The Sign of Silence: Part II
February 22, 2015
Well, as we come to our time in God’s Word, we’re turning to the Gospel of Luke. We’re going to finish up what we started last week. The longer I live as a Christian, the longer I work with other Christians, the more I grow in my understanding of God, His ways, His work, through His word, the more I’m amazed really at the wisdom, the patience that God displays in using us to accomplish His will. I don’t know if you reflect on that. I do, and I think we can sometimes be so weak, so inconsistent, so vacillating, we shouldn’t wonder when things are difficult for us, when things we do fail, when they come to nought. Rather, what we should be surprised about and amazed about is when things go well. It’s when God is actually accomplishing what He‘s doing in this world in and through us and in and through His church. I think God is teaching us something by that. He’s teaching us that He is wise, He is patient, He’s almighty, He’s got power to accomplish His will and by contrast, we don’t. We need Him. He’s so gracious to condescend to use us, to involve us in His work, His ministry, in spite of tremendous limitations we have. He is gracious to condescend and to use us and to involve us in what He’s doing in the world through local churches everywhere. And, as imperfect and as flawed as we are, people continue to be saved, to be sanctified through our ministry, through our word as we teach them the truth of the Gospel. A vessel just happens to be less important than the treasure it contain. Right? Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” Why is that? It’s to show the surpassing power belongs to God, not to us. God’s never hindered by us. He’s never hindered by our limitations of weaknesses, even our failures serve His greater purposes. Isaiah 46:10 says, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all my good pleasure.” And the evidence of that is all over Scripture. We learn over and over again to simply trust God, to simply take Him at His word.
And I think there’s probably no better example of that, of all that I’ve just said, than in our text for this morning, Luke 1:8-25. If you’re not there already, you’ll want to turn there. As we saw last week, this, at the climactic moment of the narrative, at the height of the story itself and everything that’s going on, the angelic visitation, the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth, we’ve got the faithful, righteous priest Zechariah. He’s set to cross the finish line. He’s set to grab that trophy, to do the victory dance—whatever—but he absolutely blows it, doesn’t he? He just completely whips it. And yet, God has planned this from start to finish. He’s planned everything from beginning to end to teach us something very profound about the beauty of simple faith. Let me show you that by reading the text starting in verse 18. We are entering the story—if you haven’t been here with us—we’re entering the story immediately after the angel appeared and announced amazing things about John the Baptist. This child was given by God to fulfill the hope, not just their personal hope in having a child, though they were old, but the hope of an entire nation.
All this starting in verse 18. Follow along. “And Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How shall I know this? [Travis paraphrasing for a moment:] How shall I know that I and my wife Elizabeth being old are going to give birth to the son you talk about, Gabriel, “for I’m an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.’”
“And the angel answered Him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at His delay in the temple. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized he had seen a vision in the temple, and he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home. And after these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and for five months, she kept herself hidden saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me on the days when he looked on me to take away my reproach among people.’”
Now, we’ve broken that passage down into four parts. We covered two points last week and we’ll finish the other two points today. You can actually see that there in your bulletin. I put that little outline there for you, but last week we looked at the sin of unbelief, which is there in verse 18, and then we looked at the sentence for unbelief—or judgment, we could say, on unbelief—in verses 19 and 20. And just by way of a brief review, a short review, Zechariah sinned by questioning here what Gabriel told Him. The problem wasn’t that he asked a question or even that he asked for a sign per se. The problem was that he didn’t believe God could, or maybe that God would, act on his behalf. It’s interesting here, Zechariah did not doubt God for the greater answer to prayer—that is, you know, the hope of the nation. You know none of what he says in verse 18 doubts God’s blessing on the nation of Israel. It’s that part about God’s goodness to himself. God’s goodness to his dear wife, personal promises. He doubted that. And that’s quite a blow against God’s kind and merciful and personal nature, isn’t it? It’s a subtle insinuation here questioning whether God really cares for us as individuals, that He’s not intimately and thoroughly concerned with the details of our lives. That’s not true. God is concerned about those things. As Jesus said in Luke 12:6 and 7, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Yeah, that should be a comfort to us, shouldn’t it? But it’s just like our distrusting nature to press a little further. Yeah, “How many sparrows exactly am I worth? I mean how many pennies does that add up to?” You know we need to trust God in the big things and in the small things, as well. We need to trust Him for His great and mighty promises, for wide and general things like the redemption of the whole nation, the redemption of a people. We also need to trust Him in our own personal lives, for our own personal pains and griefs and sorrows.
