Psalm 18:2; Luke 1:67-71 (text)
December 7, 2014 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Dear People of God: When you hear of horns, what do you most often think of? Of course, you think of horned animals such as bulls, bucks, male sheep, or even unicorns. But Christians also think of a person who has horns, a red cape and a pitchfork: Satan the devil.
In the ancient world, horns usually symbolized power, sexual prowess and fertility, so their gods usually had horns. In Egypt, Isis had a headdress horns and Apis was a horned bull-god. In Canaan, Baal and Molech were also horned bull-gods. Later, Greeks, Romans and Celts also had horned gods. When God rained plagues upon Egypt, he symbolically destroyed their gods (Num 33:4), including Apis, when he destroyed their cattle (Exod 9:1-7). This is why the Israelites from Egypt worshiped the golden calf (Exod 32:4), and centuries later, King Jeroboam re-introduced bull worship in Israel (1 Kgs 12:28-29).
The “horns of a wildox” symbolized majesty and power (Deut 33:17). So to “exalt the horn” is to give power and strength (1 Sam 2:1, 10; Psa 75:4). The opposite, to “cut off the horn,” is to remove strength, usually of the wicked (Psa 75:10; Jer 48:25). Satan the great red dragon has ten horns, representing complete and powerful evil (Rev 12:3).
So it is sometimes strange for us to associate horns with good things. But in Habakkuk 3:4, God’s power is symbolized by horns (not “rays”) coming out of his hand. In contrast to the great red dragon, Christ, the Lamb of God has seven horns (Rev 5:6), symbolizing complete and perfect power. And our theme today, “A Horn of Salvation,” is mentioned by the priest Zechariah in his song about his son John the Baptizer and Mary’s Son, Jesus.
Today, we begin a three-part study of what we call the “Song of Zechariah,” known also as the “Benedictus” (“blessed”), from the first word of the song in the Latin Bible. In our English translations, this song is divided into 12 verses, but in the original Greek text, it is only one sentence.
Our text today is the introduction to the song and its first four verses. We will study the rest of the song in the next two Lord’s Days. Under this theme, we will consider three things: (1) The Horn Prophesied and Fulfilled; and (2) The Horn Saves.
The Horn Prophesied and Fulfilled
Luke introduces Zechariah’s song by saying that he was filled with the Holy Spirit, like his wife Elizabeth (v 41), the cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth was barren and he was old, so this news from the angel Gabriel was a shocker to him, and he had his doubts. So he asked for a sign, “How shall I know this?” (v 18) God did give him a sign, but it was also a rebuke to one who was a priest in God’s Temple. He became mute and deaf until his child was born.
John, their promised son, will also be filled with the Spirit (v 15). As with the Spirit-filled apostles on Pentecost Sunday, preachers announce the “good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Pet 1:12). This is what Zechariah “prophesied”: that his yet unborn son will “prepare the way of the Lord” (v 76), and also that salvation and forgiveness are coming to God’s people through “a horn of salvation” (v 77).
Zechariah’s song begins with a word of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (v 68). Why does he praise and bless God? Obviously, he praises God for making possible the impossible: creating life out of nothing in the womb. When the angel announced this good news to him, he should have blessed and given thanks to God. This time, he does, and he introduces the reasons why he praises God with the word “for” or “because,” beginning with “for he has visited and redeemed his people” (v 69). In the rest of the song in verses 69-79, Zechariah lists all the things that the Lord has done—and will still do today— for him and for God’s people. The whole song consists of the persons and works of John, the one “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (v 17), and Jesus, the “horn of salvation” in our text.
It was not only Zechariah whom the Lord God used to announce the coming of the “horn of salvation.” He spoke of the “horn… by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (70). The psalmist sang about him in Psalm 18:2, “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.” David used this psalm after the LORD defended and delivered him from hand of Saul (2 Sam 22:1-3).
Throughout the Old Testament, and especially in the Prophets, the LORD God foretold of many aspects of the birth of this “horn of salvation.” He will be the promised Seed of the woman in Eden, who would crush the ancient serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). So Paul also promises us that God through Christ “will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). This Seed was then promised to Abraham, whom Paul says is Christ (Gal 3:16). God then promised Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers” (Deut 18:18), the prophet whom Peter confirmed is Christ (Acts 3:24). The LORD made an eternal covenant with King David to “raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body… I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). So Jeremiah prophesied that he will be born in the lineage of David (Jer 23:5), and Isaiah foretold that he will be born of a virgin woman (Isa 7:14). He will be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), but before he comes, the LORD will send a messenger like Elijah to prepare his way (Mal 3:1; 4:5). At his birth, there will be “lamentation and bitter weeping” for children (Jer 31:15), because the wicked King Herod will slaughter all the babies in Bethlehem to make sure that the One born King of Israel would not take his throne. Hosea also said God will call him out of Egypt (Hos 11:1), because his parents will flee from Herod’s madness to Egypt (Matt 2:13-15).
