What Messianic Prophecies Inspired Mary’s Song and Her Courageous Faith?
Jesus is the Christ. But what exactly is “the Christ”? Christ, or Messiah, means “anointed one,” as a king might be anointed for his role, but what else does that mean? What prophetic ideas are wrapped up in that title?
I’ve had the thought for a while now that I need to do a Bible study on messianic prophecies. The Hebrew Bible is full of them, telling the story of who Jesus is and what we are to hope for and believe about Him. One of my favorite podcasts, The Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast, did a Christmas episode on the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise to God when she was pregnant with Jesus. The hosts pointed to the rich prophetic backdrop of her song.
The messianic prophesies were obviously important to Mary. Important enough that, as the podcast hosts point out, she was praising God even though she was about to face a serious scandal. Who would believe that she got pregnant while a virgin? Would her fiancé stay with her and accept the child as his own, allowing his own reputation to be tarnished? Or would he feel betrayed and break off the engagement? If so, weren’t her marriage prospects ruined? Or would he publicly divorce her and call for her to be stoned for fornication? Whatever potential consequences Mary might have faced, she evidently believed that being the mother of this long-awaited Messiah would be worth the cost.
Reading her song, I have to admit, I got the feeling that I might be missing some of what she’s talking about. But reading some of the prophetic passages in the Hebrew Bible is helping me connect the dots.
So what can we glean from her song? What prophesies might she have had in mind, to inspire her courageous, confident praise of God?
Here’s her song:
Then Mary said,
“My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit is full of joy because of God my Savior!
For he has shown concern for his slave in her humble circumstances.
Yes, from this time forth all generations will consider me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me; holy is his name!
His steadfast love endures from generation to generation for those who fear him!
He will surely perform mighty acts with his powerful arm.
He has as good as scattered those who are arrogant in mind and heart.
He will certainly tear ruthless tyrants from their thrones
and exalt the humble.
The hungry he will satisfy with good things,
but the rich he is going to send away with nothing.
He will indeed come to the aid of Israel his servant,
in remembrance of his steadfast love,
just as he promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed forever into the ages.” (Luke 1:46-55 BHT)
I’ve chosen here the Blessed Hope Translation, which gives a different feel than we’re used to: it has many of the verbs here in future tense where other translations use the past tense. Translating tense from Koine Greek to English can be complicated and sometimes the translator has to make an educated decision. I think it’s worth considering how the text reads with this tense choice, which emphasizes Mary’s confident faith that if God said it, He will do it.
Just before Mary broke out in this praise, her older, miraculously pregnant cousin Elizabeth said this to her: “Blessed is she who had faith that the Lord would really do what he promised her!” (Luke 1:45 BHT)
And what had God promised to Mary? The most obvious prophecy Mary would have had in mind was the one given directly to her. Gabriel had said to Mary:
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30-33 ESV)
Mary asked how she could get pregnant as a virgin, and the angel told her she would get pregnant through the power of God: “therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 ESV)
So Mary believed what Gabriel said: that God would miraculously cause her to become pregnant with a son, Jesus, who would be great, holy, called “the Son of the Most High” and “the Son of God,” who would forever reign over the descendants of Jacob (a.k.a. the Jewish people), from the throne of his ancestor David. In sum, Jesus would be born of a virgin, be called the Son of God, and be king over a Jewish kingdom forever.
2 Samuel 7
The angel made reference to God’s earlier promise to King David, an ancestor of Jesus. The prophet Nathan told David:
The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:11b-16 NIV)
We know that Solomon, David’s son, partially fulfilled this prophecy. He built a house for God (verse 12), Solomon’s temple, as David had desired to do. He was like a son to God, as God directly punished him when he disobeyed (verse 13), tearing away part of the kingdom of Israel from Solomon’s son (see 1 Kings 11). But the eternal kingdom parts of this prophecy were yet unfulfilled. “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” is verse 13, a promise repeated again in verse 16, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”
Mary would give birth to this long-awaited king. No wonder she was praising God.
As we read again Gabriel’s words, we see how much they relate to God’s promise to David through the prophet Nathan. Gabriel said:
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32-33 ESV)
As in 2 Samuel 7, Jesus is the Son of God. Here’s an interesting thing. Solomon was a son because he was punished by God when he did wrong. Jesus did nothing wrong needing to be punished by God. And yet, Jesus was punished “with floggings inflicted by human hands,” as Nathan prophesied. Gabriel also says that Jesus will receive the throne of David, reign over the house of Jacob, and have an eternal kingdom. Yet we see no one today reigning on David’s throne in Jerusalem over the Jews forever. This is yet to come.
The theme of a promised king comes up repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible, and though Mary doesn’t explicitly mention a king, she seems to be familiar with these promises.
