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In Luke 1, Gabriel tells the aged priest Zachariah that he’s going to have a son. But Zachariah wants proof.

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

As a result, God takes Zachariah's voice.

19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

It's evident from the text that Zachariah is punished because he "did not believe." But why did God take Zachariah's voice? Why not blindness? Or a limp? What correlation, if any, does this punishment have with Zachariah's act of questioning Gabriel's message?

  • The answer to the first part of the question is in the verses you quoted, Gabriel took his voice because he did not believe the message. Maybe the point was that it was with his voice that he expressed his disbelief but I am not sure there needs to be a correlation between the sin and the result. – Jonathan Chell Mar 18 '15 at 8:11
  • @JonathanChell it answers why God punishes Zachariah but that's not my question. Why the voice? – Matthew Miller Mar 18 '15 at 14:39
  • Matthew, if you have received a valid answer please mark it so. If not, please raise a bounty. Thanks. – user10231 May 16 '16 at 15:40
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I don't think anyone can be 100% certain, to be honest. But I would say the two most probable explanations are these:

#1: Because Zechariah was old and his speech was the only significant sense.

Zechariah was already an old man, and probably therein had some health issues. For example, it wouldn't make sense to strike him deaf because if he wasn't already deaf, he was probably near to it. This is evidenced because he came out of the Temple signing, but later, in verse 62, they are signing to him:

So they made signs to [him] inquiring what he wanted to name his son

If he was only mute, they could have just spoken to him and he would have been able to respond.

This same thought process could go for most other physical ailments. I don't think it would surprise anyone that a man described as "very old" [verse 7] had some issues with walking. As such, one possible interpretation is that the ability to speak was the only real physical ailment which could be levied upon him.

#2: To silence disbelief, and thereby testify of the truth.

Personally, I think this makes the most sense. Mathew Henry very simply notes, "His unbelief was silenced". Leaving the Temple, he could not brag about the vision, nor question the prophecy. In fact, the only time he is able to speak is after he writes "his name is John", testifying of his belief and submitting himself to the truth. It's likely he had to said this earlier, because they were "astonished" at the time of birth when he named the child John. If he had testified of the vision and said the unborn child's name should be John, then they would not have been surprised after the child had been born. It was the disbelief which had been silenced.

This is similar with Paul. He could not "see" (metaphorically) the truth, so God blinds him until he sees the truth. Also with Nebuchadnezzar - he goes mad until he gives praise to God. And thus with Zechariah, he would not testify of the truth, so he was silenced until he would testify of the truth - and at when he does, his speech is restored to him.

So, therefore, we conclude that the punishment given is to stop the disbelief, and is lifted when the disbelief has ended. This has the added benefit of testifying to the truth, because immediately after saying "his name is John" he is able to speak - that direct correlation speaks to the validity of the vision with Gabriel.

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Many commentators reflect on the muteness was both a sign and punishment. For example, R.H. Stein (1992) comments as follows.

1:20 You will be silent.
Zechariah graciously was given a sign as an aid to faith even though the sign also was a rebuke for lack of faith. The sign was a punitive miracle but contained the promise “until the day this happens.” Muteness is a sign in Ezek 3:26; 24:27 and a judgment in 2 Macc 3:29.

However, the specific purpose of the muteness appears to have been to vacate Zechariah's ability to serve in the Temple until the child was born. That is, the punishment was to disqualify Zechariah from Temple ministry as a Levite. Lightfoot (2010) comments as follows.

