“What Did Mary Know?” – Luke 1:46-55
“And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.”
Much has already happened before we arrive at this text. An angel from the Lord has already foretold about the birth of Messiah’s forerunner who will come in the power and spirit of Elijah (1:5-25). The angel Gabriel has already visited Mary and told her that God has shown His grace to her and that she will be the mother of Messiah, David’s seed (1:26-38). And in the very near context, Mary has gone to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of Messiah’s forerunner. Both the unborn forerunner (John the Baptist) and Elizabeth confirm and rejoice that they are in the presence of their Lord who is even now developing in His mother’s womb (1:39-45). The verses before us is Mary’s response to all of this.
This text is so deep and so rich that it would literally take weeks to pull it apart and display all that is here. Nearly every word that Mary speaks is taken from the Old Testament as she weaves a beautiful tapestry of praise. I’ve been studying these verses and chasing the various threads that run from them for days now and am convinced that I have not fully plumbed their depth.
These verses have come to be known as Mary’s Magnificat. That title comes from the Latin translation of the Bible where the first word that Mary utters is “Magnificat.” The Latin translates the Greek Μαγαλύνει and our English Exalts. That word means to lift up or to make something great. It means to esteem through praise and that is exactly what these verses do. This is Mary’s psalm of praise and exaltation of God. This is the outpouring of Mary’s soul as she worships the Lord.
I wish it were enough to say that and move on. I wish that the church actually understood what it means to worship. But sadly I am quite convinced that most Christians use that word and have no idea what it means.
Worship must first engage the brain. To worship God begins with an understanding, believing, and trusting who He is, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. Most churches do whatever they can to disengage the brain from their “worship” by dimming the lights, singing repetitive choruses that lack any real meaning, which basically puts the people into a catatonic state and is usually followed by a 20-30 minute pep talk about nothing of substance. This approach has much more in common with pagan rituals designed to disengage the mind and target emotions than it does with Christianity, but I digress.
To put it very simply, you cannot worship God if you do not know God. You cannot exalt or magnify Him if you have no idea what He has done or what He has promised to do. You cannot obey Him (the fruit of true worship) if you do not know what He has commanded. True worship begins with the head, turns the heart to God, and flows through the hands in obedience. But it always begins with the head. This psalm of Mary reveals what she knew, believed, and trusted about God’s person, works, and promise concerning her son.
Mary knew who and what she was before a holy God (vv. 46-48)
“And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.”
The Roman heresy of Mary’s sinlessness that was cooked up in order to justify their worship of this woman is easily laid to rest with Mary’s own words here. Her soul and spirit, the immaterial and imperishable part of her being, magnifies and rejoices in God my savior. She does not call God a savior or the savior, even though both are true statements. She makes it personal. God is her savior. So much is wrapped up in that simple phrase. If God is a savior, then someone is in need of salvation. There can be no savior unless there is a predicament from which one needs saving.
Mary’s words mimic the prophet Habakkuk when he said, “Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” (Hab. 3:18). Habakkuk’s prophecy is primarily a prophecy of pending judgment upon the kingdom of Judah and the coming destruction that will come at the hand of the Babylonian Empire. Habakkuk’s generation will anticipate God’s wrath for disobedience. Yet his prophecy ends with hope. “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, and makes me walk on my high places.”
The prophet was sent to announce judgment for sin, yet ends his prophecy with hope of salvation; salvation from death, destruction, and judgment that is a result of sin and disobedience. Mary groups herself in with those who are in need of such salvation and uses the words of the prophet to express her own praise to God who has provided just that salvation.
Mary makes no claim at sinlessness. On the contrary, she admits that she is a sinner in need of salvation and is nothing special even when compared to other people. She states the obvious fact that she is humble, lowly, uninteresting, and unimportant. Yet God has regarded her, literally looked upon her, and from this point forward all generations will consider her as blessed.
Again, Mary borrows from Old Testament revelation; this time from Genesis 29:32 and 30:13 as she uses the words of the unloved Leah. Neither Leah nor Mary are saying that people will consider them as something special and worthy of adoration. Both of these women anticipate others recognizing that God has blessed them on account of the children they bear. Mary knew that God is holy and she is not. Mary knew that she was a sinner in need of salvation. And Marry knew that she was carrying her savior.
Mary knew how to approach a holy God (vv. 49-50)
“For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him.”
Mary reveals a view of God that is nothing less than profound. She refers to Him by His attribute of might. The Mighty One is a reference to His power, strength, and ability. But she focuses this ability to personal relationship with Him. He has done great things for me. This statement flows from the previous verses where Mary acknowledged her need and thanksgiving for a savior. God has provided for her a savior! Her exclamation continues with the phrase, and holy is His name!
Mary is not referring to a proper noun in which we can refer to God, but His character, His person, His very identity. He is holy. To be holy is to be separate, segregated, set apart. The sum total of who God is, His name, is so impossibly separate from sin, stain, and reproach. He is holy. But how is this a good thing? What does that mean for sinful humanity? How can we approach a holy God?
And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him
The NASB lets the reader know when a New Testament author is quoting from the Old Testament by printing the quotation in all caps. This verse is almost an exact quote from Psalm 103:17: “But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them.” (Psalm 103:17-18).
