How long will you wait for a response to your voicemail, text, email, marriage proposal, bid on a house? How long will you wait for a customer service employee to come back on the phone or for a doctor’s office to call with test results? Seconds, minutes, a day, a week, a year, years?
Zechariah the priest gets a bum rap in commentaries and sermons when he asks the archangel Gabriel for a sign, for proof, that he and his barren wife will have a son (Luke 1:18). Not only is she barren, but they’re both “well along in years”– likely she’s post-menopausal and he’s eligible for the senior discount. That would be shocking news and hard to fathom even with an angel fresh from God’s presence playing the FedEx messenger role. Even harder when no Israelite had received a prophetic message from God for four hundred years.
During this four-century span known as the intertestamental period, no written or spoken words came from God, no prophetic voices were heard. God had gone dark; he was silent. This doesn’t mean the Jews abandoned their faith and observance of religious rituals or that people stopped thinking and writing about God. Though not included in the Protestant canon, apocalyptic writings describing how the world would end and how God would destroy the kingdom of evil flourished in this era. Twelve of these writings are included in the Roman Catholic canon as the Apocrypha; the remainder are considered pseudepigraphical writings (say that three times quickly.)
The Jewish priests continued to perform their prescribed duties in these gap years. Luke’s gospel describes Zechariah’s priestly division as being on duty in the temple, and Zechariah as the one chosen by lot to offer incense. As there were more priests than duties, most priests offered incense in accord with Exodus 30:7-8 once in their lifetime.
Zechariah, having his hole-in-one day as a priest, “was startled and was gripped with fear” when he saw the angel standing by the altar of incense. Gabriel calmed him down, told him the boy’s name will be John, and gave details no modern ultrasound exam could rival. Then Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this?” Boo. Hiss. How could he doubt a visit from an angel? I know I could.
For four hundred years, God’s direct line to his people was disconnected and now he’s talking again? I would want photo ID and an explanation. An angel is a good start. Gabriel promised a son like he did to aged Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 15:4. When Abraham asked precedent-setting questions after he received the good news in Genesis 15:2, 8, it seems fair that Zechariah could ask one. But his question is more a demand than a request, and the angel did not take his unbelief lightly.
For Zechariah had 1600 more years of God’s covenant faithfulness to fall back on than Abraham, the starter dough for the Jewish nation. He also had the written testimony of the Old Testament canon. When Zechariah questioned the angel in unbelief, he was rendered silent (mute and possibly deaf based on the Greek word) and stuck with hand signals and a writing tablet until John’s bris or circumcision ceremony.
Gabriel’s words portray an angel accustomed to standing in God’s presence frustrated with a priest’s unbelief. God had broken his four-hundred-year silence, Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child would be answered in an “above all you could ask or think” kind of way, they would play a role in God’s redemptive story, and Zechariah got stuck on “how.” I know that address.
And I’m encouraged. God still used Zechariah’s seed, and let him keep his front row ticket and backstage pass to the unfolding drama. Another benefit? Zechariah’s faith deepened during his exile to silence. His first recorded speech is captured in the Benedictus song, Luke 1:67-79. Notice his praise and adoration for God and his faithfulness. Notice how his prophetic words echo Gabriel’s message.
And he’s not asking “how” anymore.