Mary's Magnificat: The Mercy of God

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I would like to tell you a story that the tabloids would love to put in print.  If they did, however, they would distort and twist the account.  But unlike the tabloids, the story I am going to tell you is true.  I am not making it up.

This story is about two Jewish women who are about to become mothers.  Their Hebrew names are Elisheva and Miriam and they are cousins.  The older one, Elisheva, was six months along in her pregnancy.  The younger one, Miriam, had just gotten pregnant.  She did not show it, but she knew she was pregnant.  She came from her hometown in the north of the country to visit with her much older cousin in the Hill Country of Judah.

What would have interested the tabloids is this: Elisheva was “well advanced in years,” perhaps collecting “social security” and Miriam was a teen-ager.  The second pregnancy might not surprise us today with the teen pregnancy rate the way that it is, but this pregnancy was different.  The tabloids would have had a field day with both of them.

I would, however, like to look at these two pregnancies from God’s perspective because both were miracle pregnancies.  Elisheva had been barren all her adult life.  Since this was before the days of fertility drugs, she had all but given up hope of having a child.  One day her husband, Zacharias, returned from Jerusalem, where he had been ministering in the Temple and he was mute.  He could not talk!  He motioned to her that the Lord had said they would have a child.  If she was like Sarah, she would have laughed and said, “Yeah right!”  (cf. Gen. 18:12-15).  If she was a woman of faith, and I believe she was, she would have bowed her head and said, “Thank you, Lord.”  However she responded, God was true to His promise and she became pregnant in her old age.  This was miracle pregnancy #1.  The other woman, Miriam, was an even greater miracle.  You see she was a virgin.  She had never had sexual relations with any man.  This was miracle pregnancy #2.

Miriam knew she was pregnant because the angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth and said, “Do not be afraid, Miriam, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus.” The Holy Spirit conceived the child that Miriam carried.  She was to be the most blessed and most privileged mother ever to walk the face of the earth.  She was the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ.  You do not have to go to the tabloids to read about this.  Just turn to the gospel of Luke, chapters 1 and 2.

We should always thank God for our mothers and also thank God for Mary.  Without mothers, none of us would be here today.  Without Mary, none of us would have a Savior because she gave birth to the Savior of the World, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us look at Mary, not through the eyes of theologians, Church Fathers, or even Church councils, but through her own eyes.  She left us a psalm (song) that she composed to express the innermost thoughts and feelings of her heart.

The Song

The song (Luke 1:46-55) was originally composed in Hebrew and then later translated by Dr. Luke into Greek (Aytoun 1917: 281-283).  As Dr. Randall Buth, a Bible translator for Wycliffe Translators has observed in an article on the verb tenses of this poem, “This phenomenon of poetic tense shifting points specifically to Hebrew – not Greek, not Septuagintal Greek and not Aramaic – as the original language of the poem. … It was an originally Hebrew poem that Luke and others have carefully transmitted” (1984: 75, 76).

This psalm can be divided into four stanzas of four lines each (Warfield 1885: 305).  The overall psalm has two literary units with two stanzas in each unit.  The key word in each literary unit is “mercy” (1:50 and 54).  The overriding theme of this psalm is the mercy of God bestowed upon Mary and all those who fear the Lord (1:46-50), as well as God’s covenant people, Israel (1:51-55).

In this psalm, Mary said (1:46-55):

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.

He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.

He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.

Mary must have had a godly upbringing by parents who taught her the Word of God at home as well as took her to the synagogue in Nazareth to hear the Word of God read, or sung, and also proclaimed by the rabbi on Shabbat.  She had a keen mind that absorbed the truths of the Scriptures.  The song that flowed from her heart is packed with excellent Biblical theology concerning the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Avraham, Yitzaq, va-Ya’akov) and His relationship to His covenant people, including Mary.

God’s Mercy is Bestowed on Mary and Those Who Fear Him.  1:46-50

In the first literary unit, Mary proclaims the mercy of God toward herself and those who fear Him (1:46-50).  This unit has two stanzas.  In the first, Mary magnifies the Lord because He is her Savior (1:46-48).  In the second stanza, Mary magnifies the Lord because He is mighty, holy, and merciful (1:49, 50).  This first unit is intensely personal on Mary’s part.

