Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
46. And Mary saith, My soul magnifieth the Lord, 47. And my spirit hath rejoiced 45 in God my Savior. 48. Because he hath looked upon the low condition of his handmaid: for from this time all generations shall call me blessed, 49. Because he who is mighty hath done to me wonderful 46 things: and holy is his name. 50. And his mercy is from generation to generation to them that fear him.
Now follows a remarkable and interesting song of the holy virgin, which plainly shows how eminent were her attainments in the grace of the Spirit. There are three clauses in this song. First, Mary offers solemn thanksgiving for that mercy of God which she had experienced in her own person. Next, she celebrates in general terms God’s power and judgments. Lastly, she applies these to the matter in hand, treating of the redemption formerly promised, and now granted to the church.
46. My soul magnifieth Here Mary testifies her gratitude, as we have already said. But as hypocrites, for the most part, sing the praises of God with open mouth, unaccompanied by any affection of the heart, Mary says that she praises God from an inward feeling of the mind. And certainly they who pronounce his glory, not from the mind, but with the tongue alone, do nothing more than profane his holy name. The words soul and spirit are used in Scripture in various senses, but, when employed together, they denote chiefly two faculties of the soul; spirit being taken for the understanding, and soul for the seat of the affections. To comprehend the meaning of the holy virgin, it must be observed that what is here placed second is first in order; for the excitement of the will of man to praise God must be preceded by a rejoicing of the spirit, 47 as James says, “Is any merry? let him sing psalms,” (Jas 5:13.) Sadness and anxiety lock up the soul, and restrain the tongue from celebrating the goodness of God. When the soul of Mary exults with joy, the heart breaks out in praising God. It is with great propriety, in speaking of the joy of her heart, that she gives to God the appellation of Savior Till God has been recognised as a Savior, the minds of men are not free to indulge in true and full joy, but will remain in doubt and anxiety. It is God’s fatherly kindness alone, and the salvation flowing from it, that fill the soul with joy. In a word, the first thing necessary for believers is, to be able to rejoice that they have their salvation in God. The next ought to follow, that, having experienced God to be a kind Father, they may “offer to him thanksgiving,” (Ps 50:14.) The Greek word σωτὴρ, Savior, has a more extensive signification than the Latin word Servator; for it means not only that he once delivers, but that he is “the Author of eternal salvations” (Heb 5:9.)
48. Because he hath looked She explains the reason why the joy of her heart was founded in God to be, that out of free grace he had looked upon her. By calling herself low she disclaims all merit, and ascribes to the undeserved goodness of God every occasion of boasting. For ταπείνωσις, lowness, does not here denote — as ignorant and uneducated men have foolishly imagined — “submission, or modesty, or a quality of the mind,” but signifies “a mean and despicable condition.” 48 The meaning is, “I was unknown and despised, but that did not prevent God from deigning to cast his eyes upon me.” But if Mary’s lowness is contrasted with excellence — as the matter itself and the Greek word make abundantly plain — we see how Mary makes herself nothing, and praises God alone. And this was not the loud cry of a pretended humility, but the plain and honest statement of that conviction which was engraven on her mind; for she was of no account in the eyes of the world, and her estimation of herself was nothing more.
From this time She announces that this kindness of God will be kept in remembrance throughout all generations But if it is so remarkable, that it ought to be proclaimed every where by the lips of all men, silence regarding it would have been highly improper in Mary, on whom it was bestowed. Now observe, that Mary makes her happiness to consist in nothing else, but in what she acknowledges to have been bestowed upon her by God, and mentions as the gift of his grace. “I shall be reckoned blessed,” she says, “through all ages.” Was it because she sought this praise by her own power or exertion? On the contrary, she makes mention of nothing but of the work of God. Hence we see how widely the Papists differ from her, who idly adorn her with their empty devices, and reckon almost as nothing the benefits which she received from God. 49 They heap up an abundance of magnificent and very presumptuous titles, such as, “Queen of Heaven, Star of Salvation, Gate of Life, Sweetness, Hope, and Salvation.” Nay more, to such a pitch of insolence and fury have they been hurried by Satan, that they give her authority over Christ; 50 for this is their pretty song, “Beseech the Father, Order the Son.” 51 None of these modes of expression, it is evident, proceeded from the Lord. All are disclaimed by the holy virgin in a single word, when she makes her whole glory to consist in acts of the divine kindness. If it was her duty to praise the name of God alone, who had done to her wonderful things, no room is left for the pretended titles, which come from another quarter. Besides, nothing could be more disrespectful to her, than to rob the Son of God of what is his own, to clothe her with the sacrilegious plunder.
Let Papists now go, and hold us out as doing injury to the mother of Christ, because we reject the falsehoods of men, and extol in her nothing more than the kindness of God. Nay, what is most of all honorable to her we grant, and those absurd worshippers refuse. 52 We cheerfully acknowledge her as our teacher, and obey her instruction and commands. There certainly is no obscurity in what she says here; but the Papists throw it aside, trample it as it were under foot, and do all they can to destroy the credit of her statements? 53 Let us remember that, in praising both men and angels, there is a general rule laid down, to extol in them the grace of God; as nothing is at all worthy of praise which did not proceed from Him.
