Advent 2 | Isaiah Chapter 40 As Seen Through the Eyes of Georg Friederich Handel

The Rev. Steven C. Sterry, M.A./M.B.A.


In Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah, 15 of the 53 sections are focused on the prophecies of Isaiah. There are more verses from Isaiah, twenty-one, than from any other Bible book.

“Comfort Ye”, is the first sung piece and immediately follows the Overture. These words, as well as the words of three subsequent pieces are taken from the eleven verses of Isaiah that we read in our Old Testament Lesson today. Handel calls the first four pieces “The Prophecy of Salvation”. By themselves, these verses present a powerful picture of what Isaiah said was to take place in the future:

  • The opening words of the Messiah are designed to bring reassurance to the hearer.
    • Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. They present us with a proclamation spoken by God, who tells us to relax, chill out, and be relieved. Everything is going to be OK, because God says so. What could be more comforting than that?
    • Next, we receive God’s instruction: Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. Isaiah is speaking to the diaspora of Judah, and, particularly, about the city of Jerusalem. Many theologians believe that Chapter 40 was written while the Judeans were still in exile at Babylon. They are being told that once they have received that double dose of God’s punishment for their sins, God will end their exile and pardon them.
    • Finally, we are told about the coming of John the Baptist. 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. Yes. We must prepare ourselves for the arrival of God on Earth. And God is sending someone ahead of the Messiah, one who can be found in the wilderness. In the desert, by his words and actions, he will show us the way to one who is the Christ, the Son of God. This thought is a central core of the Advent Season. As John prepared the way of the Lord, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to prepare our hearts for this season that we are now in.
  • Next, we hear the Air, Every Valley, which reminds us that God is making things easy for us to reach and embrace the Messiah.
    • Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: There are no hills to climb or canyons to traverse. God will make things easy for us. He will send John the Baptist to announce Christ’s coming, just as he sends His Holy Spirit to prepare us for this Advent season.
  • And the Glory of the Lord is a chorus, which is sung by the whole choir.
    • And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it. The glory of the Lord will be revealed to men in the form of the Messiah, and all will see Him. He is God’s promise to those in Babylon who are serving their exile from Judah. They will return to Judah, and God will return to Israel to be their God. This actually is a double promise. First, God will return to Judah in the form of the of the Baby Jesus. Finally, at the end of the Age, God will return to the Earth to judge humanity.

The GAFCON Advent Devotional for Thursday, December 3 states: “During Advent, the Church’s two main themes are:

  1. Judah. They will return to Judah, and God will return to Israel to be their God. This actually is a double promise. First, God will return to Judah in the form of the of the Baby Jesus. Finally, at the end of the Age, God will return to the Earth to judge humanity.
  2. Prayerful anticipation of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ for the second time as the judge of the dead and the living.”

These beginning pieces of the Messiah, I believe, are designed to impart both ideas, since the Messiah traces the life of Christ from prophecy to his resurrection and beyond to the book of Revelation.

Now, Georg Friederich Handel was a German-born Baroque composer who spent most of his career in London. He was born in 1685. He is well known for his operas, anthems, concertos, and oratorios, like the Messiah. He is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era. By the time that Georg entered into formal training, he could already play the harpsichord and subsequently learned how to play the violin, organ, and, finally, the oboe, for which he wrote many pieces. He began composing at the age of 9.

After spending four years in Italy, Handel, in 1710, became the Kapellmeister (or court composer and performer) to the German Prince George who, in 1714 would become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1712 Handel settled permanently in England, where he became one of the most prolific composers of all time.

The Messiah was composed in 1741, during a twenty-four day period, as an English oratory, based on the King James Bible and Coverdale Psalter, from a text compiled by Charles Jennens. Messiah was first presented in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

It is a reflection upon Jesus as the Messiah called Christ and was written for a modest group of singers, choir, and orchestral instruments. The work since then, however, has been adapted for large scale performances with giant orchestras and choirs.

It was written as a commentary on the Nativity, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. At the end of his manuscript, Handel wrote the letters SDG, or Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory.” Some people take this to imply that Handel wrote the music in a fervor of divine inspiration, and, as he wrote the Hallelujah Chorus, it is claimed that he saw all heaven before him. The first published score was issued in 1767, eight years after Handel’s death.

Handel never married. In 1750, he suffered injury in a carriage accident. In 1751, he developed cataracts and by 1752 he went completely blind. He died in 1759 at the age of 74, and his body is buried at Westminster Abbey. Handel is honored with a feast day on July 28 by the Episcopal Church and is honored, as well, by the Lutheran and Methodist Churches.

Whether or not Handel wrote The Messiah as a God inspired work is unprovable. However, here was a man who dedicated his time and talents to music, much of it sacred and still used in the Church. One might even venture to say that his music is an act of evangelism, since so many people are familiar with this oratorio, as well as much of his other sacred music and listen to The Messiah at the two key times of the Christian Year, Christmas and Easter. Handel inspires us to look forward to these events, and his music encourages us, as did Isaiah, to use this Advent season to prepare ourselves for the Christmas that is to come. I therefore encourage you to listen to the first three sub-sections which contain the first twelve pieces of this marvelous work. It will help you to focus on the ideas and emotional meaning of this Advent Season.

Finally, let us look at the 9th piece in the Messiah, the Air and Chorus – O Thou that Tellest. Part of it is also taken from the 40th Chapter of Isaiah, specifically Verses 5 through 7. O Zion, that bringest good tidings,6 get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings,7 lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! In other words, let us shout from the rooftops and let the world know that God is here. He is with us as the Holy Spirit, and the Son, Jesus Christ will come again to be our judge.


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