Disappointments are a part of life. Many of my annoying disappointments concern jobs I’ve applied for but wasn’t selected. Having a quiet, introverted type of personality, means I don’t do well at interviews. I also don’t do well with spontaneity. Even though I prepare thoroughly for an interview, I often find myself floundering for convincing answers. However, I believe in the Sovereignty of God so I have peace that I’ve never missed out on a job God intended for me. Nevertheless, missed job opportunities are minor inconveniences compared to Elizabeth. Her story is about the bitter disappointment of childlessness.
The disgrace of childlessness
Luke explains Elizabeth’s disappointment succinctly, “Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old” (Luke 1:6-7 NLT).
In Jewish culture not having children wasn’t just unfortunate, it was seen as a disgrace. We notice this later when Elizabeth discovers she is pregnant, “How kind the Lord is! … He has taken away my disgrace of having no children” (Luke 1:25).
In this culture, wives were expected to produce children and if children weren’t forthcoming, it was a valid reason for husbands to get a divorce. Children were important to care for aging parents and to continue ancestry lines. Descendants were also important for the passing down of property.
If you didn’t have children, your name didn’t continue in Jewish genealogy records. It was like being obliterated. Children were a blessing from God, so the more children you had, the more blessed you were. Childlessness was seen as a lack of God’s favor.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth were born into the priestly line. Priests were expected to marry women of the highest reputation and Zechariah fulfilled that expectation (Luke 1:5). Yet despite their faithfulness to God, their circumstances hadn’t worked out the way they expected. The prevailing thinking was God blesses the obedient. So why were they childless?
For many years Elizabeth’s situation was hopeless. Jewish girls often married young and Elizabeth was now old. She would have prayed for decades without seeing any results from her prayers.
Another interesting point Luke brings to our attention is, they didn’t live in Jerusalem. We read, “A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town where Zechariah lived” (Luke 1:39). This godly, priestly couple chose to live away from the center of religious worship. Luke might describe Zechariah and Elizabeth as “righteous in God’s eyes” but they weren’t seen as righteous in the eyes of their community. Possibly they felt ashamed of their childless state and chose to live in obscurity.
The childless one is pregnant
When all hope was gone, God calls Elizabeth to motherhood. Zechariah returns home from the temple unable to speak after an angelic visitation while he was on temple duty. He communicates to Elizabeth the angel’s message and soon she is delighted to find herself pregnant.
Mary comes to visit with the news that she too has seen an angel who told her she would be the mother of the Messiah. Mary stays three months with Elizabeth which must have been an amazing time. They had both been unexpectedly thrust into new experiences and these two women shared their joy at what God was doing. Although only one exchange is recorded between the two of them (Luke 1:42-55) it’s full of excitement and anticipation.
While Zechariah and Elizabeth rejoice in God’s blessing of not just the birth of a child, but the birth of a prophet and the knowledge of the Messiah’s arrival, it’s not without some sadness. John didn’t fulfill the expected role of the eldest son. Being older parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth may not have lived long enough to see John grow to adulthood which would explain why John “lived in the wilderness” (Luke 1:80). He was too young to look after his parents in their old age, he didn’t live on the family property and didn’t continue the ancestry line. Since John had no children, Zechariah’s line of descendants died out.
Elizabeth would also live with the disappointment of not having grandchildren. The writer to the Hebrews talks about people like Elizabeth, “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it” (Hebrews 11:13).
Elizabeth didn’t live long enough to see all God promised but she sees it from a distance and welcomes it. Elizabeth’s hope in God overcomes her disappointments. She rejoices in the answers to prayer that she experiences. She rejoices in the prophesies she sees fulfilled. What she saw, gave her hope for what she could not see. We may not see or understand all that God is doing in our lives and the lives of those we love but we know that God keeps his promises.
Elizabeth’s life made a difference. She teaches us how to hope in God’s promises. She shows us that it’s possible to live a life of faith amidst disappointment. It’s possible to love and serve God, even with a heavy heart because we have a great God who fills us with a hope that overtakes our disappointments.
More articles about women in the Bible can be found here.