He who is mighty hath done to me wonderful things She informs us, that the reason why God did not in this case employ the assistance of others was, to make his own power more illustrious. And here we must recall what she formerly said, that God had looked upon her, though she was mean and despicable. Hence it follows, that those praises of Mary are absurd and spurious which do not altogether exalt the power and free grace of God.
49. And holy is his name This is the second part of the song, in which the holy virgin celebrates in general terms the power, judgments, and mercy of God. This clause must not be viewed as a part of the preceding one, but must be read separately. Mary had extolled the grace of God, which she had experienced in her own person. Hence she takes occasion to exclaim, that holy is his name, and his mercy endures throughout all generations The name of God is called holy, because it is entitled to the highest reverence; and whenever the name of God is mentioned, it ought immediately to remind us of his adorable majesty.
The next clause, which celebrates the perpetuity of the Divine mercy, is taken from that solemn form of covenant,
“I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations, for an everlasting covenant,”
“who keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations,” (De 7:9.)
By these words, he not only declares, that he will always be like himself, but expresses the favor which he continues to manifest towards his own people after their death, loving their children, and their children’s children, and all their posterity. Thus he followed the posterity of Abraham with uninterrupted kindness; for, having once received their father Abraham into favor, he had made with him “an everlasting covenant.”
But as not all who are descended from Abraham according to the flesh are the true children of Abraham, Mary confines the accomplishment of the promise to the true worshippers of God, to them that fear him: as David also does:
“The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; to such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them,”
(Ps. 103:17, 18.)
While God promises that he will be merciful to the children of the saints through all generations, this gives no support to the vain confidence of hypocrites: for falsely and groundlessly do they boast of God as their Father, who are the spurious children of the saints, and have departed from their faith and godliness. 54 This exception sets aside the falsehood and arrogance of those who, while they are destitute of faith, are puffed up with false pretenses to the favor of God. A universal covenant of salvation had been made by God with the posterity of Abraham; but, as stones moistened by the rain do not become soft, so the promised righteousness and salvation are prevented from reaching unbelievers through their own hardness of heart. Meanwhile, to maintain the truth and firmness of his, promise, God has preserved “a seed,” (Ro 9:29.)
Under the fear of the Lord is included the whole of godliness and religion, and this cannot exist without faith. But here an objection may be urged. What avails it that God is called merciful, if no man finds him to be so unless he deserves his favor? For, if the mercy of God is upon them that fear him, godliness and a good conscience procure his grace to men, and in this way men go before his grace by their own merits. I reply, this is a part of his mercy, that he bestows on the children of the godly fear and reverence for his majesty. This does not point out the commencement of his grace, as if God were idly looking down from heaven, to see who are worthy of it. All that is intended is, to shake off the perverse confidence of hypocrites, that they may not imagine God to be bound to them, because they are the children of saints according to the flesh: the divine covenant having another and very different object, that God may have always a people in the world, by whom he is sincerely worshipped.
“Exultavit;” — “mon esprit s'est esiouy.”
“Car avant que la volonte de l' homme soit mise en train de louer Dieu, il faut qu'il y ait devant une alaigrete et resiouissance d'esprit.” — “For before the will of man is set agoing to praise God, there must be previously a cheerfulness and rejoicing of spirit.”
“Les Latins, traduisans ce passage du Grec, ont us, du mot d'Humi- lite, lequel les barbares et sots parleurs de Latin, prennent ici comme en Francois, pour une facon de faire contraire a l'arrogance, assavoir quand une personne s'estime rien: mais il se prend autrement, assavoir pour Petitesse; c'est a dire, condition basse et meprisee.” — “The Latins, translating this passage from the Greek, have used the word Humility, which barbarians and fools talking Latin take here, as in French, for a manner of acting opposed to pride: but it is taken differently, namely, for Meanness, that is, a low and despicable condition.”
“En cela nous voyons coment les Papistes accordent mal avec elle, lesquels sans jugement la parent de nouvelles louanges forgees en leurs cerveaux; et cependant ne tiennent quasi conte do tous les biens que’lle a eus de Dieu.” — “In this we see how ill the Papists agree with her, who without judgment adorn her with new praises forged in their own brains; and yet make no account, as it were, of all the benefits which she had from God.”
“Qui plus est, Satan les a transportez en une telle rage et forcenerie, qui’ls n’ont point eu de honte du luy attributer l’authorite de commander a Christ.” — “What is more, Satan has carried them away to such a rage and fury, that they are not ashamed to attribute to her authority to command Christ.”
“Roga Patrem, jube Natum.”
“En ce faisant, nous luy accordons ce qui luy est le plus honorable, en lieu que ces habiles gens, qui la servent a contrepoil, l’en despouillent.” — “In doing this we grant to her what is the most honorable, while those clever people, who serve her the wrong way, take it from her.”
“Fidem ejus dictis abrogant;” — “dementent la vierge en tant qu'en eux est;” — “as far as lies in them, they make the virgin a liar.”
“Car c'est a tort et fausses enseignes qu'ils se glorifient d'avoir Dieu pour leur Pere, puis qu’ils sont enfans bastards des saincts, et ont desvoye de leur foy et sainctete.” — “For it is improperly and under false colors that they boast of having God for their Father, since they are bastard children of the saints, and have departed from their faith and holiness.”