59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” 62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
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Although it is not (to my knowledge) explicitly mentioned in the Biblical account, I have always interpreted the cited passage as indicating that Zechariah was stricken deaf (in addition to being unable to speak, as specifically indicated by Gabriel) as a result of the encounter between Gabriel and Zechariah as related in Luke 1:11-20. This was what necessitated communicating with Zechariah by sign language or by writing until his speech and hearing were divinely restored following his written confirmation that his newborn son was to be named John, as Gabriel had indicated.
The deafness (if that indeed accompanied his muteness) might be a way by which God emphasized His message to Zechariah. This might be an auditory parallel to the visual way Nebuchadnezzar intensified his victory over Zedekiah by the added humiliation of making sure that the last thing he ever saw was the murder of his sons before his sight was stolen. Perhaps God made sure that Zechariah in repeating the story had to admit, "I had just said to the angel that I didn't understand how this could be. Then he reminded me that his appearance conveyed a message from the Lord Himself that should not be questioned." My feeling is that Zechariah was not being a skeptic without cause--it seems likely to me that his motivation was a cautious, loving concern for Elizabeth. Zechariah did not want to tell Elizabeth that she would bear a miracle son with a stupendous ministry for God unless it was really going to happen. Who in their hometown would be the best one to babysit others' children when women went into labor but the woman without children to take care of? Who was surrounded by friends and relatives with children? Who brought gifts to relatives' and friends' baby showers? Who had wishful thinking during many prayerful years of marriage that maybe this was IT? Who discovered a day or two later that, no, this was not a pregnancy beginning after all? Who endured years of awkwardness and even shame as an infertile woman? Who had to cry herself to sleep when it was hard to accept the fact that this was God's provision for her and Zechariah? Who resigned herself to menopause that she had anticipated with grief? Who had to prop up her faith and discipline herself to praise God with true worship when it was so hopeless? Who took childlessness harder as a woman than Zechariah might have endured as a man? Zechariah did his best to encourage his dear wife and shared in the angst. Like her he has faithfully come to rest finally about the painful fact of their childless marriage. They have learned at last to worship God together with a beautiful peace as holy people strive to do. So now he's going to announce confidently to Elizabeth that God is going to give them a son? He envisions renewed tears, anguished prayer, dashed hopes, and a sense of God’s distance at this additional loss...? "Oh, angel, I beg you, how can I be SURE? 'I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.' How might I be assured that I will not painfully reopen a wound on my dear Elizabeth’s soul, travel with her once more through that sorrow? How without fear for her, for myself, and for our faith can I tell her any son is promised, much less this son You destined to a supernatural, wide-reaching ministry? To bring this word home to Elizabeth is overwhelming to me!" I identify with Zechariah. Haven't we all discovered afterwards that we heard God wrong? I frequently have fear instead of faith. How often do I believe that God is speaking directly to me personally. Why should He when He has given His word which is supernaturally protected through the ages from serious mistranslation and efforts by threatened parties to destroy it? To doubt God's scriptures is like doubting that angel or is similar to doubting Him. I wonder just a bit: Might God sometimes discipline me for questioning what He has told us in His word? God understood and miraculously went along with Gideon's requests for miracles as he laid out two fleeces, but He expected apparently for Zechariah to rejoice at the angelic and personalized news rather than to draw back in fear. Is that because Zechariah was a trained priest and Gideon a man from an undistinguished family living in a godless atmosphere called to immense and daunting leadership?
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