John Calvin begins his classic Institutes of the Christian Religion with this profound sentence: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Westminster Press, 1.1.1.).
The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones often argued that one of the main indictments of the modern evangelical church is that we do not know God. Not knowing God as we ought, we do not know ourselves as we ought, and as a result we are focused on ourselves and our own happiness, rather than on the glory of God (see, for example, his Revival [Crossway Books], chapters 7 & 15). But Scripture always promises happiness as the by-product that God graciously gives to those who know Him and seek His glory.
Today we are going to be instructed by a teenage Jewish girl who, it seems, knew God far better than most of us do. Our text is the hymn of praise that Mary spoke in response to Elizabeth’s recognition through the Holy Spirit that Mary was carrying the promised Messiah in her womb. In this hymn, Mary extols God for His covenant mercy and for His righteous judgments. Although she was probably only 15 or 16 years old when she spoke these words, Mary had a deep understanding of God and His mercy. If you do not know God and His gracious salvation through Jesus Christ, I encourage you to listen carefully, so that you may come to know Him. If you do know God and His salvation, the lesson is:
We who have received God’s salvation should glorify Him for His mercy and judgment.
As I explained in our last study, the Roman Catholic Church has erred greatly in its teaching about the virgin Mary. The Bible is clear that she was not immaculately conceived, she is not the “Queen of Heaven,” she is not our life, our sweetness, nor our hope. We are not to pray to her as our advocate. She cannot obtain or impart salvation to anyone, no matter how faithfully they pray the Rosary. The Bible is clear that Mary is not to be elevated above any other believer. But at the same time, we should not react to Catholicism’s erroneous veneration of Mary by neglecting to learn from her. This beautiful hymn has much to teach us.
Mary’s hymn is brimming with information about the attributes of God. But it is not cold, academic information. Mary is extolling God as she considers what He has done in choosing her to be the mother of the Savior. She calls Him “God my Savior” (1:47), which implies that Mary knew she was a sinner; none but sinners need a Savior. Implicit in the term “Savior” is the fact that we are lost and alienated from God because of our sin. As those who are lost, we don’t just need a little boost from God to set things right. We don’t just need a few tips on how to get our lives in order, how to polish our self-esteem, how to succeed in our families or businesses. Savior is a radical term that implies that we are helplessly, hopelessly lost unless God in His mighty power intervenes to rescue us.
God’s power is explicitly stated in Mary’s referring to Him as the “Mighty One who has done great things for me” (1:49). She adds, “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (1:51). The psalmist declares that the heavens are the work of God’s finger (Ps. 8:3; see also Exod. 8:19). When God parted the Red Sea for Israel and brought it down on the Egyptian army, the people sang that it was due to God’s right hand, which is majestic in power (Exod. 15:6). But here Mary declares that God’s sending the Savior and scattering His enemies in judgment is due to His arm. As Isaiah 59:16 proclaims, God’s “own arm brought salvation to Him.” Calvin explains Mary’s meaning: “God rested satisfied with his own power, employed no companions in the work, called none to afford him aid” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 16:58). In other words, salvation is solely God’s work, not at all from man. God does everything, we can do nothing except receive His gracious gift.
Mary further teaches that God’s name is holy (1:49). His name refers to His person, the sum of His attributes. To be holy means to be set apart. In this context, it refers not only to God’s absolute moral righteousness, but also to His being set apart as the only sovereign authority over people (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:152). Thus He is to be held in highest esteem and to be feared.
Thankfully, Mary does not leave us with just these attributes of God, or we would not dare to approach Him! She goes on to emphasize God’s great mercy (1:50, 54). God’s mercy and His grace are close in meaning, both emphasizing His undeserved favor. But mercy has the connotation of God’s compassion due to our miserable condition. When Mary speaks of God’s mercy on those who fear Him, we should not conclude that somehow their reverence earned them God’s favor. His mercy is always unmerited in the sense that it flows totally from His great love and not at all because of anything worthy in the creature. But when God bestows His mercy, those who have received it respond with grateful reverence to Him.
In addition to His mercy, Mary adds that God is the giver of good things (1:53). As James 1:17 reminds us, “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow.” Jesus taught that even earthly fathers, though evil, know how to give good gifts to their children. How much more will not the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to His children who ask Him (Luke 11:13)? In line with this, Mary shows that God is faithful to His covenant promises (1:54, 55). Even though 2,000 years had elapsed since God’s promises to Abraham, God had not forgotten. What God has promised, He will fulfill in His time.
