There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course,
According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. (Luke 1:5-10)
It had been four hundred long years since there had been a Word from God given to Israel. The congregation had the Torah, the Prophets and the Law, but God had not spoken to them through any prophet for four hundred years.
In that long silence, the holy nation had been wracked with sufferings, under the various Gentile Rulers such as the Ptolemeys and Seleucids, and had changed hands between these “kings of the North” and “kings of the South”. Eventually the suffering reached a crescendo, under Antiochus Epiphanies, the Syrian mad man who tried to extinguish Judaism entirely, forcing “Reverse Circumcisions” and killing the parents of any who would circumcise, or keep the Sabbath.
In that time also there were bright spots, such as the rise of the Maccabees, the war to overthrow the Syrians, and the reconsecration of the defiled temple, memorialized in the miracle of Hannukah. But eventually the Romans entered, and began to exercise their smothering “statecraft” over the land once ruled by David and Solomon.
But a glimmer of light came about in, when an old Priest was called up by lottery to perform his priestly duty along with the rest of his priestly course. This priest, Zechariah, had married Elizabeth, a direct descendant of Aaron, but they were childless and in their old age.
A Priest could live his whole life without ever being called to minister in the temple, so this was already quite an experience.
Zechariah and the rest of his course would show up in the temple on the day appointed well before sunrise, and under the direction of permanent priests, they would make a torchlit inspection of the temple worship area.
The company of priests would then assemble for the casting of four lots to determine priestly functions; One lot determined the priests who would prepare the Altar of sacrifice, a second lot determined the twelve Priests who would be assigned to make the sacrifice and cleanse the candlestick and altar of incense.
A third lot was drawn to determine which Priest, would attend to the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the temple.Finally the fourth lot would determine which Priests would be called upon to lay the sacrifices on the altar,and to pour out the drink offerings.
Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and offer the incense at the Altar of incense, directly before the Ark behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies.
Zechariah’s service allowed hm t chose two assistants, One to gather holy incense into the golden censor, the other to gather in a golden pail the burning coals of the golden altar, and to spread them out on the altar of incense in the Holy Place, coals first, then incense. The two assistants were to leave Zechariah alone in the Holy Place before the altar, in total silence.
It is this most solemn period, when throughout the vast Temple buildings deep silence rested on the worshipping multitude, while within the sanctuary itself the priest laid the incense on the golden altar, and the cloud of ‘odours’ (Rev 5:8) rose up before the Lord, which serves as the image of heavenly things in this description (Rev 8:1,3,4): * ‘and when He had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour…And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.'(Alfred EiderShiem,The Temple and its services)
Outside the rest of the Priests and the multitude of temple worshippers, pilgrims who had come to attend the daily service, waited in awesome silence, there were no songs at this point …only silence as Zechariah waited for the signal to commence the prayers.
But to His shock, Zechariah realized that he was not alone in that Holy Room, for the Angel Gabriel stood before Him in radiant glory.