Mary Magnifies the Lord Because He is Her Savior.  1:46-48

Human beings are made in the image of the Triune God.  The Triune God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.  .. so God created man in His own image” (Gen. 1:26, 27).  Just as God is a Triune being, so are human beings.  We are made up of a body, soul and spirit (cf. I Thess. 5:23).  Mary involves her whole being in the composition of this song as she bursts into praise.  She says with her mouth (her body):  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Mary began her song with a paradoxical statement.  She said she magnifies the Lord.  How can one magnify Someone who is already infinite and eternal in His Person?  The Lord is omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere present), omniscient (all knowing), omni-sapient (all wise), eternal, immutable (unchanging), all loving, merciful, gracious, faithful, and infinitely holy.  How are you going to magnify that?!

One could conjecture that Mary had seen a glass globe filled with water (the forerunner to the magnifying glass) in the Roman administrative center of Sepphoris, just over the ridge from Nazareth.  Being fascinated with this object she noticed that it enlarged an object three times its normal size.  The closer glass globe got to an object, the bigger it looked (cf. Seneca, Natural Questions 1: 6: 5; LCL 7:57, 59; Tameanko 1989: 26, 27; Lewis 1997:40, 41).  Perhaps Mary saw herself as a magnifying glass.  She realized that the closer she got to the Lord, the bigger He became in her life.  It is obvious from this psalm that Mary knew large portions of the Hebrew Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) as well as Biblical theology (Koontz 1959: 339).  Even as a teenager, she had been taught well at home and in the synagogue.

By her praise, she made an infinite and eternal God even bigger!  She had learned something one of her ancestors, the sweet psalmist of Israel, King David instructed all of us to do.  He sang:  “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth.  My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; The humble shall hear of it and be glad.  Oh, magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together” (Ps. 34:1-3).  He also sang: “But I am poor and sorrowful; Let your salvation, O God, set me up on high.  I will praise the name of God with a song, And I will magnify Him with thanksgiving” (Ps. 69:29, 30).   In Mary’s composition, she both exalts the name of the Lord and expresses her thanksgiving for what God has done for her.

In her life, that infinite and eternal God became even bigger to her.  As she memorized and studied the Scriptures, she understood how vast and infinite her God was, yet He was also a personal God who was interested in everything she said and did.

She goes on to say that her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.  In order for a person to have a Savior, they must be a sinner.  Mary, like all of us, was a sinner!  The Child she carried in her womb was God manifest in human flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He was born so that He could die on Calvary’s cross in order to pay for all the sins of all humanity (I John 2:2).  In so doing, He became the Savior of the World (John 4:42).  Only a sinner needs a Savior.  If a person was sinless, that individual would have no need for a Savior.

The statement that Mary made, that she rejoiced in God her Savior shows Mary knew her spiritual state better than anyone.  She understood that she was a sinner and needed a Savior.  The closer she got to the Lord, the more she realized her own sinfulness because, as she states in the next stanza, the Lord is holy (Luke 1: 49).
 
Perhaps Mary recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah when he saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and heard the seraphim say, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Host; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:1-3), he humbly said, “Woe is me, for I am undone!  Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have see the King, The LORD of Hosts” (6:5).  When Mary did, she too realized she was a sinner and needed a Savior.

Mary had not seen the Lord of Hosts, but she had seen the angel Gabriel.  She reflected on his visitation in Nazareth and his statement to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”  The angel went on to describe the ultimate destiny of the One whom she would give birth to.  He said:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS (Yeshua).  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:28, 30-33). 

The ultimate destiny of the Lord Jesus will be to rule upon the throne of David from Jerusalem forever.

After her conception, I am sure Mary compared notes with her betrothed husband Joseph.  An Angel of the Lord had paid him a visit in his dreams.  The angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20, 21).