So, Zechariah here stumbled in His faith. He faltered in His believing. Zechariah failed to take God at His word. He failed to remember the tender mercies of the Lord, failed to remember the profound kindness of His nature. He also failed to be mindful of biblical precedent. Remember, we mentioned that last time. Zechariah had the Word of God before him. He had the Old Testament. He was a teacher of the Old Testament. God had indeed performed this miracle before, of giving a child to an older couple. So, Zechariah had every reason to simply trust God, to remember Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, to take the angel’s words at face value, to go home to his wife and start painting the nursery. He didn’t do that. So the angel gives Zechariah the sign he asked for. Maybe not the sign he expected, the sign he wanted, but he definitely gave him a sign. Zechariah here is struck deaf and dumb; he can’t hear anything as later on in the chapter we see that people had to make signs to him because he couldn’t hear and he couldn’t speak, either. And the curse of utter silence is deafening. And that curse of utter silence would only be lifted when the baby is born.
Well, that should be enough at this point just to catch us up. Let’s get to the third point of our little outline. We’ve seen the sin of unbelief. We’ve seen the sentence on unbelief. And now let’s look at the third point, the sign of silence, the sign of silence. It’s verses 21 to 22. Up to this point, Luke has kept us focused on what’s going on inside the temple. That’s where all the action was taking place. The visit from Gabriel, the conversation, all that was going on right in the heart of the temple in the sanctuary, but now he brings us outside. He brings us back to see things from the crowd’s perspective, as if to say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” Take a look there at verse 21: “And the people were waiting for Zechariah. They were wondering at His delay in the temple.” It wasn’t normal for priests to linger in the sanctuary. It was very unusual. In fact, every priest since Nadab and Abihu would have been mindful of God’s instructions to Aaron: “Get in, do everything exactly as I tell you and get out, lest you die”—Leviticus 16:13. You know, you tend to pay very careful attention to instructions that are going to keep you alive, don’t you? If only we read our own Bibles so closely, right? After all, God’s Word does keep us alive.
Nevertheless, none of the priests—high priests, regular priests—none of them got too comfortable in the sanctuary. They didn’t enter the sanctuary to hang out, to get comfortable. There were no couches in there. Just one seat, the mercy seat. And that seat was taken. Every other piece of furniture served the purpose of the ceremonial priestly worship of God. According to the rituals that God prescribed, it was not a place to be casual. It was not a place to get comfortable. So as Zechariah is lingering in there, people are starting to wonder. The verb construction here about their wonder indicates people were really getting comfortable. Perhaps even a little anxious, a little worried about what was taking so long. What’s going on in there? They expected Zechariah to step out, recite the Aaronic blessing, Numbers 6:24 to 26, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance on you, give you peace.” And upon hearing that blessing, as we’ve said before, people would sing songs together, they’d participate in public offerings together, and they’d continue on with their day if it’s the morning sacrifice. If it’s the evening sacrifice, they would retire to their homes. So there is this heightened anticipation among the people when Zechariah does not emerge from the temple quickly. There’s a sense of wonder, a sense of excitement, worried anxious excitement, but excitement nonetheless. If you’re a preacher with a message, this is exactly the kind of crown you want waiting for you when you come to the pulpit. You want them anticipating, ready to hear what you have to say.
