And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (1:38)
In addition to the well-known story of Abraham and Sarah, Mary was familiar with another Old Testament account of a miraculous conception that must have come into her mind. First Samuel 1:1–2:10 records the story of Samuel’s birth to Hannah. In 1:10–11 Hannah, who was barren (1:2, 5), appealed to God for a son:
She, greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.”
Like Hannah, who called herself God’s “maidservant,” Mary also saw herself as the bondslave of the Lord (cf. v. 48). The Greek word rendered bondslave (doulē, which always should be accurately translated “slave”) is the same one used in the Septuagint version of 1 Samuel 1:11, thus linking Mary’s submissive attitude to Hannah’s. Her humble response demonstrated Mary’s willing submission to God’s unfolding purpose. She saw herself as nothing more than His willing, humble slave, and responded by saying, “May it be done to me according to your word.” She did not ask about Joseph, who obviously would know that the baby was not his. Mary would thus have to face the stigma of unwed motherhood and the appearance of having committed adultery—the punishment for which was death by stoning [Deut. 22:13–21; Lev. 20:10; cf. John 8:3–5].) But in humble, obedient faith Mary willingly trusted God to vindicate her (cf. Matt. 1:19–25).
One of the Roman Catholic Church’s most egregious errors is its turning of this self-proclaimed humble slave of God into the exalted queen of heaven. Such worship of Mary, which would have appalled and horrified her, is nothing less than idolatry. There is no queen of heaven, only the true and eternal King (Pss. 29:10; 47:8; Dan. 4:37; cf. Matt. 11:25; Acts 17:24), the triune God.
Catholicism’s elevation of Mary finds no support in Scripture; the concept of the “queen of heaven” does appear in the Old Testament in connection with ancient pagan religion. The idea derives from Assyrian and Babylonian beliefs and practices prevalent during Jeremiah’s time in apostate Judah. Their idolatry caused God through the prophet to pronounce judgment on His people:
“As for you [Jeremiah], do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you. Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods in order to spite Me. Do they spite Me?” declares the Lord. “Is it not themselves they spite, to their own shame?” Therefore thus says the Lord God, “Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched.” (7:16–20)
The “queen of heaven” (v. 18) was the pagan goddess Ishtar (also called Ashtoreth and Astarte), the wife of Baal or Molech. Because those false deities symbolized fertility, worship of them also involved prostitution.
Later, God once again used Jeremiah to confront His rebellious people over this issue. Defiantly, they replied,
“As for the message that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths, by burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, just as we ourselves, our forefathers, our kings and our princes did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food and were well off and saw no misfortune. But since we stopped burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have met our end by the sword and by famine.” “And,” said the women, “when we were burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and were pouring out drink offerings to her, was it without our husbands that we made for her sacrificial cakes in her image and poured out drink offerings to her?” (44:16–19)
In response, the prophet solemnly warned them of God’s impending judgment:
Then Jeremiah said to all the people, including all the women, “Hear the word of the Lord, all Judah who are in the land of Egypt, thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, as follows: ‘As for you and your wives, you have spoken with your mouths and fulfilled it with your hands, saying, “We will certainly perform our vows that we have vowed, to burn sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her.” Go ahead and confirm your vows, and certainly perform your vows!’ Nevertheless hear the word of the Lord, all Judah who are living in the land of Egypt, ‘Behold, I have sworn by My great name,’ says the Lord, ‘never shall My name be invoked again by the mouth of any man of Judah in all the land of Egypt, saying, “As the Lord God lives.” Behold, I am watching over them for harm and not for good, and all the men of Judah who are in the land of Egypt will meet their end by the sword and by famine until they are completely gone. Those who escape the sword will return out of the land of Egypt to the land of Judah few in number. Then all the remnant of Judah who have gone to the land of Egypt to reside there will know whose word will stand, Mine or theirs.’ ” (44:24–28)
To worship Mary as if she were the queen of heaven is to mix paganism with biblical truth and to blaspheme the true King of heaven. To proclaim that Mary is co-redemptrix and mediatrix of saving grace (cf. the discussion of Catholicism’s unbiblical view of Mary in chapter 4 of this volume), only compounds its false, syncretistic view of her.
Mary’s dramatic encounter with the angel Gabriel ended with this short, simple postscript: And the angel departed from her. His mission accomplished, Gabriel returned to the presence of God. The God-man was going to be born; the only begotten Son of God, Jesus, who would save His people from their sins, the divine Redeemer, the holy offspring, the divine King who will reign over a kingdom that will last forever.
This account demonstrates that God’s promises will be fulfilled, as they were in Mary’s life. It also reveals that the sovereign God accomplishes His purposes through His willing and obedient slaves, as He did through Mary. Without regard for the implications and potential risks, Mary faithfully rested in the sovereign purpose of her Savior and God. That is her true magnificence.
God is still doing His work today, if not through visible miracles, then spiritually through His people who trust Him (Isa. 26:3; cf. Prov. 29:25), obey His Word (Ps. 119:17, 67, 101; Matt. 7:24; Luke 11:28; James 1:25), and humbly submit as obedient slaves to His will (Josh. 24:24; Ps. 119:35; Eccles. 12:13; Phil. 2:12–13).
38 Mary’s exemplary attitude of servanthood recalls that of Hannah when she was praying for a son (1 Sa 1:11, where the LXX also has doulē, “servant,” GK 1527). Nothing is said about the relation of Mary’s submission to her consciousness of the shame a premarital pregnancy could bring her. Her servanthood is not a cringing slavery but a submission to God that in OT times characterized genuine believers and that should characterize believers today (cf. v. 48). Understandably, Mary doubtless felt empathy with Hannah’s sense of being at the Lord’s disposal in a part of life over which a woman before modern times had little or no control. Mary’s trusting submission at this point in her life may be compared with her attitude toward her son later on (cf. Jn 2:5).
1:38. In humble submission, Mary was now ready to serve God and follow his will. As pregnancy had lifted Elizabeth’s disgrace it would soon bring the virgin Mary disgrace. Both agreed to do what God required (see v. 25). With his mission accomplished, the angel left.
38. Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May it be with me according to your word! Instead of “handmaid” some insist on the translation “slave.” Most translators and commentators have concluded that in the present context that rendering would not be felicitous.
This conclusion is based upon the fact that with the word slave we generally associate the ideas of forced subjection, involuntary service, and (frequently) harsh treatment. On the other hand, Mary’s final reaction was the very opposite. “May it be with me according to your word” reminds one of the humble and fully surrendered attitude of the “Servant” in Isaiah’s great “Servant” passages (42:1–9; 49:1–9a; 50:4–11; and 52:13–53:12). She is and is eager to be “the handmaid of the Lord,” ready to do his will and to be used for carrying out his purpose.
In view of the story recorded in Matt. 1:18, 19 this was not easy. Mary knew that becoming pregnant at this particular time, before her marriage to Joseph had been consummated, would expose her to painful criticism and ridicule; perhaps to something even worse (see Deut. 22:23 f.). But she made a complete surrender. She placed herself, body and soul, at the disposal of the God who loved her and who, by means of this promised pregnancy and childbirth, was bestowing upon her an inestimable blessing.
Gabriel’s mission had been fully accomplished. So we are not surprised to read: Then the angel left her.