The Horn of Salvation
“and he raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David, his servant.”
The theme of the “horn of salvation” has important Old Testament Biblical-Theological implications, yet, before we delve back into the Old Testament history of this language, it is important that we set the context of the passage and make several observations:
- Note that this statement is part of the prophesy of Zechariah at his son, John’s, birth. It is prophetic in its scope, but note the use of the past tense with the verb “raised.” This is what is called the “prophetic past,” and it is a common element in Hebrew prophesy. Rather than speak of what God will do in the future tense (which the prophets do as well), the prophets speak of what God will do in the future but use past tense verbs to communicate the absolute nature of this event coming to pass. In other words, the prophet is saying that we can be so sure that God will fulfill this event that we can speak as if it has already taken place even though it is yet to take place. Such language is always used with prophesies that are unconditional and irrevocable. Here, Zechariah is prophesying about the reality of God having fulfilled all of his covenantal promises in the coming of Jesus—John being the forerunner; Zechariah is certain that even in the coming of this child in the womb, God would fulfill all of his plans through his Messiah and there was nothing that the enemies of God’s plan could do about it. Even the might of the Roman Empire is but a bug to be squashed under the heel of our God!
- Note for whom this promise is given: for “us.” How is this, when the coming of Christ will bring about the in-grafting of gentiles? Judaism was never meant to be an isolationist religion—a central temple, yes, but isolationist, no. They were to bring in converts from all of the nations, yet rarely worked to do so. One of the great Messianic promises is that this Messiah would bring in gentiles to the fold, that people from every tribe and nation would come to faith and be part of God’s covenant people. See the prophesies of Zechariah 14, for example, which speak of all the nations coming together to celebrate the festival of Booths together as one people—signaled by the coming of the Messiah. Even as far back as the creation account, where Adam and Eve were commanded to reproduce and fill the world with their kind (Genesis 1:28)—was this not for a purpose? Certainly, it was to subdue the creation so that God would be worshiped in every corner of the earth. This same commandment God gave to Noah and his children (Genesis 9:7), yet, in their sin they settled in Babel and God confused their language to force them into obedience. This is the great downfalls of mankind—refusing to give proper and right worship to God the creator—in Christ, once again, God is hardening the hearts of the Jewish people to bring in the gentiles—forcing them into obedience to the command to spread God’s worship throughout the earth. Thus the promise of the coming Messiah is for “us” from the Jewish perspective, for it is God fulfilling his plan for them.
- “in the house of David:” This communicates the agency by which God will fulfill this promise—by the line of David. We might as easily translate this Greek preposition (ejn) as “by” or “through.” It is not so much that the promise will be fulfilled within the house of David, but it will be fulfilled through one who is from said line. Note too that John the Baptist was from the line of Aaron, not the line of David. There is absolutely no confusion in Zechariah’s mind as to just what is going on with his son. It is interesting to see the change in Zechariah that has taken place in these past 9 months of his life. In the earlier account, he is seen as humble, but doubting God’s promise. Here he is boldly proclaiming the truth about what God is doing in the lives of the people of Israel. Sometimes, when God silences our lips from speaking, we can finally hear the truth that God is speaking to us through his word. We may be moving into some degree of speculation here, but I don’t think that it is too unlikely that Zechariah would have spent much of his imposed silence seeking out God’s face in prayer and the study of the scriptures—perhaps we would all do well to experience such a trial.
- Finally, note the last clause in the passage. Normally, our English Bibles translate this word as “servant” (as I have translated above). Yet, in Greek, it is the term paivß (pais), not douvloß (doulos) as one might expect. The word paivß (pais) is related to the word pai/dion (paidion) and can also be translated as “child,” which is important to note. In speaking of one’s servant in language that would denote kinship, it communicates the idea that there is a significant level of affection that is found between the Master and the servant. A good example of this kind of affection is found in the account of Jesus’ healing of the Centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). Were this an ordinary servant, why would the Centurion have gone to such trouble to see the servant healed? Certainly it would have been a sign of disgrace for a Roman Centurion to go to a Hebrew Rabbi for healing. Clearly, there is great affection within this relationship. In the case of Zechariah’s prophesy, this concept of affection is especially pertinent. David is one whom scripture describes as being a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and it is to David that the promise comes to establish an eternal kingship (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Thus, we might even go as far to translate this clause, “in the house of David, his beloved servant” or even, “in the house of David, his child.” Either conveys the idea that Zechariah is communicating.
