Last Thursday evening I taught on Luke 1, specifically Mary’s Magnificat. I really enjoyed studying for this passage and teaching it. The scope of redemptive history is really encapsulated well in this passage, and I hope you enjoy these notes as you read through the verses…
1:39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah,  and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,  and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
The hill country here in is south of where Mary would likely have been. The largest town in that area was Hebron at this time, although we aren’t told where Zachariah and Elizabeth are specifically living.
When Mary arrives the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps and Elizabeth interprets this through the Spirit as a joyous reaction to Mary’s arrival.
Elizabeth goes on to bless Mary with her mouth and her words go right to Mary’s heart. There truly is a blessing for those who believe in what God says, is there not? And I can’t help but think of how reassured Mary must have felt at the words of Elizabeth. How very confirming are these words from the mouth of her elder cousin must have been. Yet, as we shall see shortly, the Spirit of God had been at work within Mary, and her heart responds in such a way that indicates a supernatural work of the Lord within her. When our lips reflect the heart change we’ve had, God is pleased.
What we find in the Magnificat (a title taken from the first word in Latin which simply means “magnifies”) below is one praise after another to the glory of God. His greatness, the scope of His plan, and the intricacies of His mercy are extolled in great relish by one of “humble” and lowly estate.
For these words to have come from a simple teenage girl indicate the greatness of God’s work within Mary, and the fact that His Spirit was filling her. It’s also a testimony to the fact that she knew her Bible really really well (Cf. Ryle and Col. 3:16)! Philip G. Ryken says, “The Magnificat either quotes from or alludes to verses from Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Mary tried to put virtually the whole Bible into her song.”
One of the most popular comparisons of Mary’s song is in the similarities with Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2: And Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my horn is exalted in the LORD. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.  “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.  Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.  The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble bind on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.  The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.  The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.  He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.  “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might shall a man prevail.  The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.” (1 Samuel 2:1-10 ESV)
Mary knew this song and the Bible as a whole very well. The scriptures were on her heart. The Holy Spirit was obviously inspiring her to say these things, but “He works with what’s there” (Cf. conversation with Parris Payden). It wasn’t as if the Spirit was teaching her on the fly or putting these words into her mind that she’d never known before.1:46-47 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
There is a clear exaltation of the Lord here. Who is responsible for all that that is happening to Mary? There’s no doubt in Mary’s mind that it is the Lord! Any fear that she may have had in that initial confrontation with the angel, or in the quiet times of gathering anxiety since then is not apparent here. God has prepared her heart to face this adventure.
Ryken comments on the absence of specifics about the baby she’s carrying, “Mary had the godliness to look beyond her gift and praise the God who gave it. To magnify means to enlarge, and what Mary wanted to enlarge was her vision of God. Her goal was to show His greatness.”1:48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Mary has no delusions about her position. She has not become puffed up, or haughty. We don’t think much about that, but how easily do we become puffed up when God has entrusted us with a ministry. We are entrusted with the Word of God…Mary was entrusted with the Word of God incarnate. Definitely a different mission, but certainly one that didn’t seem to puff her up – she knows her place and her place is to be God’s “servant.”
Secondly, she recognizes (correctly) the historical significance of what she’s doing. She sees where this fits into the span of world history – and it’s a big deal. So get this, in one breath she labels herself a “humble servant” and in another she says, “All generations will call (her) blessed”! One can only conclude therefore that while Mary is a humble servant, God is going to use her to accomplish something worthy of the entire rest of world history looking back on her and praising God. That’s a pretty significant understanding of the role she was playing in God’s plan – especially significant that she can at one time be so humble, and still understand her significance.1:49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
The close connection between God’s holiness and his goodness is key here. Not only that, but God’s mightiness is used in such a way that we benefit from His goodness. If God were all-powerful and yet not good, this would be a scary world! But at the center of all things He is holy. Holiness is not an extension of Him or His character – He is holy by definition because anything that He is or anyway that we classify His characteristics we cannot forget that they are not extensions of His character, they are who He is. This is the doctrine of the simplicity of God. He is “other” He is “pure” He is the brightness and glory and goodness. All of these things find their root definition in the character of God – we know what goodness is because we know who God is, for example.
Now Mary is saying that because God is holy, He has used his might to do “great things” for her.
But Mary isn’t simply wrapped up in her blessings. She isn’t simply singing about herself and her circumstances, but about God and His character.
Ryken rightly looks at this from a practical perspective and says, “Mary did not dwell on her own happy circumstances, but rejoiced in the being and character of God. It is right for us to praise God for what he has done, as Mary did. But sometimes even our worship of God can be somewhat self-centered, as if the really important thing is what God has done for us. We need to look beyond this to see God as he is in himself, and to praise him for being God.”1:50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
God is not a God who is mocked or tricked or bribed into showing mercy. He shows mercy to those who regard Him in a reverent fear – who understand who He is, and who bow before Him in fearful awe. God does not pour out mercy on those who do not recognize His kingship.
There is also a great comfort in this truth. I think Ryken captures it well:
Perhaps you are young and poor like Mary. Perhaps you are struggling with sickness or some other physical limitation. Perhaps you are in a low condition spiritually or emotionally. If this is your situation, do not complain that you deserve something better. Do not grasp after a higher position. Do not rage against your misfortune. But humble yourself to the providence of God and recognize your lowly position before him as a sinner. The Bible gives this promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).1:51-53 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
These three verses almost sound like a proverb, but they are anticipatory of a time when God will judge those who are haughty and proud and reward those whose hearts are soft toward Him.
