The Source of the New Covenant
because of the tender mercy of our God, (1:78a)
It is God’s tender mercy that moves Him to show compassion to lost sinners. Tender translates splagchna, which literally refers to the inner parts of the body, such as the intestines, heart, liver, and lungs (cf. Acts 1:18). Figuratively, it describes the affections and the heart as the seat of those affections (2 Cor. 6:12; 7:15; Phil. 1:8; 2:1; Col. 3:12; Philem. 7, 12, 20; 1 John 3:17). In combination with eleos (mercy) it vividly depicts the intensity of God’s compassionate concern for sinners.
Mercy is a glorious attribute of God, celebrated throughout Scripture. He is “merciful and gracious” (Ps. 86:15; cf. 145:8), and “full of compassion and … merciful” (James 5:11; cf. Luke 6:36). The outworking of that mercy results in God showing kindness to sinners. Speaking of His tender mercy toward Israel, Isaiah wrote, “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them” (Isa. 63:9). In Jeremiah 33:26, God said of downtrodden Israel, “I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them” (cf. Ezek. 39:25). Mary rejoiced that God’s “mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him” (Luke 1:50) and that “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy” (v. 54). Earlier in his hymn of praise, Zacharias also spoke of God’s past mercy to Israel (v. 72). Ephesians 2:4 declares that it is because God is “rich in mercy” that He redeems lost sinners, while in 1 Timothy 1:13 and 16, Paul praised God for His mercy in saving him. Titus 3:5 declares that God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (cf. 1 Peter 1:3; 2:10).
In his classic exposition of the attributes of God, The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer expressed the wonder that all the redeemed should feel when they contemplate God’s mercy toward them:
When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.… We who earned banishment shall enjoy communion; we who deserve the pains of hell shall know the bliss of heaven. And all through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us. ([New York: Harper & Row, 1975], 96)
There was nothing inherently wrong with the Mosaic covenant; “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). It was an absolutely perfect reflection of God’s righteous character. Had God merely enforced the terms of the Mosaic covenant and condemned all sinners to eternal punishment for violating His law, He would have glorified Himself by displaying His justice. But God chose to have mercy on hopeless, helpless sinners in the misery of their fallen state and institute the New covenant, with its promise of forgiveness, righteousness, and full eternal acceptance with God.
The Blessings of the New Covenant
which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (1:78b–79)
Zacharias anticipated the coming of the One whose death would procure the blessings of the New covenant—the Messiah. He identified Him using a metaphor rich in Old Testament messianic theology and symbolism. Anatolē (Sunrise) literally means “rising,” and refers here to the first light of dawn. On high (lit., “out of” or “from the height”) refers symbolically to heaven. Zacharias thus depicts the Messiah as a great light from heaven, who will shine the light of salvation upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death (cf. Isa. 9:2; Ps. 107:10, 14; John 12:46). He is the “the sun of righteousness [who] will rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2), shining into the deep darkness of sin and ending the soul’s long night. Second Peter 1:19 speaks of the time when “the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts,” while in Revelation 22:16, the Lord Jesus Christ called Himself “the bright morning star.”
Darkness in Scripture can be used metaphorically in two ways. Intellectually, it refers to ignorance and error (e.g., Ps. 82:5; Eccl. 2:14; Eph. 4:18). Morally, darkness symbolizes sin (e.g., Prov. 2:13; 4:19; John 3:19; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:8, 11), and the realm of Satan (e.g., Luke 22:53; Eph. 6:12; Col. 1:13). God is light (1 John 1:5), and consequently Jesus, God incarnate, came into the world as the Light of the world (John 1:9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:46). He is “a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison” (Isa. 42:6–7).
To a lost world groping in the darkness and desperately hoping for light (Isa. 59:9–10), God, knowing there was no human solution to sin’s dilemma (v. 16), sent “a Redeemer … to those who turn from [their] transgression” (v. 20; cf. 53:4–6, 8, 10–12). Speaking of the New covenant that would bring that about, God declared, “ ‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ says the Lord: ‘My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from now and forever’ ” (v. 21).
The light of salvation will continue to shine in the millennial kingdom, as Isaiah 60:1–5 reveals:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be carried in the arms. Then you will see and be radiant, and your heart will thrill and rejoice.
Indeed, throughout eternity the light of God’s glory will illuminate the New Jerusalem:
No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory. Your sun will set no more, neither will your moon wane; for you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and the days of your mourning will be over. (60:19–20)
Not only would the Messiah bring the light of salvation to His people, He would also guide their feet into the way of peace. Lost sinners, stumbling around in the darkness, know nothing of true peace (Rom. 3:17). But peace is one of the elements of the New covenant. In Isaiah 54:10, God said, “ ‘For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you.” “Peace I leave with you;” Jesus promised, “my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). Peace, Paul wrote, begins with salvation: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The kingdom of God is characterized by “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and the “peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard [believers’] hearts and [their] minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
With the end of Zacharias’s song of praise, the curtain falls on the life of John the Baptist, not to be raised again until the beginning of his public ministry in chapter 3. The Bible passes over his childhood in silence, revealing even less details about it than it does of Jesus’ childhood. All that is known of John during the long years between his circumcision and the beginning of his public ministry is that he continued to grow and to become strong in spirit, and he lived in the deserts until the day of his public appearance to Israel. He then assumed the role predicted for him as Messiah’s forerunner, proclaiming the New covenant of which his father so eloquently and passionately spoke.