Ver. 18: Ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι πρεσβύτης· For I am an old man.] If so old a man, why then was he not sequestered from the service of the Temple by the law of superannuation? Numb. 4:3; 8:24, 25. Hear what the Rabbins say in this case:
“There is something that is lawful in the priests, that is unlawful in the Levites: and there is something lawful in the Levites, that is unlawful in the priests. The Rabbins deliver; the priests upon any blemish are unfit; as for their years they are not unfit; the Levites for their years may be unfit, but by reason of blemish are not. From that which is said, that at the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting, we learn that years may make the Levites unfit. Perhaps the priests also are made unfit through years: and indeed, does it not seem in equity, that if the Levites, whom a blemish doth not make unfit, should yet be made unfit by superannuation, should not much more the priests be made unfit by superannuation, when even a spot or blemish will make them unfit? But the text saith, This is the law of the Levites; not, This is the law of the priests. The Rabbins deliver: What time a priest comes to maturity, till he grow old, he is fit to minister; and yet a spot or blemish makes him unfit. The Levite from his thirtieth to his fiftieth year is fit for service; but being superannuated, he becomes unfit. How must this be understood concerning the Levites? To wit, for that time wherein the ark was in the wilderness: but at Shiloh and in the Temple they were not rendered unfit, unless through the defect of their voice (See Bemidbar Rab. 222.3). (emphasis added)

In other words, Zechariah was unable to give the required public benediction and blessing to the people as part of the Temple service (cf. Num 6:22-27), and therefore Zechariah was disqualified from such service with such physiological handicaps (cf. Lev 21:9-14 and Lev 22:3-9). In fact, the text appears to show that Zechariah was also deaf, since others had to "sign" words to him (Luke 1:62). The Babylonian Talmud also has numerous references to the incapacitation of deaf-mutes in serving and participating in the Synagogue.

Finally, when Zechariah was able to talk (at the birth of his son John), he had "prophesied" that his son John was be a prophet. The implication here is that one who prophesies (that is, one who is not incapacitated by "muteness"--read: lack of belief in the Words of God) is therefore to be the faithful servant of the Lord.


References:

Lightfoot, J. (2010). A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Matthew-1 Corinthians: Luke-John (Vol. 3.) Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 22-23.

Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 77.

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According to the Luke-Acts, the sign of the Spirit is an open mouth in witness and praise. Jesus says in Acts 1:8,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…

And this is what we find in Luke and Acts. Those who are filled or receive or have the Holy Spirit come upon them open their mouths in witness and or praise.

  • Elizabeth exclaims in a loud voice. (Luke 1:42-43)
  • Zachariah prophecies. (Luke 1:67-79)
  • The 120 “speak in other tongues.” (Acts 2:4)
  • Peter testifies (Acts 4:8)
  • The believers “speak the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)
  • Cornelius and his household speak in tongues (Acts 10:44-46)
  • Paul curses Elymas (Acts 13:9)
  • The Ephesian disciples speak in tongues and prophesy (Acts 19:6)

The open mouth is precisely why being filled with the Holy Spirit is often compared to being drunk. For instance, When the crowds heard the disciples speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost they thought they were drunk. (Acts 2:13-15). And Instead of getting drunk, Paul instructs the Ephesians to be “filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18) A person who is drunk typically loses all inhebition to speak or even sing. Think Karaoke bar. But even before Karaoke, bars have always been a place of speaking and singing. Note how Paul follows this call to be “filled with the Spirit.”

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:19-20).

To speak and to sing praise to the Lord is to allow the Spirit to move in and through you.

If the open mouth is the sign of the Holy Spirit then we can conclude that the absence of the Holy Spirit is a closed mouth. When Zachariah seeks verification, he's punished by the closed mouth. When Mary seeks information, her mouth is opened and she sings a song almost ten verse long (1:46-55). From the intentional parallels in these accounts we can see that Zachariah was meant to sing. Point after point, Luke takes great pains to reveal an important comparison and contrast in these two accounts.

Situation: Like Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary is unable to have children. They are old. She is a virgin (compare 1:5-10, 26-27)

Message: Like Zachariah, the angel comes to Mary with the miraculous good news. (compare 1:11-17, 28-33), Don’t be afraid (1:13, 30), You will have a son (1:13, 31), You will name him… (1:13, 31) He will be great… (1:14-17, 32-33))

Question: Like Zachariah, she asks “How” – though it’s a very different sort of question then the one Zachariah asks. (compare 1:18, 34)

Response: Like Zachariah, she gets an answer. (compare 1:19-20, 35-38)

Elizabeth Reaction: And Like Zachariah, she journey’s to Zachariah’s home where Elizabeth proclaims the glory of what God has done. (compare 1:21-25, 39-45)

But then the pattern is broken in Mary's song (1:46-55)! See how it's broken.

