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Having completed the first of Messiah’s three parts, we embark today on our journey through Part Two. This part addresses the Old Testament anticipation of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, and the New Testament fulfillment of these expectations. It is divided into four sections:
- The death of the Messiah
- The resurrection and glorification of the Messiah
- The proclamation of the victory of the Messiah
- The heavenly celebration of the triumph of the Messiah
Given the morbid subject of Christ’s death, Handel gives the opening of Part Two an appropriate tone.
John 1:29 — Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.
Comments from the Block essay:
The transition from Part I to Part II is abrupt. Text #19 had closed Part I with a notice of the lightness of the burden that the Messiah puts on his people; Text #20 opens Part II with a reference to the heavy load that the Messiah takes on himself – the sin of the whole world. The reference to the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world combines notions of substitution from the Passover and atonement from the daily sacrifices offered in the Temple. But this quotation of John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus also echoes Isaiah 53 where the prophet 700 years earlier had foreseen the Messiah’s sacrificial role. It is natural, therefore, that Jennens’ attention should move from the Baptist’s announcement to the so-called Servant Songs of Isaiah. Texts 21-24 all derive from these songs, and except for #21a, which derives from the third Song, the quotations derive from Isa. 53:3, 4-5, 5, 6.
The tone change is rather startling, particularly considering that John the Baptist’s pronouncement of Jesus as the Messiah in John 1:29 was a happy occasion. Using this verse as a transitional text, though, Handel foreshadows Christ’s brutal death as He is portrayed as the sacrificial Lamb that would take away the sin of the world.
As Block mentions, the Messiah libretto moves next into several texts taken from Isaiah 53, the last of four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah. Most of these numbers will be in tomorrow’s post, but seeing as only one verse is taken from any of the other three songs, I thought we’d take a quick look at those to give us context for the fourth song which is quoted.
The first song is found in Isaiah 42:1-9. Here, the Lord promises a servant who, empowered by the Spirit of God, would bring justice to the nations. God stakes His own reputation on the fulfillment of this promise, saying that this servant is given as a covenant to the people who would be their deliverer.
The second song, found in Isaiah 49:1-13, explains that this servant would embody and represent Israel, in order that God’s covenant with His elect nation could be fulfilled. He will serve and save not only Israel, however, as that would be “too light a thing”. He will bring all peoples into a covenant relationship with God, becoming a light for the nations so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth”.
In Isaiah 50:4-9 — the third song — the servant is shown to be someone who is not only well schooled in God’s Word, but who uses the Word to strengthen and sustain others. He will not sin, but will be met with opposition and oppression, being disgraced, beaten, and tortured. Because he chooses his suffering willingly and on the behalf of others, He does not resist, but sacrifices himself, confident that God will deliver him. He is innocent, so the Lord vindicates him, as well as those for whom he gives himself.
The fourth and final servant song is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This is one of the most oft-quoted Old Testament passages found in the New Testament. It describes how it is possible for God to forgive and bless sinful people: The suffering servant removes their guilt before God because of his sacrifice. This servant will be “high and lifted up”, showing Him to be the same Lord whom Isaiah saw in His glory, taking away sin in the vision in Isaiah 6, which the apostle John confirms in John 12:41. This servant would be despised and rejected, beaten beyond all human recognition. He would not defend himself at his trial, submitting himself to be led to his execution like a sheep to the slaughter. He would die and be buried in a rich man’s tomb, but death would not be the end, for his days would be prolonged. His death would be the will of God, and would be an offering for the guilt even of those who put him to death.
Each of the remarkable prophecies from these four songs was fulfilled accurately and perfectly by Jesus Christ the Messiah!
Jennens and Handel use four texts from this passage. We’ll hear three of them tomorrow, but will close today with the first, which juxtaposes verses from two of the above Servant Songs dealing with the physical afflictions of Christ’s Passion.
#21: Air (Alto)
Isaiah 53:3 — He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Isaiah 50:6 — He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.