78. Through the bowels of mercy. In so great a benefit Zacharias justly extols the mercy of God, and not satisfied with merely calling it the salvation which was brought by Christ, he employs more emphatic language, and says that it proceeded from the very bowels of the mercy of God. He then tells us metaphorically, that the great mercy of God has made the day to give light to those who were sitting in darkness. Oriens, in the Latin version of this passage, is not a participle: for the Greek word is ἀνατολή, that is, the Eastern region, as contrasted with the West. Zacharias extols the mercy of God, as manifested in dispelling the darkness of death, and restoring to the people of God the light of life. In this way, whenever our salvation is the subject, we ought to raise our minds to the contemplation of the divine mercy. There appears to be an allusion to a prediction of Malachi, in which Christ is called “the Sun of Righteousness,” and is said to “arise with healing in his wings,” (Mal. 4:2,) that is, to bring health in his rays.
78, 79. Because of the merciful heart of our God,
With which the Rising Sun will visit us from on high,
To shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
To guide our feet into the path of peace.
Note the following:
- “The merciful heart of our God” is literally “our God’s entrails [or: bowels] of mercy.” A discussion of this figure of speech can be found in N.T.C. on Philippians, p. 58, footnote 39.
- “With which” = “equipped with this (merciful heart).”
- “The Rising Sun” (some prefer “the Dawn” or simply “Dawn”), like “the horn of salvation” in verse 69, indicates and describes the Messiah. The point is that in and through him the Most High himself will in his tender mercy visit the people in order to help and save them.
Basically the Greek term used here (anatolē) means rising (cf. Matt. 2:2). It is but a small step from rising or rise to sunrise, and from there to the Rising Sun. Since we know that Zechariah, the author of this hymn, was deeply aware of the prophecies of Malachi (note resemblance between 1:17, 76 and Mal. 3:1), it is not difficult to believe that he is here echoing Mal. 4:2, the passage about the coming of “the sun of righteousness with healing in his wings.”
- There is considerable textual support for the reading “has visited us” instead of “will visit us.” But the reading “will visit us” is at least equally strong. Besides, accepting the future tense here is favored by the fact that the passage occurs in a context of futures (“will be called,” “will go before,” verse 76). Also, Jesus was not yet born, so that “has visited” can be justified only if it be interpreted as a prophetic past. All in all it would seem that the future tense deserves the preference in this case.
- The “visit” of this “Sun” has as its purpose: “to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow” (verse 79). This phraseology is derived from Isa. 9:1, 2, which is also quoted in Matt. 4:16.
Sitting in darkness and death’s shadow indicates a condition of danger, fear, and hopelessness, a pining away, with no human help in sight. In Scripture the designation darkness, when used figuratively, refers to one or more of the following features: delusion (blindness of mind and heart; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Eph. 4:18); depravity (Acts 26:18); and despondency (Isa. 9:2; see its context, verse 3). Though all three qualities are probably in the picture here, yet the emphasis may well be on the last of the three (despondency, hopelessness).
The antonym of darkness is light, which, accordingly, refers to genuine learning (the true knowledge of God, Ps. 36:9), life to the glory of God (Eph. 4:15, 24; 5:8, 9, 14), and laughter (gladness, Ps. 97:11). All three may well be included, but here too the emphasis is perhaps on the last of the three.
The real meaning of the words, accordingly, is this, that Jesus Christ, by his presence, teaching, deeds of mercy and power, would fill the hearts of all his followers with the joy of salvation. No longer would they be pining away in gloom and despair. Whenever Jesus enters human hearts, the words of a popular hymn go into effect,
The whole world was lost in the darkness of sin,
The light of the world is Jesus.
- “To guide our feet into the path of peace.” Those who a moment ago were pictured as sitting down in despair are now standing on their feet; in fact, are walking. Their sadness has been turned into gladness. Note the connection: “to shine on those … to guide our feet.” By means of shining, the Rising Sun guides our feet. All we, sinners, had gone astray and had turned to our own way (Isa. 53:6), not knowing “the way of peace” (Isa. 59:8, 9). Then the Sun rises, shines, directs our feet into the path of peace.
This peace is both objective and subjective. Objectively it amounts to reconciliation with God through “David’s horn,” “the Rising Sun,” the Messiah (2 Cor. 5:20). Subjectively it is the quiet and comforting assurance of forgiveness and adoption (Rom. 8:16 f.). It is the smile of God reflected in the reconciled sinner’s heart, the shelter from the storm, the hiding-place in the shadow of his wings, the stream that issues from the fountain of grace. To that peace the Rising Sun directs our feet.
As this touchingly beautiful song draws to its close it seems as if already we hear the angels sing:
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men he has graciously chosen.
We have studied “Elizabeth’s Song of Love” and “Mary’s Song of Faith.” That we have every right to call the priest’s prophecy “Zechariah’s Song of Hope” can hardly be questioned. The very word prophecy, as here used, implies also the forward look, which, as has been shown, is the distinguishing trait of this song.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 1, p. 77). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.