One of the recurring themes of the Scriptures is a tension between what is called the will of man and the will of God. The former is also called the will according to the flesh.
There are many examples of what this entails in the Bible, from the Garden narrative to the decision of Sarah for Abraham to father a child through Hagar. God promises Abraham, who has no heir, that he will be the father of many nations, so Sarah (who is advanced in age) concocts a plan to make him a father on her own terms. She encourages Abraham to father a child through her slave girl Hagar, and in this way, the human being would move God’s plan along (Genesis 16). A child named Ishmael is born.
But God fulfills His promise to Abraham according to His plan. Sarah gives birth to a boy named Isaac. He is a miracle child. The sad state of affairs is that out of jealousy Sarah later has Hagar and her (and Abraham’s biological) son Ishmael exiled, enacting horrible abuse towards other human beings who were actually part of the same household. While not the child of promise, Ishmael is still part of Abraham’s household. Now, he becomes homeless.
The will of man in Scripture is not just a case of willful disobedience; it is more along the lines of “I know better, so we’ll do it this way.” Or, “I know better than God,” “Here, Lord, let me help.”
We see these examples in the larger narrative of Scripture (e.g., Israel ends up in Egypt for over four hundred years because of Jacob’s willfulness), but this tension between God’s will and the human will in the Bible stories also happens directly between the text and us.
An example of this is Luke 1 and what happens to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist.
In the narrative, Zachariah encounters the angel Gabriel as he, Zachariah, is serving in the Temple. He is told by Gabriel that Elizabeth, who is Zachariah’s wife, will conceive and give birth to a son named John, and that this child will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v. 17).
However, because Zachariah doubted the angel’s words, Gabriel makes him mute until the time the child is to be born (v. 20). Considering Elizabeth’s age, the birth of John is a miracle.
It is here where questions should arise. After all, why mute Zachariah when a miracle has happened? If it were up to us, would we not have announced this miracle for everyone to know?
We would have had the story go differently. If it were up to us. If it were up to us, Gabriel would have told Zachariah to announce the miracle, so people could believe. If it were up to us, sure, we would say, Zachariah might have made a mistake in not believing the angel, but he should have been given a pass. If it were up to us.
But it’s not our story. So it is not up to us.
One of the hardest aspects of reading or hearing the Scriptures is that we say, “well, I would have done it differently.” Or, we contort the actual story to fit a prearranged box of truths we have set up to read the Bible, kind of like having Bible Cliff Notes*. Because we are not reading it with an open mind, we miss the tension in the stories.
*These are books that summarize the major points or plot sequences, themes, and character traits found in a work of literature. If you buy and read the Cliff Notes, you can, in theory, write a serious sounding paper or test answer — without ever having read Steinbeck or struggled with The Grapes of Wrath. But the Cliff Notes miss the emotive aspect of a story.
In the same way, to the question as to why Gabriel muted Zachariah, it is because, for Luke, this is the will of God. It is His story, and this is how He chooses to tell it. Not everything that is of God needs to be publicized.
Instead of just a retelling of the birth of the Baptist, this event now becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on how our efforts as humans may not always advance the Kingdom.