I imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth had plans. Most young married couples do. Part of their plans revolved around Zechariah’s service as a priest, but I’m sure, like most married couples, their plans also included having children, maybe lots of them. Luke tells us, in chapter 1 of his gospel, that they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly before him. This doesn’t mean they were perfect, but that they were faithful. Given this information about them, it’s a surprise to read the next thing about them.
They had no children.
Elizabeth was barren.
And they were advanced in years.
Imagine what those early years and then the middle years of their marriage had been like. Month after month, and then year after year, their desire for a family was denied. Did they hear the whispers of neighbors? Were they assaulted with questions from their relatives? As faithful Israelites, they knew the stories of God’s faithfulness. They knew how he had intervened for Sarah and Abraham, for Isaac and Rebekah, and for Hannah. Did they go through seasons of doubt? We don’t know. Perhaps Psalm 113 was a common refrain in their home:
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
Those last words must have been harder and harder to hear and pray as the years went by. In those times, a woman’s inability to have a child resulted in a kind of social stigma. Did they stop praying? And when? As both their bodies started to show the telltale signs of age and infertility, especially Elizabeth, the request for a child must have faded to the background. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not without a miracle.
There’s no way for us to know what they went through during those long years of waiting and hoping, but perhaps they were just like us. Maybe their hearts asked the same questions. “Do you hear us God?” “Have we sinned in some way that is preventing this blessing from coming to us?” Surely they reached a point where they knew it wasn’t going to happen. Children were not going to be in their future.
Then one day, Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense. We’re told that Zechariah was of the division of Abijah. There were 24 divisions and each contained a large number of priests. This would be the only time in Zechariah’s life where he would get this specific opportunity to serve.
We know what happens next. The angel Gabriel, the same Gabriel who appeared to Daniel hundreds of years before, appears to Zechariah and says this:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…” Luke 1:13
Your prayer has been heard? Your prayer has been heard! Think about that for a moment. When do you think was the last time Zechariah had prayed that prayer, a prayer for a child? Years? Decades? We don’t know. But God did. God heard all the prayers they had both prayed. He heard them all and remembered. And at just the right time, he intervened and said, “Yes!” in the most spectacular and miraculous way. It was so spectacular and miraculous that Zechariah didn’t believe it and was made mute until John’s birth.
We all pray lots of prayers, but some of them have been offered over and over again, for many years. After a while, if we don’t see the answer we’re looking for, we may think the answer is “No.” We may even stop praying.
We equate delay with NO.
But remember that God isn’t bound by time like we are. Our perspective on our prayers is limited because we’re finite. We’re not able to see the whole expanse of time from beginning to end. We don’t have the capability to determine how all things, including all our prayers, work together for God’s wise and always good purposes.
But even when we’ve stopped praying for something, or someone, because it seems from our limited perspective that it’s just not going to happen, God remembers.
God hasn’t forgotten.
The name Zechariah means, “the Lord has remembered”. For Zechariah and Elizabeth their sorrow exploded into joy. But this joy wasn’t meant just for them! The barrenness Elizabeth experienced was a theme God had been using among his people. Just like Sarah, and Rebekah and Hannah, it wasn’t a symbol of the absence of God, but a sign that God was about to do something big. I like how the Zondervan NIV Study Bible explains it: “God’s reversal for one family signifies that he is present to save and deliver his entire people.” The miraculous birth of John proved that the Lord had remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth’s many prayers and had indeed remembered his people!
In our own prayer lives, let’s be encouraged in the delays. God hears our prayers. He remembers each one and is wisely and lovingly working in response to them. The delays don’t always mean no.