Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:46-56 The Magnificat

Luke 1:46-56. “And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.’ Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.”

On hearing from the angel Gabriel that she a virgin had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and that she was to give birth to the Son of God Mary immediately went off to spend time with her godly relative Elizabeth who in her advanced years was also expecting a child. The younger woman was barely more than fifteen years of age, the older woman could have been in her fifties. Mary was to remain there in her home for the next three months (v.46). Gabriel had already said that Elizabeth was in her sixth month (v.36) and so we are being informed that Mary stayed with Elizabeth caring and working for the older woman until the baby was born. Then, having no experience of childbirth, and the village midwife more proficient than herself in assisting Elizabeth, Mary withdrew from that home walking back through Samaria and across the plain of Esdraelon to Nazareth in the hills of Galilee. There she did not go to Joseph’s home but to her own home. By this time her pregnancy would have been noticeable to all, but after these months away in Judea she was prepared for what lay ahead strengthened by the godly support she had had from Elizabeth. Joseph had also been prepared for her coming back to the village evidently pregnant, Gabriel having appeared to him in a dream, telling him, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:20&21). So, soon Mary and Joseph were married.

But I have run on ahead to the next months to put you in this time frame. We now have to turn and consider our text, Mary’s own prayer, which she uttered in response to the words Elizabeth had spoken to her. It is called the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin Vulgate translation of these verses of Luke’s gospel, Magnificat, anima, mea Dominum.” “My soul magnifies the Lord.” We too refer to hymns by their opening words. We say, “Let’s sing, ‘And can it be.’” While the medieval church choir leader said to his boys, “Let’s sing Magnificat.”

1. THE PRAYER OF MARY IS FULL OF SCRIPTURE.

These ten verses are full of the Bible – what we refer to as Old Testament Scripture, but which Mary and Joseph and the children later given to them by God, and all the disciples of the Lord Jesus in the first decades of the Christian church simply acknowledged as the Scriptures. These are virtually the only words of Mary recorded in the Bible. In the next chapter of this gospel she says, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you” (Lk. 2:48), and in John chapter two and verse three Mary says to Jesus, “They have no more wine.” That is all that the gospel writers record of the words of Mary outside of these ten verses. So they are crucial for their insight into the character of this great and godly woman.

When we have read them we feel like saying that Mary is also pregnant with Scripture. In her praise to God she alludes to verses in Psalm 103, and to Psalm 22, and to Psalm 44, and to Psalm 89, and to Psalm 98, and to Psalm 147, and to Psalm 25. She is also echoing Job 12, and 2 Samuel 22, and Genesis 12, and Genesis 17, and Micah 7. Mary is also emboldened to pray as she does from what she has learned from those other hymns of praise sung at times of God’s gracious and glorious intervention in the lives of his people. I am thinking of those words of Moses in Exodus 15, and Miriam in Exodus 15, and Deborah in Judges 5, and Asaph in I Chronicles 16, and especially Hannah’s prayer. There are a number of references to the words of Hannah in those opening ten verses of I Samuel 2. William Hendriksen in his commentary parallels five such references with Mary’s words from Luke 1 in one column and Hannah’s words in the next. For example, Hannah said, “There is none holy like the Lord,” and Mary says, “Holy is his name.” Hannah said, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger” and Mary says, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” We read these words and we say, “Mary knew her Bible didn’t she?” She knew many passages by heart and the whole narrative of redemptive history, of how the God of Israel had put down Pharaoh, and the Canaanites, and the Philistines, and Sennacherib, and Haman, and Belshazzar. Mary knew that he had exalted Joseph, and Moses, and Samuel, and David, and Esther, and Daniel. He had never allowed his chosen people to be utterly destroyed.

We know next to nothing about Mary until we read these words and they simply reduce us to silence; they are awesome. Here is a young woman who knows the Word of God exhaustively. The hymn writer Francis Ridley Havergal had memorized most of the New Testament, the Psalms and the prophecy of Isaiah. Almighty God might have chosen an economically poor girl to bear his Son, but he didn’t choose a dunce. He chose the woman he had prepared with the best genetic inheritance of strength and intelligence to pass on to her son through the umbilical cord. Through this woman’s veins ran the royal blood of David, and wherever you pricked her her blood ran bibline. She was wise, and she loved and feared God. Obviously the teachers who had influenced her were not afflicted with memorization phobia, and when her life was changed by the coming of the messenger of God she had both the words and the spirit from God in which to respond to the mighty blessing he had bestowed on her. She had words of joy and thankfulness to the Lord for using her as the powerful, unique instrument in bringing the promised Seed of the woman into the world. She could pray, and she could thank God because she had been taught by the word of God. She had charged her memory to retain Scripture, and when out of the abundance of her heart her mouth spoke her tongue was filled with the language and spirit of Scripture. We say that the Lord uses people in whose lives the Word of God dwells richly with all wisdom. The battle for the Bible today is between those who know and use Scripture and those who don’t.

