The Bittersweet Song of Simeon

Text: Luke 2:22-35

This morning we will be looking at the narrative of Simeon and his recognition of the young Jesus as the messiah. This text should sound familiar, or at least part of it should, because we sing “the Song of Simeon” at the end of our service each week. In the original context, it was about the end of Simeon’s life. He was giving a sort of doxology and thanksgiving to God for being able to see the messiah before he died. Christian tradition has used modified it just slightly for the liturgy, singing it at the conclusion of the worship service, and that is our practice. This morning, however, we will look at the original context, learning who Simeon was, what he said, and what he predicted about the future of Jesus and His work.

Simeon

Simeon is an interesting character in large part because we know so little about him. He seems to come out of nowhere, and he does not reappear anywhere else but here. All we know is that he was an old man who had received a promise from God that he would see the messiah before he died. In a sense, he only existed to point to Christ, and that is just what he does. But we can also see that he is not alone. Just a few verses after Simeon, we read about Anna, a prophetess who was also waiting for the messiah. And so we can conclude from this pairing that there were several, even if still only a small minority, who were expecting the messiah to show up in Israel just at this time, and they were eagerly keeping watch in the temple for signs of his arrival.

We know a few things about Simeon. We know that he was “just and devout” (vs. 25). And we know that he was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel,” which is an interesting phrase. It literally reads “expecting to receive the encouragement or comfort of Israel.” The word translated “consolation” is a variant of the term paracaleo, from which we also get the word paraclete. Most basically, it means “comfort,” but it had also been given a religious definition by the ancient Jews, and so in religious contexts it meant the work that the messiah would do. Simeon was waiting for the kingdom, and he had reason to believe that the messiah would show up soon. He was right.

We are also told that Simeon was a prophet. “The Holy Spirit was upon him” (vs. 25). “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (vs. 26). And “He came by the Spirit into the temple” on that day (vs. 27). This meeting of Simeon, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was no accident. It was all divinely orchestrated to fulfill God’s promise to Simeon and to give Simeon the occasion to identify Jesus and proclaim His office.

What Simeon Says

We don’t know exactly how Simeon explained himself to Mary and Joseph, or if he even bothered to stop to explain. The text just says that he took the young Jesus “up in his arms and blessed God” (vs. 28). This is an excited and inspired moment. Simeon immediately gives his “song,” blessing God.

This song is a doxology, a giving of praise to God, and it is one of several such songs to appear in the opening chapters of Luke. Chapter 1 has the song of Mary, the prophesy of Zacharias (which has the same sort of literary structure as the various “songs”), and then Chapter 2 has the song of the angels and this one from Simeon. All of these songs are ascriptions of praise and glory to God for the mighty work He is doing through this little babe, though Jesus Christ.

Simeon says, “Master, at this time you are setting your slave free in peace, according to your word” (vs. 29). It is unfortunate that most English translations simply go with “Lord” here, because the text uses the specific terms for master and slave. Simeon has been the Lord’s servant, it is true, but he has been His bondservant, His slave, doing His will and waiting on His timing. This is metaphorical language, but it signifies a spiritual truth. Now, at the time, he is being set free, which is to say, he is about to die. And this is all in accordance with the divine prophecy. Simeon had literally been living his life for Jesus, and now he is receiving his reward.

Next, Simeon explains what it is that he is seeing. “My eyes have seen Your salvation” (vs. 30). The name Jesus means savior, of course, but here Simeon is simply identifying the baby with salvation. Simeon has seen the baby Jesus, and so Simeon has seen the salvation sent from God. This announcement is a part of a prayer, but it is also a public announcement, something that Mary, Joseph, and the rest can here, and the text goes on to say that they marveled at it (vs. 33).

Then Simeon says that this salvation has been long-promised to Israel but that it is not limited to Israel. No, this salvation has been “prepared before the face of all peoples” (vs. 31). It is “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (vs. 32), their scriptures or torah which they can now read and in whom they can find God’s word. And this salvation is the glory of Israel (vs. 32). Simeon is announcing that this baby Jesus is the promised messiah, the savior of the whole world, the fulfillment of all prophecy and Scripture.

A Bittersweet Prediction

But of course, Simeon’s words are not all niceties and comfort. No, in fact, he goes on to give a rather dark prediction. The messiah’s work will involve much conflict and sorrow. Simeon says that “this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (34). We could even translate it “the downfall” of many Israel. And this is true. Jesus comes to bring the mighty down low, just as Mary had sung a chapter earlier, and He will lift up the lowly to new heights. This is also why Christians must be humble. Our raising up is still in the future. Beyond this, however, it is also true that the messiah will judge evildoers and destroy all of those who oppose him. We cannot leave this part out of the story. Jesus is the savior of the world, but he saves the world from the bad guys.