“The heart is seen as the center of feeling (1 Sam. 16:7; Prov. 4:23) and as the base of reasoning power (1 Chron. 29:19; Job 12:3). This pride is deep-seated and reflects their innermost being. God will judge such pride” says Darrell Bock.
God exalts the humble and lays low the proud (Prov. 29:23), but it is a truth proclaimed not only in the proverbs and throughout the OT, but also by Jesus Himself in the gospels, and by His apostles after that (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6).
Jesus says later that, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12 – also Luke 14:11).
Not only this, but the picture of what Jesus would do is to fill the hungry (especially spiritually – the connection is made evident in 11:13) with “good things.” Later Jesus would feed 5000 men (probably more like 15,000 people total) and shortly thereafter declare that He was “the bread of life” with the exhortation, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6:27).
Lastly, He will not allow any to be exalted in kingship above Him. Any who puff themselves up before Him will be brought low – they will be humbled and kicked off their thrones. A great example of this is when Jesus says to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11).
Norval Geldenhuys summarized the message here this way:
The proud, those who exalt themselves and take no account of God, He puts down – beaten by His mighty arm. The powers that be, oppressors who tyrannize the poor and lowly, are deprived of their power and high standing, while those who are truly humble are exalted to great things. The hungry, those who realize their own need and yearn for spiritual food, are blessed. But the right, those who are self-satisfied and proud, are shamed in the imagination of their hearts.1:54-56 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
For many years the people of Israel had been suffering under the oppression of other nations – and now it was the Romans. Israel here is described as a servant, and we find a close connection between this terminology and that found in Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah (Is. 42 etc.).
The people of Israel therefore longed for a day when God’s promises –specifically to Abraham as mentioned here but also to David – would be fulfilled.
What were those promises? The promises to Abraham were for land, seed, and worldwide blessing. This is seen in Genesis 12, 15, 17 and 22:
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)
And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:4-6)
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.  No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.  And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:4-8)
And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven  and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,  I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies,  and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18)
Mary knows these promises and has read them. Furthermore, she and all Israel know that a Redeemer is coming to save Israel out of all its distress. As Bock says, “Mary’s reference looks for the fulfillment of the nation’s hope in Jesus.” That Redeemer is going to do much more than save Israel from the Romans, however.
He will rescue Israel from sin and death and usher in an everlasting kingdom. He will be the true seed of Abraham, the mighty King of Israel, and will save His people and from every tribe, tongue and nation.
The grounding for Mary’s prophetic annunciation is God’s covenant love and mercy for His people. He will send a Savior and a loving Shepherd who will care for His flock – unlike the faithless under-shepherds (Ez. 34) who have failed the people over and over.
Ironically this Savior will die in order to save His people from death (Is. 53). The great Shepherd will be struck for the sake of the sheep (Ez. 34), and the true Israel of God will be obedient to the Father in order to achieve perfect obedience for His people. This is detailed in Isaiah especially 42:1-9; 49:1-13; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12.
Mary sees the fulfillment of all of these hopes as coming to pass in her child. How can this be? Paul helps us understand what all this has to do with Jesus – and consequently with us…
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.  Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.  This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.  For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.  Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.  Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.  Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:13-29 ESV)
Mary is saying this: we all have been living under the curse of sin and death, but what God began in Abraham with the creation of a new people, He will complete in the work of the Redeemer who in her belly. The child she was about to have would be the coming king (Ps. 132:11-12) and the suffering servant (Is. 53). He would bear the sins of His people and would redeem them from the curse of the law (Gal. 3). After His work is completed, all who call upon the name of Jesus will be saved (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13) not through works of righteousness but by faith alone (Eph. 2:1-9). And for generation to generation the redeemed will look back at the testimony of Mary as both a blessing to her, and a blessing to us, the church.
Mary says that Christ will “help his servant Israel” and fulfill the promise to Abraham of land, seed, and worldwide blessing. “The salvation promises in that (Abrahamic) covenant would be clarified in the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) and would be ratified through the death of the very Child she carried in her womb. For it only through the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ that all the sins of the redeemed – past, present, and future – are atoned for” says John MacArthur. These promises fulfilled in Christ have redeemed you (Acts 20:28), made you a new creation (2 Cor. 5), transferred you into the family of God as adopted sons and daughters (Rom. 8:12-17, Col. 1:13-14; Hebrews 12), and commissioner you as ambassadors for Christ with a message of salvation and blessing for the nations (Is. 66; Matthew 28:18; 2 Cor. 3 &5; Rev. 5:9, 7:9-12).
In short: “…all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20).
3 thoughts on “The Promises to Abraham in Mary’s Magnificat”
Good stuff PJ! By the way, have you ever read J. Gresham Machen’s “The Virgin Birth of Christ”? I waded through this classic one Christmas break. You will appreciate his treatment of this passage as he presents the greatest defense of the virgin birth of Christ in the history of the Church. Here it is on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Virgin-Birth-Christ-Gresham-Machen/dp/1599252651
That’s great. Never read it. Thanks for passing along jack!