Singing the Song of Humility

Hadel’s Messiah is one of the greatest musical compositions ever written. A three part redemptive history development of Isaiah’s prophecy. From the coming Redeemer to the reign of Christ, Handel captured the magnificence of what we celebrate during advent. It should come as no surprise to us these are some of the most beautiful and majestic songs ever composed, since the narratives surrounding the birth of the Savior are themselves full of profound redemptive-historical reflections. One such song is that which Mary sings when she is visits her cousin Elizabeth. The result of this trip was an unparalleled redemptive-historical composition that has been commonly denominated, the Magnificat.

What would compel a young, pregnant teenage girl to make an arduous journey in order to stay with her older cousin? Perhaps it was the shame that her parents felt having her in the town in which they lived. After all, their neighbors would most certainly conclude that she had fallen into immorality. Or, maybe she just wanted to talk to someone she knew about what it would be like to mysteriously have a child. Her cousin wasn’t supposed to be able to conceive at her old age; but, the Lord had done the impossible for both Elizabeth and Mary. Whatever the case, the mother of the Savior went to Elizabeth. 

Mary, unlike Zacharias (Luke 1:20), believed the word of the Lord that came to her through the angel Gabriel. She took God at His word when he told her that she, though a virgin, would conceive and bear a son. Elizabeth, together with Mary, believed and gave God great glory for this indescribable gift. Elizabeth praised Mary for the faith that she had in God’s promise. She exclaimed, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). It is the grace of believing God’s word that we are to most admire in other believers and for which we ought to be praising God.

When Mary entered the home of Elizabeth with a greeting about the conception of Christ, the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and her unborn son (the forerunner of the Messiah). The babe lept in the womb when he heard the greeting of the virgin. The news about the Redeemer is the cause of the greatest rejoicing in the souls of believers. Mary also broke out into song—praising God for the salvation that He was bringing to her (Luke 1:46) and to all people (Luke 1:5055-56).

Like Handel’s Messiah, there is a three-part division to the Magnificat. She gives us an anatomy of God—that which God considers with His eyes (Luke 1:48), what He does with His arm (Luke 1:51) and what he declares with His mouth (Luke 1:55). She acknowledged what the birth of the Savior meant for her as a sinner (Luke 1:46-50), what it meant for men of low and high degree (Luke 1:51-53) and what it meant for the rest of the covenant people of God (Luke 1:54-55).

Mary’s Magnificat is an example of what it looks like for someone to be saturated in God’s word. She was hoping in the fulfillment of God’s promises made to Abraham. This song is full of references to Old Testament passages and redemptive historical epochs. Mary is a covenant theologian. She understands the unfolding of God’s redemptive promise. Phil Ryken explains that Mary “either quotes from or alludes to verses from Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. Mary tried to put virtually the whole Bible into her song.” Many have noted that Mary’s song is the last of the Old Testament Psalms and the first of the Christian hymns.

There is a striking similarity between Mary’s Song and another Old Testament song written by a woman who was barren and longing for children. When God finally heard her prayers and answered Hannah by giving her Samuel, she declares,

My heart exults in the Lord;

my strength is exalted in the Lord.…

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;

he brings low and he exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust;

he lifts the needy from the ash heap

to make them sit with princes

and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam. 2:17–8)

This parallel is meant to highlight what the Angel Gabriel had said to Mary at the annunciation: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). God has made the barren fruitful. He has made the virgin conceive the incarnate Son!  

One of the foremost themes of the Magnificat is that of humility. Since God was humbling Himself to knit together for Himself a human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary, it is fitting that Mary, from the outset of this Christian Psalm, would touch upon the theme of humility. The Magnificat is itself a song of humility. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones explained, 

“Mary is full of humility. She isn’t thinking about herself. Mary has seen something that makes her forget herself. God, in the fullness of time, sent forth His Son, born of a woman, made under the law. Mary is rejoicing in what God is doing, this historic event. This climactic action of God himself. She’s filled with a sense of amazement, of worship, adoration and utter astonishment because she sees the inner meaning of the action. She’s got a glimpse of understanding of the whole purpose of salvation, of what God is doing in bringing forth His Son into the world, even out of her womb. You see, the only thing that’s of any value in the sight of God is that which is based upon the understanding of the truth.”

The pervasive references and allusions to humility sets the stage for the humility and humiliation of Christ. The whole of the life and ministry of the Redeemer was a life and ministry of humility. The eternal Son humbled himself by being born, subjecting himself to the demands of God’s law, being derided and rejected by men, undergoing the crucifixion, and being buried. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 27 explains,

“Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

The reason why Mary sang a song of humility is because she was focusing on what God was doing to provide the Savior she needed. Mary had been waiting on God to fulfill the promises that He had made throughout the Old Testament era. Mary doesn’t speak of herself or her privileges because Mary was focused on her need for redemption. Charles Spurgeon noted the significance of the opening of this hymn, when he said, 

“Mary sings, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Savior’. . .She knew that she needed a Savior, and that she needed God for her Savior. . .When we reach the highest point in our devotions, we still need a Savior. . .’God be merciful to me a, sinner,’ is about as big a prayer as I can manage at present; and often my soul prays with such earnestness the dying thief’s prayer that his petition is forced to my lips, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ . .The place of the publican and of the penitent more becomes me, as I think it does the most of us. Oh, yes! we still need a Savior; so, like Mary, we will sing about our Savior; and even if we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we cannot do without the blood of Jesus Christ constantly cleansing us from all sin, for sin we do still.”  

As we receive the truth about Christ from the mouth of God in Scripture, we too rejoice and sing His praises. When we meditate on all that God has done and is doing, we are to appropriate these truths to ourselves and acknowledge what they mean for all who are looking for the redemption God has promised and provided in Christ.

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