But, verse 22: “When he came out, he was unable to speak to them.” I think in modern parlance, they call that a fail, right? That is a fail of the highest order. If the priests had taken a video of this, posted it on their website, they’d have the fail caption right across that video. It wasn’t that Zechariah was unwilling here. He was physically unable to tell them what had happened. What Gabriel told him in verse 20, “You will be silent and unable to speak”—that happened immediately. Not even a break to ponder, to think. He’s completely deaf, completely mute. He couldn’t hear a sound; he couldn’t make a sound. That had to be totally disorienting, don’t you think? I mean Zechariah’s got to be reeling here. He’s an older man, he’s lived a lot of life and here he is in the space of minutes, facing one excitement after another. It started with the excitement of ministering in the sanctuary near to the presence of God—that happened once in his lifetime. And here he is in the sanctuary, suddenly this terror of seeing an angel, an angelic being materializing right here in front of him, suddenly right next to him in the sanctuary. That terrified him. Well, then the staggering announcement of his wife giving birth to Messiah’s forerunner. Boy, that’s a big deal. But then he fumbles the ball and he asks a question out of this temporary insanity of unbelief, doubting God. Gabriel rebukes him, strikes him deaf and dumb somehow, as Zechariah emerges from the sanctuary. Which part of all that stuff do you think is on his mind? I mean, which?—take your pick. I mean, he’s got to be scrambled. He walked out, his head is spinning. He couldn’t pronounce the blessing. He couldn’t’ hear the other priests ask him questions. He couldn’t hear the growing murmur of the crowd, couldn’t explain himself. Nothing. Total silence.
Still, the crowd figured it out. Look there in verse 22. It says, “When he came out he was unable to speak to them and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple and he kept making signs to them and remained mute.” Obviously, Zechariah’s facial expressions, his gestures, indicated something had happened in there. I mean, he’s got it written all over his face. It says he kept making signs to them, which means even though he can’t hear them, even though he can’t talk, Zechariah is here really trying. He really wants them to understand. He’s excited, he desperately wants to tell them what he’s seen, but he’s utterly incapable of communicating. How frustrating. I can tell you as a preacher, that would be awful. That’s a fate worse than death. Just kill me.
At the same time, this scene has got to be just a little bit humorous. I mean, try to picture this in your mind. This little old Jewish man—think Fiddler on the Roof—here he is, this animated guy is coming out of the temple, and as he walks toward the other priests and the assembled crowd waiting for them, he’s got this bewildered look on his face. I mean, he seems a bit shocked, perplexed, dumbfounded, all of the people staring at Him, waiting for an explanation or at least to hear that Aaronic blessing. And instead of staying anything, he starts waving his arms around trying to explain with gestures what just happened. Imagine yourself: You’re playing a game of charades, and this is what shows up on your card: an angel appears to you in the temple and announces a miraculous birth of world-changing significance. You question, the angel strikes you deaf and dumb—go ahead, get everybody to guess that one! What are you going to do? How exactly are you going to gesture all of that? Especially, as I said, if you’re accustomed, as Zechariah is, to using your ears and your mouth. He’s a preacher. He’s a teacher. He interacted with people in the normal give-and-take of ministry. So his most relied-upon, his most used natural gifts, things he takes for granted every single day—his ears and his mouth—have been taken from him in a moment. He’s facing a highly inquisitive crowd ready to listen, wanting an explanation, and he’s armed with nothing more than some awkward, highly inaccurate gestures. That’s it. This is Zechariah’s abrupt introduction to a new normal—for the next nine months, anyway—a new normal. Not being able to hear or say anything.Fiddler on the Roof—
Remember, this silence is a sign for Zechariah. It’s a sign. This is what Zechariah was after when he asked the question. He wanted assurance of what Gabriel told him would actually come to pass. The words were too incredible to believe, so he wanted a sign to give Him some certainty. So, that’s what Gabriel gave Him, a sign. We should learn something from this. Certainty is found not in signs, not in miracles, not in wonders. People who chase miracles, who seek signs, who are listening to the voice of God beyond what’s written in the Scripture—those are not believers, they’re doubters looking for proof. They want something more than what God has given, which is His Holy Word. Certainty comes by faith. Certainty comes by believing God, by taking Him at His word and what He wrote in Scripture. So, even though this is a rebuke, even though this is a bit of a punishment here, Zechariah has received the sign he asked for.
