Unwrapping Four Hebrew Words Before Christmas

In these weeks leading up to December 25, our ears ring with the same worn-out words: presents and trees; decorations and Santa; and, of course, Visa and Amazon Prime. They’re all part of our common cultural vocabulary. We know the definitions and connotations. There’s no need to unwrap them.

As the church gathers in worship, however, different words reverberate in readings, hymns, and homilies. These words beckon us to get dirty. They require some archaeology—to uncover the layers, brush off the dust, and search for clues as to their deeper meanings. These are Advent words. And because Advent is the most Old Testament of the church seasons, these words are steeped in Hebrew tradition.

@@Here’s a quick archaeological tour of four Hebrew words buried in the holy dirt of Advent.@@

Malak (Messenger)

Long-haired, long-bearded, grasshopper-and-honey-eating John the Baptist is The Advent Man. We hear much of him during these four weeks. John is the malak, the messenger, the voice of the one crying in the wilderness. The Hebrew noun is usually translated “angel,” because most of its occurrences refer to heavenly messengers. John is the one whom Malachi prophesied, “Behold, I send my messenger [malak], and he will prepare the way before me” (3:1; Luke 7:27).

Whether the Lord’s malak is from heaven or earth makes little difference, their vocation is the same: they direct us not to themselves but to the one whose message they voice. They are word-givers not attention-seekers. They decrease so that the Lord might increase. The malak of the Lord points us away from ourselves in repentance (see below), to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Shuv (Repent)

The watchword of the malak of God is shuv. When used literally, this Hebrew verb refers to the physical motion of turning, returning, or turning back. When John the Baptist calls people to repent, he is calling them not to an emotion but to a motion. To turn from sin and return to the Lord. But (and this is critical!), note where he does this: at the Jordan River. The Jordan is the border of the holy land, the river the Israelites crossed when leaving exile and captivity in Egypt to return to the promised land.

In a number of places in the OT, to shuv is to return from exile, from the land of slavery, back to the land of liberty. By preaching repentance at the Jordan River, and by doing a baptism of repentance in those same waters, John is calling Israel to shuv from exile, to return from the Babylon of their hearts, the Egypt of the soul, to the holy land of freedom and forgiveness. In Advent, the call remains the same: to shuv from captivity, to turn from our idols, return from our exile, to the Lamb of God who is sacrificed outside Jerusalem to restore us as citizens of the heavenly fatherland.

Midbar (Wilderness)

In Hebrew, the midbar, the wilderness, is more than a geographical location. It’s a theological location, a spiritual place, where demons lurk, temptation happens, and hearts are forever changed. That’s why John is the “voice of one crying” not in the city, not in the villages, but “in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3; Matthew 3:3). The midbar is the crucible of conversion.

Israel spent forty years in the midbar. Jesus spent 40 days in the midbar, being tempted by the devil. And John the Baptist stations himself there as the messenger of God, to call us to repent, that in the wilderness we might meet the Christ of Advent. In that spiritual place, Jesus comes to us, for here is “a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3) to lead us back home. We journey through death in the midbar, across the Jordan, and to Bethlehem, where we meet the Son who advents, who comes, to make us his own.

Zakar (Remember)

In Hebrew, to zakar, to remember, is not merely a head activity but a body activity. Remembrance is an action, a doing, not just a recollection of something we’ve forgotten. When Mary sings her song, the Magnificat, she says that God “has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy” (Luke 1:54). In her own psalm, she’s echoing Psalm 98:3, “He has remembered [zakar] his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”

For God to zakar his mercy, to remember his steadfast love, is for him to enact that mercy, to put his love into action. Just as he remembered Noah so that he dried up the flood waters (Gen 8:1), just as he remembered Rachel so that he opened her womb (Gen 29:22), so when God remembers to show mercy to us this Advent season, he does so not by sitting back and thinking about us. He incarnates that mercy in his Son. For God to zakar is to give, to help, to provide. And that giving, helping, and providing is wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger. Jesus is the zakar of the Father, his remembrance for us.

These four Hebrew words—malak, shuv, midbar, and zakar—are Advent words. God sent John the messenger, to call us to repent, to journey from the wilderness to Bethlehem, where he shows us what it means for him to remember mercy in the incarnation of his Son and our Savior.