The Greek ἔλεος (mercy/kindness/compassion) translates the Hebrew חסד (loyal love). The word lovingkindness was invented by the English reformer William Tyndale as he was struggling to translate the Bible into English. He was trying to bring out the depth of this beautiful word. It conveys a binding, loyal love. It is a love that cannot be broken. God Himself uses this word to describe Himself to Moses, “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth.’” (Exodus 34:6). God is a God of promise and pledge. He will by no means withdraw His loyal love from those whom He has chosen to show it. How does the Bible describe those who receive God’s loyal love?
those who fear Him
To fear the Lord is to know who He is, what He has done, what He has promised to do, and respond appropriately. To fear Him is to submit to His rule, respect and honor His majesty, praise His works and being, and obey His commands. Mary knew what it meant to fear the Lord. She knew how to approach a holy God.
Mary knew who God is and what He has done (vv. 51-53)
“He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed.”
These verses reflect upon the mighty deeds of God. The Bible is full of references that refer to God’s actions through His finger, His hand, and His arm. The pagan magicians of Egypt acknowledged that the plague of gnats was the work of only God’s finger (Ex. 8:19). How much more so the deeds of His arm?
Time and space would never permit to list the kings that God has scattered and toppled. We think of Pharaoh, the host of Canaanite kings, even the great Nebuchadnezzar as those who were brought low by the arm of the Living God. Any and every man who boasts in his own might has been brought low before the throne of God. And yet the humble, those know they are but dust, have always been filled with good things.
Once again we’re clued in to an Old Testament quotation. This line comes from Psalm 107:9. Psalm 107 praises the God who provides for His people. This is the very nature of our faith. We are completely incapable of providing for ourselves. The one who is humble is one who understands and recognizes that fact. The humble man seeks for and anticipates God’s providence. The humble will never be disappointed as God has filled them with good things. On the other hand, those who are rich, those who do not recognize their need for God and are (in their minds) fully capable will be sent away empty-handed.
Mary knew what God has done. God is a God who has laid low those who exalt themselves. God is a God who has shown grace to the humble. Mary’s praise is informed by what God has done and emphasized as she anticipates what God will do.
Mary knew her child is Israel’s redeemer (vv. 54-55)
“He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.”
In these final two verses, Mary reveals the fullest extent of what she truly knows. Israel has been anticipating and waiting for a helper ever since the fall in Genesis 3. God promised that the seed of woman would crush the head of Satan and reverse the curse of sin and death (Gen.3:15). This saving seed would come from the line of Abraham and as he reverses the curse would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3). This sovereign seed would rule as king over Israel on David’s throne as David’s heir (2 Sam. 7:8-16). This righteous seed would teach justice and righteousness to the people and be the conduit for untold blessings (Psalm 72). And this redeeming seed would take the sin of his people upon himself and die in their place (Isaiah 53).
So many people drive a wedge between the physical and spiritual redemption of Israel so as to make the first devoid of any significance. But to do that denies the reality of God’s promised spiritual redemption because they are one and the same. The word mercy in v. 54 reflects the same lovingkindness/loyal love that Mary pointed to in v. 50. This is the same loyal love that God declared about Himself to Moses and promised to David that He would never withdraw. To suggest that God no longer has a plan to redeem the nation of Israel is to call God a liar. But it also means that Mary really doesn’t know what she thinks she knows.
Mary connects God’s promise to Abraham, His promise to David, and His promise to Israel because she knows that the promised seed is in fact the holy seed within her womb. Mary knows that her son will atone for the sins of His people with His own blood. Mary knows that He will reign over Israel on the throne of His father David. Mary knows that He is Israel’s help and that through Him all the families of the earth will be blessed.
What did Mary know? Mary knew the gospel, and that knowledge propelled her to worship her God.
The reader is probably aware of the Christmas song Mary Did You Know? This song has been around for a few decades and has become quite popular in Christian circles. The lyrics reflect upon the various deeds of Jesus Christ from the gospel accounts and then form them into questions directed at Mary.
Did Mary know that Jesus would walk on water or that he would restore a blind man?
If you’re asking whether or not Mary was omniscient and knew every detail of her son’s earthly ministry beforehand, then the answer is of course no. Mary was a normal and sinful human being that was shown grace by a merciful God.
But if you’re asking whether or not Mary knew that her son was indeed God incarnate and that He would redeem God’s creation to be once again very good through His substitutionary and atoning death and that He would rule and reign as king, then the answer is a resounding YES!
The question before the reader is not so much “What did Mary know?” as it is “What do you know?”
Do you know that Mary’s son, Jesus, is indeed God incarnate?
Do you know that He is the promised seed of Abraham and seed of David who came to bless the families of the earth?
Do you know that He came to die in the place of sinners, just like you?
Do you know that, as a sinner, you are in rebellion against Him?
Do you know that He is King and that you owe Him your allegiance?
Do you know that you will face His wrath unless you confess your rebellion, proclaim Him as King, and submit to His rule?
Do you know that there is untold blessing for those who fear Him?
If you did not know that, then you do now.
If you know this, believe this, and trust in this message, then let it propel you, as it did Mary, to worship Him.