Why did Zechariah go mute?

When the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will give birth to baby John, Zechariah asks “how will I know?” And the angel causes Zechariah to go mute until the baby is born. At first glance this muteness seems like a punishment for unbelief, but this is not necessarily so! Physical afflictions aren’t divine punishment for doubt or skepticism; rather, muteness can be understood as a natural response to witnessing the incredible divine presence. We ought to look at other passages for guidance about how to interpret this scene.

“And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be speechless and unable to reprove them; for they are a rebellious house. But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’; let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house.” (Ezekiel 3:26-27)

Ezekiel cannot speak except on God’s behalf after his visions. Similarly, Zechariah cannot speak until John is born, and he immediately begins to prophesy.

“While [the angel] was speaking these words to me, I turned my face toward the ground and was speechless.” (Daniel 10:15)

Daniel models an apparently natural response to seeing an angel: to turn away speechless. Maybe this is why angels are always saying, “do not be afraid!”

– Vicar Aaron Musser