Now think about a sign—what is it? A sign. A sign is something that points to a reality, right? You drive south on I-25, and there are signs that point to Denver, Colorado. The signs are not the reality. You don’t look at the sign and say, “Hey, there’s Denver right there on that sign.” You know that it’s pointing to Denver. It bears the name Denver, but it is not Denver; it just tells us we’re on the right road to Denver. It tells us how many miles before we arrive and all that stuff. The sign isn’t the reality; we all understand that. It points to the reality. Signs in Scripture are just like that. Signs from God are just like that. They are not the reality itself, but they point to the reality. They correspond to that reality in some way, but they are not in and of itself the reality. Signs point to some truth that God wants us to see. They’re not in themselves what we’re to get caught up in, what we’re to focus on. For example, Jesus performed miracles that were signs, right? His miracles were signs, but the people got caught up in the signs, and they failed to see Him. They failed to see what the signs prove, what they pointed to—the reality that Jesus was indeed God’s messenger. Jesus said in John 6:26 after he fed 5,000 thousand men and probably 20,000 people, women and children besides—he fed them with bread and fish and he said, “Truly, truly I say to you, you’re seeking me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” You just wanted your bellies filled, you just waned your ears tickled, you were wanting the excitement, you were wanting the food. You didn’t really want me. The crowds failed to see what the miracles signified. They failed to see that God was validating Jesus was as His true messenger. They didn’t want Jesus. They just wanted food. They wanted miracles. They wanted what came from God’s hand and not His heart. Today’s charismatics have a lot in common with that crowd, don’t they? Instead of chasing miracles, listening for voices, they ought to be reading and believing God’s written Word.pointingwas
So what does the sign of silence signify? For Zechariah, what greater reality does Zechariah’s silence point to? I think there are several things we can learn from this sign of silence, and I’ll list just a few of them. First of all, most immediately, if Zechariah had any doubt that God had the power to do whatever he wanted to do with Zechariah’s old body and with Elizabeth’s womb, well, to be struck deaf and dumb immediately had to have removed all doubt, right? “All my parts and faculties were working; now they’re not, in a moment, at the word of an angel.” Physical limitations, barriers, obstacles—whatever’s impossible for man, it’s all possible for God. That is what the doctrine of divine omnipotence means—that God is utterly and totally unhindered. That God’s power is without limit. There is nothing God cannot do. So, the sign of silence points to God’s absolute power to accomplish whatever He wants to do.
But secondly, the sign of silence signifies God’s concern that Zechariah should take Him at His word. If Zechariah won’t believe what God said, then God will keep him from talking about it. Just an observation—isn’t it interesting here that Gabriel only tells Zechariah his name, that he stands in the very presence of God, what his mission was. He only tells him that after Zechariah asked the question. You have to wonder, if Zechariah knew it was Gabriel—you know, the strong one, the man of strength—if Gabriel was speaking to him, the same Gabriel that spoke to Daniel, you’d think that would have overcome his doubts. Would he have needed further assurance from God? You know, it’s impossible to say, but we can see, I think, from the way this thing went down, that God intended to draw out and expose Zechariah’s unbelief. He ordained these circumstances for Zechariah to provide Zechariah with this very sign. And this sign then became a sign to the entire nation of Israel. “If you won’t believe my word, you won’t speak about it either, Zechariah.”