Dr. Ligon Duncan says, “Those in whom God’s grace resides do love the word of God’s grace. They think about the word of God’s grace. They read and hear the word of God’s grace. They like to hear it read. They like to read it themselves. They delight in hearing it proclaimed and preached and explained. They study it, and they love to memorize it. And you see this in Mary. Love for the word of God is one of the great evidences of a work of grace in the heart. The Bible, you see, should be our book of books. Whatever book we love; whatever books we love, whatever books we study, the Bible should be our book of books. What an impact that would make on our prayers and our lives. Think at those traumatic times, or those joyful times of life, if your mind has been stored with a ready knowledge of Scripture you’d have all the words that you’d ever need to render prayers and intercessions and petitions and thanksgivings and adorations to God. You know what the key to prayer is? It’s praying Scripture, and if the key to prayer is praying Scripture, in which you give back to God the promises that he has made to you, and you call on him to answer the promises that he’s already made, then the key to prayer is knowing Scripture.”

The liberal commentators have concluded amongst themselves that it was impossible for Mary to have written the Magnificat. I read one sentence on page 340 in Raymond E. Brown’s 750 page volume entitled The Birth of the Messiah, which is a standard treatment of the birth narratives used in many seminaries of the modernist dominated denominations. The book certainly indicates Brown’s very great reading and knowledge. Dr. Brown has been called by Time magazine the “premier Catholic Scripture scholar in the United States,” highly respected and honoured by scores of institutions with honorary degrees and awards. Yet this Roman Catholic says on the above page, “Virtually no serious scholar would argue today that the Magnificat was composed by Mary.” Incredible. If someone like me queries that asking, “Why not?” he would say, aghast, “You cannot be serious.” To that academic coterie it is self-evidently impossible. Brown could never have been to one of thousands of prayer meetings held in Bible centred and Bible believing churches all over the world week after week, where quite poor men whose minds have been marinated in the Word of God, in their utterly impromptu and very moving public prayers, weave in scores of references to Scripture, and they are people without the special education and abilities that Mary had been given. In other words, they pray as scripturally as they do without the direct inspirational inflatus of God the Holy Ghost which Mary was given on this occasion. I, as a Protestant, have a higher view of Mary than the Roman Raymond E. Brown. Neither he nor his self-consciously ‘serious’ fellow scholars know a mother of Jesus who was capable of saying such things as these.

Of course the same men say the same thing about the letters of Peter. “A fisherman from Galilee writing such letters with such profundity of thought, and elegant Greek, and deep theology? Impossible!” How little they know of the impact of true conversion and what a regenerated mind is capable of. The most recent book on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit in the task of interpreting Scripture was written by John Owen three hundred years ago. He was the last truly great Bible scholar to have been raised up in the British Isles, and that indicates the feebleness of Christianity in Britain for many centuries. John Owen says these words, “For a man solemnly to undertake the interpretation of an portion of Scripture without invocation of God, to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation of God; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from any one who thus proudly engages in a work so much above his ability”

What a psalm of praise is here. Again we seem to be back in the Old Testament in this opening chapter of the gospel. We have in poetic form and parallel structures phrases and themes that all cry aloud, “The book of Psalms!” The words are full of joyfulness, liveliness and anticipation. Mary is responding to what God has done for her and his people as he has broken into their lives again and again. You see the refrain from verse 51 onwards, “He has . . . he has . . . he has . . .” on no less six occasions. This psalm is looking back to the mighty acts of God. The tense is aorist, making a record of divine accomplishments. There is theological reflection, and it is all so accessible and memorable. More than that, it is the fruit of believing meditation. We know that she did meditate because we are told in chapter two and verse nineteen, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

This Magnificat, I say, is the only long statement Mary makes in the entire New Testament, and it opens a window into her very soul, and shows us the nature of this woman whom God had been preparing to carry in her womb, his only begotten Son Jesus of Nazareth, and whom God had now entrusted with the care and nurture of the Christ. Yet the modernists would take this prayer from her – even though Luke says that this is what Mary prayed, as they dare to take the virgin birth from her – and all they are left with which they grudgingly consent to be authentically Mary’s are those two comments of hers in the gospels reproving her mislaid son and telling him there was no wine. That is all. They diminish Mary, Catholics and Protestants alike, but I would magnify her as she magnifies my God.

