Skip to main content

Why Foreign Missions? 10. Luke’s Salvation History in the Infancy Songs and Pss. 104-107 or 108.

Why Foreign Missions? 10.  Luke’s Salvation History in the Infancy Songs and Pss. 104-108.

Luke offers two Biblical perspectives on God’s salvation history.  Both have to do with God’s work with and for Israel, but that work has the greater objective of God’s salvation for the world.  The first perspective comes from several psalms, the second from Isaiah.  We will here examine Luke’s salvation history from his use of Psalms 104-107 and possibly also Ps. 108.
This study rests on more detailed work of mine presented in an article entitled, ‘God’s Mercy from Generation to Generation: Luke’s use of Psalms 105-108 in his Infancy Narrative Songs to Provide a Salvation Historical Understanding for his two-volume History.’[1]  Scholars have not, to my knowledge, noted Luke’s intentional use of Psalms 104-108 in his infancy songs.  In my article, I lay out the evidence that Luke draws particularly from these psalms in his infancy songs (‘The Magnificat,’ or ‘Mary’s Song,’ Lk. 1.46-55; ‘The Benedictus,’ or ‘Zechariah’s Song,’ Lk. 1.68-79; ‘The Nunc Dimitis,’ or ‘Simeon’s Song,’ Lk. 2.29-32).  These psalms provide Luke with a theology of salvation history—a mission theology—in which history is seen as the unfolding of God’s salvation plan through his people, Israel, for the nations.  This is accomplished despite Israel’s sinfulness.
The Particular Message of These Psalms
Ps. 104 is about the goodness of God the creator.  It ends with a request that sinners be consumed from the earth (v. 35).
Ps. 105 speaks of God’s goodness to Israel, from Abraham through the exodus from Egypt.
Ps. 106 retells the story of Israel with her sinfulness from the time of the exodus from Egypt to the time of the exile.  God’s salvation keeps coming to a sinful people, and the psalm ends with the hope of being gathered from the nations.
While Ps. 107 begins the next book of the psalter, Luke uses it as well.  Ps. 107 fits well with the progression of thought: it is a thanksgiving psalm, thanking God for his steadfast love and deliverance from exile.
Ps. 108 is significant, possibly, for v. 3: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples, and I will sing praises to you among the nations.’  Like Ps. 107, it speaks of God’s steadfast love (v. 4).
These psalms, then, hold in view God’s creation and salvation activity.  Luke’s use of these psalms emphasises that God’s work continues with Jesus’ coming: there is continuity in salvation history from the beginning of creation to the present time.  God’s steadfast love can be seen in his creation and saving work, even when Israel is sinful.
The Missiological Perspective of Psalms 90-106 According to E. Zenger
Psalms 104-106 conclude a book of the psalter that includes Pss. 90-106.  Erich Zenger draws attention to the unified theology of this book of the psalter:[2]
Zenger argues that Pss. 90-106 overlap with Isaiah on the notions of God’s restoration of Israel [from exile] and the salvation of the nations….  Zenger also argues convincingly for a consecutive reading of these psalms.  Psalm 100, e.g., brings the previous ‘Royal YHWH’ psalms (93-99) to a ‘high point’, referencing or quoting earlier lines … in calling ‘Israel and the nations to the common acknowledgement of YHWH’s reign over the whole world. Thereby the prerogative of Israel named in Ps 95.6-7 is extended to the nations who acknowledge YHWH’ (Zenger, p. 178). Ps. 100 even ‘places the covenant formula … in the mouth of the nations as a confession of their “new” relationship with God’ (Zenger, p. 178). Zenger emphasises that the nations do not replace Israel in these psalms. He concludes his examination of Pss. 90-106 as follows:
… the reign of YHWH over creation, established from of old, has chosen Zion, in order, on the one hand, to work [tsadikah] (‘saving deeds’) here in the midst of YHWH’s people Israel and in order, on the other hand, from Zion to “lure” the nations, fascinated by the God of Sinai’s palpable steadfast love for Israel, into YHWH’s covenant of peace, and to let them live peacefully next to and with one another on the basis of the “truth of God” common to Israel and the nations –“Know the LORD (alone) is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Ps 103.3)”.[3]
The Message of the Infancy Songs in Luke
Mary’s song moves from singing of her Saviour to singing of Israel’s Saviour.  God’s promise to Abraham is now fulfilled.
Zechariah’s Song also speaks of salvation for Israel because God forgives her sins (Lk. 1.77).  Its perspective explains why the disciples still anticipate a restoration of the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1.6 and why Paul continues to extend the Gospel to Jews in Rome in Acts 28.
Simeon’s Song draws attention to salvation for the Gentiles.  Zechariah’s Song did mention that salvation was coming to all in darkness, but Simeon explicitly extends the coming of light to the Gentiles:
29 "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;  30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,  31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,  32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Lk. 2.29-32).
The Significance of the Theology of the Infancy Songs for Missions
Four points seem justified from observations on Luke’s use of Pss. 104-107 or 108.
1. Salvation stands open for the Jews.  There is no replacement theology in Luke.
Luke’s theological statement …  is that Israel’s salvation sung about in the songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon is an open offer: Psalms 105 and 106 stand before Israel as a challenge over how they will respond to God’s consistent working of salvation in history. Will they respond positively (Ps. 105) or negatively (Ps. 106) to the mercy that God offers from generation to generation? … The offer of salvation remains open to the Jews if they will follow their history of God’s acts of salvation through to what God has now done in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28.31).[4]
2. Salvation is through Jesus and is the culmination of God’s history of salvation: Luke sees the progression of God’s work from creation through Israel’s history and restoration, a restoration that he finds in Jesus rather than in an earlier restoration of Israel from captivity.  Just here his reading of Ps. 107 will coincide with his and the early Church’s reading of Is. 40-66 (and related passages): the restoration of Israel from captivity or exile is fulfilled through Jesus.
3. Salvation is the same for Jews and Gentiles: God’s single act of salvation in Jesus Christ offers salvation to Israel and the Gentiles.  Israel’s restoration out of exile and darkness means that she is not different from the nations in her need of redemption, and God’s work among both is a work of salvation, not election for one and something else for the other.  Both need God’s salvation in the same way, a salvation that only Jesus provides for both.  The message of Pss. 90-106 is that God is King, and his salvation of Israel includes the Gentiles.
4. Salvation is holistic: salvation may be understood as delivery from oppression, as in Mary’s Song, but it is also a release from darkness and a forgiveness of sins, as in Zechariah’s Song.  Here lie the roots of a holistic theology that does not limit salvation to either a social or spiritual Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry to the poor and marginalized is consistent with his offering forgiveness to Jews and Gentiles.

[1] Rollin G. Grams, ‘God’s Mercy From Generation to Generation: Luke’s Use of Psalms 105-108 in His Infancy Narrative Songs to Provide a Salvation Historical Understanding for His Two Volume History,’ Baptistic Theologies 2 (Autumn, 2009): 93-108.
[2] This paragraph is a quote from my article, p. 106 n. 20.
[3] Erich Zenger, ‘The God of Israel’s Reign Over the World (Psalms 90-106)’, in The God of Israel and the Nations: Studies in Isaiah and the Psalms, eds. Norbert Lohfink, Erich Zenger, trans. Everett R. Kalin (Collegeville, MN: The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 2000; orig. German, Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk GmbH., 1994), p. 190.
[4] R. Grams, ‘God’s Mercy from Generation to Generation,’ p. 108.