oath” God swears by His own self, there being no one greater—and how humble for God to “swear” at all, rather than simply to declare it.  He is in the business not only of making promises, but of assuring His people that what He promises, He will fulfill.  The same promise that God made to Abraham at the beginning of his wanderings, He reiterates with a vow after Abraham has been willing to offer Isaac on the altar: “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”  (Gen 22:16-18).

It is in Jesus that this oath is finally realized—Jesus, the seed of Abraham, and the Son of God, possesses the gate of His enemies, and blesses all the nations of the earth.  The desire of the nations, that which Adam and Eve lost, is regained—and even more!  The children of God that come through Jesus shine as the hosts of heaven, even as the sun, and they are made up not only of the historic people of God, but all those who have been in darkness and who repent.  In the One whom the infant John has recognized, and whom the mature Forerunner will announce—in this One, are all blessed!  It is their feet, no matter what the background, that He will lead into the peace of the New Jerusalem.  As the prophet Malachi foretold, the one who comes before the Christ will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” and “the hearts of the children to the fathers,” making peace, and then the Dayspring Star, indeed, the Sun Himself will come from on high:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, He is coming. . . . For you who fear my name, the Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings” (Malachi 3:1, 4:2-5).

So many potent images—the horn of strength, the house built by God, the seed of David that lives forever, and the Dawn that has come with healing for all who have been in darkness since the Fall.  These are the pictures that Zechariah leaves to us, all foretold to him as he takes the Forerunner, the Infant John, in his arms.  And we are even more blessed, for we have seen what he foretold—the coming of the God-Man Himself!

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