In 1984, Mark Lowry, who was probably better known for his comedy at the time, penned the lyrics to the beloved Christmas tune, “Mary, Did You Know?” This lullaby-ish song has been performed by major award-winning artists, such as Carrie Underwood, Pentatonix, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers, and it even spawned a musical of the same name.
The song imagines Mary holding the newborn Jesus, and through three verses it asks Mary if she knew certain details about who her child was and what He would do. In recent years, many Christians have criticized the song, and some have even mocked it, because they believe that Mary obviously knew about the identity of her child. Thus, by asking the question, the songwriter is apparently calling into question what Scripture says that Mary knew. A few of the harsh criticisms over the past couple of years have misrepresented the text, and after seeing some lyrics mocking the song earlier today (see below), I decided to write this post to dive deeper into the text and see whether this popular tune deserves the criticism it has received.
One of the more respectful critiques is titled “Yes, Mary Knew” by Joy Clarkson on the Christianity Today website. She points to two criticisms of the song:
1. It comes across as condescending toward Mary.
2. Yes, Mary knew that her child was the Messiah, so the questions don’t need to be asked.
In reference to the first point, Clarkson explains that to some, the song comes across as a sort of “theological mansplaining.” That is, the songwriter assumes that he must tell Mary all these things about Mary. However, this does not strike me as the mood of the song at all. Instead, the song seems to be respectful, and I’ve always thought the intent of the questions to be contemplative, similar to how, after the shepherds visited, Mary pondered “these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). And of course, the song is not truly directed at Mary since she passed away nearly two millennia ago. It was written for people today to reflect on who Jesus is.
The first point has also upset some Roman Catholic writers, such as Fr. Robert McTeigue, who wrote an article bearing the subtitle, “The hymn that cancels Christmas.” I’m quite certain that was not Lowry’s intent when he wrote the lyrics. How does this song cancel Christmas? In McTeigue’s view as a Roman Catholic, the biggest problem lies in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza: “Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new? This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.” Roman Catholic theology views Mary as being sinless, so she would not need to be made new and would not need deliverance.
Protestants do not agree with Catholicism’s view of Mary’s sinlessness for several reasons.1 Putting aside the Protestant/Catholic debate about Mary, which is not the main point of this post, let’s look at the second objection: that Mary knew her baby was the Messiah, so there’s no point in asking the questions. Some of those who critique this position have been unnecessarily harsh while condemning the song, while others have mocked it. For example, a picture is making the rounds on Facebook showing “lyrics” to a parody of the song.
“Mary Freaking Knew”
Mary freaking knew, that her baby boy would one day rule the nations.
Mary freaking knew, that her baby boy was Lord of all creation.
Yes she knew! Read Luke 1, you fool, she sang about it then.
It helps, if when you’re reading, you listen to WOMEN!!!!
While this was intended to be funny, I found it to be rather baseless and its tone to be obnoxious. The criticism assumes both points mentioned by Clarkson. It calls Lowry a fool for writing his lyrics because “Mary freaking knew.” And it assumes that Lowry, and probably all those who like the song, don’t “listen to women,” which is an absurd point to draw from these lyrics.
This criticism seems to assume far too much about the song and about Mary’s understanding of the situation. While the song does essentially ask whether Mary knew Jesus to be the Messiah, this is not all it asks. Critics also seem to think Mary fully understood everything about the Messiah.
Let’s look at the lyrics to the song and see it if deserves so many harsh rebukes. Remember, the setting of the song is shortly after Jesus was born, so the things Mary learned from Simeon and Anna at the Temple were not known to her yet. The lyrics will be italicized and bolded, while my comments will follow in regular font.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
There is no indication in Scripture that Mary could have or should have known that Jesus would one day walk on water. No Old Testament prophecy foretold this, and Mary was not told this prior to it happening.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Mary was not told directly that her child would save “our sons and daughters.” However, Joseph was told in a dream that the child would “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It seems very safe to assume Joseph would’ve shared this information with Mary. So, on this question, we can say that Mary would’ve known this.
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.
