Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

5. Two Inspired Songs (Luke 1: 39-55)

When the angel left her, Mary lost no time in making the journey to the home of Elisabeth. “With haste”, of course, for the saving work of God in Christ must impart a sense of urgency to those who know it — shepherds lose no time in finding the babe in a manager (2:6); the faithful hasten the coming of the day of God with their holy way of life and their godliness (2 Pet. 3:12); and those who anticipate the resurrection of the dead are more urgent than ever (Jn. 11:31).

Where did Mary go in her eagerness? Perhaps to Hebron (2600 feet; hill-country all right, and in Judah). It was a city of the Aaronites (Josh. 21:10,11), and the burial-place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v.54,55). But Roman (also hill-country, but not in ancient Judah) stakes a claim on the strength of the copious allusions in this record to the story of Hannah and Samuel. There is some force in the parallel between Samuel of Ramah preparing the way for David, and John being the forerunner of the Son of David. Also, Matthew’s quotation of the Rachel-Ramah prophecy (2:18) might be intended as a hint as to where the baby Jesus was in those early days. (But see Study 11).

With what excited gladness me two women greeted each other. It was a joy which communicated itself to Elisabeth’s unborn son, for “it came to pass, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe (v.15; John 3:29) leaped in her womb.” This was probably the first unmistakable undeniable sign to Elisabeth of her own pregnancy. But such was her godly outlook that her own blessing was altogether overshadowed by the news now imparted by Mary of the impending birth of the Messiah.

Her joy bubbled over, the record bringing in a Septuagint word for the praise of God in the temple (1 Chr. 15:28; 16:4,5,42). Far from disapproving of her intense happiness, heaven guided the expression of it: “And whence is this to me?” Elisabeth was quoting the mystified ejaculation of Rebekah when “the babes leaped within her; and she said, If it will be so with me, why is this to me?” (Gen. 25:22). Rebekah had learned that here was a presage of strife between her sons. Now, by contrast with that, Elisabeth’s child leaped for joy. Messiah’s mother would now make all clear to her with a detailed excited account of what had been revealed back in Nazareth.

The phenomenon will repeat itself when Messiah is revealed not just through the word of an angel but as the Sun of Righteousness. Then those who fear the name of the Lord (Mal. 4:2) will go forth and “leap (s.w) as calves of the stall.” Then there will be another Elijah prophet turning the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers, so that the earth is no more smitten with a curse.

With extraordinary insight, these devout women saw it all.

Elisabeth and Messiah

One phrase is specially noteworthy — Elisabeth referred to the Messiah as “my Lord”. It is not at all what one would expect to read, and can only be explained on the assumption that she had in mind the familiar words of Psalm 110:1 “Jehovah said unto my lord, Sit thou on my right hand till I make thy foes thy footstool.” They were words which Jesus himself was to use in later years to demonstrate the superiority of Messiah over David (Mt. 22:44), and through that fact to have men infer his own virgin birth. But this was a psalm which foretold that Messiah would also be a “priest offer the order of Melchizedek.” So already this godly daughter of Aaron saw that Mary’s child would be not only David’s lord but Aaron’s also. What insight is this! And what daughters of Truth in the 20th century would have discernment to go so far in their thinking? — and this in a matter of moments! No wonder the baby of such a mother leaped for joy.

“Blessed is she that believed”

The point made earlier that it was within the competence of Mary to reject the high privilege designed for her appears to be confirmed by the words of Elisabeth: “And blessed is she that believed that there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45 mg). Faith in God’s promises, both recent and ancient, was involved. Indeed it was necessary. Gabriel’s reminder: “With God nothing shall be impossible”, must be taken with certain limitations. God cannot contrive that two and two shall make five. Nor can He save sinners without faith. He cannot deny Himself, and to accept faithless sinners would be to single out for special blessing those who deny Him. So in God’s redemption the humble faith of the maiden through whom Messiah would come

was specially needful: “Blessed is she that believed.”

Mary and her Bible

How fully and completely Mary did believe is very evident from her own song of rejoicing: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour” (1:46,47). Not only in soul (her natural self) and in spirit (her present inspiration), but also in body (1 Thess. 5:23) Mary magnified her Maker: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name” (Ps. 103:1). In the ten verses of her song and prayer of praise, there is an astonishing concatenation of Old Testament phrases. Especially it is a running commentary on the song of Hannah, when she rejoiced in God her Saviour, at the birth of Samuel. This compilation includes a few other verbal contacts outside the song of Mary.


