“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” – Luke 1:5-7
Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous in the sight of God” and yet the blessing of children had been withheld from them. From Elizabeth’s later statements in verse 25, we can see that she had felt disgraced “among the people” for being unable to have children. Not only was it a personal desire that had gone unfulfilled for a long time, but it was also a cultural mark of honor that they lacked. Their personal heartache was on display for the entire community.
During that time period–and even today to some extent–there was a thought that misfortune or lack of blessing was due to someone’s sin and lack of righteousness. In John 9 the disciples ask Jesus why a certain man was born blind by saying,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – John 9:2b
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” – John 9:3
Our sin can have earthly physical consequences, but to assume that every misfortune or struggle is the direct result of a failure on our part or to assume that about someone else and their struggles is wrong.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were not childless because there was something wrong with them or they had sinned. Scripture clearly points out that they were “righteous”. It also points out that they were “very old”. Their age teaches us at least two things.
- That the story of the birth of John the Baptist following these verses is even more clearly a miracle. Not only did the angel tell Zechariah what was going to happen, but it was also physically impossible, or at the very least extremely unlikely because of their advanced age.
- They had borne this pain for many years.
We don’t know for sure, but we can guess that over the years of their marriage there were times they wondered what was wrong with them. They may have asked God what they had done or why they were not allowed to have children. There may have been days that they were hopeful and expectant that only later ended in disappointment. As the years went on their hopes may have faded as they tried to cope with the idea that they wouldn’t have children. Their struggle would have been compounded by others looking at them, seeing that Zechariah served in the temple–basically a ministry leader–and assuming that there was some secret sin they had committed and therefore God did not bless them with children.
Sometimes blessings and desires are not given to us right away because of God’s greater plan, not because we have screwed up or don’t deserve it. The reason Zechariah and Elizabeth had to wait so long was because of God’s perfect timing and plan and for His glory.
How precious must John have been to them because they waited so long for him. Not only was John a miracle because of their age and that his birth was foretold, but also because he would be the one to prepare the way for the long awaited messiah. Zechariah and Elizabeth went from being childless to having their own child announce the coming of their savior.
Both Elizabeth and Zechariah have beautiful passages in this chapter. Here is just part of Zechariah’s that I think is especially poignant for this topic.
“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God” – Luke 1:76-78a
Before people in their community might have thought they sinned and were deprived of children because of it, maybe even they were tempted to think that. Instead, the truth was they were going to be the parents of the “prophet” that would prepare the way for the Lord “to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins”. Not only had they not sinned, but they were being divinely used to play a role in forgiving the sins of the world.
Zechariah and Elizabeth went from feeling disgraced to being honored. As many people that knew about their barren years, that many more heard about the miracle of their son.
“All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. – Luke 1:65-66
God’s timing and plans are perfect. If we have to wait longer than we anticipated or it seems like something isn’t happening, that is an opportunity to wait in and trust on the Lord. He will use that period of waiting for good and we can trust in God’s plan even when it doesn’t make sense to us.
As an addendum: God has special blessings and purposes in mind for those that never have children or never marry. Isaiah 56:4-5 is a helpful passage for this topic and John Piper has an excellent message on singleness here.