Christmas is a time when metaphors shine, and the most popular one does so literally. Christ is the true light who came into a dark world. Names also speak volumes. Immanuel is God for-us becoming God-with-us. He is called Jesus because he saves his people from their sins. One name and metaphor, however, is lost in all translation, not the word-for-word rendering, but in cultural traction, even though it abounds in the English Bible. Zechariah, the priestly father of John the Baptist prophecies about Jesus with words given him by the Holy Spirit.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old …” (Lk. 1:69-70. Emphasis here and for the rest of the article is mine)
We don’t place horns on our Christmas trees, cards or around our church buildings. Here’s a challenge: search the zillions of well-loved Christmas carols and find one that mentions horns. Almost every other Biblical (and non-Biblical) imagery, is squeezed into our Christian Christmas piety.
Let’s see what the Hebrew Bible says about horns and why Zechariah would link them with the birth of his saviour.
1. Horns are used descriptively of musical instruments, the corners of altars, and containers of anointing oil
Before we turn to metaphoric uses, we must consider the uses of horns in the Israelite’s world. Many sacred objects in Israelite worship and life-together were made from horns or shaped-like them. Early musical instruments were made from horns, like the ram’s horns blown at the destruction of Jericho (eg. Josh. 6:4-8). The bronze altar outside the tent of meeting was to be made with horns, of one piece with the altar, covered with bronze (Ex 27:2; 28:2. Likewise the altar of incense. 30:2-3).
Perhaps most fruitful for our discussion, anointing was done by pouring oil from a horn. God instructed Samuel, “Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” (1 Sam 16:1 cf. 16:3)
2. Horns are used metaphorically for God and his people in the Exodus, Wandering and Conquest of Canaan
As the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, the Holy Spirit overpowered the cash-for-comment Balaam and gave him these words to pronounce.
God brings [Israel] out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows. (Num. 24:8; also 23:22)
While God could not be visually compared to a calf, bull or oxen—such a treatment is a idolatrous blasphemy—by his Spirit, he himself boldly uses this simile. The wild ox mentioned here may represent an ancestor of our more domesticated modern stock of bullock. The image here is of power, strength and violent devastation, overthrowing oppressive enemies and saving his own dear people.
In blessing the tribes of Israel, Moses placed this blessing on the house of Joseph with very similar connotations.
A firstborn bull—he has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he shall gore the peoples, all of them, to the ends of the earth; (Deut. 33:16-17)
But not all horns are good.
3. Horns serve well as descriptors of arrogant pagan kings
Daniel’s central vision of the saints of Israel is “one like a son of man”, but the nations are more animalistic and grotesque. Their strangely numbered, speaking and outgrowing horns, clearly portray kings rising, boasting and usurping each other. Here are some of the divine interpretations.
As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them (Dan. 7:24)
As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power. (Dan. 8:20)
Likewise Zechariah promises judgment on the horns that were involved in the exile.
““These are the horns that scattered Judah, so that no one raised his head. And these [craftsmen] have come to terrify them, to cast down the horns of the nations who lifted up their horns against the land of Judah to scatter it.”” (Zech. 1:21; cf 1:18-20)
The book of Revelation picks up this imagery too, applying to Satan’s worldly powers who are a distortion of God’s true king (Rev. 12:3; 13:1,11; 17:3, 7, 12, 16).
But it is not just the apocalyptic literature employs horns, the songs of Israel also speak this way, and generalise this opposition to more common people who see themselves as important.
I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast, and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn; do not lift up your horn on high, or speak with haughty neck.’ … All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up. (Psalm 75:4-5,10)
But even this Psalm says there are some the Lord lifts up.
4. Most especially, horns are used of God exalting his Messiah and his people
The image that powerfully describes God and also grotesquely depicts worldly kings, is most distinctively used of God’s work to raise up a king, the hope for the people of Israel. The narrative arc of Israel’s human kingly hopes begins with Hannah’s song of thankfulness. Hannah’s own horn is lifted high because God will exalt his Messiah’s horn (1 Sam 2:1, 10).
