“Give me children, or I shall die!” Rachel said in unqualified bitterness. Jacob, her husband, was desperately angered at her speech. “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from the fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:1-2).
Barrenness was seen as a curse in Jewish culture. God blessed Adam and Eve while giving them charge to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). After their fall, His gospel promise (directed at the serpent) was that a woman’s offspring “shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel,” speaking of a triumphant victory over evil (Gen. 3:15). Ever since, God’s people have been awaiting that son.
The psalmist said, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Ps. 127:3). I know, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. But deep down, we who have them know the joy of children despite the troubles they bring. Those who don’t can identify with the absence of a heritage. This is especially true of women, and even more so of Jewish women. To not have children was to not have God’s reward.
Hopeless of Heritage
This rather unfortunate reality is where we find our story’s first cast, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a Jewish couple who “had no child because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Lk. 1:7). They were disapproved by their people, unrighteous in their sight. “Certainly, they are ones of great sin,” others must have reasoned (cf: John 9:1-3).
Infertility was an extremely difficult burden to have–for the wife first, but also for the husband. “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Ps. 127:4-5). Zechariah and Elizabeth were beyond youthfulness and fruitfulness. They were old. Their bodies had failed and shamed them. They expected to die with disgrace and an empty quiver. They were hopeless of heritage.
Positive of Promise
Zechariah and Elizabeth had two models of their past. On one hand, they could follow in the steps of Rachel who, according to Genesis 30:1-24, took matters into her own hands and proved herself unfaithful to God. Hannah, on the other hand, was also barren. But, unlike Rachel, she prayed and trusted God with her womb and the desires of her heart (1 Sam. 1:4-11). Zechariah and Elizabeth went the way of Hannah (Lk. 1:13).
While others looked upon this old couple with reproach, God looked upon them with grace. Before the Lord, “they were both righteous” and “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Lk. 1:6). Remarkably, these two believed the Lord by faith during this most difficult time.
This is to say something extraordinary. They were, as Moses wrote of Abraham, counted righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). They were justified by an atoning work yet to happen. For Jesus was only standing at the door of time awaiting entrance so that He might save them. They were positive of God’s promise and waiting patiently for its fulfillment.
Moreover, they were being sanctified by the Spirit. They were not sinless, but they sinned less. They were characterized by obedience to God’s law, “walking blamelessly” because they were justified (1 Cor. 6:11).
Justification and sanctification go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, the disgrace of man sometimes goes hand-in-hand with the grace of God. Zechariah and Elizabeth were hopeless of heritage, yet positive of promise.
Our earthly reproach can easily distract us from God’s promises. However, we are to remain faithful to His word, despite man’s disgrace.