In Mary’s song, God scatters the arrogant and tears down mighty tyrants from their thrones, echoing Psalm 2. Psalm 2 directly mentions God’s Son, hearkening back to Nathan’s prophecy. The angel’s declaration that Jesus is God’s son may have brought to Mary’s mind this psalm. Here it is:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2 ESV)
Here we see that God has set his King on Zion, or Jerusalem (verse 6). This King is again called God’s Son (verse 7, 12). The King receives the nations, the ends of the earth, as an inheritance from God (verse 8). He reigns over them with fierceness (verse 9). Those who take refuge in him are blessed (verse 12), but those rulers of the world who do not serve the Lord should fear his wrath (verses 10-12).
Imagine that Mary had this image of a fierce king of the world come to mind when Gabriel spoke to her about her son!
Daniel had a vision that climaxes with a figure called the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Like the Son of God that Gabriel and Nathan spoke of, the Son of Man has an everlasting Kingdom. (Jesus, of course, carries both titles. Gabriel called him the Son of God, and Jesus often called himself the Son of Man.)
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14 ESV)
The promised king in this story rescues the holy people of God from being terrorized by an evil king and his beastly kingdom (Daniel 7:25). This evil king is commonly understood to be the antichrist. There’s a huge reversal in Daniel 7 of the righteous going from being “oppressed” and “delivered into [the antichrist’s] hands” in verse 25 to reigning with God in verse 27:
Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him. (Daniel 7:27 NIV)
Mary’s song certainly matches this glorious reversal of circumstances: from persecuted to lifted up by God. Mary’s proclamation that God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” and “helped his servant Israel” fits with Daniel 7.
Another messianic prophecy that connects with the kingly theme given by the angel is Jeremiah 23:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land. (Jeremiah 23:5-8)
Here we see the reigning king, a branch from the line of David, providing security for Israel to dwell safely in their land. Could this connect to the last portion of Mary’s song, where she references God’s promise to Abraham and the fathers? Mary said, “He will indeed come to the aid of Israel his servant, in remembrance of his steadfast love, just as he promised to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever into the ages,” (Luke 1:54-55 BHT). God promised Abraham descendants (Genesis 12) who would have land with specific boundaries (Genesis 15) as an “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17). Although it’s not common for us Christians to think of the Messiah as providing security for Jews to dwell safely in the land of Israel, would Mary have had this in mind, based on passages like Jeremiah 23 and her own joyful praise about God’s eternal promise to Abraham and his decendants?
1 Samuel 2
The hosts of the Apocalyptic Gospel Podcast note that Mary’s song seems to be heavily influenced by Hannah’s song. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, the prophet who anointed both Saul and David as Israel’s kings, was excited about her pregnancy because she hadn’t been able to conceive. She also broke out in jubilant praise. I won’t quote the whole thing, but you can read it here. It’s remarkably similar, especially the first line, “My heart exults in the Lord” from Hannah, versus “My soul magnifies the Lord” from Mary. The theme of God lifting up the humble and humbling the proud is also consistent.
Mary was definitely familiar with this song of Hannah. One interesting thing is that though the songs are largely similar, Mary’s song doesn’t reference a king or Messiah (anointed one), but Hannah ends:
he will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed. (1 Samuel 2:10b ESV)
Hannah’s song is explicitly messianic. One thing that confused me, though, is how Hannah could have had a concept of a messianic king, since she prophesied before Israel had any kings, much less the Davidic covenant prophesied through Nathan. But as I found out, the kingly theme goes back to Jacob’s blessing of Judah, when Jacob prophesies over all of his sons.
On his deathbed Jacob said:
Judah, your brothers will praise you;
your hand will be on the neck of your enemies;
your father’s sons will bow down to you.
You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his. (Genesis 49:8-10 ESV)
Jacob prophesied of a king — the Lion of Judah, a title of Jesus. Hannah later prophesied of a king, and Mary was clearly influenced by Hannah. I wonder if Mary had this prophecy in mind with the line, “as he [God] spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” Jacob certainly qualifies as one of the fathers, being the literal father of the 12 tribes of Israel.
As we can see, Mary had a wealth of promises from God that caused her to rejoice and have courage when she could have worried about her future. This Christmas, let’s celebrate like Mary that God brought into the world the king who shows mercy to those who fear God, will reign as Israel’s king over the nations of the world, will smash tyrants and rescue his people from persecution, and cause Jews to dwell in safety in the land of Israel — a promise we clearly see the need for these days. No matter what we endure in this life, no matter what hardship might come from partnering with God’s plan, no suffering can compare with the glorious hope we have in King Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
As a final Christmas treat, here’s the setting Johann Sebastian Bach composed of the Latin version of Mary’s exquisite prayer for use in Lutheran churches. Enjoy!