MARY’S SONG OF PRAISE: THE MAGNIFICAT
The Christmas season is a time of great singing and joy because of the divine announcement of good news of great joy to all the people of the world. As sinners, we need a divine Savior, and the message of Christmas is that God has given us such a competent Savior in his Son who became man, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When you open the gospel of Luke, you notice it is filled with music, especially the first two chapters. There we find five hymns:
the hymn of Elizabeth (Luke 1:42-45)
the hymn of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)
the hymn of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79)
the hymn of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests,” (Luke 2:14) and
the hymn of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32
After the angel left in verse 38, Mary traveled to Judea to visit Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant. When Elizabeth saw Mary, an amazing thing happened: through the Spirit of the living God, she recognized Mary, this unmarried teenage girl, as “the mother of my Lord,” and began to prophesy.
When that happened, Mary also began to sing in the Spirit, exalting and worshiping God. It is this song that is recorded as the Magnificat. This great worship hymn of Mary is called the Magnificat because it begins in the Latin Bible with the words “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” which means “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Regarding this song, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in painting…. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.
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 CHARACTER OF GOD
At this point I want to note something: Although Mary was just a poor teenage girl, she had been brought up in a godly home, where Mary was thoroughly versed in the Holy Scriptures. Like Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, and others, Mary was looking forward to God’s redemption of Israel. So when she heard Elizabeth’s greeting, she was filled with the Holy Spirit and Scripture came pouring out of her heart.
Listen to Mary’s knowledge of the Lord as she magnifies the Lord. We are told that out of the abundance of the heart, our mouths will speak. Mary was filled with God and his grace; thus, she sang about God and his attributes. The song is in response to all that God is doing in Mary’s life
A. God Is Mighty
The first attribute Mary speaks of is the might and power of God. He is the mighty God, and in Luke 1:49 she sings, “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” Mary’s God was God Almighty, the Creator of the ends of the earth. There is no one mightier than her God. He alone is able, and with him alone nothing is impossible.
God himself spoke of this aspect of his character to Abraham in Genesis 18:14, asking, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” In Psalm 115:3 the psalmist says, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” In Matthew 19:26 the Lord Jesus Christ himself said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” The apostle Paul recognized this and wrote in this manner in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”
In the first part of verse 51 Mary says of this mighty God, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” From Genesis 1 on the Bible speaks of the great and marvelous acts performed by the mighty arm of God. No Pharaoh can resist him. No Nebuchadnezzar can resist him. No Belshazzar can resist him. No Caesar can withstand him. Their knees knock when God looks down from his throne. All nations together are considered as nothing by this El-Shaddai, this God, the strong and mighty one. He alone is almighty, and Mary knew it.
Let me ask you: Are you weak? The answer, of course, is yes. But that is not the end. He is strong, and it is in him that we trust. What about the devil and his demons-are they strong? Yes. Martin Luther recognized that in his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” and all of us must recognize it. But our God is stronger than all the forces of this world.
Knowing who God is, Mary realized that she had nothing to fear. We too have nothing to fear as well. The gates of hell shall not prevail against us, because our God is mighty. Thus, we can say with Paul, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
B. God Is Holy
The second attribute Mary speaks about is God’s holiness. In verse 49 Mary declared, “Holy is his name.” Throughout the Scriptures God tells us, “Be holy, for I am holy.” God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. He is the One separate from us – the One without sin.
Isaiah writes this of God: “For this is what the high and lofty One says – he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place'” (Isaiah 57:15). In Isaiah 6 Isaiah records his reaction when confronted with this holy God:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty! The whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and the thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
God is not like us. He is holy and just, and therefore he must deal with all evil, and the wages of sin is death eternal. The Bible tells us the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Because God is holy, there is judgment and hell.
C. God Is Merciful
The third attribute Mary speaks of is that God is merciful. The word “mercy” appears five times in Luke 1: in verses 50, 54, 58, 72 and 78. Mary reveled in the knowledge of this great attribute of God.
What is mercy? Mercy is God’s love shown to the guilty sinners who are miserable in their sinful condition. In Exodus 3:7 we read what the Lord – the eternal God, the great I AM THAT I AM – spoke from the burning bush to Moses: “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” God was merciful to the Israelites in Egypt and he delivered them.
