The Songs of Mary and Zechariah are almost unintelligible when they are read with modern theological presuppositions. These texts speak of the abasement of kings, the exaltation of the lowly, the defeat of God’s enemies, and the fulfillment of divine promises to Israel. They have little if anything to do with justification by faith or the Christmas story as we known it.
And yet, Luke positions these psalms at the beginning of his two part volume. They are intended to summarize and interpret all that will occur in his narrative. According to Luke, in Jesus God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones” and “shown the strength of his arm.”
One Christian interpretative method attempts to spiritualize this language. It is Satan who is removed from his throne in the triumph of Christ over sin and death. It is the faithful believers who are raised to heaven and filled with good things after death.
This is, however, not what Luke is doing with the Songs of Mary and Zechariah. The seemingly historical, political, and militaristic language contained in them is just that: historical, political, and militaristic. So the first step toward understanding such language requires us to return to Luke’s source, the song of Hannah (1 Samuel 21-10).
Hannah functions in the narrative of 1 & 2 Samuel as the harbinger of the Israelite monarchy. Through the life of her son Samuel, God will “break the bows of the mighty” and “raise up the poor from the ash heap… to inherit a seat of honor” (1 Samuel 2:4, 8). God will “cut off the wicked” and “judge the ends of the earth” (2:9-10). He will accomplish all this by giving “strength to the king” and exalting “the power of His anointed one” (2:10). Hannah’s song therefore looks ahead to the prophetic ministry of Samuel. Through him God will authorize David to not only rule over the tribes of Israel, but to defend the people from hostile foreign nations. The same political themes are struck again in the promises given to David in 2 Samuel 7. The song of Hannah thus introduces a powerful historical narrative that will climax in the rule of David and Solomon only to be all but extinguished by the Babylonian Exile and subsequent subjugation under pagan empires (the feeling is summed up well by Psalm 89) .
Luke then, through his imitation of Hannah’s Song, is identifying Jesus as the inheritor of the promises to David. Luke conceives of these promises in the same ways Hannah and the Deuteronomistic Historians did. The political and historical implications of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and return are integral to his gospel story. Jesus will receive “the holy and sure blessings of David” at the right hand of God (Acts 13:34). God will again fix a day of judgement and establish His king as judge (Acts 17:30-21; 24:25). A new monarchy, the Kingdom of God, will be replace the kingdoms of the nations (Luke 19:11-27). In the words of Psalm 2, Jesus will inherit the nations from his father (Acts 13:32-33, cf. 4:25-27).
One approach to this data is to push its fulfillment back to the end of time. This reading is undercut by the contemporary political issue addressed by Mary and Zechariah. Their sentiment is expressed in the words of 2 Esdras 6:57-59, a text written shortly after the destruction of the second Temple.
And now, O Lord, these nations, which are reputed to be as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we your people, whom you have called your firstborn, only begotten, zealous for you, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?
Mary and Zechariah do not rejoice over God’s defeat of evil at the end of time. They rejoice because they see the domination of their people finally coming to a swift end. The target of the Lukan songs is therefore the pagan imperial regime that subjugates God’s people (either conceived of as Israel as a whole or as the righteous remnant of Israel). This is the last and most powerful beast to be defeated before the kingdom is handed over to the faithful people of the most high. Through the agency of the son of man, the kingdom represented by the beast will be undone and replaced.
The kingship and dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them. (Daniel 7:27)
This pagan hegemony of the known world is the question posed; a new monarchy and a new day of judgment is the solution offered through the Messiah. Just as Hannah looked out and saw the security and justice God would win for Israel through David, so did Mary and Zechariah spy the coming horizon, the end pagan primacy over God’s people through King Jesus.