Both heavenly visitors said that this Child would be named JESUS.  In Hebrew, His name would be “Yehoshua” which is translated into Greek as “Jesus.”  The name means “YHWH is salvation.”  However, Joseph was told by an Angel of the Lord what this Child would accomplish during His first coming to the earth: He would save His people from their sins.  How this would be accomplished, the angel does not say.  I am sure that Joseph would have recalled the passages from the Psalms that described in prophetic terms the crucifixion of the Messiah (Ps. 22) and His subsequent resurrection (Ps. 18).  He would also recall the words of the Prophet Isaiah as he looked down the corridors of time to see the Messiah as the Suffering Servant on Calvary’s cross when he wrote:

He [the Messiah] is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.  Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (53: 3-6).

The angel Gabriel, on the other hand, told Mary that her Son would rule forever on the throne of David.  Mary would recall the Davidic Covenant given by Nathan the prophet (II Sam. 7:4-17).  She would also recall the psalms that extol the Davidic Covenant (Ps. 89 and Ps. 110).  Both angelic messengers give us a complete picture of the prophetic program of the Messiah.  One tells of the purpose of His first coming: to pay for sins.  The other tells of the plan for the second coming: to rule from Jerusalem on the throne of David. Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum has pointed out that:

The Davidic Covenant promised four eternal things: An eternal throne, an eternal house or dynasty, an eternal kingdom, and an eternal descendant.  All four eternal things came out in Gabriel’s message.  Concerning the throne he said: the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.  Concerning the house or dynasty - he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.  Concerning the kingdom - of his kingdom there shall be no end.  Concerning the eternal descendant, Gabriel said: The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God.  The four eternal things which were promised in the Davidic Covenant were restated here to be fulfilled through Jesus the Messiah.  The eternality of the house, throne, and kingdom is guaranteed because the seed of David culminates in a Person who is Himself eternal (1992:17).

Mary continues her psalm by telling us why she magnified the Lord and rejoiced in God as her Savior.  “For (or because) He has regarded the lowly estate of His maidservant” (1:48a).

God’s ways are not always our ways.  If we were going to pick somebody to give birth to the Savior of the World, who would also be the King of Israel, we would probably pick a young lady who was from a rich and powerful, politically connected family.  Even though Mary was from the House of David, she said that God regarded her “lowly state.”  Mary was not referring to her humility, but rather to the social status and economic condition of her family.  She lived in Nazareth: a small, obscure, and unimportant village in the hills of Lower Galilee.  We know from the excavations that were conducted in Nazareth, that the village was small.  It consisted of about 20 houses, and none of the houses were villas like in Sepphoris, just over the ridge from Nazareth.  The villagers in Nazareth were simple farmers and shepherds with a low economic status.  The words “lowly state” also implies that Mary was probably the youngest in her family.

Mary identifies herself in this psalm as a “maidservant,” the Greek word doule means female slave.  This recalls her statement to the Angel Gabriel after he announced to Mary that the child she would give birth to would be conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35-37).  Mary humbly said, “Behold the maidservant (doulas) of the Lord!  Let it be to me according to your word” (1:38).  Here we see Mary’s humble submission, as a slave, to the Lord and His will.  She would trust the Lord that He would take care of her reputation as she carried the Son of God to term.

Mary’s trust is expressed in the rest of the verse where she states: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (1:48b).  Later, during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, the religious leaders said to Jesus, “We are not born of fornication; we have one father – God” (John 8:41).  The implication of that verse is that some people thought Mary committed fornication.  There are some ancient sources, both Rabbinic and pagan, which state Mary had sexual relations with a Roman soldier named Pantera / Pandira and that he was the father of Jesus (Tabor 2006: 59-72; For a refutation, see Fisher 2006:4-12)!  This blasphemous statement aside, Mary knew she was a virgin when the Holy Spirit conceived the Lord Jesus in her and she had done nothing wrong.  She firmly believed that God would uphold her reputation.

As history has shown, her statement has proved correct.  All generations have called her blessed.  This began with the Angel Gabriel when he said, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28).  Then her cousin Elizabeth said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”  (1:47).

