The songs of Christmas are special, like the first snowflakes of winter. How strange that the day after Christmas we expect its songs — the carols of the season — be put away. (We also like a white Christmas, but we are more successful putting the carols away than we are with the snow.)
Have you noticed that the Christmas songs of the Bible are all — and only — in Luke’s Gospel? The first two chapters by Luke are a marvelous eruption of music, of glad songs of praise.
Elizabeth sings the joy of the Beatitude (
Mary responds with the unmatched Magnificat (
Zechariah, at the loosing of his tongue, breaks forth with the Benedictus (
What then can compare with the Glorias of the angelic host echoing over the Shepherd’s fields (
These are Hebrew psalms, with the characteristic parallel-antiphonal construction. Particularly the song of Zechariah reached back into the Psalms. One might have expected Jewish Matthew to be the gospel writer who would preserve this beautiful Hebrew praise. Instead it is Gentile Luke, Luke who wants to show us how the Christ as the Son of God is truly and equally the Son of Man. Luke takes care to present the Promised One, the Anointed One, the One who comes to redeem humanity, who altogether identifies with humanity.
So it is. In the commonplace of man’s everyday, God delights to break through, declare and relate Himself to His creature. No Gospel event shows this more vividly than that which holds the fifth Gospel song, the Nunc Dimittis, the song of Simeon.
Let us remind ourselves of this beautiful song and the story. Let us receive fresh inspiration — and perhaps fresh insight — of what God accomplished with Christmas. Consider then:
I. The singer (
What are some of the more striking aspects of this story? We know Simeon from our familiarity with this record given by Luke. However, was Simeon well known then?
Some have tried to make him so — the president of the Sanhedrin, the Son of Hillel, the father of Gamaliel. They seek to make him great, but no greatness truly fits. If he were, wouldn’t Luke, careful historian he was, have recorded it? There is no mention of an office, recognition, or special influence. He was not necessarily old, as tradition seems to hold him (check Luke’s narrative). Simeon is only a man.
He lived “in Jerusalem,” reported Luke. “In Jerusalem” — the center of Jewish religious corruption. There was little true religion in Israel when Christ was born. The doctrines of the Pharisees and Sadducees had spoiled that. Yet there “in Jerusalem” was a man who lived as one of God’s true ones: Simeon. He was a common man, it seems, but he was “righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (
Simeon was a man of great hope, “looking for the consolation of Israel,” the consolation that would came through Messiah. He marshaled to himself all the promises of the Covenant. He anticipated them.
Simeon’s was no empty expectation. The Holy Spirit upon him had given him special assurance. He would see the Lord’s Christ before he died. How did the assurance come? How did the Holy Spirit convince Simeon? The narrative gives no clue. There is no report of a dream, a vision, or a visit by an angel; just a clear communication that it would be so. Perhaps it came, as Martin Luther thought, while Simeon read the Word, especially the promise of the Covenant, as in
II. The Temple Scene (
The Temple was undoubtedly a familiar place to Simeon. He must have gone there frequently. On that day, however, especially that day, “moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts” (
The commonness of the event is clear. Other parents with their babies were there. It was probably a noisy, even congested scene of milling and hurrying people. Nothing indicated Joseph, Mary, and their Son were special. There was nothing intimate to the setting. Likely it occurred in the open court of the women, beyond which Mary (and Anna,
How did Simeon know this seemingly nondescript Child was the Messiah? Luke’s account doesn’t give us a clue. Still, remarkably, Simeon by the Spirit recognized Him. Again, remarkably, Mary without hesitation gave her baby into Simeon’s arms. All was so ordinary, so natural, so common yet so extraordinary, so particular, so supernatural. It was all by the directing power of the Holy Spirit.
III. Simeon’s Song (
The church historically knows this psalm as the Nunc Dimittus, the Latin translations of the first two words, “Now dismiss….” Since as early as the 4th century believers have sung with Simeon:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”
Some think Simeon’s use of servant carries the idea of a bond-slave commissioned by his master to keep watch through a dark night. When the slave sees the day star break though the blackness, he announces it and then retires.
So dark Israel’s darkness was! It was a time of general apostasy. Of only a few could it be said that the Holy Spirit was upon them. Simeon knew that when he went to the Temple its services were formal only, a perfunctory movement. All the while of Israel’s darkness Simeon continued going to the Temple. He had seen beyond husks and dead forms of ritual. Then on that particular, God-ordained day, Simeon was rewarded and broke out in praise, announcing: “Mine eyes have seen…”
What did Simeon see? Salvation! Though all the Christmas psalms rejoice that salvation had come, none is so grand and far-reaching as the song of Simeon. Even Zechariah failed to grasp the breadth and consequence of what God was accomplishing in Christ. He had sung of the God of Israel, of the “horn of salvation” for the house of David (
Simeon too earnestly had looked for the “consolation of Israel” (
Thou has prepared [thy salvation] in the presence of the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel. (
Standing there in the courts of the Temple, Simeon beholds the Savior of those who could not go further in. The “glory of Israel,” yes, but the Savior of the Gentiles also, hope for all the world!
Simeon could receive no further word. All his desires were satisfied. His only request was:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word;
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation….”
Today, 20 centuries past, we again celebrate that first Advent. Our days are no less dark than those of the first Christmas songs. What can we do? Simeon is surely a model for us.
First, let us live as salt and light for our time. Like Simeon in his dark day, live for God, find our ways into the courts of God. Let the Spirit of God rest upon us and fill our lives.
Then, let us live expectantly. “Shiloh will come.” This holy season — and in every season “May God Himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (