By Stephen Green
First published in Christian Voice December 2011
Luke 1:46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
I don’t know how many of us go to a Church of England evensong service, but those who do hear two wonderful songs of praise from the Gospel of Luke.
The second is Simeon’s prophecy over the infant Jesus, known as the Nunc Dimittis, from its opening in Latin meaning ‘now dismiss’.
But the first is Mary’s great song of praise known as the Magnificat, from the Latin for ‘It (i.e. my soul) does magnify’. I quoted some verses from it recently in an E-alert in connection with Tesco’s support of gay pride. But especially in this Advent season it could be encouraging to look at Mary’s ecstatic outpouring in more detail.
For me, the most extraordinary thing about it is its continuity within the stream as Scripture. We shall see it paving the way for some of the great teachings of our Lord on humility. We shall recognise the foundation of the teachings of the apostle Paul on Abraham and his seed. We shall notice its identification of Messiah as the culmination of the mission of Israel.
But Mary’s song links all of these back to the Old Testament. Every single verse is based on sound Biblical principles. As we explore this wonderful hymn of exaltation, we shall be amazed at the treasure trove of Scripture it contains.
To remind ourselves of the background, Mary had, only days before, experienced the Angel Gabriel’s annunciation to her. She would conceive the Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit and would call his name Yeshua, Hebrew for ‘He saves’. The angel told her:
Luke 1:32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
At the time, as we read in verse 38, Mary did not appear to be exactly delighted with this information but merely said, ‘be it unto me according to thy word’. She appeared overwhelmed, and from the following verse, it seems she immediately fled to be with her elder cousin Elisabeth. She will have heard of Elisabeth’s good news and of the miraculous circumstances of her baby’s conception even before she heard it from Gabriel himself but the Angel will have reinforced her understanding than Elisabeth’s baby was destined to prepare the way of the Messiah.
We don’t know the exact relation between Elisabeth and Mary. The Greek word for ‘cousin’ means any blood relative. If Elisabeth was sister to Mary’s own mother, Mary would have regarded and honoured her as a mother, but even if she were of Mary’s generation, Mary would still have given Elisabeth the great respect accorded by a younger sister to an older one.
Either way, Elisabeth was just the person Mary needed, someone with the wisdom and dare we say the anointing to help her make sense of what had happened to her. Neither would have been prepared for what happened when Mary entered Elisabeth’s house and saluted her with the normal respect accorded to an elder relative. Elisabeth’s baby at six months gestation leapt in her womb at the presence of the embryonic Messiah. In response, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Elisabeth greeted Mary as blessed among women and as the mother of her Lord.
Luke 1:42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
I wonder if it was at this point that Mary realised the full import of the annunciation by Gabriel? Elisabeth’s greeting gave her utter certainty that she was carrying the Jewish Messiah in her womb. It would explain why she could no longer hold in her joy and burst forth in the most ecstatic, wonderfully confident song in the New Testament.
In truth, some of it quotes the song of Hannah, but there are allusions to other mighty sections of Scripture all the way through. We can have the feeling that Jewish women of that time, being under the authority of their father or their husband, were downtrodden and disrespected. The idea can take hold that the men did all the learning and the women were kept in a state of ignorance. I don’t know who else has spotted this, but Mary’s song, coming after her lone journey to Elisabeth, a decision apparently taken on her own, makes such a view untenable. Mary, no less than any Jewish boy, had obviously been taught the sacred writings from an early age, was very familiar with them and could recall them accurately.
The first two verses are based on the opening of Hannah’s song, Psalm 34 and the Prophet Habakkuk. They express joyful well-being and proclaim God as Saviour and as the object of praise. Those who spirits rejoice are those who magnify the Lord – and vice versa:
1 Sam. 2:1 And Hannah prayed, and said, My heart rejoiceth in the LORD, mine horn is exalted in the LORD: my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in thy salvation.
Ps. 34:2 My soul shall make her boast in the LORD: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad. 3 O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together. 9 And my soul shall be joyful in the LORD: it shall rejoice in his salvation.
Hab. 3:18 Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
The third verse is not in any way triumphalist, but expresses humility. God could use Mary knowing that the blessing he would confer on her would not go to her head. It is interesting that her Hebrew name, ‘Miriam,’ means ‘Rebellion’. Mary was not the slightest bit rebellious, but rather deeply spiritual and meditative. So perhaps God is saying he delights to come to us even though mankind is rebellious. In this verse Mary recalls Hannah’s initial prayer to the Lord to: ‘look on the affliction of thine handmaid’ (1 Sam. 1:11) as well as another Psalm:
Ps. 138:6 Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.
