Nativity & Advent: Anna, the Lord’s Precious Widow

By Elizabeth Prata

#1 : Nativity & Advent: Zacharias- There’s no such thing as chance, even when casting lots
#3: Nativity & Advent: Sacrifice of Pigeons


The Nativity story includes wonderful elements as we learn them and repeat them year after year. We truly are little children, saying to our parents, “Tell me again!” We never tire of hearing as much as we can about our Savior who left His throne, left glory, left the perfect adoration of his angels, and came to earth to serve and die. (And resurrect)

This year I’m focusing on a few of the people and events of the Nativity story during Advent with which we may not be as familiar. Or, if you are familiar, then please enjoy another round of delving into this magnificent story in all its aspects.

We learn of Anna the widow-prophetess in Luke 2. Only three verses exist about Anna, but from what is said, and from what is not said, we learn so much. First, let’s take a brief look at Paul’s exposition in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, which I’ll come back to.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

Now, here is Anna’s spot in the ‘Son-shine,’ forever captured in Luke 2:36-38,

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Anna in Greek is from the Hebrew Hannah, meaning favor or grace. Anna is the only named prophetess in the New Testament. This is such an honor. There are only a few named women who prophesied in the entire Bible, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:45), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). Hers is one of the Bible’s shortest biographies. It contains only her name, demographic (widow), tribe, and an ambiguous reference to her age.

More specifically, Anna’s father is mentioned, but not her husband. She is also one of the few women to be identified by her tribe: Asher. Her age has been variously supposed as 84 or 105. If she married at age 14, a culturally usual age at the time, and was married for 7 years until widowhood, the 84 years reference would make her 105. Alternately, she could be 84 years of age. Either way, the Bible notes that she was “advanced in years”! Take note older ladies, devotion to God in advanced years is possible, and perhaps the very thing that made her so vital!

Commenters are divided on the next part of the verse, that “she did not depart from the Temple”. Some say that she was at the temple worshiping every time the doors opened and stayed all day until evening when the gates shut. After all, in Exodus 38:8 we read of women that assembled at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. Here are some of the comments from Commenters:

Barnes Notes: that she was “constant” and “regular” in all the public services at the temple, or was never absent from those services.

Jamieson-Fausset: Departed not from the temple—was found there at all stated hours of the day, and even during the night services of the temple watchmen (Ps 134:1, 2), “serving God with fastings and prayer.” (See 1Ti 5:5, suggested by this.)

Gill’s: Which departed not from the temple that is, she was constant in her devotion there, at the time of divine service, whether by night or day; not that she was in it, … but that she always was there when there was any worship performed,

However, others believe she lived on the Temple grounds. There were apartments on site.

Pulpit Commentary: Which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. Probably, in virtue of her reputation as a prophetess, some small chamber in the temple was assigned to her. This seems to have been the case with Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22).

Matthew Henry: It is most probable she had an apartment of her own among the out-buildings of the temple; and, besides her constant attendance on the public worship, abounded in private devotions, for she served God with fastings and prayers night and day: having no secular business to employ herself in, or being past it, she gave up herself wholly to her devotions, and not only fasted twice in the week, but always lived a mortified life, and spent that time in religious exercises which others spent in eating and drinking and sleeping; she not only observed the hours of prayer, but prayed night and day; was always in a praying frame, lived a life of prayer, gave herself to prayer, was frequent in ejaculations, large in solemn prayers, and very particular in her intercessions. And in these she served God; that was it that put a value upon them and an excellency into them.

John MacArthur: Perhaps because of her long faithfulness, her obvious spiritual gifts, her steadfast devotion to the Lord, and her constant commitment to her ministry of prayer and fasting, temple officials had given her a small chamber. (Nehemiah 13:7-9)

In Alfred Edersheim’s 1898 book, The Temple—Its Ministry and Services, he explains that there were apartments inside the Temple. Really, just sleeping chambers. Some were above the Court of the Gentiles, while bigger apartments were for the High Priest to spent the week before the Day of Atonement in study and meditation. Other apartments were for the Levite musicians. (1 Chronicles 9:33)

When we think of the Temple at the time of Jesus in 30AD, we know it was grand and large. Perhaps we think of a European cathedral, or a large church sanctuary in the US, where all is still and quiet. A hushed reverence hangs over the pews, dust motes swirling in the occasional sunbeam angling in through stained class, with people quietly praying or worshiping. Marble halls echo in stillness of shuffled footsteps as priests move about.

The Jerusalem Temple was not like that at all. It was hugely busy, loud, and active. Edersheim again:

In this court tradition places eating and sleeping apartments for the Levites, and a synagogue. But, despite pharisaic punctilliousness, the noise, especially on the eve of the Passover, must have been most disturbing. For there the oxen, sheep, and doves selected as fit for sacrifices were sold as in a market; and here were those tables of the money-changers which the Lord overthrew when He drove from His Father’s house them that bought and sold (Matt 21:12; John 2:14).

I tend toward the literal interpretation of the verse, that Anna literally did not depart from the Temple, but that she actually lived on premises. She was probably given a sleeping chamber and was taken care of, since she was a widow, especially since her devotion to the LORD was known and noted.

I think of Paul’s admonition for single women, to be selflessly devoted to loving God with all our strength, heart, mind, and soul. The verse at the top in 1 Corinthians about unmarried people being single-mindedly devoted to the Lord was not written yet at Anna’s lifetime, but she certainly fulfilled the spirit of that verse.

Imagine Anna’s life. Living in such a busy and loud place, apostasy all around yet undeterred, Anna was constantly in devotion to God, vigilantly awaiting Israel’s Consolation. What a blessing the Lord gave her, to see the babe who would be King.

Amid the hustle of Temple business, the men and women coming and going, Priests at their tasks, lowing of the cattle, rattle of the money changers, Anna herself praying, in the crowd she spotted a timorous couple with a baby. It must have been the Spirit that alerted her that this, of all the people entering the majestic Temple, this was the Babe she had been waiting for. What did she do?

And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Hallelujah, the Babe is here, who grew in wisdom and stature, who taught, served, and died. He, the sinless Lamb, resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father, awaiting the moment He will come again. Anna is now resting at the bosom of her Savior, whom she had yearned for in her long life. She dwells in a better Temple, and though she saw the face of the Babe, she has now seen the glorious resurrected face of her Savior- and will gaze upon Him forever.

Annotation 2019-11-17 084622
Simeon and Anna, by Jan Van’t Hoff, modern Dutch artist

#1 in the Nativity & Advent series
Nativity & Advent: Zacharias- There’s no such thing as chance, even when casting lots

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