Meditation on the Magnificat

Sunday Evening Message

When the angel Gabriel (1:26) told the young virgin Mary that she was going to have a child who would be the Son of God and reign over the house of Jacob forever (1:32f.), she said, "How can this be?" He answered her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child's conception would be divine. And then he gave Mary the added confirmation that nothing is impossible with God by telling her that her kinswoman Elizabeth who was old and barren was also pregnant. So according to Luke 1:39 and following:

Mary rose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe (that's little John the Baptist) 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 voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe 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 angel had told Zechariah in Luke 1:15 that John the Baptist would be filled with the Spirit even from his mother's womb. That is, the Spirit of God would exercise a unique control on this man from the time he is in his mother's womb until he completes his ministry as a grown man. Then Luke gives evidence of this: Mary approaches, carrying the Son of God in her womb, and little John gives Elizabeth a good kick in the diaphragm. Then Luke says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and cries out: "Mary, my child is leaping for joy. The Holy Spirit has helped him before he can even speak to bear witness to the Lord in your womb."

Mary's Godliness Shown

That's all the confirmation Mary needs. She sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God: He is about to change the course of all human history; the most important three decades in all of time are about to begin. And where is God? Occupying himself with two obscure, humble women—one old and barren, one young and virginal. And Mary is so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song—a song that has come to be known as the Magnificat.

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. 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 has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the empty with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.

Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke's account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth says (1:43): "And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me?" And Mary says (1:48): "The Lord has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are people like Elizabeth and Mary—people who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.

I think we should notice one other way that Mary's godliness shows itself. Do you remember the story of Samuel and his mother Hannah? Hannah had no children and was abused by other women because of it, and she prayed earnestly that the Lord would give her a son. And he did. Well in 1 Samuel 2 Hannah sings a song of praise which is very similar to Mary's song:

Hannah also prayed and said, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in thy salvation. There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee; 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 gird 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 life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also 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 power of his anointed."

Did you hear the parallel expressions and ideas? For example:

Hannah (1 Samuel 2)

Mary (Luke 1)

v. 1
My heart exalts in the Lord; I rejoice in thy salvation.

v. 46f.
My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

v. 2
There is none holy like the Lord.

v. 49
Holy is his name.

v. 4
The bows of the mighty are broken but the feeble gird on strength.

v. 52
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.

v. 5
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger.

v. 53
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

The parallels are not word for word; neither Mary nor Luke is quoting the Old Testament. Instead it seems to me that Mary is so steeped in Scripture that when she breaks out in praise, the words that come naturally to her lips are the words of Scripture. Being a young woman, she probably loved the stories of the Old Testament women of faith like Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, and Abigail. What an admonition to us all, both women and men (young and old—Mary probably was not over 15): to steep our minds and hearts in the Scriptures day and night so that the words and thoughts of Scripture fill our mouths as naturally as they did Mary's.

Let's look briefly at what she says in her praise to God. I see three distinct sections in the Magnificat. First, there is Mary's expression of what she feels in her heart (verses 46 and 47), namely, joy. Second, she mentions what God has done specifically for her as an individual (verses 48 and 49): regarded her lowliness, did great things for her, and thus gave her an enduring reputation for blessedness. Third, she spends most of the time describing the way God is in general. This general character of God accounts for why he has treated her the way he has in her lowliness and thus leads her to rejoice and magnify the Lord. We'll look at these three sections in reverse order.

The Holy God Helps the Lowly

In the second half of verse 49 Mary makes the general statement that God's name is holy. That is, God's nature, his essence is holiness. He is completely free from sin, and his ways are not our ways. He is separate from and exalted above the creature. All his attributes are perfect, and they all cohere in a perfect harmony called holiness. But what Mary stresses is the way this holiness expresses itself. And her words are a warning to Theophilus and to us not to make the common mistake that because God is great, he is partial to great men, or because God is exalted, he favors what is exalted among men. Just the opposite is the case. God's holiness has expressed itself and will express itself by exalting the lowly and abasing the haughty.

What fills Mary's heart with joy is that God loves to undertake for the underdog who calls on his mercy. She mentions this three times: verse 50, "He has mercy on those who fear him"; verse 52, "He has exalted those of low degree"; verse 53, "He has filled the hungry with good things." That's one side of God's holiness. The other side is that God opposes and abases the haughty. Mary mentions this three times also: verse 51, "He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts"; verse 52, "He has put down the mighty from their thrones"; verse 53, "The rich he has sent away empty."

It is clear from Mary's words (and from the whole Bible) that God is not partial to the rich, the powerful, or the proud. How could God be partial to the things which in our world are, more often than not, substitutes for God rather than pointers to God? Vast numbers of people have perished because they were enamored by pride, power, and wealth. And probably Theophilus, as a ranking Roman official, has all three. So Mary's Magnificat is not just recorded out of pure antiquarian interest. There is a word of warning and of salvation here. Theophilus, look at what God is really like. He is not the least impressed by any of your pride, power, or opulence. He has mercy on those who fear him, who humble themselves and turn from the ego boosting accumulation of wealth to the lowliness of self-denial for the sake of others. This is the way God is, Theophilus. This is how his holiness expresses itself. Does this not commend itself as true, that the great and holy God should magnify his greatness by blessing the lowly who admire his greatness and by abasing the haughty who resent his greatness?

The Holy God Blesses Mary

That's the third section of the Magnificat. Now we move back to the second section, verses 48–49a. Here Mary simply sees in her own experience an example of the way God is. He condescends to Mary's lowliness and does a great thing for her: he makes her the mother of God! It is such a singular and unimaginable blessing that all generations from that time on have acknowledged Mary's blessedness. Once Mary learned from the song of Hannah and all the Old Testament that God abases the proud but blesses the lowly who look to him for mercy, but now she has found it to be true in her own experience. Probably it is because she had learned it so well from Scripture that she was ready and able to experience it herself.

This is probably the place for a warning against an undue exaltation of Mary as morally unique. She is unique. No one else bore the Son of God. But the Roman Catholic doctrines of her sinless life, her perpetual virginity, her bodily assumption into heaven have no warrant in the New Testament. In fact, there is an implicit warning against excessive veneration of Mary in Luke 11:27–28. Luke tells us that once after Jesus had spoken "a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, 'Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!' But he said, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.'" At another time (recorded in Luke 8:19–21), "His mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, 'Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.' But he said to them, 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."' Jesus was fairly blunt in both of these instances, and there surely is no indication that Mary should be venerated in a moral class by herself.

Mary's Heart Magnifies the Holy God

But let's not let the excesses of the Catholic tradition keep us from sharing the admiration for Mary that Luke obviously had. Her spiritual beauty reaches its emotional peak in the first part of her song where she responds from the heart to all God did for her, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

How does a soul magnify God? A mouth magnifies God by saying, "God is magnificent," by speaking his praises. But no one hears a soul. No one but you and God. But I doubt that Mary means she is verbalizing a silent prayer. I think she means that at this moment her soul feels the greatness and holiness and mercy of God. And the feeling is primarily one of joy. "My spirit rejoices in God!" Two weeks ago I preached on Psalm 69:30, "I will magnify God with thanksgiving." Now we learn the truth that we also magnify God by rejoicing in him. And just like I did then, I want to close now with this point: it is good news to learn that we magnify God by rejoicing in him. It's good news because we are commanded to glorify or magnify God (1 Corinthians 10:33; Romans 1:20f.), and this command could be a terrible burden if we weren't told that the only way to fulfill it is to relax and be happy in the mercy of God. That is what magnifies God most.

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