Luke 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Mary's Hymn of Praise: Magnificat
Mary's hymn is one of three major hymnic pieces in the infancy material (the others are known as the Benedictus, Lk 1:67-79, and Nunc Dimittis, Lk 2:28-32). The Latin names come from the phrases that begin the hymns. Mary's hymn expresses praise to God for his treatment of her, but then extends her praise to how God has treated the righteous throughout the ages and how he will vindicate them fully in the future. Understanding what God is doing, Mary possesses a mood of joy. She speaks for herself and for her community, the people of God throughout time. God is worthy of praise for what he will do in taking care of his own. Understanding God's blessing moves the believer to joy and appreciation, since the Almighty cares personally for us and acts on our behalf.
Mary is exemplary of the humble, faithful disciple. That a woman provides such an example is significant, since first-century culture often relegated women to a secondary status. Such examples exist in the Old Testament as well (Miriam in Ex 15:21; Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10; Deborah in Judg 5). One of the beauties of Luke's infancy material is that different sorts of people all experience joy at the arrival of Jesus. This reveals Jesus' universal appeal.
Mary's poetic outburst echoes Old Testament language with a perspective that sees the present in light of God's consistent activity throughout time. Her praise is personal--her soul and spirit offer praise. She glorifies the Lord, which means her words acknowledge his goodness and bring attention to him like a huge neon light shining out from a building (Ps 34:3; 69:30). She makes his name great. She approaches him recognizing her humble state as his servant and thus acknowledging him as sovereign Master (see also v. 38; 2 Kings 14:26; Ps 9:11-14; 25:16-18). Yet though she addresses God as the Mighty One (Deut 10:21; 34:11; Ps 44:4-8; 89:8-10; 111:2, 9; Zeph 3:17), she knows that she has nothing to fear from his power, because he also is her Savior (Ps 25:5-6; Is 12:2; Mic 7:7). All these titles serve to show Mary's humble spirit. Her humble perspective forms the basis of her gratitude. The exemplary character of Mary grows out of her understanding of God's character. God owes her nothing; she owes God everything. All the good things that come from his hand are acts of grace.
Despite her humble position, she will be honored by all generations. Here is the reason for both her honor and her praise--God the Almighty has done great things on her behalf. Generations will see her as an example of a simple human touched by divine power and presence. But it is God who is unique, as her declaration of his holiness makes clear. He is the one "set apart" who is worthy of praise. For her, his name is wonderful because his character is true.
Mary generalizes her praise: God's mercy extends to those who fear him. This description is important in setting the context of the hymn's statements. It is the righteous, those who look and turn to God, who are the objects of his blessing. Though the blessings of verses 50-53 come to those in need, they are not a carte blanche offer to all the poor and hungry, but only to those who look to God for care. God's mercy shows his "loyal love" or hesed. Such love is faithful as well as gracious (Ps 103:2-6, 8-11, 13, 17). Loyal love is the hymn's basic theme, and God's treatment of Mary is but one example. His divine loyalty requires his action on behalf of the beloved. Those who stand in opposition will face God's power and authority to bring down.
So God will deal with the proud. His arm will be raised against them (Deut 4:34; Ps 44:3; 89:13; 118:15). The promise of God's judgment here recalls the exodus, when God exercised his power in total judgment (Ex 6:1, 6; Deut 3:24; 7:19). Whatever earthly authority exists, it is nothing before the mighty, decisive exercise of divine authority. He has brought down rulers (Ps 68:1; 89:10) but has lifted up the humble (1 Sam 2:7; Ps 147:6). He has filled the hungry with good things (1 Sam 2:5; Ps 107:9; 146:7) but has sent the rich away empty (1 Sam 2:5; Job 15:29; Jer 17:11). Here is God working on behalf of the pious downtrodden, a group the Old Testament called the 'anauim (Ps 9:11-12, 17-20; 10:1-4; 12:1-5; 18:25-29).
These verses express the traditional Jewish hope of vindication in the face of oppression at the hands of foreign, pagan rulers (1:71-75 is similar; in Judaism, see Psalms of Solomon 17--18). Mary's remarks are often misinterpreted in two directions. Some see them solely as a reference to God's defense of all the poor, all the hungry. A whole theology of liberation is built around such a reading of these verses and others like them. This ignores the spiritual dimension present throughout the hymn, not to mention the national character of the hope expressed in verses 54-55. On the other hand, some want to dilute the references to the poor and hungry altogether and speak only of the poor and hungry in spirit. This also undercuts the passage's force. The spirit of this text is reflected in other New Testament texts (1 Cor 1:25-31; Jas 2:5). Often it is those in need who are the most spiritually sensitive to God and who are gifted with faith by him. God promises them that despite their current deprivation, they will experience great reward in the future.
Luke raises a theme here that he will return to again and again: God's desire to minister to the poor. Luke will stress a ministry of social concern for those in need and warn those who are wealthy not to hoard what God has given to them (6:20-26; 7:22-23; 12:13-21; 14:12-14; 16:14-29). He warns about a reversal of roles in the judgment for those who do not hear this admonition.
God is acting for his people, Israel. God's actions reflect his mercy. He committed himself to such loyalty and compassion when he made promises to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). One of the lessons of the infancy section is that God keeps his word, including the promises made to the nation of Israel. Mary knows that the promises of God abide, and this is evident in her praise. God's loyal love is central to the hope and assurance of those to whom God has made himself known.
Israel is called his servant. This reference recalls a major motif from Isaiah (Is 41:8-9; 42:1, 2, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3). Later Luke will describe Jesus in terms that picture the Servant (Lk 22:37; Acts 8:32-33). Even later in Acts, Paul and Barnabas recall this calling to serve as "light for the Gentiles" (Acts 13:47). The various points of connection to the Servant concept mark this as a pattern prophecy: the role God had designed for Israel is fulfilled in the regal representative of the nation and in those who are identified with him.
Though Luke will develop the concept of God's constant care for Israel according to covenant promise, his portrayal of Mary here shows a woman confident that God will care for a remnant in his nation. They, like she, will see the Lord's powerful hand move on their behalf. God's loyal love and the truthfulness of his holy character make such assurance and hope possible. Even more amazing is what the progress of Luke's story reveals. Others who were not originally included in the promise, namely Gentiles, will come to share in this hope and will benefit from the vindication described here. In fact, it is quite likely that Theophilus himself is one of these additional beneficiaries, along with many others after him who have come to fear the Lord.
In fact, the two points of assurance are linked. Since God remembers the loyal love promised in covenant to Israel, Theophilus can rest assured that God will remember his promises to this Gentile believer. God's care for one promise reinforces the other. The basic teaching implied here is very similar to Paul's argument for the hope of Israel in Romans 9--11.