So why did Gabriel strike Zacharias dumb?

And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. — Luke 1:18-20

Zacharias and Grabiel

Gabriel speaks to Zacharias

I was walking this afternoon with my wife Rose on our usual three-mile loop and we were talking about why I had suffered such a serious writer’s block and I half-jokingly suggested it was to keep me from writing things I might later regret (because of my great frustration with the godless behaviour of some professing “Christians” on internet forums). It then occurred to me that this may be why Gabriel struck Zacharias dumb. Years ago I read something by a Jew who rejected Luke’s account because “an angel would not punish someone for asking a question.” He thought it was entirely out of keeping with the general tone of Scripture. His argument bothered me because I agreed very much that it is a good thing to ask questions. So for years I’ve had this little tickle of discomfort around this event. The problem is that I did not realize his hidden assumption that Zacharias was struck dumb as punishment. Does the text say anything about punishment? What if it wasn’t punishment? What if it was a gift to both Zacharias and his community that saved him from uttering, and them from hearing, months of faithless blather about an unbelieved divine promise of the coming forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ? Now this is something to which the text actually does speak! Indeed, it states explicitly that Gabriel struck Zacharias dumb “because thou believest not my words.” This is to be contrasted with Mary’s encounter with Gabriel. She too asked a question, but her heart was filled with faith, a fact acknowledge explicitly by Elizabeth when she said “blessed is she that believed” (Luke 1:45). So it was not the act of questioning, but the lack of faith that caused Gabriel’s seemingly “negative” response. This is a satisfying solution too because it is based on faith.

As I wrote this, another view came to mind. Even if one agrees that Zacharias was struck dumb as punishment, the question remains “punished for what?” The skeptic asserted he was struck dumb for “asking a question” when in fact the text says that he was struck dumb for unbelief – an event perfectly consistent with every page of the Holy Scripture. It is grace alone that saves us from such a fate! So we have a wonderful wrap-up: Gabriel’s action may not have been punishment at all, and if it was punishment, it was punishment for the sin of unbelief. Zacharias was not punished for “asking a question.” I don’t recall where I first encounted this argument against Luke’s Gospel. I took a quick spin through cyberspace to see if I could find anyone presenting it, but found nothing. If you know of a page presenting it, please send me the link.

Posted in Hermeneutics
15 comments on “So why did Gabriel strike Zacharias dumb?
  1. Mary says:

    I just came upon this website..and Im enjoying it…I saw this post and wanted to comment about Zacharias.just a you think maybe it was his lack of faith for one thing that this happened to him..but then his lips were sealed..I think maybe they were sealed because of his position as the high priest..he could no longer go out and bless the people..the beginning of luke is the end of the high priest job..the end of luke is the beginning of Jesus as the high priest…as he was asended to heaven as our high maybe zacharias lips being closed was the beginning of the end of the need for an earthy high priest..and Jesus becoming our new high let me know what your toughts are on this.. thank you …Mary

  2. Fernando says:

    I find complete sense on the fact that Zacharias was somehow punished and Mary wasn’t. The scenarios are completely different. Zacharias was a priest and he was having a vision within the sacred walls of the temple, and yet, he did not believe what an angel was telling him, as a messenger of the Highest. Mary was a young maid that could not understand how she could conceive not being yet married. Gabriel gives an explanation to Mary, which she will need in order to prepare herself and John to the coming events. Let’s not forget that, for our present standards, she was nearly a child, since she would have been betrothed at a very young age. Mary’s behavior cannot be remotely compared to the one shown by Zacharias. It seems that Gabriel had to chastise him and show him that, in the position that he had, doubts are considered a serious matter.

  3. Hi Fernando,

    Thanks for your comment. But I don’t quite understand your point. Why does it make a difference if Zacharias was a priest in the Temple when he had the visitation? Why would that make him blameworthy? Now I understand that we might think Mary didn’t deserve punishment because of her youth, but if we go that way we could just as well grant similar grace to Zacharias who had been continuously frustrated after a lifetime of unanswered prayer for a son.

    I think this shows how “flexible” are “logical arguments” really are. We can bend them to fit any preconceived position, and unfortunately, we are usually blind to the fact that we have done any such thing!

    Great chatting!


  4. Jones O says:

    Hi all,

    Love the thought process behind this. This scripture came up in church recently and I was searching for some broader context other than the one used for the message we recieved.

    I too doubt the striking of Z to be a punishment. Question: Considering the power of life and death are in the tongue, should he have been left with the ability to speak as an unbelieving recipient of such a promise? Added to that he was a high priest. Was this “punishment” more about saving himself from himself (fleshly doubt). Looking at it that way the “pause of speech” makes sense as it was only till the manifestation of the promise..just a thought. I guess we will never know…

    Thanks J

  5. Mike says:

    Zachariah was indeed punished because he was a priest. Being a priest he should have known better, furthermore, he should have been familiar with the story of abraham. As you read the gospel you also can read doubt in zachariahs question, where as mary’s question was accepting and curious!

  6. Denzil Jones says:

    Hi there,

    My assertion is that Z was struck dumb because as a priest he would have mentioned to his congregation the fact that an angel appeared to him and told him of the birth of John. So he was silenced to keep the birth underwraps in order for prophecy to be fulfilled. He was silenced (sterilized) & his wife was fertilized. On the day John was circumcized; Z’s speech was restored.

    Z spoke priestly before the birth of John, but after the birth he spoke prophetically.
    Silence is golden- a time for silence & a time to speak.

    Interesting discussion.

