Messiah Blog: Day 7

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

Today we begin where we ended yesterday, with #13, the beautiful Pastoral Symphony. It makes for such a brilliant transition between #12 and #14 that it seemed only fitting to include it in both posts. If you’ll remember, we left off yesterday with the expectation of “filling in the gaps” from the verses from the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9 that were not included in the Messiah libretto. Today we will see how this movement also symbolically portrays another gap of great expectation!

#13: Pifa (Pastoral Symphony)

This symphonic movement precedes the first New Testament texts selected for the libretto. While beautiful, there is not a whole lot happening musically. It gives listeners a chance to reflect on the text we’ve heard so far, but it is also symbolic of the 400 years of silence that separated the final Word from God given to the prophets (Malachi, Nehemiah, and Ezra were contemporaries, and theirs were chronologically the last books written in the OT) and the Advent of Christ the Messiah.

During this time, in which God did not directly reveal Himself (because He had already said all He needed to say), the Jewish scribes were studying and proliferating copies of what God had revealed thus far. God’s people knew a Messiah had been promised, and there was a great sense of expectation of His coming.

After 400 years, though, many had given up hope that God would be faithful. The religious leaders busied themselves by coming up with rules and laws veiled in “holiness” but contrary to the true spirit of the Law given by God. Meanwhile, most people simply went about their lives as if God was not there, or was nothing more than an abstract concept; certainly not a personal God who cares about and intervenes in the affairs of his Creation, and had promised to intervene in a mighty way by coming to Earth.

Is this not a picture of the world in which we now live? We have had, not 400, but nearly 2000 years of “silence” in which God has not added to His revealed Word, though the Holy Spirit now indwells the hearts of believers, giving us understanding as God speaks to us through the Scriptures. Unfortunately, most people tend toward the same extremes seen in the Jews at the time of Christ’s birth: Legalistic religion, skepticism and unbelief, or a vague sense of mysticism or “spirituality”.

Throughout those 400 silent years, though, God maintained a believing remnant, just as today He maintains a remnant, chosen by grace (Romans 11:5). He spoke through the Law and the Prophets, by way of faithful preachers, all the way to John the Baptist (Matthew 11:13)… who was killed for his ministry, by the way.

When God did break the silence, He did it in a BIG way (later in “Messiah Blog” we’ll see that this, too, is a pattern that will continue when this current silence is broken)! As shepherds tended their flocks at night, an angel appeared to them to announce the birth of the Messiah, at which point the entire host of heaven burst forth in glorious song! This brings us back full-circle to the Pastoral Symphony.

A “pastoral” was a popular genre of music and poetry used in the composing of operas and oratorios. The reason Handel chose to insert a pastoral at this moment, though, is because the word “pastoral” refers to shepherding (it comes from the word for “pasture”, and is also why we call those who shepherd the flock of God “pastors”). “Pifa”, the actual title given to this movement, comes from the word “piffaro”, which is a type of shepherd’s pipe with a double reed, similar to an oboe.

God broke the silence marked by expectation in a field to shepherds. Handel handles this the same way, breaking the idyllic mood of the Pastoral with a loud and exuberant declaration giving way to a glorious chorus… accompanied by the trumpets, of course!

#14: Recitative (Soprano)
Luke 2:8-13 — There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:

#15: Chorus
Luke 2:14 — Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.

Before getting into Daniel Block’s commentary, two things need to pointed out: First, the second of these two recordings should be played immediately after the first to get the “full effect”. Second, this is the first point at which different published editions of Messiah diverge in the numbering system of the movements. Some list the four soprano recitatives as separate movements, while others combine them into one as they are played consecutively and share a common text. Block prefers the first numbering method, but the recordings I have been using in this series use the second. For the sake of avoiding confusion, I will be editing Block’s commentary from here on out to reflect the numbering system that matches this recording. I think he’d understand! Onto his comments on these movements (my comments in parentheses):

The remainder of Part I divides into two halves. In the first half Jennens draws entirely on the Lukan version of the nativity story (#14-15). Handel assigns the three recitatives to a soprano. The fact that the last of these quotes the angel of the Lord suggests he interpreted the angel as a woman (see comments from Day 4). The reference to the glory of the Lord in #14 provides an obvious link to the earlier texts. In the solo message the heavenly messenger begins with a general declaration: his message is “good tidings,” it involves great joy, and it has universal significance – the joy will be experienced by all peoples. But then he becomes specific and declares the content of the good news. To the shepherds (as representatives of Israel and humanity) is born a person who is special for four reasons:

  1. He is born in the city of David. This represents the specific link to Israel’s Messianic hope (Mic 5:2).
  2. He is the Savior. This represents the specific hope of Zech 9:9-10.
  3. He is the Messiah (Greek Xristos). This links the declaration with Psalm 2 and Isaiah 61:1-3.
  4. He is kurios. Literally the word means “Lord, Sovereign,” but in the Greek Old Testament this word also stood for the divine name, Yahweh. It is probably in this latter sense that the word should be interpreted, in which case the angel makes a most remarkable equation: the child that is born in the city of David is the Yahweh of the Old Testament. (Read that last sentence again!) This combination of divine and human qualities finds its earliest roots in Isaiah 9:6-7.

Having completed his solo announcement (there is no reference to singing in the biblical text), the heavenly messenger is joined by a multitude of the heavenly beings who break out in a chorus whose exuberance Handel has captured marvelously (#15):

Glory to God in the highest, And peace on earth, good will to men.

There are four comments we need to make on this heavenly poem.

  • First, the angel’s chorus offers the shepherds a divine interpretation of the events that have just transpired in Bethlehem. By definition, angels (envoys, messengers) are not at liberty to make up their own messages. The message they declare is not their message but the verbatim pronouncement of the One who sent them, in this case God in heaven. Accordingly, what these angels announce to the shepherds has been scripted by God himself and represents his declaration of the significance of the birth of Jesus.
  • Second, the angels declare the significance of the birth of Jesus from two sides, the heavenly and the earthly. With regard to the former, the birth of the Messiah is the supreme historical event by which God is glorified. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the first question is “What is the chief end of man?” to which the answer is “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In the birth of the Messiah this end is achieved perfectly. With regard to the latter, the birth of the Messiah guarantees peace for the human race that has been languishing in turmoil and chaos ever since the Fall. Jesus’ mission will be a mission of shalom. The dimensions of this mission will be spelled out in the following texts.
  • Third, by ascribing glory to God and announcing peace to humankind, the angels’ chorus may be interpreted as the fulfillment of Psalm 29. It is not coincidental that these two notions form bookends around this psalm. Verse 1 reads: “Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due his name; Worship Yahweh in holy array.” And then notice the ending of the Psalm: “Yahweh sat at the flood; Yahweh sits as King forever. Yahweh gives strength to his people; Yahweh will bless his people with peace.” Between these two verses we have an enthusiastic celebration of the awesome power of the voice of Yahweh. As the prologue to the Gospel of John will declare, in the incarnation we have the speech of God becoming flesh.
  • Fourth, contrary to the impression created by the Authorized (King James) Version, the birth of Christ does not result in goodwill for all. No, virtually all recent translations capture the sense of the last phrase, en anthropois eudokias more accurately:
    • NAS On earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.
    • NIV On earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.
    • NRSV On earth peace among those whom he favors.
    • REB On earth peace to all in whom he delights.
    • NJB On earth peace for those he favors.
    • NLT Peace on earth to all whom God favors.

I really have nothing to add to this excellent and detailed examination of the text! See you tomorrow.

On to Day 8

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