2. MARY GLORIFIES GOD FOR WHAT HE HAS DONE FOR HER PERSONALLY.

She says ‘me’ and ‘my’ at the opening of her worship – you observe that in the first three verses – but not again. I think it encourages us to believe that there are times when we may begin our praying by thinking of God’s dealings with ourselves and our own needs. In other words, you don’t have to start every prayer with adoration, “Our Father which art in heaven” though generally the hallowing of the name of God is the place to begin, especially in the main prayer in congregational worship. However there are times when you cry out to God for the help you need at that moment, or you sing of the personal mercies of the Lord. Bless God that you have a personal relationship with a God you know. Many who go through the rites of worship don’t know God. But you can sing from your heart “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” That is where Mary begins, with the wonder she feels at what God’s distinguishing grace has done for her: “the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name” (v.49). No one else ever had or ever will have the privilege Mary was granted in conceiving in her womb and nourishing at her breast the Son of God according to the flesh. How he loved her, and we love her too. Even on the cross this holy Child of hers, the Lord Jesus, was still loving her and concerned about her future.

So Mary begins her prayer moved by the grace she had received from the Creator of the worlds. It was this living God who had selected her; God gave this honour to her. It was not that she had been agonizing all her life day after day, night after night, pleading to become that favoured one who would bear the Seed of the woman. It was all sheer, sovereign, discriminating, life-creating grace that fell upon her. So she was chosen to be the Messiah-bearer. For centuries the people of God had been waiting for this day. In every generation people had been speculating that it might be in their day that he would come and crush the head of the serpent, but now at last the set time had come, and to Mary he’s come! The central purpose of her life and existence has now been told her. What significance and status she’s been given in the purposes of God. What do these opening words tell us of her response? The great characteristic of Mary is her meekness. Two things:

i] What humility she displays in her chief purpose in life and that is to make the Lord great in the eyes of the watching world; an old divine once said, “A man has just as much Christianity as he has humility.” So Mary begins, “I shall magnify the Lord.” The living God is ignored and dishonoured by most people. They blaspheme his holy name with their fearful execrations. What a little god they have shrunk him to; a god who shrugs at their sins; a god who is helpless in the face of the tyrannies of men; a god who twists his hands in helplessness as he looks down on the world. Mere children take his name at will and swear with importunity; “O my God” they cry. Mary stands against all of that. “My soul magnifies the Lord. My whole life will consist of showing men just how great the Lord is.” She will magnify him. He is the one who left his Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite his grace. Think of it! He was made in human likeness; he was found in appearance as a man; he humbled himself and it was all in order to save us. Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man. “I will show to the whole world by my entire life how great he is. My soul will magnify and rejoice in the Lord.”

ii] Then you see what humility she displays in her own acknowledgement of a Saviour. God is truly her Deliverer. Mary stood in need of a Saviour; she is self-conscious of this because she is so godly a woman, and the more godlike anyone becomes the more conscious you become of your sins, “but thank God I have a Saviour in whom my spirit rejoices,” she says. Mary needs a Saviour in the same way that you and I need a Saviour. There’s no hint in this prayer of Mary being any different from any of the other inspired writers of Scripture, the psalmists and prophets and apostles. You cannot go from this prayer and arrive at Mary’s alleged immaculate conception which preserved her from sin. There’s nothing here about a perpetual sinless existence; there was never a day when she didn’t at the end have to say, “and forgive me for the sins of this day.” There’s no trace of her perpetual virginity after marrying Joseph; there’s nothing about a bodily assumption into heaven in the whole New Testament. There’s nothing here that would endorse a role for Mary as the co-redemptress. There is no reason for any generation of Christians to call her blessed for any of those fancies, because those qualities did not exist. No, she sees herself as a sinner. She considers herself to be following in the line of Adam and Eve, of having within herself fallen humanity, the need for a Deliverer, that need for a Saviour, for One to come and wash her sins away and cleanse her of her guilt and restore her into fellowship and communion with God, so that she might sing the song of the redeemed with the assurance that she is a child of God. What she is first most aware of as she bursts into inspired praise is that God has provided for her a Saviour.

