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Luke 1

The "Magnificat" of Mary

51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. 52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. 53 The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, 55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Prophecy of Zechariah

He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, 70 even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, 72 to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant 73 and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, 74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Both of these passage speak of what seems to be deliverance from Israel's political enemies (Jewish kings such as the Herods and foreign enemies such as the Romans), in accord with the traditional Jewish understanding of the messiah's mission. Is that how Mary and Zechariah understood Jesus mission at first? Or are the references Israel's enemies and overthrown kings to be understood in a more spiritualized sense? Or perhaps these are merely expressions of what God has done in the pass rather than prophetic utterances concerning Jesus and John the Baptist?

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There is no question that there were many prophecies about the Messiah as Son of David, the promised conquering King of Israel, eg,

  • 2 Sam 7:12, 13 - And when your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for My Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
  • Isa 9:7 - Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from that time and forevermore.
  • Ps 2:6 - "I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain."
  • Ps 45:6, 7 - Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever, and justice is the scepter of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you above your companions with the oil of joy. See also Dan 2:44.

however, all the NT references to the fulfilment of these prophecies points to a spiritual king of the spiritual kingdom of spiritual Israel:

  • Luke 1:32, 33 – [Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end!”
  • Rom 1:3 - regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David,
  • John 1:49 - “Rabbi,” Nathanael answered, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” See also Mark 11:7-11.
  • Matt 27:37 - Above His head they posted the written charge against Him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
  • Heb 1:8, 9 - But about the Son He says: “Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever, and justice is the scepter of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You above Your companions with the oil of joy.”

Note the prophecy of Mary in Luke 1:51-55 (quoted by the OP):

51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. 52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. 53 The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, 55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This is in direct fulfilment of the prophecies of the OT and its associated Israelite covenant being not a physical kingdom but a matter of the "heart" (Deut 6:5, 10:12, 16, 11:18, Ps 40:8, Jer 24:7, 31:33, 34, 32:38-40, Eze 11:19, 18:31, 36:26) and NOT mere regulations (1 Sam 15:22, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Isa 1:10-17, Jer 6:3-6, 20, Hos 6:6, Micah 6:6-8).

Jesus' beatitudes in Matt 5 also reinforce this point.

The prophecy of Zechariah presents even more strongly. Note the choice of vocabulary:

  1. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and redeemed His people.
  2. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David,
  3. as He spoke through His holy prophets, those of ages past,
  4. salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
  5. to show mercy to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant,
  6. the oath He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
  7. deliverance from hostile hands, that we may serve Him without fear,
  8. in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our lives.
  9. And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him,
  10. to give to His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
  11. because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the Dawn will visit us from on high,
  12. to shine on those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Thus, the prophecy of Zechariah involves a salvific emphasis on redemption and forgiveness of sins.

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  • +1 - Your take on Mary's prophecy is useful but what about Zechariah's? what I'm trying to get to here is what Mary and Zechariah thought. Did they understand their utterances in terms of the Christian understanding of the messiah's role or the Jewish one? Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 0:58
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    @DanFefferman - Jesus uses the word "enemies" which he later said, "were the members of his own household" - not political enemies. He emphasizes this say that the "horn" normally a symbol of political and military power, is here, a "horn of salvation".
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 1:02
  • In Christian theology salvation is spiritual, but here it seems to me to refer to deliverance in a physical sense -- especially given such phrases as salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.. rescued from the hand of enemies. These are not members of one's extended family. Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 5:08
  • @DanFefferman - perhaps, but "holiness and righteousness" tips the scale in the other direction, especially in view of Jesus' actual ministry.
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 5:10
  • happy to settle for "perhaps." I'm a great believer in uncertainty when it comes to non-essential things. Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 13:42
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If we avoid over-exegesis of certain words, such as 'rulers' in Luke 1:52, 'enemies' in Luke 1:71;74, we may find the theme of Mary's song is 'the mercy of the Lord', and the theme of Zechariah's Song is 'the salvation of the Lord'. By focusing on these themes, we may have a better understanding of the messages in these songs.

Mary's Song: Luke 1:46-55 NIV

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

Zechariah's Song: Luke 1:68-79

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— 72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

If traditional Jewish people believe that the Messiah is a political leader who will deliver them from their enemies, then they might expect the Messiah to have military might, against the 'rulers' and 'enemies' politically and militarily in the earthly realm. However, according to John 12:34, the Jewish understand the Messiah is a divine figure, as they said, "We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever".

Therefore, 'rulers' and 'enemies' are better to be understood in a more general sense, referring to those who oppose the Lord's people.

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It is interesting that Mary's doxology in Luke 1 involved a Spirit-inspired recollection of the Lord God's saving acts towards Israel in centuries past. Despite the miracles currently taking place with Elizabeth and herself, the connection she made majored on what miracles of grace had taken place in the past. Yes, back then, such help was to deliver Israel from political enemies and oppression. Yet she does not say that God will do the same again regarding present political enemies and oppression. She was thrilled at how God had done great things to her, a lowly handmaiden. She spoke of God exalting lowly people and showing mercy to those fearing his name. She had faith that he would, in mercy, help Israel (verses 54-55).

It is interesting to then compare Zechariah's doxology at the birth of his son, John, once he spoke in faith and his tongue was loosened. His outpouring of praise is also Spirit-inspired but is called a prophecy (verse 67). It speaks of God saving Israelites from their enemies and all that hate them, so that, once delivered, they will serve God without fear. Then he prophesied regarding his baby son, that he would "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways" (verse 76) and give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the remission of their sins (verse 77).

It simply is not possible for us to know whether Mary or Zechariah had literal, political understandings in their minds. Mary observed many things but kept them hidden in her heart (Luke 2:19 & 51), and we don't hear anything further regarding Zechariah.

Even after three years of following Jesus, being taught by him, his disciples still did not twig that the fulfilment of those prophecies was not about political deliverance from those who hated them. They kept thinking that would happen. Even after Jesus' resurrection, they asked him if he was going to restore again the kingdom to Israel. He had to redirect their thinking (Acts 1:6-8).

With the advantage of all the books of the Christian Greek scriptures, and the passage of 2,000 more years, we have (or should have) a clear grasp of what was being prophesied by Mary and Zechariah. We know (especially from the last set of prophecies in Revelation) that there is yet a time to come when Christ will return in spectacular, kingly glory, to deal with all enemies on Earth. The nations are actually being 'dealt with' right now by the outpouring of judgments from heaven, which will climax in the Day of Resurrection and Judgment.

This means that the answer is not an "either, or" one. Christ is a spiritual saviour who will demonstrate his political messiahship sometime in the future, and that will be the fulfilment of Psalm 2.

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