God is merciful to his people today also. So we read in Luke 1:50, “His mercy extends to those who fear him.” Let me assure you of one thing: A man shall never experience God’s mercy if he remains arrogant in the imagination of his heart, but the one who fears God will always receive mercy. Because our God is a merciful God.
2. THE LOWLINESS OF MARY
Mary describes here that God was her Savior. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices...” In what is Mary rejoicing? “... in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
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.
The Bible tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That means Mary herself was a sinner and needed a Savior. Never believe the lie that Mary was not a sinner. She was, and when she discerned what was happening in her womb, she realized that she was going to be the mother of her own Lord and Savior. Jesus Christ, the One who saves sinners – the One who would save his mother, the One who would save Elizabeth, the One who saves all who put their trust in him, whether Jew or Gentile – was in her womb. That is why Mary was filled with what Peter calls “inexpressible joy.”
But let’s not let the extremes 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.”
Mary said, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” It means God’s Son would reverse all sinful social order, lifting up the humble and putting them on the thrones of mighty ones. Jesus spoke of this later on in his ministry, when he preached, “Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth.” In her song, Mary said, “He has filled the hungry with good things,” and, again, Jesus said later, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
That is why Mary was singing this song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She was saying that Jesus Christ was her Savior. Thomas said the same thing in John 20:28: “My Lord and my God!” That is what we must say when we believe in Christ; without that, we cannot be saved.
3. THE JOY OF SALVATION OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS
Verse 46, “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!” The truth is that we magnify God by rejoicing in him. That is what magnifies God most.
Two thousand years after God made his promise to Abraham, the Savior had come. Mary knew that it was he alone who could take away sins and destroy the works of the devil. But how would he do these things? By his death on the cross.
The great Scottish professor, John Murray of Westminster Seminary, described the incarnation of Christ in this way:
The infinite became the finite, the eternal entered time and became subject to its conditions, the immutable became mutable, the invisible became visible, the Creator became created, the sustainer of all became dependent, the Almighty became infirm. God became man that he may die, and by his death destroy the works of the devil and take away our sin.
Thus, in the fullness of time, the eternal Son took upon himself human flesh in the womb of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Soon he would be born as God/man and later he would be introduced by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This was God’s plan of salvation for us. Because God is holy, he must punish sinners. But God is also love and merciful, so he does not desire to punish us. But how can God not punish sinners and still be holy? He punished his own Son who freely gave himself to be punished for our sins on the cross.
God reached out with his strong arm in Jesus Christ and saved the people of God from their sins. He did not do that for angels who sinned, but only for the descendants of Abraham. In him we are forgiven of all our sins and justified forever. In him we find mercy. In him we are made children of God. In him the hungry are filled with his perfect righteousness. In him we are adopted into God’s own family. In him we enjoy fellowship with God.
So Mary sang, “I worship God, I praise God, I rejoice exceedingly in God, because my Savior is in my womb.”
What about you? Can you worship and sing this song with Mary? Is Jesus your God? Is Jesus your Lord? Is Jesus your Savior?
If you are not filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory at the news of the incarnation of Christ, it is because you are coming to him as one who is rich, arrogant, and mighty. He will never help a person who comes to him in that way. God sent his Son to seek and save the unrighteous, miserable, wretched sinners who are conscious of their wretchedness. If you come to him that way, he will fill you with joy unspeakable and full of glory.
I urge you to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. If you do that, you will join the saints of all ages, including Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Simeon, in singing, “Glory to God in the highest! My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit leaps for joy in God my Savior. He has shown mercy to me. He has sent his Son all the way down to my hell to take me all the way up into his heaven.”
If you have not trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, you cannot sing this song. My prayer is that you humble yourself today and come to him, knowing that he is the wonderful, merciful Savior, the covenant God who is faithful. Yes, he is holy and he is the great Judge, but he is also the Savior, and he will be merciful to those who come to him in repentance and faith. May God help you to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that you may be saved and then sing with intelligence and with heart concerning God’s Son, the indescribable gift sent to us from heaven for our joy, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!