    Denzil Jones
    South Africa

  7. Hey there Denzil,

    That’s an interesting speculation, but doesn’t the text itself tell us the reason?

    And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, >BECAUSE< thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

  8. heather says:

    I agree with the original line of understanding, in that Z was kept from saying something he would regret. Consider his position as high priest. He would have had the ability to recommend discipline. Mary shared her immaculate conception news with his wife, Elizabeth. An unwed pregnancy surely would warrant his response…

  9. Chris says:

    Consider this… Zackarias was made dumb and deaf so to keep
    the secret. If he were to tell anyone, he would have been putting
    “The future birth of John and possibly Jesus” in jeopardy?

  10. Ash Yeo says:

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    chandelier |ˌ sh andəˈli(ə)r|
    a decorative hanging light with branches for several light bulbs or candles.
    ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: from French, from chandelle ‘candle,’ from Latin candela, from candere ‘be white, glisten.’

    which is a wonderful, sure and constant prayer,
    reminder to “be quiet, listen.”
    Restful, listening, receiving, while all is freely given,

    Remind for Flo to put mirror somewhere near a place in office or pantry,
    to stand in front of it, to search your reflection, missing, lol
    as you’d hear “Be white, glisten.” lol.

    Augmenting the narrative of “Be white, glisten”
    is mirrored by the story of Zacharias,

    “And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.” — Luke 1:18-20

    Flo, what humour of God I said, to seal the lips of Zacharias, to gently delay his profaning the trust and faith of the greater gift of when, a child would come to him.

    And so, to us,
    “be quiet, listen”
    is not a bind,
    not instruction,
    but a hidden manner of a greater gift,
    of whats’ to come, in their season.

  11. Interesting comments, the question too. And, I think there’s another angle to consider. Unlike Mary, Zachariah must have been praying for the exact thing the angel showed up for. Why else would Gabriel say, ‘Your prayer has been heard’. Mary, on the other hand, had this being show up without her having asked. In other words, it was weird on Zachariah’s part to pray for something, then when he’s told ‘it worked’, that’s when he doubts. As if his own prayer was empty words to him.

  12. I actually wondered for a long time why he would be punished for asking a question and how it was doubting. Eventually, I somewhat came to realize that it was what was on his heart that the Lord could see and not us. He thought that having a child in his old age was impossible (and in so many ways it is – unless God is involved) so the message seemed too good to be true. A child was something he and his wife wanted, possibly they still wanted one when they were old but they gave up the hope of ever having one. And suddenly here comes an angel who says, “Now you will have a child who will make the people ready for the Messiah!” Would you accept that right away or would you be skeptical? For me, I would be too afraid/amazed to believe it and it would be hard for me to accept it to be true. That may have been what he thought (I don’t know). But when the Lord silenced him, he had no choice but to watch and learn. Indeed there was so much to watch and learn:
    1) He learned the Lord was slow to anger and abounding in love: he could have been killed for doubting but the Lord wouldn’t or the angel could have said, “I have the wrong person, you will not have a son after all.” The Lord still gave him a son.
    2) He learned the Lord is all mighty and all powerful: Through be struck dumb he realized that if the Lord could do that then He could indeed grant his wife and he a son. The Creator is greater than the created. I believe that part of it was to clean him of doubts and maybe even cure him of his bitterness (if he had any).
    3) He saw signs of the coming Messiah: The angel had told him that he would have a son, but he wouldn’t be living an ordinary life. He would be “Great in the sight of the Lord, never take wine or strong drinks, be filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth, turn many people back to the Lord, and go before Him in the Spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” While he was talking to the angel he may not have taken all of that into consideration, but in silence he pondered it for the next months while his wife was pregnant, maybe even after he regained his speech. Another sign he saw was the pregnant virgin Mary when she came to visit his wife. He knew the Messiah would come from the line of Judah, be born of a virgin, and there she was! He was seeing the angel’s words (accurately: the Lord’s words) being fulfilled!

    Often when we are quiet and listen to people, we learn better from them. Same for Zacharias. So while it may have been a punishment I believe there was an element of mercy as well as a moment to witness one of God’s greatest miracles, having the Son of Man come in the form of human flesh and get a chance to see His arrival (which he had very likely been praying for).

  13. Sforzando says:

    I believe it’s not our business to ask why he was made dumb. Who, what, where, when and how are all reasonable questions, but when it’s about something God or his servants has done, it’s not for us to question why. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God has his reasons, which were perhaps made apparent to Zacharias at some stage. Even if he never really knew why, he and possibly others still may have benefited from the experience in ways they were unaware of.

  14. Ian Turbitt says:

    I reckon God through Gabriel closed Z’s mouth, not as any punishment but just as a wee precaution against any note of cynicism confusing the prophecy. The Lord is loving. Not punitive. He was saving Zachariah from public embarrasment and any future damage to his reputation as God’s servant.

  15. Becky says:

    Very interesting question that I had pondered upon for many years and had many similar views like the ones posted in this forum.
    As I was reading through these comments the one thing that stood out for me is : What happened to Zacharias is a ‘miracle” (praying for something expecting an answer from God) and
    What happened to Mary was a “Wonder”( an unexpected gift from God ).

    Zacharias was a priest chosen to offer the ‘ atoning sacrifice ‘ for entire nation of Israel; if he couldn’t believe that his personal prayer will be answered then how can he believe that the sacrifice he offered representing the nation of Israel will be accepted by God? In other words his offering had become a ‘ritual’ not a meaningful one!! There is lots more to it when we ponder along these lines…

    Hebrew 11:6 ‘ It is impossible to please God without faith…’

    Just some thoughts!!!

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