Messiah Blog: Day 4

Note: To start from the beginning of this series, or to access the table of contents, click here.

Random facts: “Malachi” comes from the Hebrew root word “malak” (messenger), which in English is translated angel. “Haggai” is the Hebrew word for festal. Hebrews 12:22 mentions “angels in festal gathering”, and is also part of the passage of Scripture I closed with yesterday to help tie together the verses from Haggai 2 and Malachi 3 that were the text for #5-7. This is a total coincidence (or is it?), but I found it interesting and thought you might, too! Moving on…

Today we’re only going to look at one number from Messiah. It’s one of the shortest, at only about thirty seconds, but is a very pivotal text. So important, in fact, that it appears in the Bible twice! Handel presents this text as a recitative, which is basically a musical monologue that helps to move along the story of an opera or oratorio. A soloist is basically “speaking” a line, but it is sung rather than merely spoken. Thus, the text is not repeated and musically developed as in the other types of songs in the oratorio.

#8: Recitative (Alto)
Isaiah 7:14 & Matthew 1:23 — Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, GOD WITH US.

Here are Daniel Block’s thoughts from his essay (my comments in parentheses):

The thought of the return of God draws Jennens’ mind to the biblical declaration of divine presence par excellence, immanûel, “God is with us” (#8). This text appears in two places in the Bible, once in each Testament: Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23. By composing the music for this text in the form of an aria to be sung by an alto, for Handel the primary reference seems to be the Matthew text, which has these words coming from the lips of an angel (in Isaiah they come from the prophet). In assigning this aria to an alto Handle demonstrates himself a true heir of Middle Age fantasies that portray angels as effeminate creatures [with wings], and Van Camp (in his book “Practical Guide for Performing, Teaching, and Singing Messiah”, available here) uncritically falls into the same trap when he comments, “The Alto seems to be the voice of the angel speaking to Joseph, and yet she also speaks to the whole world as she reveals that the promised Messiah is becoming real.” But this interpretation fails to recognize that, in the Old Testament at least, angels are always portrayed as masculine and always in forms indistinguishable from ordinary humans.

It seems curious that Block’s only comment on this number is the fact that Handel portrays the angel as a woman. Of course, it’s also curious why most people picture angels as being female and having wings. Why is this?

After reading Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, I have a newfound appreciation for the influence that art has made on our culture. Is it possible that centuries-old paintings such as the one on the left (dating from the 13th century) have molded our collective understanding of angels more than the Bible itself? I think it’s quite possible! These types of paintings were common during the era before the Bible was translated into the common tongues. (Incidentally, during this period, Jesus was also generally portrayed as having pale skin and long hair… sound familiar?) People couldn’t read the Word, but they could look at pictures! If people in that time generally believed that angels were feminine and had wings, that very possibly could have been passed on to us today, as we continue to look at pictures more than we read our Bibles!

It should be noted that there are different kinds of heavenly beings commonly referred to as “angels”. Generally the word that gets translated as “angel” in the Bible means literally, “messenger”. These are always portrayed as being male, and never as having wings. The seraphim in Isaiah 6, which share a resemblance to the four living creatures from Revelation 4, fly on six wings, but most definitely do not look anything like humans, male or female. Zechariah 5:9 describes two women who fly with wings, which is probably where the whole “angels are women with wings” thing got started. However, considering that the prophet Zechariah used the word “angel” more than twenty times in his book but NOT for these two women, this probably means they are something different.

The Bible tells us there are a multitude of angels, legions of angels, innumerable angels… you get the point. Sure, the only two angels named in the Bible (Michael and Gabriel, whom Luke identifies as the angel in question for this discussion) are male, but does that mean that they must necessarily all be male? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s probably not worth fighting over!

All that being said, what is really surprising to me is that this is the only comment on this passage that Block makes. Isaiah 7:14 & Matthew 1:23 are two of the most hotly debated verses in Scripture, because the claim that a virgin gave birth is one of the most miraculous and unbelievable claims in the whole Book! Out of the 20,000+ notes in the 2,752-page ESV Study Bible, the longest is the note on Isaiah 7:14. Handel’s oratorio almost seems to emphasize this text by its brevity. For a very detailed examination of the debate around these two verses, check out this paper by Jim Hamilton, now a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

For those who don’t have the time to read a 24-page paper for fun(!), here’s the bottom line: Jesus’ birth was a miracle! His mother Mary conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit, and she remained a virgin until after his birth. This is one of the most important passages in Scripture confirming the Deity of Christ… we must not pass over it lightly! We live in an age when even professing Christians often deny the necessity of Christ’s virgin birth. Whether it be the ultra-liberal Jesus Seminar (one member of which even went so far as to call Jesus a “bastard messiah”), or the ultra-popular Pastor Rob Bell, who, while personally affirming the virgin birth, suggests in his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith that believing in Christ’s virgin birth (and by extension in His divinity) is not necessary for a person to be a Christian or to live a Christian life… it is clear that we can no longer simply assume that Christians take the virgin birth for granted (something that would have appalled Christians during Handel’s own lifetime). We need to give this verse some serious consideration, and know where we stand.

On to Day 5

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