And this leads to a third thing this sign signified. The sign of silence pointed first to God’s power, secondly to the importance of God’s Word, that God’s messenger believe the message he’s proclaiming. Thirdly, the sign of silence pointed to the responsibility of the entire nation to heed the ministry of John the Baptist. Zechariah’s silence was a sign of their own deafness, the entire nation’s deafness, their own spiritual deadness—and because of that, their own inability to speak, to be a light to the Gentiles, so to speak. They needed to have their ears opened and their tongues loosed so they could give glory and honor and praise due to God’s name. From what we know of the story because we’ve read the Gospels, we understand that what happened to Zechariah physically—that same thing happened to the nation, spiritually, didn’t it? Just as the angel proclaimed the good news to Zechariah, but he failed to believe and was silenced for it, you know in the same way, all Israel failed to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They failed to believe what Jesus Christ announced and told about Himself, about the true salvation. Total fail. Total fail. There’s never been a more monumental event in all of human history than the incarnation of the Son of God. He came not to Greeley, Colorado, he didn’t come to California, he didn’t come to New York, he didn’t come to any population center in the world. He came to Israel. He came to His own, and “His own received Him not.” The nation has been utterly silent. Israel has been deaf and dumb for the past 2,000 years. And like Zechariah, their ears will be opened and their tongues will be loosed only when they repent and believe the Gospel of their own Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Well, in spite of Zechariah’s silence, the people were able to discern some of what happened, according to verse 22: “They realized he had seen a vision in the temple.” The word “vision,” optasia in Scripture, refers to supernatural sight. It’s used of the angels showing up at Jesus’ tomb in Luke 24:23. It’s used of Paul’s Damascus road experience, his third heaven experiences, those are all that same word—a vision. Back when Gabriel visited Daniel in Daniel chapters 9 and 10, this is the word that’s used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old testament, same word. So, the people perceived that he’d seen some kind of a sign, some kind of a vision in the temple. So, whatever Zechariah did to get the message across, the crowd knew at the very least that he’d seen something supernatural. Even though there’s been a thread of grace running through this entire narrative, this entire story, so far the story has been a little bit of a bummer. If it weren’t for the message itself and what it portended, we might feel a little down at this point. The outline we’ve been following reflects that. Notice that it talks about the sin of unbelief, the sentence for unbelief, now the sign of silence. Wow. Luke, though, ends on a high note. He ends and concludes the story here with an encouraging word.optasia
Final point in our outline, point four, is the simplicity of believing. The simplicity of believing, verses 23 to 25. This is the epilogue of the story. He’s telling us what happened after the action, after the climax of the story. it It kind of lets us down gently to see what happened “back at the ranch” before the credits roll on the screen. And look, Elizabeth is kind of at the focal point of this simplicity of believing. It’s a beautiful part. Verse 23: “And when [Zechariah’s] time of service was ended, he went to his home. After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days he looked on me to take away my reproach among people.’” Zechariah returned home. He had been staying in the priestly chambers that surrounded the temple. He hadn’t seen His wife in more than a week. He walks in the door and instead of saying, “Honey, I’m home,” silence, right? He’s got so much to tell her. But he can’t say anything, not a word. Pretty inconvenient judgment on His unbelief, wouldn’t you say? Pretty inconvenient timing. Now, if Elizabeth is like any normal wife, this would not go down too well, would it? She’d be asking him tons of questions, and her inquisitiveness would only be heightened by his lack of response. “What happened, Zechariah? Gone for two weeks, two weeks, you got nothing to say? Nothing? Don’t you clam up on me.”it
Quick side note here: You see that Zechariah’s unbelief is affecting his home life, right? Private sin never stays private. Satan’s going to tempt us to think our thought life is completely private, sealed off from public view. The devil would have us believe that no one else is affected by our thoughts, what we believe, what we disbelieve, by the things we entertain in our mind, the attitudes we harbor in our hearts. Not true. Not true. As Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Out of the overflow of the heart, attitudes come out, coldness in relationships, distance, bitterness comes out, right? You can’t harbor that; you can’t contain that stuff. Spills out eventually. Wrecks relationships. This is not good. We need to take a lesson from Zechariah here. Here—portrayed a very graphic, dramatic way—we can see how Zechariah’s unbelief had an immediate effect on his marriage. His unbelief not only affected their marital intimacy, there’s this cheerful expectation of a joyful conversation that happens between a husband and wife when they’re reunited after a week or two—go on a business trip or something, come home, and you just love spending time with your spouse. But his unbelief also diminished his ability