The Promise in the Magnificat

Dennis E. Johnson
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
Nov/Dec 2005

On the surface, their situations and standing in Israel could hardly have posed a sharper contrast. Zechariah was an aged man, an honored man, a privileged priest descended from Aaron, standing before the incense altar in the holy chamber of Israel’s temple in the holy city itself. Mary was a young unmarried woman in backwater Nazareth, linked to the royal line of David, to be sure, but kingdom hopes seemed dashed as God’s people languished under the heel of Herod the Idumean, puppet of pagan Rome. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had waited many long, sad years for a child, but were barren. Mary looked forward to her marriage to Joseph and, if God so pleased, motherhood.

Yet God sent his own intimate attendant, the majestic Gabriel, from his heavenly court to bring to each, to Zechariah and to Mary, good news of a son soon to be born. Zechariah’s son would be the forerunner, preparing the Lord’s people for the arrival of their God. Mary’s son would be the Son of the Most High, the promised descendant of David, whose kingdom would never end.

On the surface their questions in response to this astonishing news sound similar. Zechariah, trained in caution from decades of disappointment, sought confirming evidence: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). Mary, mystified at the promise of conception without marital consummation, verbalized her confusion: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:35).

Yet the hearts behind those questions were, in fact, galaxies apart. Despite Zechariah’s piety (Luke 1:6), at the crucial moment the old priest’s question sprang from a heart that refused to rest in God-sent news that seemed too good to be true. He deserved the heavenly messenger’s rebuke: “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God … sent to bring you this good news…. You will be silent until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:19-20). Mary, on the other hand, despite her bewilderment received a Spirit-inspired prophetic blessing as “she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Ironically, Zechariah’s question received an answer: nine months of muteness. Mary’s question did not, other than in cryptic creation and tabernacle metaphors, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35; cf. Gen. 1:2; Exod. 40:35). Yet, with or without explanation, Mary believed (as ancient Abraham and Sarah had not, at first) that “nothing will be impossible with God,” and therefore she acquiesced to the Lord’s will for his little servant (Luke 1:37-38; cf. Gen. 18:14).

God promised the impossible. Mary believed. Zechariah did not. So Mary sang while Zechariah stayed mum (until God’s word came true, when he too joined to praise the promise-keeping God, Luke 1:64-79).

Mary’s Magnificat (named from the first word in Jerome’s Latin version, “magnifies”) is a confession of faith offered from a heart not so much “driven” as drawn forward by promises, into a future in which the mighty and merciful God sets right what is now wrong. With Elizabeth’s greeting (“the mother of my Lord,” Luke 1:43) still ringing in her ears, Mary’s meditation moves from marvel over the honor that God her Savior lavished on her personally (Luke 1:46-49) into celebration of his mighty intervention on behalf of all “those who fear him,” keeping faithful mercy to Abraham and sons, as promised to the fathers (Luke 1:50-55).

Mary’s song displays her promise-drawn trust in two ways. First, it is saturated with ancient Scripture, so that by the time she mentions in the finale God’s remembering the faithful mercy he promised the fathers, we have been immersed in echoes of those very promises: “my spirit rejoices” (Ps. 35:9; Isa. 61:10), “in God my Savior” (Hab. 3:18; Ps. 25:5), “looked on the humble estate of his servant” (1 Sam. 1:11; cf. 9:16; Gen. 29:32), “will call me blessed” (Gen. 30:13), “has done great things” (Deut. 10:21), “holy is his name” (Ps. 111:9), “shown strength with his arm” (Ps. 118:15-16), “his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Ps. 103:17), “scattered the proud” (Ps. 89:11), “filled the hungry with good things” (Ps. 107:9), “helped his servant Israel” (Isa. 41:8-9), “in remembrance of his mercy” (Ps. 98:3), “mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham” (Mic. 7:20). Throughout the song we hear the motifs of Hannah’s thanksgiving to the God who removed the shame of her own barrenness and, more importantly, who would abase the proud and enthrone the downtrodden through the king whom her son Samuel would eventually anoint (1 Sam. 2:1-10). The fragmentary rescues and temporary respites granted to Israel in the past were preliminary sketches, tracing the outline of the real Promise who, in Mary’s womb, had arrived at long last.

Second, although the infants (John the precursor, Jesus the Divine Warrior), through whom God would effect the rescue and reversal that Mary celebrated, were yet unborn, after its first line her song shifts from present tense (“my soul magnifies”) to past (Greek aorist indicative), as though looking back on victory already achieved and deliverance already experienced. Rome and Herod still ruled God’s land and a corrupt hierarchy (not godly priests like Zechariah) controlled Israel’s sanctuary. How, then, could Mary declare that her God had already “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and “brought down the mighty from their thrones”? The pious poor still struggled under tyranny and taxation. How could she believe that God had already “exalted those of humble estate” and “filled the hungry with good things”?

She knew that Israel’s Helper, who had suddenly set redemption in motion through the tiny embryo miraculously, mysteriously developing in her womb, would not fail to carry his plan through to completion, whatever the cost to Mary … or to God himself. Armed with such humble trust in a God who is true to his word, Mary could not help but submit to his life-changing purpose for her, both to its privilege and to its pain. So can we, and so must we.

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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