The Magnificat


Luke 1:46-56

Text Comment

What you will notice as we read the following hymn is that it is composed of language familiar to us from the Old Testament. Remember, for Mary, what we call the Old Testament (remember, that is not a biblical term for the first 39 books of the Bible), but what we call the Old Testament was her entire Bible. And pious Jews in those days knew their Bible’s very well. If you want to know why Jesus was so thoroughly familiar with the Bible, how he could pick three texts out of Deuteronomy and use them on the spur of the moment with which to answer the devil’s temptation, here is the answer. He was raised in a home saturated with the Word of God; a fact more remarkable for us because almost certainly there would not have been a copy of the Bible in the home. But they heard it read at length and repeatedly at the synagogue and in other venues and they paid attention to what they heard. They were an aural society and they had learned to remember what they heard. They memorized large portions of Holy Scripture. Prof. Bruce Waltke tells of meeting a man who lived across the hall from him when he was in Israel on a Sabbatical. As they spoke from time to time about the Bible it occurred to Dr. Waltke to ask the man if he had the entire book of psalms memorized in Hebrew. He did! And a good bit of the rest of the Old Testament. With our modern technologies, and the availability of books, our powers of memorization are attenuated. Still today, in cultures where books are not widely available they memorize much more than we do and remember things they have heard much better than we do. So the idea that Mary could have taken phrases from here and there to compose her own song of praise is hardly unlikely.

In fact, the Magnificat is “a virtual collage of biblical texts.” [Green, 101n] Indeed Mary’s song bears some striking resemblances to the songs of Miriam (Ex. 15:19-21), Deborah (Judg. 5:1-31), and especially of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10) which, of course, Mary would have known well.

As you can well imagine, many scholars are skeptical about the ability of a Jewish maid to compose a hymn so biblical in its nature, so powerful in its emotion, and so rich in its theology, a hymn that happens to fit so neatly into Luke’s account, introducing as it does themes that will occur again and again in Luke-Acts. Could a country girl compose such a poem? But the thorough knowledge of the Bible, typical of the pious Jew in those days, renders their skepticism unnecessary. However, it is not necessary to hold that, given its place in chapter 1, Mary composed the hymn on the spot in response to Elizabeth’s greeting, as the women met for the first time. It is quite possible, as J. Gresham Machen suggested that Mary’s poem was her reflective response, worked out over hours or days, to the annunciation, to Elizabeth’s greeting, and to the conception of a baby in her womb. It is likely because the hymn comes from Mary that it was cherished in the early Christian church. It’s origin before the appearance of Lord Jesus is demonstrated by the fact that there is nothing in the poem that betrays a knowledge of the Lord’s ministry, teaching, crucifixion, or resurrection. [Bock, i, 143-146]

v.47     There is an interesting change of tenses that is not reflected in your ESV translation. The first verb is in the present tense, which in Greek expresses not only action in the present but continuing action. The second verb is in the past tense. What she said was: “My soul magnifies…my spirit rejoiced…” There are grammatical questions in play too complicated and uninteresting to bother with. But it is possible that her idea was that she keeps on praising God for the joy she felt when Gabriel first brought her the news that she was to be the mother of the Messiah. A once-for-all joy continues to be the cause of continuing praise to God. That can certainly be true for us, can it not? We do not stop praising God for our conversion which was such a joy for us at the time, or for some great gift he gave to us that has continued to be remembered in our praise of the Lord.

v.49     We are well used to this characteristic use of “name” throughout the Old Testament. One’s name stands for one’s person. What you say about a person’s name is what your say about him or her. So to say that God’s name is holy is to say that God himself is holy.

v.49     Always in the Bible the grace of God to you has also in view your children and your grandchildren. In her hymn Mary concentrated first on expressing thanks to God for what he had done for her. But in the verses that follow she turned to the wider scope of the Lord’s activities in the world. In vv. 49-50 his holiness, his mercy, and his power are revealed in the world on behalf of a great many more people than Mary herself.

v.50     A frequent reader of the Bible learns that to fear the Lord means to reverence him, to give him his due as Creator, Ruler, and Judge.