Please notice that both the angel and her cousin said she was to be blessed among women, not above women.  Mary is not to be worshipped.  She should be thanked for giving birth to the Lord Jesus, but not worshipped.  Only God is to be worshipped.  As Solomon so eloquently sang:

His name [the LORD] shall endure forever; His name shall continue as long as the sun, and men shall be blessed in Him; all nations shall call Him blessed.  Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, Who only does wondrous things!  And blessed by His glorious name forever!  And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.  Amen and amen (Ps. 72:17-19).

The Lord Jesus spoke to large crowds during His earthly ministry.  On one occasion a women cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!”  (Luke 11:27).  The Lord Jesus responded, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!” (11:28).  Jesus acknowledged the blessedness of His mother, just as she predicted in her “magnificat,” but Jesus drew people’s attention to something far more important – obedience to the Word of God.

Mary Magnifies the Lord because He is Mighty, Holy and Merciful.  1:49, 50

After her conception, Mary went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth in a city in the Hill Country of Judah, most likely a place called Ein Karim, situated in western Jerusalem today.  When Mary arrived at her house, Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit said:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe [John] leaped in my womb for joy.  Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of these things, which were told her from the Lord (Luke 1:41-45). 

Elizabeth asked a very profound question.  Why should the mother of her Lord come to visit her?  Elizabeth, who was filled with the Spirit, understood that the baby in Mary’s womb would be her Lord!  Here we have an early hint at the deity of the Lord Jesus.

In the second stanza of Mary’s psalm, she says, “For He [the Lord and God who is her Savior] who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.  And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation” (Luke 1: 49, 50).

Mary extols three attributes of God.  He is mighty, He is holy, and He is merciful.  The first attribute she extols is the omnipotence of God.  He is all mighty.  She says of the One who is mighty that He has done great things for her.  At the announcement of her conception by the Holy Spirit, the Angel Gabriel states, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).  It was the “power of the Highest” that brought about the conception of the Son of God.

Isaiah, in one of his great Messianic prophecies predicted the dual nature of the Lord Jesus and His names when he said:

For unto us a Child is born [His humanity], Unto us a Son is given [His deity]; And the government shall be upon His shoulders.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God [El Gebor], Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever.  The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this (9:6, 7). 

Isaiah predicted that Mary’s Son would be called the “Mighty God.

The second attribute was the holiness of God.  One can imagine the tongues wagging at the well of Nazareth when the women went to get water.  “Did you hear?  Mary is pregnant!  She claims she was a virgin when the Holy Spirit conceived the child in her!  We don’t believe that.  She ought to be stoned.”  Mary’s reputation, and Joseph’s honor, was at stake.  Yet Mary could say in her innocence, “Holy is His Name.”  One of the names given to the Lord Jesus was Holy (Rev. 3:7).

The final attribute that Mary extols is the mercy of God.  Some believe that the mercy of God is the key to understanding this psalm.  The word appears twice in this psalm at the end of each literary unit (Luke 1:50 and 54).  J. H. Bernard states: “In the first stanza [literary unit] the singer praises God for His overwhelming Mercy which rests upon her, as it will upon all who fear Him, for ever.  She sings of personal mercies, and that with no loud protestations, but with a humble thanksgiving which is sacred indeed.  And then, in the second stanza [literary unit], the hymn bursts out uncontrollably – as it seems – into a paean of national hope” (1907: 204).

In the last line of this stanza (1:50), we observe three things associated with the mercy of God.  First, God’s mercy is unmerited.  Second, God’s mercy is selective, and finally, God’s mercy is unending.

Mercy, by its very nature, is unmerited.  Grace and mercy is the flip side of the same coin.  Grace is getting what we do not deserve because Someone has already paid for it.  Mercy, on the other hand, is not getting what we do deserve.  Mary knew she was a sinner and deserved to be separated from God for all eternity in Hell.  She also knew that if she put her trust in God that He would provide a Savior to pay for her sins.  The One she carried in her womb was born to die!  Her Son, the Son of God, would die to pay for all her sins as well as the sins of the whole world.  God’s mercy is unmerited.

The mercy of God is also selective.  God’s mercy is on all those who fear the Lord.  The word “fear” has the idea of reverential awe and trust.  If a person receives the grace of God, and trusts the Lord to provide a Savior, as Mary had done, they would receive the free gift of eternal life, a home in heaven, the forgiveness of sins, and the righteousness of God.  God’s mercy is selective for those who fear (trust) Him.