The second half of the third verse takes us back to the book of Genesis and the joy of Leah at the birth of Asher: ‘Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed (Gen 30:13). There may also be an allusion to the Prophet Malachi, through whom the Lord says of a tithe-givingIsrael: ‘And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land’ (Mal.3:12). There was a prophetic correspondence between Israel and her Messiah in Jewish thought. It was as if Messiah was the embodiment of Israel. This is seen, for example, in the way Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which was written originally of Israel but becomes prophetic of Jesus:
Matt 2:15: Out of Egypt have I called my son.
It is not that Mary expects to be venerated, it is rather that future generations will recognise that God has blessed her. When Mary says that the mighty one has done great things for her and that ‘holy is his name’, she recognises the perfection and sinlessness of God and expresses a personal relationship with the Almighty which we too can have. She does this by quoting from a whole handful of Psalms:
Ps. 71:19 Thy righteousness also, O God, is very high, who hast done great things: O God, who is like unto thee!
Ps. 33:21 For our heart shall rejoice in him, because we have trusted in his holy name.
Ps. 105:3 Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD.
Ps. 126:3 The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.
Ps. 111:9 He sent redemption unto his people: he hath commanded his covenant for ever: holy and reverend is his name.
God’s mercy, which rests for ever on those who fear him, is a favourite theme of the Old Testament. God dispels common grace on all as the sun rises and the rain falls, but in every generation the Almighty looks for those who fear him and graces them especially with his mercy and his lovingkindness. The word ‘lovingkindness’ occurs 21 times in the Psalms in the KJV, four times in Jeremiah and once in Hosea, whilst the word ‘mercy’ is in 108 Old Testament verses, 100 of those being in the Psalms with 26 of them in Psalm 136 alone. This theme of the fifth verse of Mary’s song can be traced back into the book of Genesis, is seen in the Ten Commandments, but obviously finds its fullest expression in the Psalms:
Gen. 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.
Ex. 20:6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
Ps. 103:17 But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; 18 To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them.
Ps. 147:11 The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy.
God’s arm represents his strength and power. It can support and uphold or scatter, bring down and drive out. King Jehoshaphat credits God’s hand with ‘power and might so that none is able to withstand thee’ (2Chr 20:6). The strong arm of the Lord is such a prominent Old Testament theme that Mary will have brought to mind any one or several of no end of scriptures:
Ex. 6:6b I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments:
Ps. 98:1 O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.
Ps. 118:15 The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous: the right hand of the LORD doeth valiantly.
Isa. 40:10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
Isa. 52:10 The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Her sixth verse continues by emphasising that the Lord is not impressed with pride and rebellion. The proud do not fear God, they think God does not see, and if he sees, he does not take any action. He is not merely ‘not a God of judgment’ but a God who can’t be bothered. But Mary sees God as knowing the thoughts of our innermost being, of our hearts, and sending the proud and the self-sufficient running for cover. Scripturally she drew on a wealth of material in Job, the Psalms and Proverbs (See also Ps 33:10 & 101:5; Prov 8:13, 14:3, 16:5, 16:18):
Job 5:11 To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety.
Ps. 138:6 Though the LORD be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly: but the proud he knoweth afar off.
Prov 11:2 When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom.
Prov 29:23 A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit.
The next two verses continue the theme in beautiful Hebrew parallelism: ‘put down’ / ‘exalted’, ‘filled the hungry’ / ‘sent empty away’. God stands against those who glory in their earthly might and power to overturn their political position. God would do to Herod what he did to Belshazzar. In the same way as he took humble, obedient Joseph from prison and made him prime minister of Egypt, God would take humble, obedient Jesus from the grave to make him King of kings and Lord of every earthly lord. Mary’s song looks forward, prophesying what is to come. Rejoice ye in that day! Scattering the proud, pulling down the mighty and exalting the humble turn out to be important teachings of the Lord Jesus. In connection with seats, the principle is taken literally:
Luke 14:8 When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; 9 And he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. 10 But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. … 11 For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
The Apostles recall such teachings of the Lord and their foundation in the scriptures quoted by Mary in passages like this:
Gal 6:14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
1 Pet. 5:5 Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. 6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time:
Jas. 4:6 But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.
