We invite you to return every day during Advent for this devotional series
Listen to today’s accompanying audio track:
SETTING of Isaiah 40
Advent begins today at the darkest time of the year, and it comes with the promise of God’s true Light shining. In a similar way, the oratorio Messiah also begins at the darkest of times, and comes with the promise of God’s Light. Jennens and Handel’s exceptional grasp of Scripture is demonstrated in beginning Messiah as they do. If you were going to tell Messiah’s story, where do you think you might begin? Would you begin at Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem? Would you begin with His first words or first miracles?
Jennens and Handel insightfully begin the story of Messiah right where the Gospels begin it, at Israel’s darkest hour. They begin with the prophet Isaiah’s promise of Messiah’s coming:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, Behold, I send you my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:1-3; Matthew 3:1-3; Luke 3:4-6 ; John 1:23).
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” is marked by all four Gospel’s, as Isaiah’s prophecy eight centuries earlier. The “Good News” of Jesus Messiah is proclaimed by Isaiah at the darkest hour of God’s people.
It is striking that the book of Isaiah is the Bible written in miniature. Just as there are 66 books in the Bible, so there are 66 chapters in Isaiah. Just as the Bible divides into two parts, with 39 books in the Old Testament, and 27 books in the New, so Isaiah divides into two parts, 39 chapters in the first part, and 27 chapters in the second.
Just as the first 39 books of the Bible anticipate Messiah’s coming, so the first 39 chapters of Isaiah anticipate Messiah’s coming: “Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9). The whole of Isaiah, as well as the whole of the Bible, pivots on Isaiah 40. Here is the coming of salvation. So it is here that Jennens and Handel begin the grand story of Messiah’s coming and deliverance of His people.
The historical setting for Messiah’s Overture, or beginning, is Isaiah 40. The people of God are in the bondage of Babylon and far from their homeland. They are without a king, without a temple, and without any hope for the future. It is at their darkest hour that God promises forgiveness of sins, return to their homeland, and a new beginning.
Yet, Isaiah sees prophetically in God’s deliverance of His people from the bondage of Babylon, a far greater deliverance one day from the bondage of sin and death. For Messiah will come and reign and rule over all. Of His Kingdom there will be no end, and He will reign forever and ever.
As it happened in the days of Isaiah, and the days of Messiah’s coming, so it happens today in the lives of God’s people: God is at work in our darkest times. He forgives our sins, heals our brokenness, and gives us new beginnings. Messiah is God’s Light shining in the darkness.
On this first Sunday of Advent we cherish Messiah’s first coming in Bethlehem’s stable, and eagerly await His coming again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We light the first of the Advent candles and joyfully proclaim to the world: “Behold your God!”
The somber opening chords of the Overture echo the darkest days of the prophet Isaiah. Handel writes the Overture in the minor key which Western ears hear as darkness, suffering, and dissonance; there are things that need to be resolved. God’s people have forsaken God and are in bondage and misery. We hear rising sequences of notes striving to break free, but falling back again. The minor key creates the sense of no hope.
Then suddenly, the Overture hints at a new beginning. The notes come like the first day of spring after a long dark winter, and then are gone. The minor key returns and the Overture ends in dissonance.
Musicologist, Calvin Stapert notes that the Overture would have conveyed a specific meaning to Handel’s audience. Handel wrote it as a “French overture” of the Baroque period where the stately dotted rhythms suggest the pomp and ceremony of royalty. In his book, Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People, Stapert writes: “The overture alerts the audience that a serious matter is at hand and suggests the coming of a king”. Amidst the darkness and dissonance we are being summoned to make ourselves ready. The King of Kings will soon be appearing.
- What do you sense that God might be saying to you in today’s setting and music from Messiah?
- What do you want to say to God?
- Now take a few moments to be still in God’s presence