What Luke’s Two Old Men Teach Us About Worshiping Through Song

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Benedictus music scorePreviously we learned what Mary the mother of Jesus can teach us about good songs for Christian worship. Her exclamation of praise became an early canticle (hymn) of the Church entitled the Magnificat. And it is one of three great canticles in the Gospel of Luke. Let’s see what the other two can teach us about praising God through song, and writing lyrics for worship.

The second Luke canticle is the prophecy of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. We call this the “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel” or simply the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79). Let’s recall the background:

The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in a vision and foretells that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to the man who will introduce the Messiah to Israel. Zechariah questions this due to his wife’s advanced age. Gabriel replies that Zechariah will not be able to speak until after the birth, because of his disbelief.

Eight days after the birth, just before John is to be circumcised, Zechariah writes “His name will be John” for all to see, and immediately his tongue is loosed and he bursts into praise.

The prophecy-in-song contains two parts:

  1. a song of thanksgiving for the realization of Messianic hope (Luke 1:68-75).
  2. an address to his newborn son John (Luke 1:76-79).

As in the Magnificat, psalms, and songs of Moses, in the Benedictus we learn about God’s holiness, power, faithfulness, mercy, acts of salvation, promises, and plans for His children. We look back to what God has done for His people in the past, and we look forward to what He will do in the future.

The Nuc Dimittis Servum Tuum

Following the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the third great canticle recorded in Luke’s Gospel comes from Simeon, a “righteous and devout” Jew who had been praying and waiting for the Messiah.

When Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus to the temple to be consecrated, Simeon, whom the Holy Spirit had promised would not die until he had seen Christ, finds Jesus in the temple courts, takes him in his arms, and praises God:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

— Luke 2:29-32

Simeon’s lyric poem is as brief as a praise chorus, in the personal “I” voice, yet is still a jaw-dropping announcement of the gospel: this child will not only be “for glory to your people Israel” but “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.”

Together with the Magnificat, Psalms, songs of Moses and hymn fragments in the New Testament, these canticles show us that God is pleased when our worship songs specify why we love and trust Him, when they declare His plan, and when they celebrate His faithfulness in the past. Some are short, some are long. Some are addressed from the corporate “we,” some from the singular “I.” But they all preach.

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