Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for (Isaiah 40:1-2a).
If “gospel” means “good news,” then what news could be better than comfort in difficult times? Handel begins in the key of E-major. The sound is pastoral, serene, and secure. The repeated notes feel almost like a gentle hand patting the back of the listener. “It’s all right,” the music tells us. “Don’t cry.”
This is not a busy movement; it is calm and comforting, a recitative where the emphasis is on the text. “Accompagnato” means an accompanied recitative, but Handel does not let the instruments distract from the words. He doesn’t want us to miss this message of comfort.
The prophet Isaiah, who wrote the original text, lived more than seven hundred years before the coming of Messiah. At the time, the Assyrian Empire was arising in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, threatening the lands of Israel and Judah. Eventually, the Assyrian Empire spread from Egypt to the Persian Gulf. According to the Bible (2 Kings 17:7-8), it was with God’s permission that they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel because of the Israelites’ rebellion against God and their abuse of the poor, the fatherless and immigrants (Amos 8:4-6).
Isaiah preached to the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. The country was thoroughly shaken by the events taking place around them. They too had been guilty of rebellion although not on the scale of the northern kingdom. God gave them a second chance: the Assyrian King Sennacherib came right to the gates of Jerusalem, but left without subduing the city (2 Kings 19:36).
In this twenty-first century we are surrounded by conflicts. Our young men and women fight wars in distant parts of the world, including the very lands of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Terrorists, both home-grown and international, threaten the ordinary places where we live our lives. Our society is no less corrupt than those of ancient Israel and Judah. We deserve God’s judgment, but Handel uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to speak comfort to our souls. “It’s all right,” he says. God has a plan to pardon our iniquity (an old word for sin, the things we do and think and say that separate us from a holy God). Notice how the musical dissonance of ‘iniquity’ is resolved on the word ‘pardoned.’ All of this conflict will cease. And who is it that makes this promise? God himself, who is able to accomplish it.
What good news!
Beyond the Music
Let the music of Messiah speak comfortably to you. No matter what the turmoil and conflict of your personal life, the pain and sorrow of what you see around you, God has not abandoned you. Whatever your past, he is ready to welcome you into his embrace.
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.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).
After the prophet Isaiah spoke comfort to Judah, he promised one who would prepare the way for God’s Messiah. The picture here is of clearing the roads, filling in the potholes and repairing washouts, even building a causeway over a marsh—a high way—so an emperor or king can comfortably pass and be received by his people.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (the authors of the New Testament biographies of Jesus) all believed this referred to John the Baptist. In fact, John applied this passage to himself when asked if he was the Messiah. “I am not the Messiah…I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:19, 23).
According to chapter 1 of Luke’s biography, John was a relative of Jesus, about six months older. He was the son of an elderly priest whose wife, also well along in years, became pregnant by God’s promise. John lived in the desert near the Jordan River. Some scholars believe he may have been an Essene, a member of the community at Qumran that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. He lived simply and preached repentance, a turning away from sin toward right living. He invited people to demonstrate their repentance by the rite of baptism.
Jewish baptism had been practiced for hundreds of years as purification from ritual impurities that prevented a person from participating in temple services. The rules were all laid out in the Torah, the five books of Moses. By the time of John the Baptist, baptism was also used to initiate godly Gentiles (non-Jews) into the Jewish community. But John put a new twist on the practice, symbolizing not just external ritual purification, but an internal purification of the soul from wrong-doing. The coming Messiah was looking for a people, not just cleaned up on the outside, but restored to a holy God’s original plan for relationship with him.
This accompanied recitative begins in a major key. Notice how it changes to minor when we reach the proclamation, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” as if to remind us of the dire need to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. The orchestra picks up the tempo. Handel is no longer speaking comfort, but urging us: Be ready!
Beyond the Music
In what ways is your life like or unlike a desert? Are you surrounded by vibrant life, or does your world feel spiritually dead? What parts of your life need straightening? Ask God to build a highway into your world so that you can meet him more regularly.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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