Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
(St. Luke 2:29-32 KJV)
This passage is commonly known as “The Song of Simeon,” but as with many songs or hymns, it is also a prayer. St. Luke writes that Simeon was “just and devout,” two words that sum up the requirements of God’s Law: our duty toward man (to treat each other with justice) and our duty toward God (to be devout and worshipful). Simeon’s devotion to God in constant prayer and study of the scriptures kept him attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit. On the day Jesus was brought to be presented at the Temple, the Spirit told Simeon to go to the Temple to receive the fulfillment of God’s promise. He immediately obeyed, and in the crowded Temple recognized the baby Jesus as the promised Messiah. In Simeon’s case, two promises were being kept. First, Simeon had studied and meditated on the many promises of the “consolation of Israel” found in the words of the prophets. Second, as a prophet in his own right, Simeon had personally received God’s assurance that he would see the Messiah before he died. So his prayer is grounded—as all prayers should be—in the immutable will of God. Simeon had spent his life praying for that which he knew was God’s will, to send the Messiah to free and heal His people.
The salutation of Simeon’s prayer warrants a closer look. Unfortunately, the King James translation of the opening line does not quite convey the power and the beauty of Simeon’s exclamation. First, he addresses God as the Greek word “despota,” which is the origin of our word “despot,” which has frightening connotations today. But in this context the word should be translated as “master of the house” and thus draws on the image of a loving Father who provides well for his household and who wields sufficient power to protect it from all enemies. This imagery is continued in Simeon’s referring to himself as doulon. or “bondservant.” An honored, beloved, and trusted member of the household, a bondservant would not expect to be dismissed until his work was done. Simeon immediately praises God for setting him free and giving him peace, an act that he sees as having already been accomplished by the presence of the Son who would fulfill the prophecies of the Suffering Servant. Simeon’s announcement of freedom and peace is reinforced in the Lord’s proclamation: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” St. Paul picks up this imagery to remind us that we have been freed as slaves to sin so that we can serve God without fear. Christ became the Servant so that we might be called the children of God.
Simeon’s song is an integral part of the Anglican Evening Prayer service, so you may have said or sung these words countless times. But the next time you utter them, spend some time reflecting on the amount of faith it took for Simeon to see in St. Mary’s tiny Child the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah as a light to the Gentiles and as the glory of His people Israel. It took much more faith for Simeon to see the Messiah in that bundle of swaddling clothes than for the prophets to believe God would send a conquering Savior or for the New Testament saints to recognize the Miracle Worker in front of them as God’s Son or even for us who have the benefit of the historical record of God’s mighty acts. When the kingdom that Christ ushered in did not take the shape that the Israelites thought it would, they forsook Him. But Simeon believed God’s promises at a time when the prophetic voice had been silent for 400 years, when the nation of Israel was living under the oppression of foreign rule yet again, and when Jesus was still a helpless infant. Despite all outward evidence of defeat, Simeon’s prayer exudes the joy of a man who has unshakeable confidence in his Master’s word.
From the song of Simeon we learn to approach God with the joyful faith and the confidence of communion with God through His indwelling Spirit. We learn to call upon Christ through His promises, praying His revealed will for us and for all mankind. And when we do that, we find the truth in the collect for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity, in which we confess that God is “always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and art wont to give more than we desire or deserve.” Matthew Henry observes that Simeon’s faith was rewarded not only with more than he desired but also with more than God had promised:
When we receive the record which the gospel gives us of Christ with a lively faith, and the offer it makes us of Christ with love and resignation, then we take Christ in our arms. It was promised [Simeon] that he should have a sight of Christ; but more is performed than was promised: he has him in his arms.
Finally, though Simeon’s one-to-one encounter with the Messiah was extremely personal in nature, he recognizes his place in a larger household of blessing that includes the people of Israel as well as the Gentiles. It is through this attitude in prayer that we not only draw closer to God and His people but also have any hope of bringing others to Christ. Let us be in constant prayer that God would increase our faith and that He would use us at to show this broken world that through Christ we can both live and die at peace with God.
A Prayer for Purity of Service
Almighty God, who alone gavest us the breath of life, and alone canst keep alive in us the holy desires thou dost impart; We beseech thee, for thy Compassion’s sake, to sanctify all our thoughts and endeavours; that we may neither begin an action without a pure intention nor continue it without thy blessing. And grant that, having the eyes of the mind opened to behold things invisible and unseen, we may in heart be inspired by thy wisdom, and in work be upheld by thy strength, and in the end be accepted of thee as thy faithful servants; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
(From The Pastor’s Prayerbook by Robert Rodenberry. New York: Oxford, 1960)