Zachariah: Situation – Message – Question – Response – Reaction – (****)

Mary: Situation – Message – Question – Response – Reaction – SONG!

Zachariah is silenced. His song is clearly missing. Given Mary's song we see that he should have sang a song after Elizabeth response. But he doesn’t. He can’t. Instead he sits silently watching and listening to this young girl sing a song that he himself is unable sing.

Why is Mary’s mouth opened when Zachariah’s is shut?

It’s comes down to the very different responses they have to the good news.

Zachariah doubts the message and seeks for verification. “How shall I know this?”

Mary believes and seeks for information. “How will this be?”

For Luke, these two stories aren’t just about the birth of John and Jesus. It’s the very message of Luke’s Gospel and Acts. Be careful how you receive the Good News – the Gospel, Luke warns. To those who believe their mouths will be opened, but the mouths of the those who disbelieve will be shut.

The good news is that its not over for Zachariah. He has a second chance. Though it comes late, his mouth is opened when he humbles himself and submits to the good news. When he names his son John, as the Angel instructed, Zachariah, like Mary before, is “filled with the Holy Spirit” and at last sings His song (1:67-79).

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As to why the voice and not another ailment, it seems that God directly is the only one who makes mute or deaf or speaking or hearing. In Exodus 4:11 "The Lord said to him, “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" Other than Balaam's donkey, I cannot recall any other time in the Old Testament that one that was speaking was made to speak. And that is arguably directly from God, or the angel of God, as well. Zechariah being mute could be a clear message to the others around him that God is at work here.

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I had had the same question and didn't know the answer. And then I prayed and got an answer in my mind, to this question.

Because God wants us to profit all, so I have to say it here.

It is simple. God's words answers themselves.

Zecharias prophesied by the sing that means he is a prophet. In the old testament, God is strict on His prophets, as it is written:

Ezekiel 14:9(NKJV), “And if the prophet is induced to speak anything, I the LORD have induced that prophet, and I will stretch out My hand against him and destroy him from among My people Israel.

And he is the father of John the baptist that God does not want him to be destroyed. The person's speech is going to the reflection of his mind, the disbelief, in this case, the mind of Zecharias.

Thus, God muted Zecharaias, protecting him. Because God cannot contradict himself.

Therefore when Zecharaias truly believed what God said to him, his mouth got to be opened finally. And more importantly, God knew all of these before He revealed the prophesy to Zecharaias and He respects our freewill as always!

Behold! Bless God with all your hearts!

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This is answered on https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200004681:

  1. Priestly father of John the Baptizer. (Lu 3:2) He and his wife Elizabeth, a relative of Jesus’ mother Mary, lived in the Judean hills. They both feared God and obeyed his commandments. Though advanced in years, they had no children.​—Lu 1:5-7, 36.

    When it was Zechariah’s turn to offer incense during “the division of Abijah,” probably around late spring or early summer of 3 B.C.E., he entered the sanctuary as usual. On this occasion Jehovah’s angel Gabriel appeared to him, informing him that his supplication had been favorably heard, that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son to him, and that the boy was to be called John. Gabriel instructed Zechariah about how the boy should be raised and what this son was to accomplish. (Lu 1:5-17) Zechariah asked the angel for a sign as a further assurance. Because of his weakness as to believing the angel, he was informed that he would be struck with dumbness until after John’s birth. (Lu 1:18-23) On the eighth day after the baby was born, Elizabeth rejected suggestions from neighbors and relatives and insisted that her son be named John. Upon their appealing to the father, Zechariah took a tablet and wrote on it: “John is its name.” Instantly his speech was restored and he uttered a prophecy concerning the work of his son and that of the Messiah.​—Lu 1:13, 57-79.

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