50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
1901 ASV Translation:
50 And his mercy is unto generations and generations on them that fear him.
The Textus Receptus has "generations of generations" [an Accusative Plural followed by a Genitive Plural] and the Nestle/Aland 26 has "generations and generations" [two Accusative Plurals with the connnective "and" between them]. The exact phrase is only found in this text in the New Testament in either form (neither the Textus Receptus nor the Nestle/Aland 26 use the phrase again).
1. Luke records Mary as claiming that God's mercy is unto multiple generations of those who fear Him.
I. The question of the textual variation is not a significant issue. There is little difference in meaning between "generations of generations" (an odd way of saying 'over multiple generations') or "generations and generations" (an emphatic way of making it clear that God shows mercy over great blocks of history). The meaning boils down to the same thing in both cases: God extends His mercy to all who fear Him regardless of what point in time is in view in human history.
II. The statement regards "mercy".
A. In Matthew's record, Jesus is presented as conflicting with the religious establishment over the fact that they focused upon the "details of obedience" and totally ignored God's focus upon the attitude of "mercy" (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; and 23:23).
B. In Luke's record, all but one of the references to "mercy" are in chapter one [1:50, 54, 58, 72, and 78] and the only other one [10:37] is highly instructive.
1. In Luke's record, Mary's focus is upon the mercy of God as she brackets her words with her references to it [1:50-54].
2. In 1:58, Elizabeth's neighbors recognize her pregnancy and delivery of a son as a manifestation of "great mercy".
3. In 1:72, Zacharias calls God's faithful performance of His covenant promises "performing the mercy" in specific reference to "deliverance" from "those who hate us".
4. In 1:78, Zacharias also calls the extension of "the forgiveness of our sins" an offer made "through the tender mercy of our God".
5. Then, in 10:37 Jesus says that the Samaritan who took care of the needs of a helpless person "showed mercy" and His instruction was that we "go and do likewise".
6. Summary: It is pretty clear from these references that "mercy" is "taking action that is elicited by reason of both the desire to give help and the perception of a helpless situation". Thus, the "merciful" are those who seek to render aid to those in real need, and the merciless are those who, minimally, ignore the need, or, maximally, generate the need by their own selfishness.
C. In Paul's theology of "mercy", God's desire to correct a difficult/impossible situation is His mercy. It is the root of His activity in salvation (Titus 3:5 and reiterated by Peter in 1 Peter 1:3) and figures prominently in His dealings with men unto salvation (Romans 11:21 and Ephesians 2:4). It stands in stark contrast to man's penchant for criticism of others and to God's judgment for sin.
D. Hebrews 4:16 promises "mercy" from the "throne of grace".
E. James 3:17 says that God's wisdom is "easy to be entreated" because it is "full of mercy".
III. The promise of mercy is "restricted".
A. The abundance of readily available mercy in every generation is not "willy nilly".
B. The words of Mary clearly indicate that "mercy" is to those who "fear" God and is not to those who are proud and powerful and rich.
1. What does it mean to "fear" God?
a. There is no discernible difference between "fearing" God and "fearing" a multitude of other things/persons...every instance seems to have the connotation that there is something to be lost. Being "afraid" means to be convinced that "loss" is a very real possibility.
b. When "God" is the object of fear, it is often in a context where His retaliation for injustice is in view. Thus, being "afraid" of God means to be sure that He will not ignore injustice. The "fear" of God is, then, a settled conviction that evil will be addressed by vengeance. Being absolutely sure that one will reap what one has sown is a clear example of the "fear of the Lord".
c. The bottom line in "fear" is the possibility/probability of something valuable being taken away with something painful put in its place.
2. Mary's comment "and holy is His name" brings these issues of the fear of the Lord to the surface.
a. To understand the antagonism God has toward "fear" in His children, we must understand that His plan is not to subvert "justice" but establish it by a new means. God is not interested in generating a host of sons/daughters who think they can sin with impunity. Rather, He is interested in generating a host who can live by a new principle of power and motivation. His "fear not" exhortations are designed to remove fear but not at the expense of holiness. Grace is His provision, not merely His forgiveness.
b. The truly "fearless" are the genuinely "holy". There is nothing for the "holy" to fear since every good springs from "holiness". Those who fear that being "holy" will ruin their ability to live well are deceived at a crucial juncture. They who do not fear the failure to be "holy" will find that they also were deceived when justice exacts upon them their just due.