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Mary’s Song

The announcement

“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her,”Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give 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 1:26-33)

The words of Gabriel filled her with awe, some fear, and wonderment. She, a virgin, would conceive and bear “the Son of the Highest!” Still, bolstered by her faith and trust, she managed to answer, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (verse 38).

John MacArthur, in his book, Twelve Extraordinary Women (2005), wrote, “There’s no evidence that Mary ever brooded over the effects her pregnancy would have on her reputation. She instantly, humbly, and joyfully submitted to God’s will without further doubt or question. …Her great joy over the Lord’s plan for her would soon be very evident” (page 114).

Miracle and blessing x two

Mary was not the only one touched by a miracle. Her relative, Elizabeth (whom some say could have been in her eighties), would also bear a son—this after having endured a lifetime of barrenness. These two, John and Jesus, would work in tandem, each fulfilling his awesome part of God’s unfolding plan.

Mary’s heart song

Her heart full of awe and reverence, Mary rejoiced with what is now known as “the song of Mary,” or her “song of thanksgiving.”[1]Perhaps its inspiration came to her as she walked from Nazareth to south of Jerusalem where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived. The long walk allowed plenty of time for pondering the angel’s words.

view of Nazareth

view of Nazareth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not capable?

Some may wonder if a young unschooled girl was capable of composing such a magnificent song. It reflected knowledge of scripture and Old Testament concepts and phrases,[2] but she had not attended a synagogue school—that was reserved for boys. She must have learned it at home.

Jewish parents strove to provide a “well-rounded education” for their daughters and sons. Synagogue school for boys supplemented what was taught to all children at home: practical skills and “wisdom centered around one’s relationship with God.”[3] The major concern of Jewish parents was that their children come to “know the living God.”[4]

“Familiarity with the OT was not at that time so unusual for a pious Jewess like Mary as to bar her from consideration as its author. Moreover, it reflects qualities suitable to the mother of the Lord” ( Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 8, page 835). This commentary notes the “ability of people in ancient times to absorb and remember the spoken word, especially the biblical word.”

It is likely that Mary and her siblings had a strong foundation in the Old Testament scriptures and an understanding of their relationship to God.

Offering praise

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

 Mary began by magnifying God.  “The verb megalunein…signifies ‘to celebrate with words, to extol with praises.’This is the only way in which God can be magnified, or made great; for, strictly speaking, nothing can be added to God, for he is infinite and eternal; therefore the way to magnify him is to show forth and celebrate those acts in which he has manifested his greatness.”[5]

Mary offered humble reverence:

For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; for behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and Holy is His name (verse 48).

 Highly favored

God favored her with a unique role in human history. She would be remembered for it. Things would never be the same after that. Some commentators state that Mary’s praise of God’s power in verses 51-53 refers to the past and the future. “These verses portray a ‘reversal’ in the end times, when those who have abused power will be judged and those who have suffered persecution will be exalted. Mary was looking forward to the day when God’s people are no longer oppressed, but are instead blessed by the Lord. God’s strength with His arm figuratively describes His activity and power as Savior of His people.”[6]

Mary understood her role in the promises God made to Abraham:

He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever (verses 54-55).

 Happily blessed

The word “blessed,” from the Greek makarios, conveys being especially favored, happy and privileged. Gabriel stated that Mary was blessed among women (Luke 1:28). Three times Elizabeth used the word “blessed”: blessed among women, blessed the fruit in her womb, blessed in believing (verses 42-45). Mary recognized she would be remembered as a woman “blessed.”

Undoubtedly, she enjoyed many happy hours with her baby. She may have been an especially joyful and grateful mother. Her natural love for the infant Jesus was enriched by God’s love for His Son through her. What a pleasure it must have been to hold her child, to look in his eyes, to see his first steps.

However, the state of being blessed referred to by Gabriel, Elizabeth and Mary herself related to her privilege of bearing “the Son of the Highest,” the “Son of God” (verses 32, 35), and not necessarily to her happiness.

Why a “song”?

Sometimes the use of certain words leads to questionable impressions. For instance, translators have labeled Mary’s exaltation as a “song.”[7] And indeed through the ages her words have been incorporated into hundreds of musical compositions in various forms; they figure prominently in the liturgy of various denominations even today. These hymns or “canticles” can be sung or spoken,  and customarily have musical accompaniment.

Did Mary set out to compose a song with future use or presentation in mind? The Bible account does not give that indication. Rather it would seem her words were a spontaneous outpouring of a deep devotion to God–a prayer, if you will–which somehow Luke was able to quote in his Gospel account.

