The archangel Gabriel says something strange to Zechariah here — something I’ve never really recognized as strange until I just read this passage again for the two-hundred-eighty-third time. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his prayer has been heard and, as a result, Elizabeth is going to have a child. I say this is strange, because in all my previous (apparently far too casual) readings of this passage, I have breezed along making the mindless assumption that Zechariah and Elizabeth have been praying and are continuing to pray that God will give them a child. That is, I have read this with the assumption that Gabriel is announcing the answer to an on-going and current prayer. But that is surely a wrong assumption. It can hardly be the case that now in their advanced old age, Zechariah and Elizabeth have continued to pray that they would conceive and bear a child. And Zechariah’s reaction to Gabriel’s announcement confirms the fact that the prayer for a child is no longer a current and active part of their prayers. He reacts with confusion and disbelief. They have long ago stopped praying for this thing whose time has surely now past.
And of course, why wouldn’t they have stopped praying for a child? Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both very old, the obvious implication being that Elizabeth was now well past menopause. (See Genesis 18:11 for nearly identical words used of Abraham and Sarah.)
When Gabriel said to him, “Your prayer has been heard,” Zechariah must have thought, “What prayer is that?” Once he realized which prayer Gabriel was referring to, he must have then thought, “But we long ago gave that prayer up.” That’s why he questions Gabriel about how such a thing could be possible. (Note to self and readers: one should probably never question an archangel’s credibility to his face.)
My conclusion is that Zechariah and Elizabeth stopped praying for pregnancy and the birth of a child when they realized that Elizabeth was no longer menstruating. Yet, here Gabriel speaks of the former prayer as though it was still current and on the table before God. And he does that, of course, because that was exactly the case. It would seem that in the context of prayer such notions as “past” and “present,” “current” and “former,” “possible” and “impossible” have very different meanings than we are accustomed to.