Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. (Luke 1:64 NIV)
For nine months Elizabeth had lived with a husband who could not speak. By the time he returned from his priest’s duties in Jerusalem she had already heard the rumours, that her husband had seen a vision in the temple sanctuary and that he had been struck dumb. She had wondered what it could mean. As a priest, Zechariah’s voice was vital to his ministry. If he could no longer speak, was his role as a priest over? They had longed for children all their lives together, and part of Zechariah’s comfort in their sadness had been his calling as a priest. Elizabeth had come to terms with her loss. Would Zechariah be able to come to terms with his?
Although he could not speak, Zechariah could communicate. He used sign language to indicate certain simple things, but he could also write, and Elizabeth could read. In this way Elizabeth learned the details of what had happened to Zechariah in Jerusalem. However, these were not things she talked about to anyone and everyone. She realised quickly that the real reason for her husband’s aphasia was his unbelief, and though this saddened her she could not be angry at him. She understood that he had been shocked and scared and confused, and a life of disappointed hope had taken its toll on his faith. She spent five months in seclusion after she discovered that she was pregnant, and those were times of intense communication with her heavenly Father. She became convinced that God was working out his purposes even in Zechariah’s apparent “punishment.”
Zechariah himself went through a painful time. He knew why he had been deprived of his speech and he was plagued by regret and self condemnation. But in the midst of his struggle there was hope because of what the angel had promised. Even though he could see that his ministry was over, he was excited by the realisation that the son his wife would bear would be a man of God. Though Zechariah had failed, God had not abandoned him completely, and the work of God in the world would continue through this child who would be called John. Zechariah and his wife would have the joy of a child in their home, a child who would grow to be an extraordinary man. Zechariah’s grief over his loss was largely eclipsed by the joy of what he had been given.
During the months of her pregnancy, Elizabeth had taken on the role of communication for the couple. She spoke for Zechariah. When the child was born, it was she who told the curious onlookers, who no doubt included some indignant family members, that he would be called John. She had no hesitation in naming him: she had had time enough to reflect on the instructions that had been given to her husband by the angel, and she accepted without questioning the angel’s command, though the reason for the request for this particular name was not clear to her. When the people gathered for John’s naming and circumcision asked why this name, Elizabeth did not go into details about the angel Gabriel. I can imagine her simply smiling and looking to her husband. “Ask him,” she may have indicated. She was giving him a second chance, an opportunity to redeem himself from his former unbelief.
It’s odd I think that they asked Zechariah about the baby with gestures. After all, he was not deaf, just dumb. I could imagine him communicating with gestures, since his speech had been taken from him. But why did they ask him with gestures? Was this an ancient form of sign language that they had adopted with Zechariah since he had come back from Jerusalem unable to speak? Whatever the reason, Zechariah on this occasion did not hesitate to confirm what Elizabeth had said, and what the angel had instructed. He had had nine months to reflect on his first reaction to God’s message and his communicative disability bore witness to the effect of that reaction. He was determined to not make the same mistake again. He had seen the way his wife had responded, and though he was the priest, he understood that her faith and obedience put him to shame, and that he had much to learn from her.
The result of his confirmation of Elizabeth’s statement startled the local people, not just because he agreed with his wife, but because he immediately started speaking again, and not just speaking, but praising God. People were stunned. They could see that there were forces at work which were extraordinary, unusual, supernatural. They began to wonder about this baby that had just been born. What would he be?
Zechariah was a priest. His job was to communicate the words of God to the people of his community, and to help them to maintain a relationship with God. But his unbelief had taken his voice away. His calling had been placed on hold, until he could once again demonstrate a willingness to obey, a willingness that allowed his voice to be restored. The mundane duties of life continued for those nine months of silence, but the passion of his life, his calling, his ministry, his teaching and preaching, had been taken from him. They had been a tough nine months when he struggled at times with feelings of guilt and regret. He was aware that he had messed things up, and that he could only blame himself for the demise of his ministry. Sometimes he felt that there was not much point to life anymore, and even his excitement and wonder at what was happening to Elizabeth may have been tinged with regret and sadness at the realization of his own failure.
But God gave him a second chance, through the graciousness and love of Zechariah’s faithful wife. He took that offer without hesitation and his ministry was restored in an instant. He immediately began to speak the heart and mind of God to the gathered onlookers, as we will see.