The mercy is God is unending; as Mary put it, “from generation to generation.”  After the death of the Lord Jesus on Calvary’s cross, myriad of men, women and children, from every kindred, tongue, and nation, would put their trust in the Lord Jesus as the One who died and paid for all their sins and rose from the dead three days later to prove that sin had been paid for, death has been conquered and Satan defeated.  Truly God’s mercy is unending.

God’s Mercy is Bestowed on His Covenant People, Israel.  1:51-55

In the second literary unit, Mary proclaims God’s mercy toward His covenant people, Israel (1:51-55).  As in the first literary unit, this unit is divided into two stanzas.  In the first stanza (1:51-54a) we see God demonstrating His mercy by His action.  In the second stanza (1:54b-55), God remembers His mercy because of His covenant with Abraham and his Seed, the One whom Mary is carrying in her womb.

The first stanza has a beautiful literary structure.  The first line (1:51a) says, “He has shown strength with His arms.”  The verb “He has” goes back to verse 49 where Mary uses the same verb when she states that “He (the Mighty One) has done great things for me.”  She will continue the thought of what great things God has done for her and expand that to include what He has done for Israel.  She will also use the same verb again in verses 51b, 53a, 53b, and 54a.  In verses 51b to 54a Mary contrasts two groups of people.  The first group is the “proud” (1:51b) which He (the Mighty One) scatters (a negative statement), and the second group is “His servant Israel” (1:54a) which He helps (a positive statement).  Between these two verses, Mary will describe the “proud” as mighty (1:52a) and rich (1:53b).  In contrast to “His servant Israel” which is lowly (1:52b) and hungry (1:53a).  Basically she says there will be a reversal of fortune between these two groups.

The Mighty One demonstrates His mercy by His actions.  1:51-54a

Mary begins this second literary unit by saying, “He (the Mighty One) has shown strength with His arms” (1:51a).  God is invisible and no one has seen Him at any time.  But sometimes, in order to have a clearer pictures or better understanding of who God is, anthropomorphic language is used that attribute body parts to God.  In this case, Mary says God has shown His strength with His arms.

The arms of God (or hands) are mentioned a number of times in the Hebrew Scriptures, usually in connection with the Exodus from Egypt.  In Exodus 6:6, God said: “Therefore say to the children of Israel: I am the LORD; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptian, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgment.” [For context, read Exodus 6:2-9].  After the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, Moses composed a song of deliverance (Ex. 15: 1-18).  In the song, he says that “Fear and dread will fall on them (the Philistines, the Edomites, the Moabites and the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan); by the greatness of Your arm” (15:16).  See also Deut. 3:24; 4:34; 7:19; II Kings 17:36; Ps. 44:3; 89:13; 118:15; Isa. 30:30; Jer. 32:24.  God redeemed Israel out of the Egyptian bondage because of His mercy.  At the time this happened, the Israelites were worshipping the gods of the Egyptians (Ezek. 20:7-10).  They did not deserve redemption, but God in love and mercy redeemed them and brought them out of Egypt.
 
As the Children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses wrote the words of the Lord:

For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.  The LORD did not set His love on you nor chose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.  Therefore know that the LORD you God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Deut. 7:6-9). 

Notice in these verses, “covenant” and “mercy” are tied together.  The Israelites were worshiping the gods of the Egyptians and did not deserve to be redeemed, but God in mercy brought them out because of a covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The outstretched arm is also used of the “Second Exodus” when the Lord returns His people from the four corners of all the earth to the Land of Israel after the seven year period of Tribulation (Ezek. 20:23, 33, 34; Isa. 11:11; Matt. 24:29-31).

Perhaps Mary also remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah when he stated: “Who has believed our report?  And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”  Isaiah continued to describe the LORD as the “Man of sorrows” who would take all our iniquities upon Himself (53:3, 6).  That “Man of Sorrows” was being nurtured in the womb of Mary as she sang this song.