Upon reflection

I believe Mary composed the song herself, that her parents instructed her in the ways of God, that she loved the scriptures. To me, her betrothal signifies a sound-minded, realistic appreciation for marriage and family. Because her song touches on prophetic themes, I believe God inspired her words.—Mary Hendren (with Karen Meeker)

 


[1] Luke 1:46-55

[2] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, note on Mary’s song, p. 835.

[3] “Childhood and Adolescence,” Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 452.

[4] Ibid, p. 453.

[5] Adam Clarke Commentary, note on Luke 1:46, Online Bible.

[6] NKJV Study Bible, Second Edition, note on Luke 1:50-53.

[7] Did you ever wonder where the chapter and section headings found in Bible translations came from? “With the exception of the titles in Psalms, the Bible’s authors didn’t write their books of Bible with chapter or section headings in mind. They were added later by translators in order to help organize and divide the Bible into easier to digest pieces.

You’ll note headings in most English translations of the Bible, though they do vary across different translations. For example: Genesis 1 begins with the heading: “The beginning” in the New International Version 1984 translation, “The Account of Creation” in the New Living Translation, and there’s no header at all in the King James Version. A side by side comparison of Genesis 1 in five translations easily highlights the differences in section headings.” http://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2012/01/section-headings-in-the-bible/

The sounds of music

In a past post, I referred to an artist’s representation of travelers in route to Jerusalem to observe a Holy Day. While pictures and the descriptions offered by various authors are helpful, there is something missing—the sounds of worship and jubilation.  I regret I can’t flip a switch, and give the reader a sight-and-sound experience, first century-style; I can, however, present examples of how music played a prominent part in the worship of God.

Some early expressions

  • To begin, let’s revisit a scene we all know well—when God delivered Israel from Egypt: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song…” (Exodus 15:1); “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (verse 20).
  • Deborah’s song in Judges 5 after Israel prevailed against Jabin, the king of Canaan.
  • Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is also referred to as her “song,” or psalm of thanksgiving and praise, by several commentaries, including Barnes’ Notes, Keil & Delitzsch, and Adam Clarke’s.
  • When King David purposed to bring the ark of God back to Zion, he and “all the house of Israel played music before the Lord on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, and on stringed instruments, and on tambourines, and on sistrums, and on cymbals” (2 Samuel 6:5).
  • In my KJV Bible the heading for Luke 1:42 reads: “Mary’s song of thanksgiving.”

All these examples lead me to conclude music was very much a part of an individual’s act of worship. (I believe that holds true today.)

Special music

It is no wonder that psalms—whether chanted or sung—were a part of the three festival seasons. Mary Ellen Chase, in her book, The Psalms for the Common Reader (1962), writes about a group of psalms commonly referred to as “Psalms of Ascent,” “Psalms of Degrees,” or in her terms, “pilgrim songs.” These are Psalms 120 through 134. She says, “No other type of psalm, especially in terms of human significance, rivals or perhaps equals in appeal that type known as the pilgrim song. As its title suggests, it was a psalm sung by those who had journeyed from their homes, sometimes in distant places, to Jerusalem for one or more of the great festivals of the year” (page 58).

The song of Ascents appears in Hebrew and Engl...

The song of Ascents appears in Hebrew and English on the walls at the entrance to the City of David, Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A note in The Woman’s Study Bible regarding Psalm 120 says, “They [the songs of ascent] probably were sung by worshipers as they went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the great festivals each year.”

Anne Punton writes, “What did Jesus see as he looked around the Temple during Succot? The altar of sacrifice was decorated with willow branches. Processions of worshippers circuited the altar waving willow branches while choirs of Levites sang psalms to instrumental accompaniment” (The World Jesus Knew, 1996, page 113).

The importance of music

Musical training was a priority in some families.  “Music was played for all festivals and festivities, often as an accompaniment to singing or dancing. As a part of their education some Jewish children were taught to play one or more musical instruments, including the cymbals, flute and lyre” (Jesus and His Times, Reader’s Digest, page 154). The chapter continues, “In addition, a girl would probably have learned to sing and dance, and to play on an instrument….Music was permitted and even encouraged, provided that it was connected with religious festivities” (page 155).

One of my favorites

Psalm 122, a song of degrees by David, seems to embody the heartsong of all who traveled year after year to observe the commanded festivals in Jerusalem.  I only wish I could have heard it sung.

A Song of Ascents. Of David.

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go into the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet have been standing
Within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem is built
As a city that is compact together,
4 Where the tribes go up,
The tribes of the LORD,
To the Testimony of Israel,
To give thanks to the name of the LORD.
5 For thrones are set there for judgment,
The thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
8 For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
9 Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good.

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