Assuming the previous point (that she would’ve known about saving “our sons and daughters”), it’s possible that she could’ve known these things too. However, when reading the New Testament, we need to be careful about placing the vast amount of new revelation into the minds of the individuals living prior to or as it was being revealed. It’s easy for us to look back through the lens of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and understand what it means that He would save His people from their sins. But would Mary understand being made new or being delivered in the same way we think about it? We often think of being made new as being made a new creation, as described in 2 Corinthians 5:17, but this verse wasn’t written until roughly 55–60 years after Christ’s birth. Deliverance would’ve likely invoked ideas of the Exodus, and may have caused her to think of the longing of her contemporaries to be delivered from the Romans. I think it’s unclear and perhaps unlikely whether she would’ve understood the point of these questions.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will calm the storm with his hand?
Nothing in Scripture indicates that Mary could’ve known that Jesus would calm the storm with his hand. It is within the realm of possibility that she could’ve known that Jesus would give sight to the blind. In the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 61:1, it was prophesied that the blind would receive their sight.2 It seems to be a bit of a stretch to think Mary would’ve recognized this verse as being about her son. After all, John the Baptist needed to be reminded that the giving of sight to the blind was one of the things the Messiah would do (Matthew 11:4–5).
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.
It is difficult to know what Mary might’ve known on these two points. The angel told her that the “Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35) and her cousin, Elizabeth, called her “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). It seems obvious that Mary recognized she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. However, what is not so clear is what she understood about the Messiah. Did she know that the Messiah was also the Creator of the universe? Did she know that He was equal to the Father? Perhaps she was aware of how Isaiah 9:6 and Micah 5:2 related to the Messiah, and how they spoke of His eternal nature. However, this was not the common understanding of most Jews of her time. Yes, the chief priests and scribes recognized that Micah 5:2 foretold Bethlehem as the birthplace of the King of the Jews (Matthew 2:4–6). But did they truly understand that He would be equal to the Father? Given that the people attempted to kill Him when He made such claims (see John 8:58–59 and John 10:30–33), it seems unlikely that the Jewish people really understood what the Messiah would truly be like. They were certainly expecting a conquering king, but were they also looking forward to a suffering servant?
Once again, it’s easy for us to look back through the lens of the New Testament and recognize the Messiah as God in the flesh and as being equal to the Father, but this does not seem to have been the expectation of most Jews. Yes, Isaiah 7:14 states that He would be called Immanuel (“God with us”), but look at Matthew’s quotation of it: “and they shall call His name Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23). In our English versions of Isaiah 7:14, it looks as though the virgin would call His name Immanuel. But this is not how it is rendered in the Septuagint, which seems to be what Mary used.3 Here it states, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive in the womb, and shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Emmanuel.” Notice, it doesn’t say that the woman would call Him this name. As far as we know, Mary didn’t call Him this. Joseph named Him Jesus, just as the angel instructed him (Matthew 1:21–25).
With all that being said, it seems unlikely that Mary, at least in the early days, truly understood that her child was God in the flesh.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
As mentioned above, it seems a bit unlikely that Mary understood that Jesus was the “Lord of all creation,” but it is possible. I think she did know that He would one day rule the nations. This is what the Jews anticipated from the Messiah. The angel told her that “the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). She certainly knew He would rule over Israel, but the Jews believed that the Messiah’s kingdom would be above all nations.
Did you know that your baby boy is Heaven’s perfect Lamb?
That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.
In the previous paragraphs, I expressed doubt that at this point Mary knew her child would be equal to God (“is the great I AM”). It also seems very unlikely that Mary understood at this point that Jesus would be the perfect Lamb who would die for our sins. Yes, Daniel 9:26 and Isaiah 53:8 specifically mention the Messiah being put to death, but this never seemed to sink in for the Jews. The disciples walked and talked with Jesus for years, and they still didn’t understand this point until it happened, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they didn’t get it until after He rose from the dead. After His resurrection, Jesus reprimanded two disciples for failing to comprehend this truth (Luke 24:25–26). While Mary was surely a godly woman and her hymn of praise showed remarkable understanding of Scripture for a young woman, it gives no indication that she knew He would die. She had just been told by the angel that there would be no end to His rule (Luke 1:33). It wasn’t until 40 days after Jesus was born that Simeon told her that “a sword will pierce through [Mary’s] own soul also.” But Simeon’s words do not mention anything negative happening to the baby (and these words were after the probable setting of the song).