to tell her some really, really good news—some news that she would be really interested in hearing, right? I mean, of all the people who would have been overjoyed in hearing this answer to prayer, Elizabeth would have had the deepest, most profound joy of all, but Zechariah can’t talk about it. He’s been silenced. This had to be a very difficult first meeting and filled with a comedy of errors, right? Still, through His gestures, by writing back and forth, Zechariah was able to give her the good news eventually, and you could see that in an understated, rather discreet way, Luke tells us that Zechariah went to his home and “after these days, His wife Elizabeth conceived.” For the fulfillment of this promise, God sent Zechariah back to His wife, back to His marriage. It was a miracle that they conceived, considering their age, but it’s important to see that they conceived the child in the normal human way. Do you see that? You former Roman Catholics take note. This is a priest with His wife in a marriage conceiving a baby. Not only is the Roman Catholic concept of clerical celibacy absolutely false, it is utterly cruel and sinful. It leads to all manner of perversity and sin. Paul warned Timothy anticipating this kind of error. 1 Timothy 4:1-3: “The Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who,”—get this—”forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” Now among other things, that’s exactly why I can eat bags of Doritos, by the case. Because I thank God for them. But I can also enjoy my marriage as a pastor. We have to always affirm and defend and honor the Biblical teaching on marriage, especially when it’s under such constant attack. It’s not more holy to be married to the church. What is that? “Marriage must be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed be undefiled,” Hebrews 13:4.
That said, don’t miss the quiet lesson in faith here. Zechariah and Elizabeth trusted the Word of the Lord, and they came together in their marriage. They believed God, and they tried one more time. Sometimes the most profound faith is demonstrated in the most routine acts of obedience. Nothing you’re going to be able to write a book about, but just doing what God wants every single day, even when no one notices. But here, it’s different, isn’t it? Elizabeth did conceive, and a baby started developing and growing in her womb. The text says in verse 24, “For five months she kept herself hidden saying, ‘Thus the lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me to take away my reproach among people.’” And we have to ask the question, why did she hide? I mean if she believed God had taken away her reproach, why not broadcast that? Why not share her joy with others? Some people think Elizabeth needed a little convincing of her own, right? Some people think she wanted to wait for a while so she could be absolutely certain there was a baby growing inside of her, that all of this really would culminate in child birth. So, like Zechariah, she was maybe struggling with a little bit of doubt. Others interpret her hiding as an indication of the depth of the reproach that she’d felt, the pain of her infertility. Her sorrow had been so great that even in her conception, it wasn’t enough to overcome the concern that she had, that all of this might end in further disgrace if she lost the child or made a mistake about being pregnant. Maybe she was just wrong. She just couldn’t bear further reproach, and so for five months she waited because after five months of pregnancy—hey, that would remove all doubt, right? You know, we should just comment here and acknowledge the fact that Zechariah felt her reproach very deeply.
I understand why people say these kinds of things about why she hid herself, because she did—she felt her reproach very deeply. From what’s recorded about her, we know she bore her reproach with grace and dignity. Still, her failure to bear children had been a lifelong source of emotional pain and sadness. Parents, grandparents, you should take time to thank the Lord for your children. It’s easy to take those children for granted because we don’t know what it’s like to be without them, but don’t take them granted. Commit yourselves afresh to be diligent in raising these precious gifts in the Lord. Give thanks to God every single day for these kids, especially on the hard days. Thank God for them. If God has withheld children from you, you need to realize it’s God who’s humbled you in this way. Seek His help to bear your reproach like Elizabeth did, righteously with grace and dignity. God knows your pain; He knows your sadness. He cares about you and He knows exactly what He’s doing. So, ask God to help you trust Him. Recognize, as Elizabeth did, that your reproach is among men. It’s just among people because in Christ, no reproach we bear now is going to last beyond this life. Since God is sovereign over the womb, not having children does not affect your standing before God one iota, one little degree. It doesn’t diminish your effectiveness in serving Him either. In fact, God has freed your time and energy to serve Him in other ways. Choose to live righteously, bear this graciously, look to God as your vindication—your prefect reward—and learn from Elizabeth here. She’s a model. All the pain that she endured from her reproach, all the sadness, all the sorrow. She realized, look there, God was the author of it, designing all of it for His glory and her good. Notice verse 25, she says, “What the Lord has done.” Perfect tense. That is clear evidence of Elizabeth’s unswerving faith in God, her unshakeable conviction and confidence that God’s promise would be fulfilled in His own time.