At this point in her thinking, Mary might be confused because the arm of the Lord would lead to a return to the Land as well as suffering.  The Apostle Peter will clarify this confusion.  He wrote in his first epistle (AD 43): “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1:10, 11).  There would be two advents of the Messiah.  The first time He would come to suffer and die for sin, but would subsequently be raised from the dead three days later.  The second time He would come would be with His saints to the Mount of Olives and then re-gather the remnant of His People Israel and then establish His Millennial Kingdom (Zech. 14:4-9; Matt. 24: 29-31).

In the next six lines (1:51b-54a), Mary will contrast what God will do with two different groups of people.  The first group is the “proud,” and the second, “His servant Israel.”

She says of the proud that God will scatter them in the imagination of their hearts (1:51a).  The imagination of the heart shows the deep-rootedness of their problem.  The proud are self-sufficient and have no need for God.  In some cases, the individuals think they are gods.

How much Mary knew about Caesar Augustus, the ruler of the Roman world, I do not know.  The Jewish world was probably better informed than most in the Roman world.  There were Jewish people living in the Diaspora (the area outside the Land of Israel) who would return to Jerusalem for the three pilgrim feasts: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succoth (Tabernacles).  As they mixed with their fellow Jews living in the Land of Israel, they shared the news of what was going on in the Roman world.  Jewish pilgrims from Asia Minor would have told of an inscription that was executed by the proconsul Paullus Fabius Maximus in 9 BC.  The people of Asia Minor acknowledged that:

Providence … [gave] us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue [divine power] that he might benefit mankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendents, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [“epiphany,” often used of Hellenistic rulers] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the good tidings [gospel] that came by reason of him” (Boring, Berger, and Colpe 1995: para. 225). 

Was he proud?  You better believe it.  He thought he was a god!

When Paul penned his first epistle to Timothy, he concluded with the thought that Jesus is the “blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (6:15).  The word Potentate is the same word as mighty in Mary’s song.  Timothy was ministering in Asia Minor when he received the letter during the reign of Emperor Nero.  While Nero never claimed to be a god, at least in Rome, the Greek world, of which Asia Minor is a part, considered the emperor a god.  There was a coin minted in Laodicea that had a portrait of Nero and the word “theos” (god) by his name!

There is a day coming, in the middle of the seven year Tribulation, when the Man of Sin will be revealed.  He will be the Son of Perdition who will oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the Temple of God, showing himself that he is God! (II Thess. 2:3, 4).  Jesus refers to this event as the “Abomination of Desolation” predicted by Daniel the prophet (Matt. 24:15; cf. Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11).  Paul goes on to describe the end of this Lawless One when he says that the “Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming” (II Thess. 2:8).  That is the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus to earth.

Mary goes on to say that the Mighty One has “put down the mighty from their thrones” (1:52a).  The word “mighty” in this verse is the same as the word “mighty” used for God in verse 49.  Perhaps Mary had in mind those rulers who thought they were a god.  There is a proverb that every ruler, be it a king, president, prime minister, or whatever, should memorize.  “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).  Every ruler should realize that they rule only as long as God allows.  When He has used them to fulfill His purposes, whatever they may be, then they are removed from the scene.

The list of rulers who have had a god-complex in history would include the pharaohs, Phillip II, Alexander the Great, Antiochus IV, Caesar Augustus, Caligula, and Domitian.  Each and every one of them had their hearts in the hands of the Living God.  When He was done with them, their hearts stopped beating.

On the other hand, Mary goes on to say that God exalts the lowly.  Her mind probably went back to her ancestor, King David.  The LORD instructed Samuel the prophet to take a sacrifice to Bethlehem and anoint a king for Israel from the tribe of Judah and the house of Jesse (I Sam. 16:1-13).  Jesse brought his seven sons before Samuel, but each were rejected by the Lord because “man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (6:7).  Finally, the eighth and youngest of Jesse’s sons is called while he was out in the Judean Desert tending the family flock of sheep.  The Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one” (16:12).  God exalts the lowly (cf. I Cor. 1:26-31).

