Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Zechariah Prayed for a Pony

Posted by BrianJ on January 9, 2011

When Zechariah prayed in the temple as he prepared the incense, what was he praying for?

Now while Zechariah was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the holy place of the Lord and burn incense. Now the whole crowd of people were praying outside at the hour of the incense offering.

An angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense, appeared to him. And Zechariah, visibly shaken when he saw the angel, as seized with fear. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son; you will name him John.

For the longest time, I thought the answer was quite obvious: Zechariah was praying for a son. And what makes this so obvious:

1) He didn’t have any kids, so of course he would have been praying for a son
2) The angel presents the fact that Elizabeth will give birth to a son as a continuation of the message that Zechariah’s prayer had been heard

Re-read the text, however, and see if it ever says what Zechariah prayed for. In fact, look to see if it even says that he was praying at all.

If I believed that Zechariah prayed for a pony, there’s nothing in the text to prove me wrong (or right). Likewise if he prayed for forgiveness, or the Messiah to come quickly, or for a peaceful resolution to a conflict with his neighbor, or, indeed, if he prayed for a son.

Having considered reasons to believe that he prayed for a son, let us now consider reasons why that is not what he prayed for:

1) He and his wife were, in Luke’s words, very old. Is it reasonable to believe that he had long since given up praying for a son—that the idea seldom crossed his mind anymore?
2) The angel may indeed have meant that the future son would come as an answer to Zechariah’s prayer, but does that mean that the baby John was a direct answer?
3) Zechariah was in the temple performing priestly duties; this was not a private visit for personal reasons the way we often attend the temple today. I wonder if it would have been quite inappropriate for him to use his time in the holiest place of the temple to make his own supplications; he was there as the high priest* of Israel, not as a would-be father.

Part of his priestly duty that day was to offer a prayer as he emerged from the Holy Place to bless the people. Thus, while the text does not explicitly say that he was praying, this upcoming** prayer might be considered “his prayer.” And, it should be noted, Matthew’s audience would have known exactly what that prayer should be:

The Lord bless you and protect you;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
and give you peace.”’

Can John be seen as a fulfillment or answer to that prayer? Was John a sign that the Lord was shining his face on Israel, that the Lord was about to give them peace?

* He was a priest but not the high priest; nevertheless, Zechariah was acting in the place of the high priest.

** I’ve always overlooked this point until now: the people waiting in the temple for Zechariah to emerge from the Holy Place must have been particularly astonished when he was unable to pronounce the anticipated blessing!

11 Responses to “Zechariah Prayed for a Pony”

  1. Dave said

    Note also that Zechariah’s job was to burn the incense. So for the angel to appear and say “your prayer has been heard” would make perfect sense, because burning incense is the symbolic equivalent of offering prayer.

  2. joespencer said

    Very nice post, Brian. I think this kind of approach makes helpful sense of the “difficulties” surrounding the First Vision. Joseph was praying, according to the earliest accounts, for forgiveness, and that was what the Lord seems to have had reference when He said that Joseph’s prayers were being answered. But a lot more happened during that visit—not unlike the promise of a son, etc., in Luke 1—that Joseph only came to make sense of much later….

  3. Mike B. said

    Wow, I really like that. In the next few verses after that, Gabriel describes the important work John is going to do. That work could have been what Gabriel meant as the answer to his prayer.

    Also, I think that makes more sense out of Zacharias’s doubt. If he had really been asking the Lord for a son, then he shouldn’t have doubted it from the mouth of an angel who stands in the presence of God. But if he was praying for the liberation of Israel or for the Messiah to come, then the thought of having a son would have been the furthest thing from his mind! It would have shocked him.

    What I really like about this is that it doesn’t marginalize the importance of Gabriel’s message. Yes, God is going to perform a miracle and give a child to barren Elizabeth, but that’s not the really good news. His message is about the work that John is going to do for Israel. Even better (but not explicit) is the coming of the Messiah.

  4. Jim F. said

    Zachariah’s surprise at the angel’s promise is another good indication that he had not been praying for a son.

    What Zacharias says about Jesus in verses 67-80–the Messiah will come to perform the promised mercy and to remember the covenant with Israel–is more evidence that you are on the right track.

  5. Gdub said

    It seems Zachariah is very concerned with the temple blessings and realizes those blessings will be through the messiah. As I’ve been studying this all week, that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn — Zachariah as seeing a day when the promises of the Abrahamic covenant would be realized as temple blessings for all Israel, not small exclusive performances by an elite few as in his day.

    Does that make sense?

  6. goatboy said

    Was it the holiest place though? I mean I don’t think he was in the Holy of Holies as it was not the day of atonement. Otherwise I think the post is good without the emphasis of answering your questions by saying he was in the most sacred place of the temple and attaching any significance to that. I believe his job was the incense. Someone else had went before him and cleaned the altar and made sure everything was in the correct place.

    As he won the lot to enter, possibly something that happens once in a lifetime, he may have spent some personal moments instead of exclusively thinking of others. The thought had never crossed my mind that he may have been praying inside the temple itself. On the other hand he might not have. I like the pony part. We always assume a lot, and it could have been a pony.

  7. Robert C. said

    I’m not sure, but I think a horse would’ve been less practical for someone of Zachariah’s class during that time, as horses were more commonly used for warfare, etc., not as a pack animal or other domestic uses. A goat, on the other hand, might’ve been highly desired by Zachariah (don’t you think, Goatboy?!)….

    Nice post, Brian—thanks.

  8. joespencer said

    Goatboy is right; he would have been emerging only from the holy place, not from the holy of holies. Only the high priest would enter the holy of holies, and then only on Yom Kippur. That is, of course, a very minor detail here and has nothing essential to do with your argument.

    It is important, though, with respect to other aspects of the story. I think it is highly significant that (1) Zachariah is attending to the altar of incense, which is placed as a symbol of perpetual prayer immediately before the veil (prayer, as it were, in its true order), when (2) he encounters an angel, perhaps parting the veil and emerging from the holy of holies (always portrayed as filled with angels in visionary experiences in the OT) in order to speak with him; (3) he then receives not only the word that his prayers have been heard—that his request has been granted—and the word that he will have a son, but also receives, at that crucially sacred place, a name he is subsequently unable to speak (though, ironically, it is here because of his lack of faith) until (4) he takes upon him, after the fulfillment of the promise, to write the name given him in the temple; and at that point (5) he is given to prophesy, to speak (as Nephi would put it) with the tongue of angels, thus at least implicitly joining the angelic throng in the holy of holies from which he was initially excluded, etc.

    There’s a lot going on in this story, methinks….

  9. goatboy said

    This is a great post and I love following this blog. Yes you are right Joespencer, not really that critical, but as you went on to describe the incense and the veil etc. – yeah I can buy in to that. It seems to make sense.

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