Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.

10 thoughts on “Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

  1. Indeed Mary the Mother of Jesus, is always herself central in the Christology of Christ, she is an elect-vessel for the Incarnation itself! Simply put, no Mary, no Jesus incarnate! (AS us Anglicans say: ‘No Mariology without Christology’) I would note also Luke 2: 15-20, noting verse 19, about just how much Mary knew! She it appears knew it all, at least by degree.

    I would also recommend reading the Epistles or Letters of Ignatius of Antioch. These of course are not Canon, but still show how close the reality of Mary herself was to the NT revelation of the Virgin Birth, and of course the Incarnate Christ, and the Incarnation itself, in historical time! (Btw, note Luke 1:54. It seems Mary herself personifies “Israel”!) And indeed, as the Council of Ephesus declared, Mary as “Theotokos” (God-bearer). The declaration of the Council was, as we have seen, intended primarily to ensure the truth about the Incarnation and the incarnate Lord, but the real time motherhood of Mary is certainly not left out. So Mary is forever the Mother of the Incarnate Christ! As Christ is still the “Incarnation” itself, though now glorified at the Right Hand of God, upon the Throne of God the Father. “Glory”!

  2. According to the gospel, Mary sang that song in response to Elizabeth’s story and blessing for Mary. Does that mean she had “these” words just well up inside her and she blurted them out? Maybe Zechariah took up writing because he couldn’t talk (lol) and scribbled the song down quick. Then when luke set out to write his gospel, he sought Mary and somehow recorded the song. How do we know Mary had these thoughts right at the time and then relayed them reliably to luke so many years later? Is it possible that luke made it up? What bearing do ‘songs’ have on the audience? Ot songs (Deborah, Moses, as you mentioned, Hannah) usually state what God has done and why he’s great right?

    Lots of questions I know, your blog is thought provoking.

    • Good to hear from you, Ben.

      This has always been a problem in my mind, since it seems obvious to me the song is so well thought out and interwoven with Scripture is looks more like research and composition to me than an emotional response to meeting Mary as she arrived at Elizabeth’s house. Do people really spontaneously erupt in this kind of theological rich song? Even more, the song perfectly fits Luke’s theological agenda, which makes me even more suspicious Luke has reported her speech in his own words and for his own theological reasons. Same with Zechariah, or even more so. (The book of Revelation raises similar questions, did John really see all that stuff, or did he create the visions out of scriptural allusions?)

      So, if this is Luke’s research, drawing together themes from the OT in order to present Jesus as Messiah (and John the Baptist as forerunner), does than make the Scripture “errant”? Is Luke telling a lie? IMHO, not really since he is telling the story in order to highlight theological themes and not record history in some sort of contemporary sense, and this is the accurate record of what the Spirit led Luke to write.

  3. Obviously, your understanding of inerrant is ahistorical. A scripture that makes stuff up for theological reasons and portrays it as an actual event is the years, I will proclaim that Mary did indeed know and actually proclaimed her knowledge spontaneously through the Spirit.


    ‘Is the opposite of inerrant and a lie ‘ NOT is the years😎

  5. While reading this article, I couldn’t help but listen to the song once again. “Mary, did you know that your baby would one day walk on water… would save our sons and daughters..” The song continues to go through the miracles and wonders that Jesus brought to light on Earth. I think it’s really cool that Mary did, in fact, know the power and wonder that came with raising the son of God. She was in awe through anticipation of His promise. While this may not be in the motherly way as the song questions, it really brings in frame what it was like to know that the savior was coming within her lifetime and to watch the power of God in action. I would love to have felt the excitement and awe throughout their family as they wait in anticipation – and finally get to watch the Son of God fulfill the covenants and promises. That being said, however, as Christians we can feel that same anticipation through the second coming – knowing God will deliver us, and knowing that the time will come soon for Jesus to come again.

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