In the next verse, Mary contrasts the rich and the hungry.  “The ‘hungry’ are those conscious of a need, particularly the need of righteousness (Matt. 5:6) and a life acceptable with God.  Their soul shall be satisfied (Ps. 107:9), but the self-satisfied, represented by the ‘rich’ shall be sent away devoid of the truth and destitute of spiritual wealth” (Koontz 1959: 347).

Mary then concludes this section by saying: “He has helped His servant Israel” (1:54a). 

My sanctified imagination would like to think that Mary used this song as a lullaby for the Baby Jesus.  I’m sure most of us can remember some of the songs that were sung to us as a little child.  I’m sure Jesus would have remembered this one because when He began to teach His disciples He recalled the words from the song His mother sang, “He has scattered the proud,” so He instructed His disciples, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  His mother sang, “He has exalted the humble and meek.”  He instructed His disciples, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  His mother sang, “He has filled the hungry.”  He continued to instruct His disciples, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  (Matt. 5:3, 5, 6).  “The Beatitudes re-echo the phrases of [the] Magnificat, and fill them with a more spiritual meaning” (Bernard 1907: 205, 206).

The Mighty One demonstrates His mercy because He remembered His covenant.  1:54b, 55

The concluding stanza comes back to the remembrance of God’s mercy.  It is not that God has forgotten, nor does He have short term memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease, but God remembers because He is celebrating His mercy towards Abraham and his Seed.

Mary probably has in mind the last verse of the book of Micah: “You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Abraham, which you have sworn to our fathers from days of old” (7:20), when she says “In remembrance of His mercy to Abraham and to his Seed forever.”  The phrase, “As He spoke to our Fathers” seems to be a parenthetical statement.

God made an unconditional covenant with Abraham where He promised He would make of Abraham a great nation and make his name great.  God would bless him and make him a blessing to others.  God also promised a specific land to Abraham and his descendents (Gen. 12:1-3; 13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:4-8).

After, the LORD put Abraham through ten tests in order to see if he would be faithful to the Lord in all situations (Cassuto 1964: 294-296).  Abraham failed some of the tests, yet God was merciful to him and still used him to fulfill His promises.  The last test that God gave to Abraham was to see if he would offer his “son, [his] only son Isaac,” Abraham passed this test and God reconfirmed the covenant with Abraham by saying:

By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendents as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashores; and your descendents shall possess the gates of their enemies.  In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice (Gen. 22:16-18).

The Apostle Paul gave a divine commentary on this verse when he wrote to the church in Galatia: “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made.  He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).

The promised Seed would come through Abraham, Isaac (Gen. 17:19; 26:1-5), Jacob (Gen. 28:10-15), Judah (Gen. 49:10), and David (Ruth 4:17-22).  Nathan the prophet set forth the unconditional Davidic covenant in II Sam. 7, which promised that a descendent of David would sit upon the throne of David forever (7:4-17).  The Seed whom Mary carried in her womb, the Lord Jesus Christ, would be the ultimate blessing to all the people of the earth (Luke 1:42).

Applications

What can we learn from Mary?  First and foremost, we, like Mary, are all sinners.  Because we are sinners, we need a Savior.  That is the reason the Lord Jesus came to earth.  He was born, the sinless Son of God, lived a perfect life, never sinning once, and then died on the Cross of Calvary as our Sin Bearer.  He rose from the dead three days later to demonstrate that sin had been paid for, death had been conquered and Satan defeated.  In grace, He can freely offer any sinner who puts their trust in Him, the forgiveness of sins, a home in heaven, and the free gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8, 9; I John 5:13).  Mary trusted the Lord to be her Savior.

Second, when we realize what God has done for us, we magnify Him by our lives and by our lips.  This is called worship.  At the Passover meal, right before Jesus was crucified; He took bread and wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper.  He instructed His disciples to remember Him in this simple way often (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; John 13:12-30).  He apparently thought it important enough to also reiterate order and meaning of the Lord’s Table to the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 11:23-34).  Our worship should lead us to witness to a lost and dying world around us.  In essence, this song that Mary composed is her verbal testimony to her family and friends as to what God has done for her in her life.

