I remember when I moved to Scotland in November 2020. It was in the middle of the whole American presidential election. I felt like I couldn’t get away from it all, not even by moving across an ocean and living in a different country. Not long after I arrived, I met a local couple here in Merkinch, and the first thing the guy said to me was, “Hello. I can tell you’re from America by your accent. I’m very sorry about your politics – must be very embarrassing.”
He was right. To be honest, I was embarrassed.
If we consider the book of Luke, we enter a similar time of embarrassing, scary politics, except at an even more insane level. Luke starts the narrative, “In the days of Herod, King of Judea. . . .” “The days of Herod” is shorthand for embarrassment—Israel had lost their kings from David’s lineage. “The days of Herod” is shorthand for fear—Israel was a nation caught in the middle of Rome’s expansion and Herod’s own violence and greed for power.
So “the days of Herod” is shorthand for a time of suffering, waiting, and shame as Israel, because of their sin, enters the fourth century of being occupied by a foreign ruler and of bearing the complete silence of God (as there hadn’t been a prophet from the Lord in 400 years).
But Luke takes us somewhere a bit unexpected. With such a dramatic background, it’s a surprise that Luke focuses on the events in the life of one specific, seemingly insignificant character: a lowly, older woman named Elizabeth. An older woman who is barren. A woman who has her own deep, personal fears and shame.
There is so much in Luke chapter one: the brief summary is that the angel Gabriel announces that John the Baptist will be born to Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. Then Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant with the Lord Jesus, and then Mary visits Elizabeth, who is her cousin, and the two women rejoice together. Then chapter 1 ends with John the Baptist being born. There is so much to learn from the little we know of Elizabeth in this chapter, but I’m going to zoom in on verses 5-7 and then jump around the chapter from there.
“In the days of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” (Luke 1:5-7)
Shame and Grace
Elizabeth was barren and advanced in years. When my parents were first married, my mom went through several years of not being able to have children. And even though that time in her life was several decades ago now, she still tears up when she talks about it. This is such a deeply painful suffering when you are longing for a child and yet there is no way for that to happen unless the Lord intervenes.
And on top of that, Elizabeth’s culture would have added pressure as children were seen as a blessing from the Lord and as provision for your elderly years. Yet here Elizabeth is in her older years, past the ability to have children now, with neither the blessing of children nor the financial provision a son would have brought.
This was a part of her identity, as we see in verse 36; when the angel Gabriel tells Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy he says, “this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” “The barren one”; you can imagine the weariness and raw pain of this. In a sense, Elizabeth was going through, on a personal level, the same sort of shame and the silence of God that the nation of Israel was feeling as a whole under Rome and under Herod.
But what is amazing is how this woman is described even in the midst of her pain. In verse 6, Elizabeth and her husband are described not as bitter, not as ashamed, not as despairing. What does Luke say? He calls Elizabeth righteous, walking blamelessly before the Lord.
But what does this mean, that Elizabeth was called righteous? After all, Romans 3 says, “…None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
So, if God says there is none righteous, why is Elizabeth called righteous? And what deep comfort in suffering does understanding Elizabeth’s righteousness give to us?
I want to take you to a few verses to get a solid ground for what being a righteous woman means.
First, Psalm 146. Verse 8 says, “the Lord loves the righteous.” Then verse 5: “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose help is in the Lord his God.”
So who are the righteous? Those who look to their Lord for their hope, as their hope.
Psalm 37:17 “…the Lord upholds the righteous.” Then verses 39-40: “The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, (why?) because they take refuge in him.”
Who are the righteous? The ones the Lord upholds—they are not holding themselves up. Their refuge, their safety, their steadiness is God.
Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” Who are the righteous? Next verse: the wicked will perish “But I will trust in you.”
The righteous are those who trust in God. They have a certainty, a reliance, a confidence in God.
Psalm 32:1–2: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Then verses 10-11 contrast the wicked with those who trust and rejoice in the Lord, saying: “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Who are the righteous? The righteous are those who are justified, who can shout for joy because they are declared innocent in God’s sight.
Then looking through Psalm 1: The righteous man’s delight is in the Lord, he pays attention to God, he loves God’s law, he submits to God, he delights in God, he plants himself by the streams of God’s life and hope and joy so that he flourishes no matter what seasons of suffering he faces.
And lastly, the righteous are those who are in Christ. Philippians 3:8-9: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
So we see that Elizabeth is not only a part of Israel because of her lineage from her father Aaron, but she is a part of the true Israel, a part of God’s people who trusted in the promised Messiah by faith and therefore were counted as righteous. That Elizabeth was called righteous means not that she was some special woman that was able to keep it together and look squeaky clean even in the midst of suffering…no, it means that even in the midst of suffering:
- God was her hope
- God was upholding her
- God was her refuge
- God had forgiven her
- God had clothed her in His righteousness
- God looked on her not as “the barren one” but as “beloved”
This is the first in a two-part series on what women can learn from Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Watch for part two next week.