Scriptures, Part 2 – Nunc Dimittis

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

We can almost feel the chemistry of the moment as this old, gentle, saintly, bent-over man takes this baby boy into his arms and blesses him. And in so doing not only is the baby boy blessed, but so also is the old saint. Simeon clearly experiences something wonderful. It is a moment of grace in that great temple, when the child Messiah is laid right into his arms and into his heart. In response, he sings a song that has never stopped being sung throughout Christendom.

Simeon sings, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation.”

Startled at first, perhaps, even a bit frightened by the old man’s ecstatic face, Mary and Joseph yield to him because they sense the Lord’s Spirit upon him. Hearing Simeon’s prophecy, they are reminded of the events of the previous weeks and months when angels and shepherds had intruded into their lives to foretell the greatness of their Son.

Set against the hospitality extended to the couple when they arrived in Bethlehem, this visit to the temple serves as another witness to the presence of the peace of God.

The Nunc Dimittis is ultimately a song about realizing personal inner tranquility and restfulness — as we see a spiritual calm brought to Simeon’s life. It is a lesson in peaceful living. This is why it has been traditionally used during Evening Prayer services, as the day closes for the night’s rest.

He begins by saying that God is setting him free, as a slave is granted liberty. He is now free to die (for the Spirit’s revelation to him is now fulfilled), and Israel is free of bondage. God has saved Israel, as he promised to “all peoples”; his salvation is for Gentiles too.

The entire song is sung with the language of freedom. In the original Greek text, it has the connotation of releasing a slave. Simeon is describing his own experience as one of being released. In the song the word “now” is of utmost importance, emphasizing that an experience of profound liberation happened to him at that moment in time upon seeing the Christ Child.

God provides him release from the fury of his intensity of purpose, which was almost a servitude or enslavement.  Simeon’s song is his way of describing how he was finally “released” truly to live. Many biblical commentators have interpreted his song as meaning he was at last free to die, presumably due to his old age after all those years of waiting to see the Messiah. However, the heart of Simeon’s verse is that he was released into freedom, enabled to experience the gift of life anew.

And he is brought into experiencing what years later the apostle Paul describes as the “glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

What did he see? All he saw was a child, a little baby. However, this is profoundly symbolic; a baby, a new life, gives to an old one a new kind of life.

Whether by seeing or hearing, the best word to describe Simeon’s experience here is almost certainly “revelation.” A revelation is something like the clarity you experience when you have recovered from fainting: it isn’t that the truth about something is coming out of nowhere and has never been there before, but rather that the truth is coming into focus as never before.

What Simeon experienced is an illumination into his own experience and life, as well as a vision into new vistas on God’s character. Whatever he saw (or heard), whatever was revealed to him at that moment, released him to a new understanding, experience, and dimension of living at peace, and of being at rest.

It is amazing that, as devoted to Jewish religious law as Simeon apparently was, he is so open to God’s salvation coming to the gentiles. Many with his background stood against the gentiles, whom they saw not only as “pagans” but also as the oppressors of the Jewish people. The Hasidim, in their extreme nationalism, saw the Messiah and his salvation as exclusively for the Jews.

Yet here we see Simeon remarkably open to salvation for all people. Obviously, he has been given a new and fuller perspective on Gods divine intent.

This experience of seeing the Christ Child:

1. Pressed home the point to Simeon that God would not send him away with an unfulfilled hope. He knew in a new and deeper way that God cares for us, and that God is good to his word. God has been faithful to the promise he made to Simeon. And not only to Simeon: God has been faithful to each individual in this world, gentile and Jew alike.

2. Simeon sings of the grace of God as demonstrated by his  giving; God’s desire is to give to all abundantly. When Simeon tried to take it all into his own hands, it limited his view and experience of God’s goodness.

The spirit in which Simeon sings demonstrates for us that this new revelation of God’s character brought him tremendous security, an inner calm.

He also experienced a cessation of the intensity and enslavement of living in the future, and a freedom from the determinedness that had accompanied him all his life. Realizing that God is taking care of the divine purposes, and that those purposes are entirely good and are for all people, brought to Simeon a relaxed disposition — a sense of liberation.

He was released to a new king of life –life of peace in the deepest part.

Throughout his gospel, Luke closely connects the concept of peace with salvation, which in Luke’s understanding infers the richness of the Hebrew word, meaning the “positive blessing of God in all its many aspects.”

In essence, Simeon is saying, I am released because I have seen God s peace and salvation, the many aspects of the positive blessing of God.” Perhaps for the first time in his life he could understand the value, depth, and joy of the present moment. 

The Canticle itself is almost a pastiche of passages from Isaiah (40:5, 42:6, 46:13, 49:6, 52:9-10), with its themes of:

  • Seeing salvation
  • The sight of all the peoples
  • A light to the Gentiles
  • Glory for Israel

It is remarkable that the universalism of Isaiah is now brought into Luke’s narrative.  The consolation and salvation of Israel is also a revelation to and the salvation of the Gentiles.  It  echoes Matthew’s interest in the Gentiles with his story of the revelation of the star to the magi from the East.

Biblical Precedents

-Simeon’s blessing of God

-Spoken by one “waiting for consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25)

-Echoes language of second and third parts Isaiah (40:1, 66:12-13)

Isaiah 40:1

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

Isaiah 66:12-13

For this is what the Lord says:

12 “I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will nurse and be carried on her arm
and dandled on her knees.
13 As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.

Isaiah 40:5 – And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah 42:6

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;
I will take hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles,

Isaiah 46:13

I am bringing my righteousness near,
it is not far away;
and my salvation will not be delayed.
I will grant salvation to Zion,
my splendor to Israel

Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Isaiah 52;9-19

Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.

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