v.51     You’ll notice that all of these verbs are in the past tense. It is possible that she is referring to great works of grace and power that God performed in the past, for example his bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt, or his defeating her enemies in battle. Or, in a way also characteristic of OT literature, she may be referring to events the beginning of which have been seen but the conclusion of which yet lies in the future. In that case she would be speaking of the Messiah through whom God is about to scatter the proud and bring the mighty down from their thrones. It is a little hard to believe that Mary in her song is not talking about the events that have just occurred, the message that she has just received, and the astonishing thing that has happened within her. It all suggests that the story of Jesus is just beginning. [Bock, i, 150, 155-156]

v.55     The events now unfolding are the fulfillment of ancient promises the Lord made first to Abraham. We can count on the Lord being faithful to his Word and to keep his promises, even if that fulfillment is a long time in coming, as it was here.

v.56     So, in all probability, Mary left Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home before John was born. The reference to “her home” suggests that she was still betrothed, not yet married. Otherwise she would have returned to Joseph’s home.

We just read one of the most famous of Christian hymns. I can’t say, alas, that it is one of the most famous Presbyterian hymns, because, unaccountably we Presbyterians have forgotten to sing the Magnificat. We may hear it sung as a solo at Christmas, but unlike many other Christians, we do not sing it as a hymn. Early Presbyterians did, but we don’t even have a complete versification of this hymn in our hymnal. We have a version of a few verses, but not the entire hymn and in the first edition of Trinity Hymnal we didn’t even have that. And what we have is never sung, so far as I can tell, by anyone. We need a better musical rendition of this great hymn.

Mary’s hymn is called the Magnificat after the first word of the hymn in the Latin translation of the Bible. From the earliest days of Christian worship, as far as we can tell, the Magnificat was one of the most cherished Christian hymns and it continued to be among the first rank of Christian hymns for many centuries to follow. But as with so much else of the church’s past, and even in churches that ought to know better, the Magnificat is falling increasingly into disuse. For example, the Magnificat was long a regular feature of the evening service of the Anglican Church, but very few Anglicans any longer worship on the Lord’s Day evening and, as a result, they never sing the hymn they once knew by heart.

It is worth our asking why such a hymn, once so well known and so beloved, a hymn with all the authority of Holy Scripture behind it, a hymn made all the more charming by the circumstances of its origin, is no longer interesting to Christian people. I suppose there are a variety of reasons. The Magnificat is more like a hymn than the modern praise song and that has hurt its popularity in recent years. It is more like a psalm than a typical Christian hymn of praise and for that reason is more difficult to sing with understanding, and for a church that doesn’t know the OT nearly as well as it once did, the Magnificat isn’t as accessible or easily appreciated as it once was. There may be other reasons. For example, I was in a worship service last Tuesday evening in Minneapolis. The congregation sang Psalm 95, not in metrical version but straight from the Biblical text. It took three eight and a half by eleven pages to provide the text and music for the psalm for the singing of the church. The music wasn’t easy to catch on to and would have taken a congregation a long time to learn. Unless a church were willing to put in a lot of work to learn a musical setting of the Magnificat it is unlikely ever to sing it. I remember how long it took us to learn the musical setting of the Nicene Creed that we use still today in our worship. We sang it over and over, week after week, part by part, and it was a few months before we could manage the entire creed in a worship service.

But insofar as lying beneath most of the things we do and do not do is a spiritual state of mind, I cannot help but wonder if the Magnificat does not grab us and we do not find ourselves cherishing Mary’s hymn because it trades in themes that are not immediately interesting to us. We are all about the present and this hymn casts our attention to the future, because God has not yet scattered all the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has not sent all the rich away empty. Those things are yet to come at least in any ultimate sense. We are more interested in what the Lord will do for us now than what he will give to us in some distant future that we can’t see or even very easily imagine. And, perhaps even more than this, we are rich and we don’t particularly like to be told that the Lord will send the rich away empty and we are proud and it doesn’t please us to hear that the Lord will scatter the proud.

And we are rich! We have been treated to endless news reports about the protests in Wall Street and across the country against corporate greed and the gap between the rich and the poor, or, better, between the rich and the middle class. Whatever you think about those protests as political statements, whether you think the position of the protestors is coherent or incoherent, whether you think they have put their finger on a problem that can or should be addressed in political ways or that they are completely missing the point, one thing should not be forgotten by American Christians. Americans, even temporarily unemployed Americans, are rich beyond the wildest dreams of most people in the world and their lifestyle beyond the imagination of even the most wealthy of people in ages past.