In giving instruction on how we can magnify the Lord, Charles Spurgeon encourages us to ponder the attributes of God:
Begin with his mercy if you cannot begin with his holiness; but take the attributes one by one, and think about them. I do not know a single attribute of God which is not wonderfully quickening and powerful to a true Christian. As you think of any one of them, it will ravish you, and carry you quite away. You will be lost in wonder, love, and praise as you consider it; you will be astonished and amazed as you plunge into its wondrous depths, and everything else will vanish from your vision (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 12:124-125).
Thus Mary teaches us about the nature of God. Also,
Understanding God’s mercy and grace is fundamental to a relationship with Him. We are saved by God’s grace through faith (Eph. 2:8, 9). As we received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we are to walk in Him (Col. 2:6). His mercy and grace should permeate our daily walk with Him. Note three things about God’s mercy:
God’s mercy is a sovereign mercy. Mary mentions God’s mercy to Abraham and his offspring (1:55). There is only one reason given in Scripture that Abraham became the father of our faith: God sovereignly chose him. Abraham was a pagan man from an idolatrous family in a pagan land when God called him (Josh. 24:2). Why didn’t God call Abraham’s father or brothers? Why not people already living in the land of Canaan? Why did God choose the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob to be His people? Why not Ishmael? Why not Esau? Why not the Egyptians or Russians or Europeans or Indians or Chinese? We don’t know why. All we know is that God chose Israel because of His sovereign purpose. Moses tells them it was not because they were greater in number or more righteous than any other nation; it was simply God’s sovereign love toward them (Deut. 4:37; 7:7; 9:4; 10:15).
Many do not like the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. They want to glory in their choice of God. It’s true that God does not save anyone apart from their choice of Jesus as Savior and Lord. But it’s also true that no one would choose Jesus unless God had first graciously done a work of sovereign grace to make him willing (John 6:44, 65). God states plainly, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Paul explains, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:15, 16). This means that God alone is to be glorified in our salvation.
God’s mercy is a covenant mercy. God made a covenant with Abraham and repeatedly reminded him and his descendants of that covenant as the basis of His dealings with them. God’s covenant assures us that though we may waver, God will not renege on His covenant of grace. If He has begun a gracious work in you, you can be assured that He will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6), not because of your performance, but because of the word of His gracious covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s mercy is a benevolent mercy. “He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God is a loving Father who will tenderly do that which is good for His children all the days of their lives. Though we often face difficult trials, and even death, we can know that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. He has prepared a place for us in heaven where “He shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Hallelujah!
When we contemplate the nature of our God and His great mercy towards us in Christ, we will join Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
But, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can we know that we are the objects of God’s great mercy? Mary shows us,
Mary mentions a number of characteristics of those who are the recipients of God’s great mercy.
Mary calls God “my Savior” (1:47); it’s very personal. Mary was from a Jewish home; the Jews were God’s chosen people. She easily could have thought, “We’re good Jewish people. We keep the feasts and follow the commandments. That’s all I need.” But even though she was a moral young woman from a good family, she knew, even as a teenager, that she needed a Savior. She had personally trusted in God and His Messiah as her Savior.
It’s not enough to know God as your parents’ Savior. It’s certainly not enough to belong to your parents’ church. Christ must be your Savior. That means that you see yourself as a sinner who has broken God’s holy law. You stand guilty and condemned before the bench of His righteous justice. There is nothing you can do to deliver yourself. All you can do is cast yourself on His mercy. That is precisely what you must do. When you do that, you will find that God will become your Savior. It was the man who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” who went down to his house justified before God (Luke 18:13).
Mary’s hymn of praise is shot through with Scripture. It is similar in many ways to Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10), but there are many other similarities to the Psalms and other portions of the Old Testament. Although she was a young girl in a culture that tended to restrict training in the Scriptures to boys, Mary knew the Bible. We’ve already seen that she knew a great deal about God’s attributes and mercy. She knew what God had done in the history of His people, and what He had promised to do in sending His Messiah.
Peter exhorts us, like newborn babes, to long for the pure milk of the Word that we may grow in respect to salvation, if we have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:2, 3). I gained new insight into that verse when I was a young father. I made the mistake of taking our newborn into my arms when I was not wearing a shirt. She saw my nipple, and even though it was surrounded with hair, it looked good enough. She latched onto me, thinking that she would get the milk she craved. I discovered that a newborn goes after her mother’s milk with a vengeance! Have you tasted the Lord’s kindness? There’s a lot more to be had in His Word.
I’m not convinced that there is any specialized distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (1:46, 47). What Mary means is that from the depths of her innermost being, she was exulting in God. She was worshiping God in truth, since her words came right out of Scripture. But she was also worshiping Him in spirit, since her praise came out of her heart. Her emotions were involved, so that her entire being was caught up with the wonder and majesty of God and His grace to her. She expressed it in this song.