Third, like Mary, we need to know the attributes of God.  The only way we can know the attributes of an eternal, holy God is to read about them in His Word.  The challenge to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ is to know the Word of God.  Mary, I am sure, had godly parents who helped her memorize the Scriptures, took her to the synagogue where she absorbed what was said by the rabbis and from the reading of the Torah scrolls.

Fourth, in the second literary unit, Mary demonstrated her knowledge of the ways of God.  She understood that God would ultimately set things in order and bring about the reversal of fortune of the proud and the people of God, if not in this life, then in the ages to come.  Mary was also keenly aware of the Abrahamic Covenant and knew God would be faithful to His promises.  Believers in the Lord Jesus should be diligent students of the Word of God in order to properly discern the ways of God as revealed in His Word (II Tim. 2:15).

Recommended Resources for Further Study

     

Archaeology and
the New Testament
 

50 Proofs for the NT

NIV Archaeological
Study Bible
 

Bibliography

Aytoun, R. A.
1917 The Ten Hymns of the Nativity in Their Original Language.  Journal of Theological Studies 18: 274-288.

Barns, Thomas
1906 The Magnificat in Niceta of Remesiana and Cyril of Jerusalem.  Journal of Theological Studies 7: 449-453.

Benko, Stephen
1967 The Magnificat.  A History of the Controversy.  Journal of Biblical Literature 86: 263-275.

Bernard, J. H.
1907 The Magnificat.  Expositor 7th series.  3: 193-206.

Burkitt, F. C.
1906 Who Spoke the Magnificat?  Journal of Theological Studies 7: 220-227.

Buth, Randall
1984 Hebrew Poetic Tenses and the Magnificat.  Journal for the Study of the New Testament  21: 67-83.

Cassuto, U.
1964 A Commentary on the Book of Genesis.  Part 2.  From Noah to Abraham.  Jerusalem: Magnes.  Reprinted 1974.

Davies, J. G.
1964 The Ascription of the Magnificat to Mary.  Journal of Theological Studies 15: 307-308.

Fisher, G. Richard
2006 The Jesus Dynasty.  The Imaginary and Irrational Interpretations of James Tabor.  The Quarterly Journal (Personal Freedom Outreach).  26/3: 4-12.

Fruchtenbaum, Arnold
1992 The Birth and Early Life of the Messiah.  Tustin, CA: Ariel Ministries.  Manuscript number 127.

Harris, J. Rendel
1929-1930 Mary of Elizabeth?  Expository Times 41: 266-267.

1930-1931 Again the Magnificat.  Expository Times 42: 188-190.

Haupt, Paul
1919 Magnificat and Benedictus.  American Journal of Philology 40/1: 64-75.

Jones, Douglas
1968 The Background and Character of the Lukan Psalms.  Journal of Theological Studies 19: 19-50.

Koontz, John V.
1959 Mary’s Magnificat.  Bibliotheca Sacra 116: 336-349.

Lewis, Bart
1997 Did Ancient Celators Use Magnifying Lenses?  The Celator 11/11: 40, 41.

Machen, J. Gresham
1912 The Hymns of the First Chapter of Luke.  Princeton Theological Review 10: 1-38.

1932 The Virgin Birth of Christ.  New York and London: Harper and Brothers.

Nolland, John
1989 Word Biblical Commentary.  Luke 1-9:20.  Vol. 35a.  Dallas, TX: Word Books.

Seneca
1971 Natural Questions.  Books 1-3. Vol. 7.  Trans. T. H. Corcoran.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 450.  Reprinted 1999.

Tabor, James
2006 The Jesus Dynasty.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Tameanko, Marvin
1989 Literature Points Out Knowledge of MagnifiersThe Best of the Celator 1989.  Lodi, WI: The Celator.

Tannehill, Robert C.
1974 The Magnificat as Poem.  Journal of Biblical Literature 93: 263-275.

Warfield, B. B.
1885 Messianic Psalms of the New Testament.  Expositor 3rd series.  2: 301-309.

Winter, Paul
1954-1955 Magnificat and Benedictus – Maccabean Psalms?  Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 37: 328-347.
 
Wood, Irving

1902 Tas Doulas in the Magnificat, Luke 1: 48.  Journal of Biblical Literature 21: 48-50.

 

 

 

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