So back to the question—why did Elizabeth go into a five-month seclusion? It’s Elizabeth’s faith that triumphs here. That is the focal point of the story, and that is why I don’t believe Elizabeth hid herself because she doubted. I don’t believe she hid herself because she feared even more reproach, not at all. That statement in verse 25 is such a strong affirmation of faith. She truly believed God. Now, granted it’s not entirely clear whether verse 25 is the reason for her seclusion, that is, she says that and that’s the reason why she went into seclusion, or just merely a statement of her faith; but whichever it is, at the very least it’s a statement of her certainty. She answers and responds the same way Rachel did in Genesis 30:23: Rachel “conceived, bore a son and said, ‘God has taken away my reproach.’” There is no doubt in Elizabeth’s mind she would give birth. This dear woman knows without a doubt even before the child is born that the Lord has taken away her reproach, thus “what the Lord has done for me.” And that signals her conviction that God has promised and God will do it. Where it says, “in the days when he looked on me to take away my reproach,” “looked on me,” that verb there, it’s in the aorist tense, the past tense. She’s speaking in the present with a past tense of what’s going to take place in the future. So, she considers this a done deal. No doubt in her mind whatsoever. She is such an example to us, such an encouragement to trust God, to content ourselves in His goodness as we meditate on how he does and will fulfill all of His promises.
So, again, why did Elizabeth keep herself hidden? That verb, “kept herself hidden,” is a compound word, a strengthened form of the verb. It really implies this all-around complete withdrawal—total concealment. It’s kind of like she’s gone into a witness protection program or something here. She’s really hiding—a self-imposed exile here. Why? I’ve mentioned a couple of thoughts on that, and a number of commentators come to various conclusions, but you know what? The text doesn’t say exactly; it doesn’t tell us. Here’s what I was thinking. It’s hard to be dogmatic. But we can piece together what might’ve been going on because there are a number of good reasons, some very practical reasons, if you think about it, that she and Zechariah would want to stay out of sight for at least those first five months of pregnancy.
First of all, when Zechariah returned from His priestly duty at the temple at Jerusalem, he was a much quieter man, wasn’t he? At any other time, his return home would’ve meant a return to his routine busy duties as a priest—teaching, counseling, judging matters of the Mosaic law. But his ability to communicate significantly diminished here; he’s reduced to interacting written word only—signs, maybe. He would not have been able to perform his normal priestly duties, and that meant at the very least more time at home. Ladies, you like it when your husband spends a whole lot of time at home? No, you don’t, do you? Practically speaking, Elizabeth stays in seclusion for five months so she can adjust to a new normal in their relationship. The rate of communications has slowed way down here. So, they’re going to need more time to interact. Five months allowed them to stay focused. It allowed Elizabeth to serve her deaf and mute husband. It allowed the two of them to learn to communicate. And more than that, though, I believe since the two of them were righteous people—since they were concerned to know and to understand God’s word—they obviously both wanted to know the meaning of all of this. Zechariah may have been unable to speak about what had happened, but he was still able to write. The rate of communication was slower, especially when Elizabeth had lots of questions—and you know she had lots of questions. But it now required more effort for Elizabeth to interact, more patience to extract from him everything that Gabriel had told him.