A study of American poverty published recently found that virtually all of America’s poor had a nice television set, their children owned video games, and the family owned an automobile. What is more, they struggle more with obesity than with hunger. In Mary’s day the hungry were not folk who lived in fear that their lifestyle might be in jeopardy. They were people who didn’t know where tomorrow’s food was coming from. They were literally hungry, as are multitudes of people in the world today, whether from drought or, as is more often the case, from political repression. The poor were genuinely powerless; they were protected neither by laws nor a police department. They did not enjoy the security afforded by a culture shaped by Christianity to believe that a society had an obligation to ensure that poor people were adequately provided for. And believe me, that is the inheritance of the Christian faith and nothing else. In societies untouched by the influence of the gospel and the law of God one rarely finds a deeply entrenched sense of obligation to the poor.

We are not poor as the poor were poor in Mary’s day. We are rich, very rich, in comparison with the poor in the sense in which poverty was known and experienced in ancient days and in the sense that vast multitudes of people in the world are poor today. That means that we must take the warning of this text seriously and consider carefully if our wealth may in any way be posing an obstacle to our relationship with God

Consider this. You may remember that in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement, very powerful in Latin America and Africa, but also influential in North America and Europe, that came to be called “liberation theology.” It was common among the advocates of liberation theology to take the Magnificat as a call to political action against capitalist and other reactionary forces who, so it was thought, were the chief instruments of the oppression of the poor. They would take Mary’s references to the poor and the hungry as a summons for us to identify with the poor against the rich and to work to establish a more socialist economic system. In its stronger forms liberation theology was an attempt to Christianize Marxism, and they read the Bible as a manifesto on behalf of a classless society.

Now, without doubt there had been a great deal of exploitation of the poor in Latin America and Africa as there continues to be. The problem was undoubtedly real. And it was certainly right of these thinkers to point out that the Bible is pitiless in its condemnation of those who get rich on the backs of the poor. But what was forgotten in all their efforts to apply Mary’s Magnificat to the class struggle, is that here, as elsewhere, the Lord’s mercy is emphatically said to be for those who fear him. The poor in Mary’s hymn are not the economically weak and helpless, the physically hungry per se. Physical poverty, as so often in the Bible, is employed here as a figure for a spiritual state of mind and heart. This will be the case throughout the Gospel of Luke. Matthew says in his account of the Sermon on the Mount that the Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But that same text in Luke is simply, “Blessed are the poor.” The liberation theologians loved Luke much more than Matthew. The Bible never teaches us that God is for the poor no matter what. He is for the poor in some respects no matter what because he is a God of pity and mercy, but in this respect, in the ultimate sense he is for the poor in heart, for those who are hungry for him; he is for those who in their poverty and hunger acknowledge him!

When I was on sabbatical in Amsterdam in 1984 I heard one of the leaders of the liberation theology movement, the Argentinean Methodist Jose Miguez Bonino, speak at the Free University. And it was precisely this failure that stuck out of his presentation like a sore thumb. The poor in Bonino’s account were the economically disadvantaged and the message was that God was for them and always for them. There was no requirement that they believe in Christ or fear the living God or acknowledge his holiness, power, and mercy as Mary here says is essential. Just being poor was enough and being rich was virtually enough to guarantee one’s damnation. The poor didn’t have to be humble before God to qualify as the poor in Mary’s hymn; they simply had to be short of money. It was the Achilles’ heel of a movement that had much to say and might have said it very much more effectively and wielded influence over a much longer period of time.

But notice here also that God is against the proud who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts. That is, who are proud in their truest selves; proud down to the bottom; proud at the root of their existence. In the same way here and throughout the Gospel of Luke the humble are those who are humble in the thoughts of their heart. A very wealthy man can be humble in that way and a very poor man can be proud in that way. It would be much easier, in a way, if we could tell who was proud and who was humble, who was rich and who was poor simply by inspecting their bank balances. But pride and humility are much more complex states than that and much harder to identify, especially within ourselves and by ourselves. Hardly a one of us in this room has any true grasp of how proud he or she is or how much humility he or she really has.

