Why Was the Priest Punished?

When I first read about the penalty of silence the angel Gabriel imposed on the aged priest, Zechariah, the punishment seemed too severe. Had he not merely asked the angel for clarification? 

Let’s review the story, as found in Luke 1. Zechariah was on duty at the temple in Jerusalem. He had been assigned by lot to offer up incense in the Holy Place next to the Holy of Holies. A great number of worshipers were in prayer outside. This was a sacred moment.

Suddenly the angel Gabriel appeared to the right of the altar of incense. He addressed Zechariah, who was gripped with fear. 

The angel told him that his prayer had been heard and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a son, who was to be named John. Across the years the couple must have offered up many seemingly unanswered prayers for a child. Perhaps by the time of this announcement, they had given up on this prayer since Elizabeth was past childbearing years. 

Gabriel then unfolded the promise: You will be filled with joy. Many will rejoice with you. This will be a special child. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth and will bring spiritual renewal to Israel. It will be as though the prophet Elijah has come back to bring spiritual healing to a nation in distress. The angel’s speech is full of promise.

The aged Zechariah then asked a simple question: How can I be sure of all this? My wife is aged; I’m an old man. He is understandably perplexed in the face of facts.

The angel responded rather sternly: I am Gabriel, he said, and I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent with this good news. But because of your cool response you will be unable to speak until all I promise has come to pass. 

There’s no question about the priest’s character nor of that of his wife. Both are descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was the father of the priestly line for Israel. 

In addition to this excellent pedigree, here are the couple’s credentials: Both are righteous as God sees them. They take seriously the laws he has given his Chosen People. From all appearances they are solid and upright Israelites. 

Even so, they have a great heartache. Across a long marriage they have remained childless. Elizabeth has not been able to conceive, and they are now both advanced in years. Gabriel’s message should have awakened joy.

My initial lack of understanding about the angel’s severe sentence would have been relieved if I had read the account more carefully. What reason does Gabriel give Zechariah for the penalty he has imposed? “You did not believe my words,” the angel pronounces. Unbelief!

Despite all of the priest’s ritual observances and faithfulness to his priestly duties, Zechariah reveals an unbelieving heart. He’s not wicked. There’s no trace of bitterness. But a living faith has been diminished deep within, perhaps beaten down by unfilled expectations. Gabriel’s words have come too late, Zechariah must be thinking. He is infected with a hidden distrust of God. 

The Bible has an unusual amount to say about this condition. The psalmist, for example, thinks back to memories of God’s people and their wilderness journey, and says: How often they rebelled against God in the wilderness (Psalm 78:40). They had mistrusted God’s messages repeatedly.

Jesus, our Lord, faced unbelief in his followers frequently. They often completely missed or resisted the truth even though it was given to them by the Incarnate Son of God. On one occasion Jesus said to a gathering: “But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe” (John 6:36). 

And a generation or so later the Christians addressed in the Hebrew letter are warned of this condition: “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). Unbelief has been a peril from Jesus’ time right to the present.

But it is a correctable condition. Many months after Gabriel rebuked Zechariah, the baby arrived. On the day of his circumcision and naming, neighbors and friends have gathered, assuming that the child will be named after his father — Zechariah. That was a deeply ingrained cultural custom. 

Elizabeth says, “No, he is to be called, John” (Luke 1:60). They turn to Zechariah, sure that he will favor his own name. Instead, he writes on a tablet, “His name shall be John” (1:63).  

That was the name ordered by the angel at the altar of incense many months earlier: Instantly Zechariah’s speech returns, and he is filled with praises recorded in Luke 1:67 and following. Unbelief has been reversed and a living faith restored.

It can be so for any today when faith grows cold, too. As with Zechariah, unbelief can be recognized and replaced with God’s fresh gift of a vital faith.

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Image info: The Angel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake, 1799–1800 (Public Domain)

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