Not only his birth, but his sufferings, death, and resurrection were also spoken of throughout the writings of Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets. This is why Luke says that the resurrected Jesus spoke to two disciples about himself in all the Old Testament, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The apostles of Jesus also pointed to the Old Testament prophets, “the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:21). The apostle Paul preached the Gospel of Christ “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom 1:2; see also Acts 26:22-23).
So the writers of the New Testament were keenly aware of the prophecies about the Messiah that were fulfilled by Jesus, the “horn of salvation.” Matthew always commented about an event in the life of Jesus that it was a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, such as his betrayal and arrest, “But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matt 26:26). John also cited Old Testament prophecies about the sufferings and death of Jesus (John 19:24, 28). Peter confirms Zechariah’s prophecy when he preached to the Jews, “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18).
The “horn” would suffer and die because suffering and dying were part of his mission to save his people from their sins.
The Horn Saves
The first reason that Zechariah blesses the Lord God is this: “for he has visited and redeemed his people” (v 69). There are two key words here: “visited” and “redeemed.” “Visited” is used in verses like visiting those in prison (Matt 25:43), visiting the sick (Matt 25:36), or a simple visit to someone (Acts 15:36). It could also mean caring for people, such as widows and orphans (Jas 1:27), or God caring for mankind (Heb 2:6).
But in our text, God “visiting” his people means, first of all, that he has revealed himself to them. In the Old Testament prophets, God’s “visitation” is also a time of his coming to give grace and mercy upon his people. Joseph promised his brothers that in time, “God will visit you and bring you up out of this land,” the land of Egypt (Gen 50:24, 25). In their time of slavery in Egypt, “the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction” (Exod 4:31). After 70 years of exile in Babylon, God promised Israel, “I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer 29:10; cf 32:5). So in his song, Zechariah again says in verse 78, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.”
In sending a “horn of salvation,” God reveals his endtime plan of salvation with the birth of Jesus. His visitation at the birth of his Son Incarnate is the beginning of the last days. In Luke 7:16, after Jesus raised a young man from the dead, both fear and awe seized the people, and they exclaimed, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” God has appeared to and is present among them in Jesus the Son of Man. He is bringing salvation to them, in the person of the long-expected Jesus.
Luke says that in these last days, “God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name” through Peter (Acts 15:14). So Peter exhorts us in these last days to conduct ourselves honorably before unbelievers, so that they too would “glorify God on the day of visitation,” that is, on the day of his Second Coming (1 Pet 2:12).
Sometimes, God’s “visitation” means judgment. After the Israelites worshiped the golden calf at Mount Sinai, the LORD told Moses, “in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.” So God visited the people with a plague (Exod 32:34-35). Isaiah says that the LORD God will destroy his enemies, “you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them” (Isa 26:14). On the day of Jerusalem’s destruction, Isaiah prophesied, “you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isa 29:6). And Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple because the Jews “did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:44).
The second key word is “redemption,” which in the ancient world is associated with buying slaves from slavery with money (Lev 25:52). Zechariah’s words are similar to Psalm 111:9, “he sent redemption to his people.”
Christ has bought us from slavery to sin by being a ransom for sin and God’s wrath, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” (1 Cor 7:23); “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7); “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). On the cross, Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession.” And since we are now God’s own possession, we are to be “zealous for good works” (Tit 2:14).
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ: You have already been redeemed from sin by Christ, but there is yet a final redemption to come. Paul says that all believers and all God’s creation “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). But take heart, Christian: even in this sin-cursed world of suffering, you have the Holy Spirit, “by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:30).
This is why Zechariah also sings in verse 71, “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” The Lord’s “horn of salvation” is your sure defense, rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield stronghold (Psa 18:2). He is able to save us and our church from all our enemies who hate us. The world is full of mockers, haters and persecutors of the church. But Christ our Redeemer is able to preserve you and judge them on the Day of Visitation.
This Christmas, let us be mindful that we sing songs of joy and praise to God because he has visited us by sending “a horn of salvation,” Jesus Christ his Son Incarnate. In our trials and sufferings as Christians, let us remember God’s promise of redemption and glory to Zechariah and all his redeemed people, “His horn is exalted in honor” (Psa 112:9).