And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation … The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Sam 2:1,10)
The language is so similar to Balaam’s prophecy about God. God will destroy his enemies. What remains unclear is whether the newly exalted horn will be the instrument or the result of that judgement. Is his horn used for smashing too? Psalm 89, the great celebration of the Davidic covenant, sings a resounding yes to that question.
I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him, so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. (Psalm 89:20-24; cf 17)
That promise was not just fulfilled in the youngest son of Jesse. David’s line is on view. Psalm 132 speaks confidently of Zion, the place where God will keep his promise.
There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed (Psalm 132:17)
As we have already seen with Hannah, the horn of the godly believer can also be lifted up (1 Sam. 2:1). Speaking of the blessedness of the generous man,
“He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever; his horn is exalted in honour.” (Psalm 112:9 cf. 92:10)
God lifts up his Messiah and his godly people, but how can we draw this all together?
6. Connecting the metaphors with the physical objects
We have seen a consistent metaphoric use of horns, the strength of a mighty animal threatening destruction to his enemies. It is not a morally loaded term, as it can equally be applied to God, his people, enemy kings, the Messiah and godly Israelites. But what about the objects that are described as horns?
- a musical instrument, not from the brass section, but from bovine or ovine dissection
- the corners of altars, perhaps with real horns attached and covered with bronze or gold
- an object filled with oil to pour out on a king or priest
Since the metaphor is so powerfully consistent, it may be that they are also used with some of its meaning transferred to them too. Lifting up horns and blowing them may not just sound great, but symbolise the strength of God as in the time of Jericho. The horns of the altars were places where blood was dripped-over and where people grabbed hold of for safety. God’s anger must be covered. There is refuge in God’s strength, but not from it.
As much as these are speculative suggested connections, anointing oil is explicitly linked to God’s exalting of a horn. The horn with oil lifted and poured over a man is a visual aid that God is lifting up that man as a horn.
But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil. (Psa. 92:10)
Remember what happened to David, Solomon and every other king?
- Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. (1 Sam. 16:13)
- There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. (1 Kings 1:39)
From the lower case “a” anointed ones, we finally turn to the great Anointed one, Christ the King of Christmas.
7. The Christmas Horn Raised Up
So we turn Christmas. The dumbstruck Zechariah now had Holy-Spirit-given words put in his mouth. Like Balaam, Moses, Hannah, the Psalmist and prophets, God spoke of a horn.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old …” (Luke 1:69-70)
What does this mean for our understanding of Christmas?
A. The Christmas horn reminds us that Christmas is about rivalry
In a saccharine attempt at positivity, we tend to think of Christmas as a time of peace. Both now and two-thousand years ago, it was a time of rivalry and competition. The angels were not giving a news report about an unparalleled time of peacefulness, but rather promising something to a ravaged world, “…on earth peace among those with whom [God] is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) They were promising God’s peace to those who turn to him.
If God was going to raise up a horn, what about the rival horns who exalted themselves?
In Disney’s, The Lion King, when baby Simba is iconically lifted high and presented to all the animal kingdom, not everyone was happy. In that one act, his Uncle Scar had lost claim to the throne. When one king is lifted up the hopes of others are brought low. But truth is even more extreme than fiction. Jesus’ exaltation threatened everyone.
Herod the Great thought of himself as the beginning of a new dynasty. He was the king of Jews and the temple builder. The birth of a new horn was such a threat to him that he would use the words to Scripture to find out the location to massacre all new-born boys (Matt 2). The religious community was threatened too. The life of Jesus bears this out. Their power was being attacked so much they would have him killed. The Psalm Jesus makes his own on the cross, beginning with asking why God has forsaken him, continues with these words.
Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! (Psa. 22:21)
And to this day, the horn that God has lifted high remains a threat to people. Some even at Christmas, like King Herod, know scripture, fake the worship, but are unwilling to really bend their own knee to such a rival power. They are unwilling to repent even though the Kingdom of Heaven is near (Matt. 3:2).
But, isn’t our king a different sort of king?
