Notes on the Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55
By Pastor Len Pine
Very probably Mary pondered on the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11; 2:1-10) as she traveled along the road to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. Certainly, there are similarities in the songs. But Mary’s song has a different ring – not so much a shout of triumph over her enemies as an exultation in the power and faithfulness of God. The word magnify comes from the Greek to make large or great, to praise. The marvelous truth that God is not merely a distant god who makes promises but doesn’t keep them (like pagan gods), but is preeminently the Redeemer and Savior of his people (including herself) is just too marvelous to keep in. Realizing that she is to bear the Messiah, Mary is so moved by the declarations of God, the Lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song. She is young, probably about fifteen years old. While it may seem to be a rather deep expression of faith for a teenager (as we tend to judge by the abilities of many young people that we see today), we may be confident that these words were Mary’s and no one else’s for the following reasons:
1. Luke carefully researched his gospel from the original sources – the eyewitnesses themselves, of whom Mary was one. It is not remarkable at all that anyone of that day should remember words spoken in years past (especially in such a vivid circumstance). The art of memory was far more developed then than now. It is beyond our imagination, actually.
2. The event was not a secret. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was there and it is likely that Mary shared the account of the all that occurred surrounding the nativity with others in the church as time went on. Mary was a prominent member of the church in Jerusalem, and all would know her history.
3. It is significant to note that Mary’s song contains quotes or allusions to passages from 1 Samuel, the Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, and Malachi. In others words, she knew her Bible from “cover to cover.” Most are from the Psalms. John MacArthur comments on this fact as follows: “Aside from the pure profundity of Mary’s praise, the most outstanding thing about the Magnificat is that it is filled with echoes of Scripture. It reveals that Mary’s heart and mind were saturated with the Word of God. Her familiarity with the Old Testament is immediately apparent. … Mary had heard, read, memorized, and meditated on sacred Scripture, and when her heart poured forth praise, that praise was in the language of Scripture. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34) – so this tells us much about Mary’s heart. It is evident that Mary had long known the God of Israel in a deeply personal way; she knew His Word well; she studied and laid hold of the promises; and those promises filled her thoughts and her heart.”
The song may be divided into three sections. The first, in verses 46-50, concerns what God had done for Mary, and her response to Him. The lowliness of her condition is the backdrop of the incredible mercy and faithfulness of God. The joy in her heart in her condition was obvious to others, and would be through all time thereafter. She calls herself a slave girl (for that is what maidservant means). The blessedness that others recognize in Mary is that of abiding joy as she realizes that the blessings upon her are only because of God’s mercy. Blessed refers to a deep abiding happiness. Mary also recognizes her weakness in contrast to the great things that God has done for her. This mighty God (v. 49) is described by the Greek word from which we get the English word dynamite. His power is irresistible, far greater than any power of man in prevent or inhibit. She also observes that as God’s people faithfully reverence His holy name, He demonstrates His mercy to them. These are the wonderful works of God towards Mary (and all of God’s people) to which she responds with joy.
The second section, verses 51-53, Mary recounts what God has done in the world at large. In His strength God scatters, or puts to flight, His enemies. These enemies are described as the proud who imagine they understand and can therefore limit God to the sphere of their own choosing. This is battlefield terminology, and the battlefield here is the imagination or mind of men. Man cannot imagine how God operates, and the incarnation just baffles the foolishly wise of this world. God also puts down the authorities of this world. He does not do so capriciously just to show who is the Boss; all the world is still subject to Him and responsible for obeying His command and suffers the consequences when they do not obey His established law. Furthermore, He impoverishes the rich of this world at will. Truly, those who trust and worship their riches are empty, even with all their wealth. While he leaves the idolaters empty, he exalts the lowly and fills the hungry. This last work is in contrast to emptying the rich, which is the Greek wording behind the English word impoverish. All of these works are seen in light of the promise of the coming of the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to mankind.
The third and final section, verses 54 and 55, declares how God helps His servant Israel. The word helped means that God took the part of Israel, or devoted Himself to Israel. The form of the verb suggests that this happened in due time. The manner of His helping is the first aspect that Mary declares. The Greek construction helps us to understand what Mary is getting at. After the initial opening phrase, Mary uses an infinitive form of the verb remember. Infinitives are often used in this way to show the manner in which an action was carried out. In this case, the manner of God’s helping is to remember His mercy, just as He gave His word to the fathers and to Abraham and his seed. Christ’s coming is part of God’s covenant faithfulness to His own. Mary also thinks of the scope of God’s help. These verses are the specific application of the general statements that Mary has made previously. The blessings and favor of God are not only directed toward her as the bearer of the Christ, but toward the whole nation as God grants the salvation that He had formerly promised. She does not think of her exaltation as the goal of God’s activities, but as only a part of His fulfillment of His promises to His people.
In summary, Mary rejoices that God has come in the flesh, thereby showing His tender care for His people. He exercises absolute mastery over the affairs of Men; and He is faithful to His promises. He reveals His providence, power, and faithfulness by giving us His Son, and demonstrates that He has taken our part and devoted Himself to our deliverance. Believing this it is no wonder Mary sang for joy to magnify her magnificent Savior and Lord! Should not we all do the same?