Hymns & Songs

Zechariah’s ‘little song’

Dec 2013    

The Canticle of Zechariah

Blessed be the God of Israel who comes to set us free,
Who visits and redeems us, and grants us liberty.
The prophets spoke of mercy, of freedom and release;
God shall fulfil the promise to bring our people peace.

Now from the house of David a child of grace is given;
A Saviour comes among us to raise us up to heaven.
Before him goes the herald, forerunner in the way,
The prophet of salvation, the harbinger of day.

On prisoners of darkness the sun begins to rise,
The dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes,
To guide the feet of pilgrims along the paths of peace;
O bless our God and Saviour with songs that never cease!

Acanticle (canticulum in Latin, meaning “little song”) is a sacred song or prayer from the Bible whose text does not come from the book of Psalms. The Gospel of Luke opens with the narrative of the birth of Christ and in chapters 1 and 2, we hear three canticles: The Canticle of Mary (Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55), the Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79), and the Canticle of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis, Luke 2:29-32). They are considered the major canticles in the New Testament.

The Canticle of Zechariah (UMH 209) is also known as the Benedictus, meaning “Blessed” or “Praise.”

Zechariah was a Jewish priest. When it was his duty to enter the sanctuary to burn incense, an angel appeared to him, saying that he would have a son. This son would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. Zechariah could not believe the news for he was already old!

Because he did not believe, the angel said he would be unable to speak until his son was born. Indeed, Zechariah’s speech was restored after the birth of his son John. Then he sang “Blessed be the God of Israel!”

Zechariah began his song praising and blessing God by recalling God’s act of saving the Israelites from Pharaoh. Then he gave his prophecy – the coming of a mighty Saviour from the line of David. He confirmed the prophecies given by the prophets just as God had promised. He remembered the covenant with Abraham. Zechariah was confident of God’s protection of His people from their enemies, enabling them to serve God without fear.

Michael Perry (1942-1996), who was a minister in the Church of England and one of Britain’s great hymn writers of the 20th century, took Zechariah’s song and paraphrased it beautifully for our time. The first stanza is written in the present tense so that at the end of the stanza, we realise that we are part of the promise.

In the second stanza, Michael wrote about the coming of Jesus the Saviour and John the Baptist, a messenger and forerunner (Luke 1:76-77). Note that Michael describes Jesus here as a “child of grace”, a term not used by Zechariah. Michael used it to express how merciful God is by granting us grace and sending His Son to save us from our sins.

“On prisoners of darkness” begins the third stanza, alluding to Luke 1:78-79 which talks about Jesus as the “rising sun” who will “shine on those living in darkness”. In the Old Testament, the Messiah is identified as a light shining in darkness (Isaiah 9:2, 42:6-7; 49:6, Malachi 4:2). This light will be our guide along life’s journey.

As the canticle ends, Michael pens his hope that we do not run out of songs, but rather continue to pour out blessings and praises for our God and Saviour.

Among the many alternative tunes, MERLE’S TUNE was chosen for the Canticle of Zechariah in the United Methodist Hymnal. This tune was composed by Hal Hopson, an American full-time composer and church musician in Dallas.

Picture by Dudarev Mikhail/Bigstock.com

Judith Mosomos is Lecturer in Church Music at the Methodist School of Music and a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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