When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

The Herald of the King

The King had long been expected. Men of God in the Old Testament had promised that the King should come. They had also promised that before he came, somebody should appear to tell the people that he was coming, and to prepare his way; for that was the custom when kings came. Sometimes the road lay over wild lands, and companies of men were sent to make it smooth. They cut down forests, and bridged rivers, and even leveled hills and filled up valleys. All this they did under the orders of the king's herald.

One of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, had said that when the King of Glory came, such a herald should precede him with such orders. The prophet, in his vision, heard the herald's voice in the wilderness: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." Another prophet, Malachi, had said that the road to be made ready for the King was not laid down on any map, but was in the heart of man; where the valleys are valleys of ignorance, and the hills are hills of pride, and the rough and crooked ways are ways of sin. Malachi said that the King's herald would be like the prophet Elijah: "He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

At last, one day, just before the beginning of the Year One, a strange thing happened to a priest in the temple. The priest was a very good old man named Zacharias. He lived with his good old wife, Elisabeth, in a quiet little place among the hills, where they were much respected and loved by all their neighbors. The old people liked the quiet of the village, but they were much troubled by the quiet of their own home; for every day, from morning to night, no sound was there but the sound of their own gentle voices. Many times they had prayed to God to send them a little baby, but their prayers had not been answered.

Now the time came when it was the turn of Zacharias to go to Jerusalem to take his part, with other ministers, in the temple service. Services were going on every day in the year, but there were so many ministers that they had to take turns. And even when a new company came week by week, they had to draw lots to divide the service, one to do this, another to do that. This time it so happened at the drawing of lots that Zacharias was chosen to burn the incense. That was a great honor which came only once in a man's life.

So Zacharias went in to burn incense. One part of the temple was called the Holy of Holies: and nobody ever went into it except the high priest, once a year. Just outside the Holy of Holies was the Holy Place. The doors which led into it were covered with gold, and against them hung a heavy curtain colored white and blue and scarlet and purple. Inside, there stood on the right a table and on the left a great candlestick having seven branches, and beside the candlestick was the altar of incense overlaid with gold. Two men went in with Zacharias, one carrying a golden bowl full of incense, and the other a golden bowl full of burning coals. These they put on the altar and went out, leaving Zacharias alone. Outside were all the other priests and many people in great silence praying. Zacharias was to take the incense and sprinkle it on the burning coals so as to make a thick fragrant smoke. "And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God."

Then it was that the strange thing happened; for as this white-haired old man cast the incense on the coals and the place was filled with smoke, suddenly he saw an angel of the Lord standing beside him. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled and fear fell upon him. But the angel said, "Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. And he shall go before the Lord." That is, the child, thus to be born, should be the herald of the King.

You remember how Mary answered the angel. She said, "Be it unto me according to thy word." But she was young, and it was easy for her to believe in wonders. Zacharias, in his long experience, had learned that life is governed by great, universal laws. One of these laws is that little babies are not given to old people. And that was the first thought which came into his mind. "I am an old man," he said, "and my wife well stricken in years." Indeed, they were now such aged folk that they had given up expecting that their prayer would be heard. But the angel answered, "You do not know who I am. My name is Gabriel. I come to you straight from God. He has sent me to tell you these glad tidings. And now because you do not believe, you shall be dumb and not able to speak until this comes to pass." So he vanished out of sight.

Meanwhile, the people in great silence waiting without were wondering why Zacharias stayed so long in the Holy Place. And when he came out, and held up his hands in blessing but was speechless, and could only make signs to them, touching his lips and pointing to the sky, they knew that he had seen a vision. So he did the duties of the day and then went home to tell the great news to his wife.

And by and by, that which the angel had promised was fulfilled. The little boy came into the quiet house of Zacharias and Elisabeth. And when he was eight days old, according to the custom, he must be named. All their neighbors and cousins were glad that God had heard their prayer, and on that day they came together to rejoice with the happy father and mother. And they said, "Of course, the baby will be named Zacharias, after the name of his father." "Not so," said Elisabeth, "but he shall be called John." "Why," the neighbors and the cousins said, "there is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. There is not another John in the whole family." And they asked Zacharias, making signs to him, for he seems to have been deaf as well as dumb. And he took a slate and wrote a sentence on it, as they crowded about to see; and the sentence was, "His name is John." And at that moment his speech came back, and his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue was loosed, and he spoke and praised God. And all who were in the house were filled with fear and wonder, and when they came out they spoke to everybody whom they met, saying, "Have you heard what has happened in the house of Zacharias? What manner of child shall this be?" But Zacharias and Elisabeth knew what he should be. They knew that the child John should be the prophet of the Highest, the herald of the King.