In my Bible, this reading is labeled “Zacharias’ Benedictus.” The setting for this passage is that Zechariah was a descendent of a family of priests beginning with Aaron, brother of Moses. There were many of these priests, in twenty-four divisions (1 Chronicles 24), that officiated the Temple in Jerusalem twice each year for one week. Apparently, Temple priests had other jobs for the rest of the year. Only at the festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) did all priests serve at the Temple.
Both he and his wife, Elizabeth (cousin of Jesus’ mother Mary), were good Jews. Yet godly living is no guarantee or insurance policy against suffering and disappointment. They were childless and on in years.
Zechariah has this angelic vision (Lk. 1: 11-17) as people were praying while serving one of his weeks in the Temple. This vision entails Elizabeth giving birth to a boy, John. Zechariah couldn’t believe it (v. 18). Could you? He asks for a sign to confirm that his vision was from God and not because of something he ate or drank. God’s reply is to dumb his voice (v. 20) because of his unbelief, until the baby is born. God’s sense of humor – making a priest, His spokesman, unable to speak?!
After Elizabeth gives birth, they go to the Temple to have the boy circumcised (v. 59). At the ceremony, Elizabeth spoke the name “John” for the child’s name; all Zechariah could do was chalk “His name is John” (v. 64) on a piece of slate when they were asked what name was given to this child.
Immediately after this writing, Zechariahs’ ability to speak is restored. What he says in this reading ranks with the most exalted psalms in the entire Bible. It is a summary of the history of Israel’s prophetic experience with God (vv. 68-75) and their son’s role (vv. 76-79) in preparing Israel for it’s introduction of Jesus to the whole world.