Mary had seen God’s grace in her own life. She was betrothed to the village carpenter, or builder. Yet this young woman who considered herself of low degree had been exalted to be the mother of the son of the Most High God. When Mary says in the next verse that God has filled the hungry with good things she is again recalling the song of Hannah:
1 Sam. 2:5 They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren hath born seven; and she that hath many children is waxed feeble. 6 The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up. 7 The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich: he bringeth low, and lifteth up. 8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and he hath set the world upon them.
Similar sentiments are expressed in Psalm 113, which concludes:
Ps. 113:9 He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children. Praise ye the LORD.
And of course we know of the Lord’s gracious provision through a host of other scriptures, such as these, all or many of which may have been in Mary’s mind:
Ps. 23:5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Ps. 34:10 The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing.
Ps. 107:9 For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.
Ps. 146:7 Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners: 9 The LORD preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down.
In the second half of Mary’s eighth verse, the rich are sent empty away. Now we know from the fact that Mary and Joseph were only able to offer two young pigeons as a sacrifice (Luke 2:24) that they were not wealthy people in material terms. They would not be in abject poverty, but as an artisan Joseph would earn his money from the labour of his hands and the craft of his workmanship. In the Old Testament wealth gained through godly and honest work was seen as a blessing, yet riches could hurt the owner and being rich toward God was of far greater value:
Pro. 13:7 There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches.
Eccl 5:13 There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt.
So once again Mary has tapped into the Old Testament and made a link with the New. It is not being rich in itself which is wrong, but in putting riches before God. The Lord Jesus was supported financially in his ministry by a group of wealthy women (Luke 8:3), but he constantly warned against the dangers of the worship of wealth. James took up the theme, prophesying against those who had become rich by oppressing the poor:
Luke 12:21 So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
Jas. 1:9 Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: 10 But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
Jas. 5:1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. 3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
In concluding, Mary goes back to the recollection that she was indeed the mother of the Messiah and to his relationship with Israel. The scriptures, as we have seen, are full of the mercy and loving kindness of God and nowhere is this better displayed than in our Lord’s dealings with his chosen people, which Mary brings to mind:
Ps. 98:3 He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
God’s dealings with Israel are often coupled with references to Israel as God’s servant, in passages such as David’s Psalm of Thanksgiving, which is repeated in Psalm 105 and alluded to in Psalm 136 (which also takes us back to exalting those of low degree):
1 Chr. 16:12 Remember his marvellous works that he hath done, his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth; 13 O ye seed of Israel his servant, ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones. 14 He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.
Ps. 136:21 And gave their land for an heritage: for his mercy endureth for ever: 22 Even an heritage unto Israel his servant: for his mercy endureth for ever. 23 Who remembered us in our low estate: for his mercy endureth for ever:
Incredibly, David’s Psalm of Thanksgiving reminds the Israelites of the covenant God made with Abraham, which is exactly where Mary goes in the last verse of her song. She emphasises that God keeps his promises. When he makes a covenant he keeps it and his people should remember that through the generations:
1 Chr. 16:15 Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; 16 Even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac;
God helped his people when they cried to him time and again. But they also had a mission, and that mission was to birth and nurture not just the Jewish Messiah, but the Saviour of the World. God’s covenant with Abraham had an eternal purpose, the redemption of mankind through the sacrifice of Jesus. The concept that Christ is uniquely Abraham’s seed is of course a key point of the understanding given to the apostle Paul about the ministry of Christ:
Rom. 1:3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;
Gal. 3:16 Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
Mary stayed with Elisabeth after her outpouring of praise for three months, probably until John was born. She returned home three months pregnant, and her divine baby would soon show, exposing her to accusation and ostracism. She would bear the disgrace knowing that she being used by God as an instrument of his grace. Let them say what they would, a time would come when it would not just be the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elisabeth who would call her ‘blessed among women’. She would stand by God’s faithfulness, his holiness, his might and his mercy. She would continue to praise him for his special favour to his people and for his redemption of mankind. Above all, she would continue to study the scriptures and meditate in her heart.
Mary stands as an example to us to seek God in his word, see his redemptive purpose in us, take out his good news, make his ways known and give him all the glory and praise for what he has done, continues to do and will do in the days to come.
And may God bless you in the Lord Jesus in all you do in his wonderful name.