With the context of Zechariah’s prophesy before us, let us look at the passages that also communicate this idea:
- 2 Samuel 22:3. At the end of David’s life, he composes a song of praise to God that we find recorded here, in chapter 22 of Second Samuel. David sings of God’s fullness and of his provision even in the face of certain destruction. At the beginning of this song of praise, David uses a series of parallel statements that communicate the nature of God’s deliverance. God is described as deliverer, rock, refuge, shield, horn of my salvation, stronghold, refuge (a second time), and savior. What can be said about all of these images?
1. They are all defensive images—this speaks primarily of God’s redemption and not of his judgment upon his foes.
2. They are all passive images in terms of David. One is defended within the fortress or by the high and firm rock. One takes refuge within these safe places, the places do not move from here to there.
3. One may find rest in all of these places. One of the great themes in the Old Testament is that of seeking rest from one’s enemies. David is saying that as tumultuous as his life has been, rest has been given to him in the refuge of God alone.
4. The Hebrew term for “horn” that is used here is the term !r<q, (keren), and is normally used to describe an animal’s horn or something made in that general shape. In particular, it is also this term that is used to describe the four horns of the altar of burnt offering (Exodus 38:2). There are a number of things that are particularly interesting about this connection.
o While we don’t know the origin of the tradition, it seems that in Ancient Israel, people held the belief that clinging to the horns of the altar would provide them sanctuary and refuge from their oppressors. In 1 Kings 1:49-53, we find Adonijah, in fear of Solomon, running and clinging to the horns of the altar for protection. Soon afterward, as recorded in 1 Kings 2:28-35), we also find Joab doing the same. It seems that Solomon puts an end to this tradition, for while he pardons Adonijah, he has Joab slain while still clinging to the altar’s horns.
o In a similar vein, though this is a negative example, when God speaks through the prophet Amos, commanding him to speak of the judgment that is coming upon the people, one thing he states is that he will “cut off” the horns of the altar at the time of said judgment, implying that the presence of the horns on the altar was at least symbolic of God’s protection for his people—that in this judgment that is coming, there will be no place of refuge for the people to go (see Amos 3:14).
Note that this is not the term that refers to a musical horn made from the horn of an animal—that word is rp;Av (shophar) and the two words are not interchangeable.
- Psalm 18:2. This is the psalm that is based on the Psalm above, written by David as a praise to God for deliverance from his enemies, thus, even though the language varies slightly, the idea remains the same, the language of the “horn of salvation” is again used to describe taking refuge in the Lord.
Thus, how are we to understand Jesus as the “horn of salvation”? The answer should be fairly obvious at this point; the horn of salvation is a symbol of a place wherein one can find refuge from the assaults of this world—the greatest enemy we face being sin and temptation to sin. And, indeed, that is exactly the context in which Zechariah is speaking. In Luke 1:68, Zechariah speaks of God having redeemed his people, then in verse 69, he speaks of that redemption in terms of God having raised up the horn of salvation. As the praise song goes, “He is our refuge in days of trouble, he is our shelter in times of storm, He is our tower in the day of sorrow, our fortress in the time of war.” Oh, beloved, God is a strong fortress wherein which we can rest from the oppressors of this sinful world—he is our horn of salvation, clinging to which we cannot be destroyed and our sin before God is forgiven—we are truly redeemed. What a wonderful promise that God has given us in Jesus Christ! As David also wrote:
“Serve Yahweh with fear and rejoice with trembling!
Kiss the Son lest he become angry and you perish in the way!
For his anger will soon burn!
Blessed are those who take refuge in him!”
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
-From John Rippon’s selection of hymns
And in the spirit of Zechariah’s prophesy of the coming Christ:
Say to those who are fearful hearted,
‘Do not be afraid,’
‘The Lord, your God, is strong, with his mighty arm,’
‘when you call on his name,’
‘He will come and save…’
-Fitts & Sadler