And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” – Luke 1:67-68 (ESV)
Following his initial declaration of blessing and praise and the visitation of the Creator God, with his tongue having been loosed from its enforced silence as had been declared by the angel Gabriel, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, goes into what amounts to a dissertation regarding God’s covenant with His people. He says that, according to the covenant, “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (1:71). He confirms that this does, in fact, stand in relation to the promises of His covenant, as he goes on to say that the saving from the enemies and hatred is “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant” (1:72).
To which covenant is Zechariah here referring as he is filled with the Holy Spirit? He is referring to “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” (1:73-75). In this, Zechariah is employing the quite common prophetic practice and theme of the use of exodus language, in conjunction with the reference to the Abrahamic covenant, specifically pointing to the promise that the Lord had made to Abram (before his name was changed to Abraham), when “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions’.” (Genesis 15:13-15)
At the point in time that Zechariah is uttering these words, Israel has been re-established in the land with something like self-rule, following the conclusion of the Babylonian exile (though according to the Scriptural record, the exile was only partial, with a portion of the people standing in for the whole), for over four hundred years. In fact, it has been over five hundred years since the second Temple was put in place. Yet, Israel dwelled in a land of promise that they did not possess. In effect, just as Israel had dwelled and served in Egypt, Israel now found themselves under the heel of oppression in a land that was not theirs. Since their return from exile, the land had alternately been under the dominion of Persia, Greece, Egypt, Syria, and now Rome. Because it had been over four hundred years, the nation was very much looking to the time of another exodus. This time, however, it would not be the exodus of the people from their own land, but an exodus of foreign powers, namely Rome, from Israel’s promised land.
Part of what resulted from the constant hearkening back to God’s great deliverance of Israel from the slavery of Egypt, as especially commemorated in the feast of Passover in which the people were instructed to always remember the deliverance from Egypt, along with the consistent invocation of the Abrahamic covenant, was an expectation that the time had come (and perhaps it was even overdue) for their God to act on behalf of His people, to bring them their Redeemer, to raise up their Messianic King---their “horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David” (1:69). Luke, via Zechariah, gives voice to this hope. In addition, the Israelite nationalist revolutionary movements from the second century B.C. and forward, which stoked a revolutionary fervor that existed through and after the time of Christ, stood as witness to what it was that God’s chosen people were expecting.
There was a hopeful expectation on the part of some in Israel, in that day, that God, just as He had done for His people in Egypt, would bring judgment on the nation that they were serving. This underlying context of unrest and upheaval and covenant and hope must be understood if we truly desire to have any chance at understanding the message and ministry of Jesus and the foundation of His church. As he is said to have spoken by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah communicates a belief that the birth of his son, together with the information that would have been undoubtedly provided to him by Mary’s visit to his wife Elizabeth (the listener/reader is forced to draw conclusions), along with the associated angelic visits and messages--- not the least of which was his own inability to speak for an extended period of time and his subsequent ability to speak when he confirmed the message of the angel in regards to the name of the child born to he and his wife--- was evidence that God’s miraculous intervention on behalf of His people, His visiting and redemption and salvation, was being heralded as being at hand. To this end, he declares, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways” (1:76).