After looking at each line in light of what Scripture teaches about Mary at this point, I think we can conclude that much of the criticism of the song is not justified. In some cases, the critics are misrepresenting Scripture by implying that Mary knew every detail mentioned in the song. But as pointed out above, there is no way that she could’ve known that Jesus would walk on water or calm the storm.
If a Christian intends to critique fellow believers, he or she needs to exercise caution to avoid misrepresenting the truth and becoming guilty of the very thing they seek to call out. In this case, critics of the song are accusing the lyricist of misrepresenting the Bible because “Mary did know!” but in the process they misrepresent the Bible because there are points in the song that Mary did not know. She might have only known about one-fourth of the things asked by the song.
Furthermore, if one is to critique the song on the points that Mary did know, or at least could’ve known, then this should be done with gentleness and respect rather than mockery and nastiness. Our world has enough mockery and nastiness to go around. As believers in Jesus Christ, we must treat one another with love. Rather than looking for every opportunity to criticize fellow believers, let’s look for opportunities to encourage and edify. And when correction is required, then do this in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1).
In her Magnificat, Mary calls God her “Savior” (Luke 1:47). Would a sinless person need a Savior? Furthermore, Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Finally, the Catholic position seems unnecessary and illogical. Why would Mary need to be sinless to carry the Messiah in her womb? As McTeigue puts it, “If Mary is a sinner in need of a savior, then she cannot be the worthy vessel in whom the All-Holy God takes on human nature as the Word-Made-Flesh.” But where does Scripture ever teach this? And if Mary needed to be sinless to carry the sinless Savior in her womb, then would Mary’s mother need to be sinless to bear the sinless Mary? Of course, this could be carried all the way back to Eve, and we know she became a sinner prior to giving birth. ↩
This statement does not appear in the Masoretic Text, thus it is not found in most English Bibles. However, when Jesus read from Isaiah 61 in Nazareth’s synagogue (Luke 4), He read about giving sight to the blind. See my article here for a brief discussion of this variant. ↩
Most of the Magnificat is based on quotations from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is possible that she recited the Hebrew and that Luke used the LXX while writing his Gospel. ↩
Great post. Yes, what the Bible shows us is the Messiah’s true purpose was missed by all who witnessed His coming. They understood (mostly) the verses from the point of an earthly King and Israel’s restoration. And, I would add no one foresaw the “grafting in” of Gentile believers even though that is also in the Old Testament. When Mark Lowery refers to our sons and daughters isn’t that a reference to the whole body of Christ? Thanks, Tim for a solid analysis.
Thanks Tim. A thoughtful analysis as always. I think your conclusion is the key – kindness toward one another.
I’ve never delved into the ‘did she, or could she have known’ aspect of things. From the first it stuck me as poetic license to illustrate the greatness of Jesus and not a theological treatise on Mary.
Having pastored for a few years, it is absurd to think that even if someone is told something that they know it.
Something else that has made me think that Mary wasn’t completely in the know are the Mark 3 passages describing an attempted rescue because they thought Jesus was out of His mind.
None of this is to demean Mary at all. She is someone to be honored and emulated in many ways as a willing servant of God.
Thanks for the good word.
Tim: I really appreciate your careful analysis of Mark Lowry’s beautiful song. I was privileged to hear him sing it publically the first time in San Diego at Shadow Mountain Community Church. I agree with all your comments and would add two thoughts. First, I remember Mark saying that evening how he hesitated releasing the song because he was afraid it would be misunderstood by some, particularly Baptists and Catholics. Second, I think a main reason those who are upset by the lyrics, particularly Catholics, is that they hold too high an opinion of Mary. Yes, she was chosen by God to give birth to the Messiah, but she was not sinless nor was she omniscient. More importantly, she was not superior in any way to Jesus, as some extreme versions of Cathocism teach. I love the song because it is contemplative and puts you in the situation that Mary found herself, probably overwhelmed, probably confused, but open to God using her to do His will. Knowing of Mark’s emotional struggles, I suspect he was and is as overwhelmed as Mary by how he was used of God to write the song.