Alfred Edersheim was a Jewish Christian scholar. His most famous book is “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”, a careful abridgment of which was made and published just after his death. This chapter is from that edition.
Chapter 1. The Annunciation Of St. John The Baptist. (St. Luke 1:5-25.)
It was the time of the Morning Sacrifice.1 As the massive Temple gates slowly swung on their hinges, a threefold blast from the silver trumpets of the Priests seemed to waken the City to the life of another day.
Already the dawn, for which the Priest on the highest pinnacle of the Temple had watched, to give the signal for beginning the services of the day, had shot its brightness far away to Hebron and beyond. Within the courts below all had long been busy. At some time previously, unknown to those who waited for the morning, the superintending Priest had summoned to their sacred functions those who had ‘washed,’ according to the ordinance. There must have been each day about fifty priests on duty. Such of them as were ready now divided into two parties, to make inspection of the Temple courts by torchlight. Presently they met, and trooped to the well-known Hall of Hewn Polished Stones. The ministry for the day was there apportioned. To prevent the disputes of carnal zeal, the ‘lot’ was to assign to each his function. Four times was it resorted to: twice before, and twice after the Temple gates were opened. The first act of their ministry had to be done in the grey dawn, by the fitful red light that glowed on the altar of burnt-offering, ere the priests had stirred it into fresh flame. It was scarcely daybreak, when a second time they met for the ‘lot,’ which designated those who were to take part in the sacrifice itself, and who were to trim the golden candlestick, and make ready the altar of incense within the Holy Place. And now nothing remained before the admission of worshipers but to bring out the lamb, once again to make sure of its fitness for sacrifice, to water it from a golden bowl, and then to lay it in mystic fashion – as tradition described the binding of Isaac – on the north side of the altar, with its face to the west.
All, priests and laity, were present as the Priest, standing on the east side of the altar, from a golden bowl sprinkled with sacrificial blood two sides of the altar, below the red line which marked the difference between ordinary sacrifices and those that were to be wholly consumed. While the sacrifice was prepared for the altar, the priests, whose lot it was, had made ready all within the Holy Place, where the most solemn part of the day’s service was to take place – that of offering the incense, which symbolized Israel’s accepted prayers. Again was the lot (the third) cast to indicate him, who was to be honored with this highest mediatorial act. Only once in a lifetime might any one enjoy that privilege. It was fitting that, as the custom was, such lot should be preceded by prayer and confession of their faith on the part of the assembled priests.
It was the first week in October 748 A.U.C, that is, in the sixth year before our present era, when ‘the course of Abia’ – the eighth in the original arrangement of the weekly service – was on duty in the Temple.
In the group ranged that autumn morning around the superintending Priest was one, on whom at least sixty winters had fallen. But never during these many years had he been honored with the office of incensing. Yet the venerable figure of Zacharias must have been well known in the Temple. For each course was twice a year on ministry, and, unlike the Levites, the priests were not disqualified by age, but only by infirmity. In many respects he seemed different from those around. His home was not in either of the great priest-centers – the Ophel-quarter in Jerusalem, nor in Jericho – but in some small town in those uplands, south of Jerusalem: the historic ‘hill-country of Judaea.’ And yet he might have claimed distinction. To be a priest, and married to the daughter of a priest, was supposed to convey twofold honor. That he was surrounded by relatives and friends, and that he was well known and respected throughout his district, appears incidentally from the narrative.2 For Zacharias and Elisabeth, his wife, were truly ‘righteous,’ in the sense of walking ‘blamelessly,’ alike in those commandments which were specially binding on Israel, and in those statutes that were of universal bearing on mankind.
Yet Elisabeth was childless. For many a year this must have been the burden of Zacharias’ prayer; the burden also of reproach, which Elisabeth seemed always to carry with her.
