Songs about David
Luke adorns his nativity story with two psalms of thanksgiving, Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus. In wording and theme both have much in common with Hannah’s song concerning the birth of the prophet Samuel and the establishment of the Davidic dynasty. In exultation Hannah announces that through David and his sons “the Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed” (1 Sam 2:10). As the Deuteronomistic narrative continues, we see that David strikes down Philistia “from Gibeon to Gezer” (2 Sam 5:25) and that there is peace and rest for Israel in the time of David and Solomon (2 Sam 7:1, 22:1-51, 1 Kings 4:25). In the midst of hostile pagan nations, David brings peace.
As we turn to Luke’s narrative about the new Davidic king this political-historical kind of peace is achieved neither in Jesus’ lifetime nor in the ministry of his apostles. In fact, Christ’s people in Luke-Acts are by in large defenseless before their enemies. Persecutions erupt against the churches throughout the empire. It remains confounding then that Luke chose to model his nativity songs off of a hymn that anticipates political and militaristic outcomes: “The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength… He raises up the poor from the dust… to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam 2:4-8, cf. Luke 1: 51-53). Does Luke’s imitation of Hannah’s song suggest he too expected historical-political transformation as a result of the birth of this new Davidic king? We shall see.
The Politics of Christmas Carols
According to Mary’s Magnificat, in Jesus’ birth God has “shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Such language readily evokes the warrior God of the Exodus (Ex 6:6, 12:12, 15:1-19). Zechariah’s song adds a related element: [God] has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:69-71). According to Zechariah this expected rescue from enemies allows God’s people to “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-74). In accordance with much contemporary messianic speculation then, the Messiah awaited by Mary and Zechariah will defeat the enemies of God’s people and exalt faithful Israel.
Forgiveness vs Rescue?
But many commentaries elect not to comment on Zechariah’s double reference to salvation from enemies. Others, such as John Carroll, suggest Zechariah “reframes” salvation as and only as forgiveness of sins at the conclusion to the song (Luke 1:76-79): “Where does the military occupation by imperial Rome fit into this picture? Does salvation mean an end to Roman control of Palestine? Luke will have more to say about this matter, beginning with the singer’s own later reframing of soteria as forgiveness (v. 77)” (Carroll, 59). According to such a schema the militaristic language on display in Luke’s nativity songs is metaphorical. The true enemies of God’s people are sin and death, not human combatants or pagan nations.
While perhaps appealing, such a reading is not satisfactory. The Hebrew Bible thoroughly stitches together Israel’s spiritual and political life. In Torah, for instance, it is assumed that Israel’s recalcitrant disobedience results in national catastrophe while her repentance brings historical-political renewal (Deuteronomy 28, Leviticus 26). Even in the prophet Isaiah forgiveness of sins and political exaltation go hand in hand. God remarks:
“I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you… Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer… who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins’… who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid'” (Isaiah 44:22-28).
Isaiah 60:10 also represents the typical linking of divine favor and historical-political well-being. Looking forward to a time after judgement and exile God declares, “foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.” NT Wright’s analysis of the prophets is correct: “Among a good many other things, the return from exile will mean forgiveness of sins and vice versa” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 269). For the writers of the Hebrew Bible then divine wrath manifested as political dissolution and divine forgiveness as political resurrection.
Back to Mary and Zechariah
What does this mean for Mary and Zechariah? It means that when they put together “rescue from our enemies” and “forgiveness of sins” they were speaking as any Jew might have. In the communal life of Israel the historical and the spiritual are two sides of the same coin. Mary and Zechariah have thus not spiritualized away Israel’s political and militaristic yearnings. They have directed these hopes onto Jesus, the new David.
So the question remains: how will Jesus fulfill their historical-political expectations? How will he defeat the enemies of his people and provide them with the security necessary to worship in peace and holiness? As I mentioned earlier, Luke does not appear to narrate such events. While Christ surely protects his people from harm and even removes a hostile king from power, by the end of Luke’s second volume a vicious idolatrous empire still rules the known world. For a few hundred years Christians would continue to suffer under this pagan power. They were not safe and they were not exalted.
So when did this persecution come to an end? In a general sense, it hasn’t. Persecution of God’s people continues and will continue until the final judgement and remaking of heaven and earth. But this final trans-historical redemption cannot be what Mary and Zechariah foresaw and celebrated. They sang of a historical-political rest because they believed the birth of the Messiah had guaranteed it. They believed God’s people would be vindicated soon—not in thousands of years. The new David would put an end to arrogant pagan aggression.
Where does that leave us? Only one historical option fits the bill. Persecution of God’s people came to an end when Caesar confessed Jesus Christ as Lord; when Constantine ended centuries of abuse and publicly vindicated Christ’s churches; when Babylon collapsed and was replaced by Christ’s kingdom (Rev 18-19). This is where the eschatological expectations of Mary and Zechariah fall.