Again, when the Lord tells his famous parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, of which we will read in chapter 16, he is giving us not a study in comparative worldly wealth but in the contrast between the self-satisfied heart of the Rich Man and the heart of a man who in his need looks to God for his help. Now, to be sure, as we will also read, it is harder for a rich man to be saved than a poor man because riches insulate people from those experiences in life that make us aware of our smallness, our insignificance, and our helplessness apart from the provision of God. It is precisely because wealth binds a man to this world and makes him feel at home in this world that it is so spiritually dangerous and it is precisely because poverty exposes a man to his weakness and need that it so well stands for the spiritual state of true faith in God. No one believes in God who doesn’t think he needs to! And that’s why it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The rich are less likely to feel the need; the poor more likely to, which is why the poor greeted the Lord’s ministry with such enthusiasm and the rich, by and large, were his implacable enemies. But, still, it is not economic status but spiritual states of mind that are being contrasted in the Bible and here in Mary’s hymn.

That makes Mary’s hymn much more important for us because understood in this way it speaks directly to our temptation not to value the Lord’s holiness, his power, and his mercy – the things Mary celebrates in God here – because we are comfortable, because we are not hungry, and because we exercise a good bit of power in our world; not, perhaps, power as a great political or military or financial figure, but there is a great deal in our lives that we can control, precisely what was not the case among the poor in Mary’s day. They had almost no control over most of their lives.

What we have in this hymn is a genuinely revolutionary message; not in the Marxist sense, but in a sense far deeper and more important. There is in this hymn, as often in the great hymns of Holy Scripture, a complete reversal of ordinary human values and expectations. And here as everywhere else in the Bible we are taught that reality is not as it appears to a superficial observation of the world. The world’s thinking is turned upside down in this song of a Hebrew country girl. But, of course, like Elizabeth before her, she spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit of God and so spoke perfect truth. We know that because her hymn was taken up into the Bible, that book that comes out of God’s mouth, as the Apostle Paul puts it.

We think that what the rich have is security and pleasure. That is why their money is so important to them and that is why we envy them. They don’t have to worry about their jobs; they don’t have to worry about their bills. They don’t have to worry about whether they can afford a medical treatment for themselves or their children. They are even more beautiful than we are. They can buy expensive clothes and afford plastic surgery. I was in the airport in Minneapolis yesterday and reading the Minneapolis Star and discovered that there is a new procedure in plastic surgery in which a doctor will save the fat he removes from your body with liposuction and freeze it so that when you need it later in your life to smooth out the wrinkles in your skin you can do it with your own fat. I certainly don’t want to put some other person’s fat under my eyes, do you? It is, however, an expensive procedure. The rich can afford it. They can pay for trainers at the gym. It’s much easier to exercise the way you are supposed to if you’ve got some employee who’s telling you what to do.  They drive nicer and safer cars. But their security, their pleasures in life, and their success are ultimately an illusion. What they have is very temporary and only sham security and pleasure because they must eventually face God whom they have neither trusted nor obeyed, whom they have ignored because they were distracted by other things, and because they were so comfortable in their lives and they had no sense of need for God. They have riches but God sends the rich away empty; they have power but God scatters the powerful. What will a briefcase full of stocks and bonds do for man on the Judgment Day? What will a table left at home laden with lobster and exotic cheeses, with Dom Perignon and Lafitte Rothschild wine do for a man when the great call comes? And what will a simple life seem like to one who has loved and served God when the Great Day comes and one gets his or her first glimpse of the heavenly country on the horizon?

The key then is to be poor and humble in our hearts, that is, where we are our truest selves, where our outward lives originate and from which they find their character. And then it is to face the fact that our modern lifestyle is no help to us in pursuing that state of mind.
We must be awake!

And what is that state of mind? Well, look at Mary. She is a woman whose faith and godliness has already been remarked upon by an angel no less! Obviously she belongs among the poor, the hungry, the needy. She is all that in her heart, in her truest self. And what did that make her?