On that bright autumn morning in the Temple, however, no such thoughts would disturb Zacharias. The lot had marked him for incensing, and every thought must have centered on what was before him. First, he had to choose two of his special friends or relatives, to assist in his sacred service. Their duties were comparatively simple. One reverently removed what had been left on the altar from the previous evening’s service; then, worshiping, retired backwards. The second assistant now advanced, and, having spread to the utmost verge of the golden altar the live coals taken from that of burnt-offering, worshiped and retired. Meanwhile the sound of the ‘organ,’ heard to the most distant parts of the Temple, and. according to tradition, far beyond its precincts, had summoned priests, Levites, and people to prepare for whatever service or duty was before them. But the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him, somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar – that is, on the north side) was the table of shewbread; to his left, on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighborhood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship. Zacharias waited, until he saw the incense kindling. Then he also would have ‘bowed down in worship,’ and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps.
On the right (or south) side of the altar, between it and the golden candlestick, stood what he could not but recognize as an Angelic form. Never, indeed, had even tradition reported such a vision to an ordinary Priest in the act of incensing. The two supernatural apparitions recorded – one of an Angel each year of the Pontificate of Simon the Just; the other in that blasphemous account of the vision of the Almighty by Ishmael, the son of Elisha, and of the conversation which then ensued – had both been vouchsafed to High-Priests, and on the Day of Atonement. Still, there was always uneasiness among the people as any mortal approached the immediate Presence of God, and every delay in his return seemed ominous. No wonder, then, that Zacharias ‘was troubled, and fear fell on him.’
It was from this state of semi-consciousness that the Angel first wakened Zacharias with the remembrance of life-long prayers and hopes, which had now passed into the background of his being, and then suddenly startled him by the promise of their realization. But that Child of so many prayers, who was to bear the significant name of John (Jehochanan, or Jochauan), ‘the Lord is gracious,’ was to be the source of joy and gladness to a far wider circle than that of the family. The Child was to be great before the Lord; not only an ordinary, but a life-Nazarite,3 as Samson and Samuel of old had been. Like them, he was not to consecrate himself, but from the inception of life wholly to belong to God, for His work. And, greater than either of these representatives of the symbolical import of Nazarism, he would combine the twofold meaning of their mission – outward and inward might in God, only in a higher and more spiritual sense. For this lifework he would be filled with the Holy Ghost, from the moment life woke within him. Then, as another Samson, would he, in the strength of God, lift the axe to each tree to be felled, and, like another Samuel, turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Nay, combining these two missions, as did Elijah on Mount Carmel, he should, in accordance with prophecy,4 precede the Messianic manifestation, and, not indeed in the person or form, but in the spirit and power of Elijah, accomplish the typical meaning of his mission. Thus would this new Elijah ‘make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’
If the apparition of the Angel, in that place, and at that time, had overwhelmed the aged priest, the words which he heard must have filled him with such bewilderment, that for the moment he scarcely realized their meaning. One idea alone, which had struck its roots so long in his consciousness, stood out: A son. And so it was the obvious doubt, that would suggest itself, which first fell from his lips, as he asked for some pledge or confirmation of what he had heard.
He that would not speak the praises of God, but asked a sign, received it. His dumbness was a sign – though the sign, as it were the dumb child of the prayer of unbelief, was its punishment also. And yet a sign in another sense also – a sign to the waiting multitude in the Temple; a sign to Elisabeth; to all who knew Zacharias in the hill-country; and to the Priest himself, during those nine months of retirement and inward solitude; a sign also that would kindle into fiery flame in the day when God should loosen his tongue.
A period of unusual length had passed, since the signal for incensing had been given. The prayers of the people had been offered, and their anxious gaze was directed towards the Holy Place. At last Zacharias emerged to take his stand on the top of the steps which led from the Porch to the Court of the Priests, waiting to lead in the priestly benediction5 that preceded the daily meat-offering and the chant of the Psalms of praise, accompanied with joyous sound of music, as the drink-offering was poured out. But already the sign of Zacharias was to be a sign to all the people. The pieces of the sacrifices had been ranged in due order on the altar of burnt-offering; the Priests stood on the steps to the porch, and the people were in waiting. Zacharias essayed to speak the words of benediction, unconscious that the stroke had fallen. But the people knew it by his silence, that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Yet as he stood helpless, trying by signs to indicate it to the awestruck assembly, he remained dumb.
Wondering, they had dispersed, people and Priests – some to Ophel, some to Jericho, some to their quiet dwellings in the country. But God fulfilled the word which He had spoken by His Angel.