Luke begins his Gospel with the birth of John. The history is known. Zacharias meets the angel Gabriel in the temple, who announces to him that he will have a son. This announcement begins with the statement: “Your prayer has been answered.” But what prayer is meant here? We are inclined to think of praying for a child, but on closer inspection this turns out to be less obvious than it seems. A few considerations at a glance:
1. It is noticeable that the announcement takes place in the temple. If it were about a child's announcement, it could be in a different place.
2. Zacharias appears to no longer count on a child at all.
3. We read that it is the angel Gabriel who makes the announcement. We encounter this angel in the apocalyptic part of Daniel, and it is also this angel who later informs Mary of the coming of Jesus. That points to a special purpose of this announcement.
4. If we read the text in detail, it is striking that it is stated emphatically that Zacharias is standing next to the altar of incense when he is officially in office. And that the angel speaks about 'prayer', so singular.
This is reason to read this text in more detail.
Prayer in the temple
There is quite a bit of information available about the daily schedule of the priests in the temple. Important sources are the Mishna Tamid and the Talmud Berachot. A lamb is slaughtered twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. In the temple there is a room with lambs. A lamb is selected from this and slaughtered in another room in the temple. Then various portions, as described in the Torah, are brought to the altar with the grain offering and libation. After the sacrifice, the priests pray, after which a priest is selected by lot to offer the incense in the Holy Place of the temple. The liturgy concludes with the Aaronic blessing that is pronounced over the people present.
The prayer was almost the same for the morning sacrifice and the evening sacrifice. It included the following elements:
- Ten Commandments
- Shema. Nowadays it consists of three parts, namely Deut. 6:4-9, Deut. 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41. It is not entirely clear whether the second and third parts were also included in the temple period.
- Emet veYatziv (morning sacrifice). It is a recognition of God's kingship and God as the One and Only, and gratitude to God for the exodus from Egypt, the killing of the firstborn, the parting of the sea, and the deliverance of Israel from captivity. Emet veYatziv begins with sixteen apparently similar affirmations of the solid truth of God, the Torah, and the commandments.
- Emet v'Emunah (evening sacrifice). Unlike Emet veYatziv, which speaks of the past redemptions of the Jewish ancestors, Emet v'Emunah deals with the future redemption of the Jewish people. Emet v'Emunah describes the election of the Jewish people. The prayer describes the Jewish people as unique and distinctive, and with a mission in service to God.
- Avodah: “Lord our God, be gracious to Your people Israel. And accept the offerings made by fire from Israel. And may You find favor in the daily sacrifice, the sacrificial service of Israel, Your People. Blessed are you, O Lord, whom we will serve with awe.”
- Priestly blessing (Num. 6:24-26)
The incense offering
When the incense is offered in the temple, the prayers are, as it were, sent up to God. In addition, burning the incense creates a cloud, which acts as a kind of protection between the priest and God.
It is notable that Gabriel goes to Zacharias while he is still standing at the altar of incense. It shows that this angel's message is a response to the sacrifice, prayer and incense. By means of the incense, the prayer spoken by the priest is, as it were, dedicated to God. Consider, for example, Psalm 141:2 “Let my prayer be as incense to you, and my lifted up hands as an evening offering.” That prayer includes an extensive thanksgiving for the election of Israel, but also a prayer for God's favor. Without God's grace it would not be possible for God to care for His people, and the necessity of the sacrifice twice a day was a sign of that. This daily sacrifice was therefore also a prayer for the coming of the Messiah, to which these sacrifices looked forward.
Zechariah's first reaction is disbelief. This makes it clear that he indeed did not take the possibility of having another child into account at all. When John is born, Zacharias sings a song of praise. It is striking that Johannes plays a small role in this. The main theme of this song of praise is the upcoming birth of the Messiah. And the fact that Elizabeth and he have another child at an old age plays no role whatsoever.
When the angel tells Zacharias that his prayer is answered, we are inclined to think of the prayer for a child. However, the context of history shows that it is much more obvious to assume that it concerns the prayer for the coming of the Messiah, which the daily sacrifices pointed to.