Mary is singing the equivalent of “Nothing in my hands I bring.” She’s singing the equivalent of “A debtor to mercy alone.” Her song is one of gratitude. She knows the gospel dynamics: grace is followed by gratitude. We come under the power of the gospel, we receive forgiveness and we give thanks for it to God. As we worship together that’s the chief thing on our hearts and on our minds, isn’t it? God has been gracious to us. He has redeemed us through the blood of his Son. God has quickened and regenerated us. He’s brought us into union and communion with Jesus Christ. Some of you were set by him in godly homes, while others he snatched like brands from the burning. Then he brought us all together into the household of faith, whereby we are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and part of the family of God. We have been made heirs of God, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, and our hearts burst out in song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (v.46). We need the Holy Spirit to come to us often to grant us high assurance of our privileges, joy unspeakable and full of glory, reminding us of God’s mighty works of creation, providence and redemption. There was of course utter uniqueness about what God did for Mary, but the first lesson that comes from it is that we always respond with humility to the mercies grace has shown to us.

3. MARY GLORIFIES GOD FOR WHAT HE HAS DONE FOR OTHERS.

“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (vv.50-53). God is characterized by holy mercy, not by promiscuous mercy so that whatever men do, however wickedly they live, they can mutter a few formulaic words at the end of their life and then that all will be well between them and God; “And if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.” You notice Mary’s prayer, how she progresses and says of her magnificent God, “Holy is his name” (v.49). God is light, and in him is no darkness at all, and then she moves on another step, “His mercy extends . . .” to whom? I must know. Who are those who receive mercy from God? Hear me! “Those who fear him” (v.50). Those alone. There was a mercenary tax gatherer – a quisling – convicted of his wretched life, who went to the temple to pray, overwhelmed with the majesty of God and his own rottenness. He beat his breast looking at the ground beneath his feet, mumbling these words, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” Mercy was the longing of his heart for he feared God; he left that place justified so Jesus Christ himself said. He feared God, whereas a religious Pharisees just prayed with himself. He possessed no fear of God at all. Mercy abounds from heaven, but it is to those who humbly cry to God to forgive them, and such mercy never ends; streams of mercy never ceasing call for sounds of loudest praise. For his mercies aye endure, ever faithful ever sure. That mercy flows from the throne of God from one generation to another, to Enoch, to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Joseph and Moses and Joshua and so on. Mary says, “from generation to generation” (v.50); all those who fear him receive mercy, and so why not you? Are you worse than men of earlier generations worse than David, or Jacob, or the chief of sinners? No. Yet they mercy sought and mercy found as they humbly cast themselves on the Lord’s grace. You are not too sinful or to weak for a Christian future because that future doesn’t all hang on what you can do to change your ways and live the Christian life. By our wits and our sweat alone we won’t live as we should, but by the grace of God we can. See what Mary says of her Saviour, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” Think of the change in the captain of a slave-trading ship, John Newton. He became a mighty preacher and fought to end the slave trade. What can explain such a change? God performed a redemptive work with his holy arm in the old sinner. Then why not for you too?

Mary’s song is full of vivid pictures of the sovereignty of God in action, or as she says it, what God has done he has accomplished with his arm stretched out touching this person and that one. Notice those five verbs, all in the aorist tense, and God is the subject of them all; “he has scattered those who are proud;” the hegemony of the atheistic kings of the earth gathering together against the Lord and his anointed has been shattered. They are at one another’s throats. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones;” from Belshazzar to Hitler they have all been overthrown. “He has lifted up the humble;” from Joseph in Egypt to Mary in Nazareth they have been exalted and used by God. “He has filled the hungry with good things;” his people in the wilderness, Elijah by the brook, and his Son the wilderness for 40 days are all kept by him, and “He has sent the rich away empty.” Felix is empty on his throne, but Paul in the dungeon below is full. Mary knows her God, and she has learned how God has dealt with people generation after generation. It helps her in knowing what to expect from this same living God in her day. Mary could have become one of those isolationists, religious people who go off to the wilderness and live in a cave by a stream, or occupy the stony cloisters under perpetual vows of silence. No! Mary is not like that. As soon as Gabriel leaves her she goes off to see other people, her relative Elizabeth, and she stays with her for three months. Then she goes back home, and soon is married to Joseph. She is not a nun. There is no hint of some distant, austere, uncommunicative, mysterious personality. She is a Christian girl soon to be married given an extraordinary blessing from God in the gift of God’s holy child Jesus, and knowing God has given her confidence and grace to deal with herself and with others. Her God lifts up the humble, and so she is so conscious that she is also being lifted up day by day. So Mary reads Scripture, and memorizes it, and understands it, and takes it as her own story. It informs her as to how God will be dealing with her. We all learn from the Bible the ways in which God deals with the proud and also with the meek, and so we have a divinely provided structure in which to set his providential dealings with us.