  1. Well, first it made her a biblically minded person. As we noted at the beginning, no matter the skepticism of scholars, a young woman who knew by heart the great songs of the OT would certainly be able to use them to construct a song of praise of her own, which is what she did. She was a young woman, perhaps a girl, who loved the Bible as the Word of God. In all likelihood, she didn’t have much of a formal education, but the Bible itself is an education in life, in faith, and in literature. She read the Bible, as Thomas Boston said all Christians should, as “autobiographic of themselves.” That is, as if it were about her life and as if she had a real stake in what it said and the message it contained.

 

The German philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, whose work laid the groundwork for that of Karl Marx, once famously said “Man is what he eats.” Well he was righter than he knew. Feuerbach was simply belittling the nature of human life as a life of simple physical desire and fulfillment. But the axiom is true in a deeper way. As Jeremiah had long before put it, God’s words were found and Mary ate them and they became the joy and rejoicing of her soul. She believed and then she interpreted her life and the life of the world around her in terms of the truth of the Word of God. And so, when out of the abundance of her heart, her mouth spoke, she gave vent to her feelings in the language and the concepts of Holy Scripture. That is what truly hungry and poor people always do, always have done and always will do! And for that reason, what a perfect mother she would make for the Lord Jesus. Are we as biblically minded as she? Do we think Bible when things happen to us, do we respond in the language and the concepts of the Word of God? Is the Bible always coming out of our mouth when we say something important?

  1. Secondly, Mary’s poverty and hunger made her someone who had wider interests than her own life and circumstances. Mary begins her hymn speaking of the great things the Lord had done for her, but very soon her perspective widens. We noticed this about the Magnificat; it is one of its most striking features, I think. She appreciates, of course as she should, that of all the women in the world she has been singled out for an astonishing honor, little as she can explain why of all women it should have been her. But in the rest of the song the personal perspective is forgotten and the significance of what she had been told, not for herself, but for the people of God comes to the fore. The grace – and extraordinary grace it was – that God had shown to her, she realized and rejoiced that it was grace to many more than herself. Her gift was theirs; her happiness would be theirs; her salvation would be the world’s salvation.

 

And she seems genuinely to be as happy for their blessing as for her own. Mary was a Christian patriot. She loved the church of God. She felt deeply its benighted circumstances in her own times and she longed for the day of its deliverance. She was, like Simeon, the old man she would meet in a few months’ time, waiting for the consolation of Israel. She could never be really happy if her own circumstances were favorable but those of the church of God were not. What God was doing, she realized, was “helping his servant Israel.” That’s what made all of this so immensely wonderful and important. A good test to put to ourselves: true humility and godliness is interested in greater things and especially the kingdom of God in the world.

  1. Finally, notice how Mary’s poverty and hunger is expressed in her reveling in the greatness of God. That is precisely what rich and comfortable people find very difficult to do. Only those for whom God is hope and salvation is likely to think of him in his greatness as Mary did. The rich are too self-satisfied to be preoccupied with the greatness of another. They are not motivated by their needs which are what drive us to see the greatness of God.

 

Our missionaries in Latin America and observers of some segments of Catholicism in North America and Europe tell us that there are many professed Christians who think more highly of Mary than they ought to think and seem to be enamored more of Mary than of God or Christ. There are cities in South America where the statues of Mary are larger and grander than the statues of Christ and this is a reflection of the people’s faith.

But Mary herself would be aghast. Her favor turned her heart to God and the greatness of God, his holiness, his power, and his mercy. She loved God because he is her savior, because of what he has done and will do for her and for his people. She also loved him also because he was everyone’s savior. He was great enough to be the God of heaven and earth. A simple exercise will reveal the cast of Mary’s mind: simply count up how many more “he’s” and “him’s” there are in her poem than “my’s” and “me’s.” She saw the Lord as very great because she saw herself as a humble servant.

You know why we ought to sing the Magnificat and so many other biblical and Christian hymns like it and inspired by it? Because we need to have Mary’s mind about ourselves and about God and about his church and kingdom. We need to be as biblically minded, as church-minded, and as God-minded as she was.

Surely you agree with me that, while Mary can’t hear or answer our prayers and while she is awaiting the resurrection just as we are, our Lord must have a special place in his heart for his mother. Surely among those whom he has saved she must have a place near the center of his heart. And if that is so, can you think of anything that would please him more than that you love and admire what divine grace made of her and want very much to be like her in just those beautiful ways in which she was so much like her son.