B. In his first coming, the Christmas horn is different to those in the Old Testament
The Old Testament creates the categories which prepare us for Jesus, but while fulfilling them, he also breaks out of them in surprising ways. When Jesus was anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, the animal symbolism was not that of an ox or ram horn raised above him with oil. Rather it was a dove, a symbol of gentleness, innocence, and dare I say, weakness. “Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts; do not forget the life of your poor forever.” (Psa. 74:19 cf. Matt 10:16) At least in his first coming he came more as a dove than a rampaging bull.
Pull back the curtains of heaven, and you see that Christ does have horns, but he instead won the victory by dying in our place.
“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev. 5:5-6)
He had the strength, but used it differently to other kings.
C. The raising of the Christmas horn is key
The horn is not dropped on the ground, but raised up high. One consistent truth we have seen is that it matters who lifts the horn. Those who exalt themselves are the false pagan kings or hypocritical Israelites. On the other hand, almost every positive use of horn used of people in the Old Testament is accompanied by a variation of the verb, רוּם, (raised, exalted, lifted up etc..) and critically it is God who does that exalting. Zechariah proclaims that God has “raised up a horn of salvation for us” (Luke 1:69).
For Christ, even though the language of horn is not used very much, the language of being raised is certainly used repeatedly and often. So often the resurrection of Jesus is linked to his Davidic ancestry (Rom. 1:4; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev. 5:5-6).
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ (Acts 13:32-34)
When the bulls and wild oxen surrounded Jesus on the cross, their horns may have temporarily triumphed, but one horn was exalted. The one promised to David, God’s people now sing about today.
D. The Hallelujah Chorus crescendos in the horn that God has raised
Psalm 148 is the the Hallelujah Psalm. The first half calls everything in the heavens to praise the Lord; and the second half calls the earth and everything in it to respond with the same adoration (Psa. 148:1-6,7-13). The final verse focuses on the people of God. Their praise is focused on the horn that God has exalted.
The pattern is:
- Praise God from heaven (148:1-6)
- Join that praise of God from earth (148:7-13)
- Especially, God’s people praise him for the horn he has raised up (148:14)
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his saints, for the people of Israel who are near to him. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 148:14)
That last verse of the Psalm is actually the closest in language to the prophecy of Zechariah. The angels proclaim glory to God and peace on earth, but having seen their king, the Bethlehem ‘shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.’ (Luke 2:20). They praised God for the horn.
The heaven, earth and God’s people pattern is repeated at the second coming of Christ too.
(From heaven) After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God… (Rev 19:1)
(Repeated from earthly creatures) And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah!” (Rev. 19:4)
(And joined in by God’s people, in the loudest possible way, rejoicing over Jesus, the lamb, the offspring of Jesse, the root of David) Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come … (Rev. 19:6-7)
My six-year old boy walked out to me on the balcony early in the morning and asked me what I was ‘researching’ on my computer. His words, not mine. ‘The horn God raised up at Christmas’, was my reply. He smiled and said one word, ‘Reindeers’. I said in reply, ‘No. Jesus is the horn’.
My little boy has thrown a spanner into my earlier assertion. Maybe we do use horns, or at least antlers in our decorations. In Australia they are everywhere. On sizzling hot days, people wear reindeer hats and put antlers on their cars.
However that is not what Zechariah is saying. A great power has risen at Christmas, one who threatens others, similar to David, but breaking the mould. The horn of Christmas has come to bring salvation on those who are waiting for him, peace to those “with whom [God] is pleased” (Lk 2:14).
Next year in our family, I might put up a horn as a decoration, include it in our advent readings or even write a Christmas carol using this language. What rhymes with horn? Scorn, forlorn, first-born. Lot’s of good options, aren’t there?
But more than this, I won’t wait until next summer (here in Oz) to rejoice in the horn that God has raised up high. I spoke the Saturday before Christmas on the Hallelujah Psalm that looks forward to Christmas. May that word bless you too. Until we join the great Hallelujah chorus at the final judgement, every day remains a day to rejoice, like Zechariah, in Christ, the horn of Christmas.
For further reflection
Two of my recent sermons have been blended into this this one A-Z article