Simeon also says that Jesus will be “a sign which will be spoken against” (vs. 34). This reminds us of the prophecy from Isaiah 8, the LORD will be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Is. 8:14). Those who ought to have recognized and received the messiah actually rejected Him. Jesus isn’t just a pointer to God. He is a pointer from God against sin.

Why did the people reject Jesus? For one thing, they simply did not like what He said. Contrary to the popular picture of Jesus that is around today, a kind and gentle spirit who was beloved by all but the most-wicked, the Jesus of the Bible is a confrontational character. He preaches against the sins of the powerful, it is true. He is a harsh critic of the wrong use of money and of religious hypocrisy. But he also preaches against all those ordinary sins as well. He preaches against anger. He preaches against lust. He preaches against false worship. Jesus started a violent scene in the temple, turning over tables and throwing out money changers. Jesus also brought the message that the kingdom of God limits the pretentions of men. He said that we must all make ourselves low and humble and place our trust in the saving power of God. And people did not like this message in the 1st century. They do not like it in the 21st either.

Another reason for rejecting Jesus is simple resentment and jealousy. The people knew that He was the king, and they did not want to bow the knee and serve Him. We are told this in Psalm 2:

Why do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying,
“Let us break Their bonds in pieces
And cast away Their cords from us.” (Ps. 2:1-3)

People don’t want to be ruled. They don’t want to be bound. They don’t want to be limited. And so they fight authority, even God’s own authority.

But the reason that Simeon especially points to for Jesus’ rejection is the fact that He would reveal the thoughts of many hearts (Luke 2:35). Jesus knew what was in the heart of man (John 2:25), and He was going to expose all of those secrets. This is part of the messianic task, after all. It is the judgment of all mankind. The messiah would make a public judgment of every action, whether good or evil, whether public or private, and he would render to everyone what their works deserved. And this is a terrifying thought.

Having your secrets exposed is scary for a number of reasons. They are secret, after all. You don’t want people to know about them. And why don’t you want people to know about them? Perhaps they are silly. You have hopes and dreams that won’t come true or which are embarrassing because of what it is that you are hoping for. But, there is also the problem of having selfish and even sinful desires. Lust immediately spring to mind. But what about all of those times you have wished for you own success at someone else’s expense? It would be pretty bad if other people knew about that. And what about those occasionally really bad, really selfish, really mean, and just plain scary thoughts that you have? We shouldn’t deny that we have them. We do. Instead, we should ask ourselves what God would think if He knew about them. And then we should remind ourselves about reality. God already knows our secrets.

When God points out our secret sins, the only thing to do is repent. We shouldn’t hide or make excuses. We must confess our sins, admit that they are wrong, and put them behind us. This process will require humility, and it will instill more humility. And that’s exactly what the messiah is all about. And it is exactly why people hate him.

Jesus also says that we will be judged on a weighted scale. Those who have more are expected to do more with it, and those with the word of God will be judged more severely if they fail to obey. I usually quote from Spiderman at this point, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but the Biblical quote is actually more pointed:

Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:21-25)

And so another part of our secrets being judged is that God will judge us on what we really had. He knows what resources and what opportunities were in our power, and He knows when we used them for God and God’s service. God also knows what we know. He knows what we can understand and when we conveniently pretend not to know or not to understand. You can’t fool God. No excuses are going to work. So you might as well get real and live in the light now.

Don’t hide who you are, not even your sins. Confess them to God and fall down on your knees. Having the secrets of your heart exposed ought to lead you to worship (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

Conclusion

The final note sorrow is for Mary herself, “yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35), and this is most certainly a reference to the grief she will feel at the cross. This child who is salvation is also destined for a heartbreaking death. As the Christmas carol puts it, “Nails, spears shall pierce him through, the cross he bore for me, for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”

And yet in this grief also comes our joy. Those secret sins which will be made known would also condemn us. Once our hearts are laid bare, we will have defense. Except for the defense of the gospel, that Jesus died for us, to forgive our sins. And this is the final reversal in His work. He dies so that we might live. He bears our guilt and punishment so that we can receive His reward. The sword which pierces Mary’s soul will also save it, as it saves us all. This little child came to defeat the powers of sin and death, and He came to die. He come to do all of this so that we might saved.

Let us pray.

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