A popular Christmas song asks how much Mary knew about what her son, Jesus, would accomplish. Written by Mark Lowry, Mary Did You Know has been covered by popular artists such as Kenny Rogers, Wynonna Judd, Clay Aiken, and Cee Lo Green. In the song, Mary is asked if she knew that her baby boy would walk on water, calm the sea, give sight to the blind, and rule the nations. She is also paradoxically told, “This child that you’ve delivered will soon deliver you.”
New Testament writers don’t directly tell us how much Mary knew about what her son would accomplish. There are strong reasons for believing Mary wasn’t naïve in understanding who the Messiah would be and what he would accomplish. After Gabriel told Mary she would bear a son, the angel told her about Elizabeth, who conceived in her old age (Luke 1:36). Mary quickly traveled to see Elizabeth, who, upon hearing Mary’s greeting, was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied to confirm the angel’s words.
Mary then praised the Lord in what we now call the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55). This section is fascinating. Mary alludes to a wide variety of Old Testament texts, showing she knew the Scriptures and the themes that went along with them. This young girl was well-informed about Messiah’s coming.
What Mary Knew
Studying this passage in light of its Old Testament counterparts, three assertions emerge about what Mary would have known. She would have known the prophesy meant:
1. Both judgment and salvation had come.
Mary begins her psalm of praise, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46–47). The verse points to Habakkuk 3:18: “Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.” Mary is alluding to a text that speaks of the Lord going forth as a warrior to enact judgment on his adversaries and to save his people.
The language of Habakkuk 3 is similar to what’s found both in Jesus’s Olivet Discourse and also the book of Revelation, as well as other apocalyptic passages (cf. Hab. 3:10–12; Matt. 24:7–30; Rev. 6:12–17). The anointed one, or Messiah, is explicitly mentioned in connection with God’s salvation of his people in verse 13.
While God’s judgment on the nations will be terrible, God’s salvation of his people will be wonderful.
The point of the passage is that while God’s judgment on the nations will be terrible, God’s salvation of his people will be wonderful. That’s what led the prophet to exult and rejoice. From the context of Habakkuk, Mary would have understood that the coming of Messiah meant judgment for God’s enemies, but salvation for his people. She may have wondered at the political implications for her first-century society, with Rome viewed as the violent oppressor of the Jews. She likely conceived of Messiah’s coming in terms of political salvation rather than spiritual salvation from sin.
Mary’s song also includes references to God’s salvation in the exodus: “He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Luke 1:51). Two key terms reference God’s saving work during the exodus: God’s arm and his scattering of the proud. Deuteronomy 26:8 recounts how the Lord’s arm was powerful to save: “And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with great terror and with signs and wonders.” God’s outstretched arm was a sign of his power in descending to snatch Israel from Egypt’s enslaving grasp.
Likewise, Moses asked God in Numbers 10:35 to arise and scatter his enemies. These two allusions add to the idea that the Messiah’s coming would mean salvation for God’s people. God would once again stretch out his arm by sending his king into the world to deliver his people and judge his enemies.
2. Injustice would be reversed.
Mary also alludes to the reversal of injustice that would characterize Messiah’s coming:
He has done mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed. (Luke 1:51–53)
The themes of exalting the humble and bringing down the proud may echo Isaiah 2:11–12, 17, where the eschatological terror and splendor of the Lord so humbles the proud that “the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.” The early chapters of Isaiah are filled with social injustice, with rulers acting corruptly. But the coming Messiah would right social wrongs. Corrupt rulers would be displaced as he would “judge between the nations, and render decisions for many peoples” (Isa. 2:4).
The hungry would be fed, but the corrupt elites would receive no more. Mary’s song points to her hope that the Christ’s coming would mean social wrongs would be righted and justice would be established forever.
3. God’s covenant promises were being fulfilled.
Three verses in Mary’s song direct our attention to covenantal promises:
And his mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear him. . . . He has given help to Israel his servant, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever. (Luke 1:50, 54–55)
The Greek term for mercy most likely translates the Hebrew word ḥesed, which depicts God’s lovingkindness, faithfulness, and loyal love. Mary could be pointing back to any number of passages that speak of God’s lovingkindness, but the phrasing in verse 50 alludes particularly to Psalms 100:5 and 103:11:
For the LORD is good; his lovingkindness is everlasting, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Ps. 100:5)
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his lovingkindness toward those who fear him. (Ps. 103:11)
Both allusions show how seriously God takes his promises. His covenant with Israel had not been forgotten or annulled, but would be executed through the Messiah. This is how Mary concludes her psalm. God has remembered his covenant to Israel, and just as he had promised Abraham (and by extension, David), so he would bring it to pass.
One Final Clue
Mary may not have known the specifics of who Jesus would heal or what miracles he would accomplish, but she seems to have had a biblical and theological understanding of what the Messiah’s coming largely meant.
Luke gives one final clue as to her thought process after the shepherds arrive to recount the angelic announcement: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary’s pondering meant connecting what she knew from the Scriptures with what was happening in her life.
It’s clear she didn’t know everything about what Jesus would do. But perhaps the Old Testament allusions in the Magnificat indicate she knew much more than we often assume.
View a special Christmas greeting from Don Carson and learn more about joining us in ministry here.