So, the interaction was going to take more time, more time—even after learning all of this—to study, to compare all these new promises with Scripture. So the solitude would allow the two of them together to engage in study in the peace and quiet of their home, uninterrupted by visitors, by inquisitors, by a gathering crowd who wanted to know all the details. They were out of sight. Five months of seclusion allowed them time for reflections, time for study, more reflection, more meditation—and all of that led to what believers most value, what they desire and long for: informed worship. Worship. So when you think about it, those five months of seclusion gave Zechariah and Elizabeth some precious time together. They would’ve rejoiced in their marriage, relished this new experience of pregnancy—this experience she had been denied for many, many years. They would’ve had time to reflect on God’s promises. All of that, all of that worship, all that meditation, all of that study—you know what that did? It prepared them to be fit parents to raise the Messiah’s forerunner. Raising John in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Raising John to understand his significance, his mission, his purpose. John’s training in the home would serve him very well in his prophetic preaching ministry.
That five months of quiet study are reflected in what we read later in the text from Elizabeth and what comes out of her mouth. It’s reflected in what pours forth from Zechariah when God finally opens his mouth. Luke 1:67 to 79 is a paean of praise. It’s like this poetic prophecy that’s been welling up inside of him for nine months directed by the Holy Spirit. It begins with this conviction: God has visited His people. “He has raised up a horn of salvation,” horn being strength, “as he spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets of old.” You know what, he’d done some reading. He’d done some thinking through the holy prophets of old in that nine months’ time. All of Zechariah’s doubts are gone. They probably evaporated the very moment that God silenced Him in the temple. But His punishment is only lifted after he affirms the truth of God’s Word. And when the question arose about naming their child John, instead of Zechariah or another family name, notice what happened. Look over there at Luke 1:63. It says that Zechariah “asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’” Not, “I want to name Him John.” Not, “He will be John. His name is John. It’s John.” “They all wondered. And immediately His mouth was opened and His tongue loosed and he spoke, blessing God. And”—get this—“fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts saying, ‘What then will this child be?’”
A period of quiet study and reflection on God’s promises had resulted in full confidence for both Zechariah and Elizabeth. No doubts now. All faith, all conviction, all believing, all confidence in what God has said. And for neighbors, friends, relatives, people watching, those who looked in to see the promise of God—well, the sign of silence pointed them to the coming Messiah.
Listen, God wants us to believe Him too. That’s why this is written—so that we’ll believe. So we’ll take Him at His word. I know this is an exceptional situation. Most of us are not going to get a visit from Gabriel. We’re not going to have miraculous births. We’re not going to be struck mute or deaf or whatever from unbelief, even though we do commit these very same sins, don’t we? But our God doesn’t change. He is the same just and merciful and kind God as He’s always been, and He always wants us to just trust Him, to just obey Him, to take Him at His word, to trust His promises and acts. We can be so dull, right? He had God. God remains who He is. He never changes. He’s just and gracious. And like Zechariah and Elizabeth, if we’ll study His word as well, if we’ll meditate on His great and precious promises, we’re going to be strengthened as well in our believing. And it will give us a deep, deep confidence that provides the platform we need to spring forward and act in obedience to Him. That’s what we’re meant to learn as well from this sign of silence.
Let’s pray together. Heavenly Father, we are so grateful to You for putting this story exactly as You’ve written it in the Word. We’re thankful for inspiring the author, Luke, bringing out of his pen this inspired text, this inerrant Word we can trust and have confidence in. It teaches us so much as we’ve reflected on the little points of the story, but I think at the end of the day, You just want us to trust You. We pray that You’d help us because our faith is weak. We could so easily be shaken—even mature men and women among us, Lord—we can still fall and falter in our belief, just as Zechariah and Elizabeth did. So we pray that You would give us confidence and strength in believing. Help us to be obedient and consistent to practice Your Word and what it says. We trust You for that to work in our lives, Your will for Your glory and for the upholding of Your Son. In His name we pray. Amen.