It’s no accident that the longest book of the Bible is a song book (Psalms). God loves to hear the praises of His people. He wants us filled with joy as we think about what He has done for us. If you don’t sing, you’d better learn, because in heaven the saints gather before the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Those who have received His mercy will be filled with praise and joy.
We’ve already seen Mary’s big view of God. But note also that she refers to “the humble state of His bondslave” (1:48); and she mentions that God has “exalted those who were humble” (1:52). The word means “lowly.” She also states that those who have received God’s mercy fear Him (1:50). It is the uniform experience of those who have encountered the living God that they are awed by the greatness of His splendor and terrified because of their own puniness and sinfulness in His holy light.
A popular author, who travels around the world putting on seminars and who teaches in a major evangelical seminary, states that we should not see ourselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but rather as saints who occasionally sin (Neil Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness [Regal Books], pp. 44-45). I submit that he does not know God or his Bible. It is the uniform experience both of God’s saints in the Bible and of those who have walked with Him in church history, that the closer they draw to God, the more they despise themselves as insignificant, unworthy sinners. As Calvin explains in the Institutes (1.1.2),
It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.
The more we see how great God is, the more we will sense our own sinfulness, which will lead us to magnify all the more His abundant mercy toward us in Christ.
“He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). This refers primarily to spiritual, not physical, hunger. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Yes, they will be satisfied in God and His abundant grace, yet at the same time, they will still hunger and thirst for more of Him.
But note: the prerequisite for being filled is to be hungry. If you are filled with your own self-righteousness, you are not spiritually hungry. If you think that you’re a basically good person, and that it might be nice to sample a bit of God, that He might help you round out your life, you are not hungry. Hungry people are not cool, confident, have-it-mostly-together sort of people. Hungry people are desperate. They know they will perish if they do not find food soon. It is those who recognize their desperate spiritual condition and cry out, “Save me, Lord, or I perish,” whom God fills. He gives them “good things,” every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). Thus they are satisfied and yet they always long for more of Him.
It would be great if everyone acknowledged his need of God’s salvation and experienced His mercy, as Mary did. But her song makes it clear that some refuse God’s mercy and come under His judgment. To make sure that we are not such, we must look at …
Mary describes these as “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (1:51). Pride is the original sin that brought Satan down. He appealed to Eve’s pride, that she could be like God, and she fell. The Bible declares, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). It’s a serious thing to have God opposed to you! We must join hymn-writer Isaac Watts, who says that looking on the cross where the Prince of Glory died causes him to pour contempt on all his pride.
Not only are those under God’s judgment proud, they are powerful in themselves, but not in God’s sight. They are “rulers” whom He has brought down from their thrones (1:52). Like Nebuchadnezzar, they do not realize that it is God who is “the ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17, 25).
Finally, those under God’s judgment are plentiful in worldly goods, but poor before God (1:53, “rich”; see Luke 12:21). The one who is the object of God’s mercy may be blessed with material goods, but he is deeply aware that he is a steward who will give an account to God. But those under God’s judgment disregard the Lord and squander their wealth on their own pleasure, with no thought for the poor or for God’s purpose.
Note God’s condemnation on these people: God scatters the proud (1:51), brings down the rulers (1:52) and sends the rich away empty-handed (1:53). What frightening words! God does not just neglect or ignore such people. He actively scatters them, brings them down and sends them away empty-handed! You may say, “Why does God do this? Doesn’t He desire that all people be saved?” Yes, He has made provision for all who will come, but they must come on His terms, not theirs.
An article in Newsweek a few years ago (12/17/90) on the baby-boomers who are coming back into the church reported how they were religious consumers, picking and choosing what they want from a church that offers the services they’re looking for. It stated, “They don’t convert—they choose.” Sadly, many churches are catering to the consumer, offering seeker-friendly services.
I hate to break it to you, but God isn’t operating a religious department store! You come to Him His way, as a guilty sinner needing a Savior, or not at all. God doesn’t negotiate a deal. If you repent of your pride and selfishness and sin, and come to the cross, He will pour out His abundant mercy on you. If you cling to your own righteousness and self-esteem and sufficiency, God will send you away empty. And if God sends you away empty, you are empty in the absolute sense of that word! You have nothing to look forward to in eternity but the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” The church at Laodicea professed to be a Christian church. Things seemed to be going fairly well in that church, from their perspective. They said, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s perspective was a bit different: “You do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17). The Lord told them to repent. He said to that church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).
The offer still stands. If you will repent of your sin and cry out to Jesus Christ to save you, God will graciously pour out His mercy on you. Then you will be able to sing Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
© Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation