Yesterday we left off in a “mood without hope”, but today begins with hope! Following the somber mood of the orchestral prelude, the next three numbers provide an optimistic contrast. As the text of #2-4 comes from the same Scripture passage (Isaiah 40:1-5), we’ll look at them together here. I’ll post the recordings first so you can read as you listen, if you so desire!
#2: Accompagnato (Tenor)
Isaiah 40:1-3 — Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplish’d, that her Iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
#3: Air (Tenor)
Isaiah 40:4 — Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
Isaiah 40:5 — And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
Here is what Daniel Block has to say about these numbers in his essay (my comments in parentheses):
It is remarkable that a major work called “Messiah” does not even begin with an overtly Messianic text (more on this later). Handel’s interpretation of Isaiah 40 as a Messianic text is obviously based on the witness of the Gospels in the New Testament, all of which recognize the voice of John the Baptist as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness,” calling on the people of his day to prepare the way of the LORD. Whereas the synoptics have the Gospel writers making this connection, John the Baptist claims the role for himself in the Gospel of John. But in the original context, it is doubtful the Israelites or even Isaiah himself would have identified the LORD, that is Yahweh, whose arrival brings comfort to the people, with the Messiah. Matters are different, however, in 61:1-3, where, speaking in the first person, the agent of comfort explicitly recognizes that he is Yahweh’s anointed, that is, his Messiah. But Jennens never includes this text. Instead, latching on to the interpretation of the New Testament evangelist, in texts 2-3 he takes a general prophecy of the restoration of Israel from exile and the return of Yahweh to be a specific prophecy of the Messiah.
While the choice of Isaiah 40:1-5 for the opening texts of Messiah is unexpected, especially to the modern interpreter of Scripture, when we examine the subsequent texts it is not difficult to see how Jennens’ mind was working. Through the compositional skill of Handel the first triad of texts climaxes in a glorious musical announcement of the arrival of the glory of the LORD (#4), an event that will be witnessed by all flesh.
By saying this text is not “overtly Messianic”, Block does not mean that it does not refer to the coming of the Messiah. He means that this passage is only seen as Messianic because the Gospels identify John the Baptist as the one of whom Isaiah was speaking in 40:3 (Mt 3:3, Mk 1:3, Lk 3:4-5, Jn 1:23). Jews, who do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and do not recognize the validity of the New Testament, do not view this passage in Isaiah 40 as Messianic at all. This is in contrast with the passage Block mentions in Isaiah 61:1-3, in which the speaker refers to himself as the Messiah (literally, the “anointed one”). This OT passage, which is not included in Handel’s work, is one of the greatest Messianic texts in Scripture, as it prophetically lists seven purposes (identified below) for the coming of the Messiah. This passage is quoted often in the NT, as Jesus fulfills each of these purposes:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me (1) to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me (2) to bind up the brokenhearted, (3) to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; (4) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; (5) to comfort all who mourn; (6) to grant to those who mourn in Zion — to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; (7) that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. ~ Isaiah 61:1-3
Going through these seven purposes would make for a great series in itself, but we should get back to the text that IS in Handel’s oratorio! To the Jews (now and in the years preceding the first advent of Christ), Isaiah 40 is simply a message of comfort and promise of deliverance for the people of Israel living in Babylonian captivity. (Here’s a good synopsis of the Jewish interpretation of this passage from the professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago). While it was certainly those things, this passage is also much more, when seen through the light of Scripture as a whole, as Jennens & Handel did when compiling the libretto for Messiah.
John the Baptist’s identification as the messenger preparing the way of the Lord shows us that all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is always and only about Jesus Christ, the Messiah! God has been working out His plan of redemption since before the foundation of the world. From the most intimate interpersonal relationships to the rise and fall of nations, the Old Testament testifies to Christ: That He was coming to offer forgiveness for sins, and that He is coming again in glory, for all to see… all of which is contained in these five verses from Isaiah 40. What a way to begin a musical exploration of the history of salvation!