4. MARY GLORIFIES GOD FOR WHAT HE HAS DONE FOR ABRAHAM AND ALL HIS SEED.

Mary concludes, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers” (vv.54&55). You remember that Mary is a Jew, and so is the baby whom she is bearing. They are of the line of Abraham, and that helps us understand the note on which she concludes her prayer. What is she talking about in these final words? She’s referring to the covenant God made with Abraham. She’s thinking about the promises that God made to the patriarch who lived as long before her and she lived before us. She has faith to believe that those old, old promises are now being fulfilled in herself, in her own womb, in bringing her son into the world. Mary is linking the promised birth of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Saviour, to God’s covenant promise to Abraham. She’s saying, “Lord, You are on the process of fulfilling what you promised to Abraham in Genesis 12, and 15, and 17, that through one of his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed. You are doing this here and now, and for whatever extraordinary reason you have chosen to fulfill that promise through me.”

We are back where we started in the knowledge of the Bible that this young girl possessed, and her grasp of its redemptive historical meaning, and how she applied it to her own providence. She knew her covenant theology, that God had a single plan that he had drawn up in eternity, working it out for the redemption of his people ever since Genesis 3:15. She knew the words of promise and the favour that God had shown to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and to Moses and to David and to Jeremiah and the prophets. So when the time came, and the angel said, “God is doing this through you,” she immediately linked the purposes of God revealed to herself by the angel to the ancient purposes of God which had been promised in covenant with Abraham. What extraordinary faith; here are two people, one being Abraham who is the father of all who believe, and there alongside him as a heroine of redemptive history she stands, wee Mary of Nazareth, the mother of our Lord. The link is the promise God made to Abraham now being fulfilled in the child Mary is carrying. To us Christians living two thousand years later it seems natural; “Of course,” we say, but to the first generation of Jews this was the stone of stumbling and rock of offence, that Jesus of Nazareth dared to say, “Before Abraham was, I am,” and that his mother claimed to be the mother of Jehovah Jesus.

So one application of this to ourselves is to lay hold of Bible promises, to grow in our grasp of and faith in God’s covenant words. We walk through life, facing whatever comes to us by faith, but faith leans on the promises, and those promises can bear all the weight that we place on them. We may lean on them confidently. The whole focus we have seen of this song of praise is upon our covenant God and his faithfulness in fulfilling the promises that he has made to his people. These words are beautiful. They are elegant. The prose is exalted, it’s poetic language. It’s easy to see how this can be made into songs that have been sung for ages, and some may attach to this song the sentiment of bygone Prayer-book services they attended in the parish church. J.C.Ryle says, “Wherever the Church of England Prayer-book is used, this hymn forms part of the Evening Service.” I want you to understand that there is no place for nostalgia as we read these words. Mary is not speaking poetically here. The power of what Mary says in this Magnificat stems from the fact that all of it is true. This is true history. Her God scatters the proud still today. Her God brings down rulers from the throne yet. He lives who sends the rich away empty. Mary’s Lord is the God of mighty words and deeds of God, and that same Jehovah is now working in and through her. Luke was not sending a pretty story to Theophilus. This gospel with its thousands of details was not written to wile away a few hours of a winter evening. Mary’s trust was in the Lord she knew, and Luke also and they both lived by this faith.

I chuckled at the title Dr. Derek Thomas gave to Mary. He gave her this name from a story of Warfield’s, a ‘Shorter Catechism girl’, because in answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” she would most surely say “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Glory and joy; joy and glory . . . and as you reflect on this Magnificat you see both of those things. You see her glorying in God, and her heart filled with the joy of the gospel that brings to sinners the most exalted blessings imaginable: that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. She saw in her Old Testament a principle that ran all the way through to where she was at that moment, pregnant in Nazareth bearing the promised Blessing to the nations: “The New in the Old concealed; the Old in the New revealed,” as Augustine would say, and she prays this very moving prayer. What is it that made Mary sing? It was the gospel! It’s grace! It’s the all-surpassing mercy of a covenant God to needy sinners.

However beautiful this song is to you, it won’t make any difference to you unless you believe what Mary is saying. Mary is saying that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Saviour of the world appointed by God, promised in his covenant with Abraham that of the seed of Abraham one would come by whom people in all the nations of the earth would be blessed, that the Lord shows his mercy to them that fear him. To believe on him is to have eternal fellowship with him. Do you believe that? Mary believed the word of the angel, and the word of Scriptures. So when she sang this song, she was singing her faith in God’s word. She accepted the child she had been given as God’s son for whose nurture she would answer to her heavenly Father and his Father, to her God and his God, and she trusted the Ancient of Days for that.

22nd July 2005 GEOFF THOMAS