1 Samuel 2
Elisabeth was barren
Hannah had no children.
Behold the handmaid of the Lord
Let thine handmaid
Thou hast found favour (grace) with God.

find grace in thy sight
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
My heart exulteth in the Lord.
Regarded the low estate of his handmaid.
If thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thy handmaid.
Holy is his name.
There is none holy as the Lord.
Shewed strength with his arm.
They that stumbled are girded with strength.
Scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
Talk no more exceeding proudly.
Put down the mighty from their seats.
The bones of the mighty men are broken.
Exalted them of low degree.
He raiseth up the poor out of the dust.
Filled the hungry with good things.
They that were hungry have rest.
Raised up a horn of salvation for us.
Exalt the horn of his anointed.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
The child Samuel grew on, and was in favour with the Lord, and also with men.

The following details in Hannah’s song are also worth noting:

  1. “The barren hath borne seven” (v.5) was not fulfilled in her experience. She had six children (v.21). Thus her psalm looks forward to another birth,
  2. “His anointed” (v.10) is the first occurrence of the name Messiah; LXX reads: “his Christ”,
  3. Verse 1: “I rejoice in thy Jesus”, not “in my Samuel”.
Did Mary recognize that just as the nation needed a Samuel to prepare it for David, so also now it needed the Nazirite son of Zacharias and Elisabeth to open men’s hearts to the Son of David? Here was insight, truly! And the fact that she could weave these phrases of Hannah into her own God-uplifted thought implies a wondrous familiarity with the text of the ancient record. The Book of Psalms is also laid under contribution several times, and other Old Testament books as well (see Notes).

There is a delightful relevance about some of these allusions; e.g.

The past tenses in Mary’s hymn of praise are somewhat unexpected. This is a not uncommon feature of Old Testament prophecy, the certainty of future fulfilment being indicated by speaking of God’s promised acts as hits accomplis. Perhaps there is this to be remembered, also, that the day will come when Mary will once again say her praise and prayer before God — and then the past tenses will be right, for all will have been accomplished.

Thus, “he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” expresses confidence that in the days ahead God would shelter and ultimately vindicate this maiden of Judah from scurrilous slanders and lying tongues.

“He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His Name” probably alludes to the title El Shaddai (God Almighty), which in the early books of the Old Testament comes in a context of fruitfulness and the blessing of one’s family (e.g. Gen. 28:3; 35:11). Even in indirect allusion of this kind, Mary’s words were wonderfully suitable.

Messiah’s Work

There is also (1:51-53) a powerful repetition of the true spiritual perspective which the work of Mary’s Son would not only teach but also establish as the norm. The world’s perverted assumption that might, wealth, pomp, reputation are the highest good must give way to better values: humility, faith, hunger for righteousness: “He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” This was to be the theme of John the Baptist’s preaching: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

And in this would be fulfilled the great Promises which God had made to the Fathers: “He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever” (1:54,55). The word “mercy” is constantly used in the Old Testament to allude to the Covenants of Promise. The reason is evident: the Promises were primarily about the forgiveness of sins through the Seed of Abraham. What more signal example of God’s mercy that His gracious reconciliation with sinners? Hence also Mary’s words: “His mercy is unto generations and generations of them that fear him” (1:50). This is the language of the Ten Commandments (and Ps. 103:17,18). By contrast with the visitation of iniquity “unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,” there is the shewing of mercy, the forgiveness of sins, unto a thousand generations of them that love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5,6 RVm is correct here). These “thousand generations” are the multitudinous seed of Abraham reconciled to God through Mary’s child. And “them that fear him” are the Gentile God-fearers brought into the New Israel (Acts 10:2,35; 13:26).

Well might Mary pour out the gladness of her soul as she contemplated the wonder of it all and her own part in it. And well might every true saint in Christ appropriate her psalm to himself with a fervent thankful emphasis on the pronouns because of all the blessing that has come, and will come, through God’s choice of this blessed virgin:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour . . . behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done to me great things...”

Notes: Luke 1:39-55

These days (RV). This reads strangely. Why not “those days”?
The fruit of thy womb quotes Ps. 132: 11 which, like Gabriel’s words to Mary, is about the great Promise to David.
She that believed. The Gk. aorist looks back to v.38 — a deliberate contrast with Zacharias.

Performance. A word used copiously in Ex. 29 and Lev. 8 for the consecration of the priests. Not inappropriate in the mouth of a daughter of Aaron.
Some of the more obvious O.T. allusions:

v. 48a:
v. 48b:
v. 50:
v. 51a:
v. 51-53:
v. 53:
Gen.21: 6
Ps. 138: 6 LXX
Gen. 30: 13
Ps. 126: 2,3, (6)
Ps. 111: 9
Gen. 17: 7
Ps. 118: 14,15
Ez. 21: 26
Ps. 107: 9
Blessed: v. 28,42,48 and 11: 27. The second of these: “Praised”; the others: “Happy”.
Holpen. The Gk. word implies a helping hand, rather like Simon’s help with the cross of Christ.

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