We invite you to return every day during Advent for this devotional series
Listen to today’s accompanying audio track:
Comfort Ye My People
“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. 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.”
It is difficult for many to read these words of the prophet without hearing Handel’s tenor solo sweetly echoing in their minds. But even without the music, Isaiah’s poetry sings: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”. The story of Messiah begins in the heart of God, in His will to comfort His people.
“Na-ha-mu, Na-ha-mu, ami”, sounds like a lullaby in the original Hebrew. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”. So God commands His prophets to give comfort to His frightened people. “It’s all right, it’s all right”, God assures them. “You belong to me.”
At the outset of Messiah we hear this urgent double imperative: “Comfort! Comfort!” The double imperative emphasizes the importance of God’s command. It is as though God says, and keeps right on saying to His prophets: “Comfort! Comfort!”
All the longing and compassion of God is emphasized in the parallel command: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem”. The Hebrew language literally reads: “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem”.This is heart-to-heart talk. It is the language of love and courtship (Genesis 34:3; Judges 19:3; Hosea 2:14). God is out to woo His people. It is the kind of language a man would use to win a woman’s heart.
God is tenderly entreating, seeking to win back the love of His straying people. His words are not of judgment or condemnation, but tender, smitten love. He beckons His people to respond to His love, offering them a new beginning. God reclaims them as “my people” using the language of covenant loyalty. He assures them of His faithfulness even in their unfaithfulness (Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12).
God comforts them with the message “that her warfare [i.e. affliction] is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” All of this is to be declared in the name of “your God”. You belong to Him! So prepare the way of the Lord! Make a highway for Him into your lives. Your Deliverer comes.
These words of comfort God declared to His people through the prophets, are the same words God gave to John the Baptist in preparing His people for the coming of the Lord (Matthew 3:1-3; Mark 1:1-3; , Luke 1:17; John 1:23). One can read the Baptist’s words pointing to Jesus, and hear the words of Isaiah, “prepare ye the way of the Lord”.
Matthew 3:1-3: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.
The Gospels resound the Advent call to prepare for the Lord’s coming. “Behold your God!” Make room in your lives for Him. The busy days of Advent are not just the time to shop for loved ones, put up decorations, and get out the Christmas cards. It is the King who is coming! Let’s make ourselves ready!
Silence follows the dark, somber Overture to Messiah. Now we wait for the first word of the oratorio, the first word from our God. It has been 400 silent years since the last of God’s prophets, 400 years between the Old and New Testaments.
This silence is broken by soft, gentle music in the major key, contrasting with the dark minor key of the Overture. The music calms and soothes, preparing us to hear a Word from the Lord. Roger Bullard describes the tenor solo breaking the dark silence:
“The obscurity is pierced by the tenor’s first note, like the ray of light illuminating the primordial dark. His rising line is the breaking dawn of a new day for God’s people, falling back into serene assurance, ‘Comfort ye my people’.”
The rising line of this breaking dawn comes with three gentle notes: “Com-fort-ye”. Here is the plain, simple message, with the orchestra echoing: “Com-fort-ye”. Each singing of “Com-fort-ye”changes slightly but always reassures. At the end of each phrasing the orchestra warmly answers: “Com-fort-ye”.
The music changes as the tenor identifies the source of this comfort with strong, forceful notes: “saith your God”. The soloist pauses to let the words fully sink in as the orchestra repeats the notes of “Comfort ye”. Roger Bullard comments on Handel’s emphasis in the lines that continue:
“The singer lingers over the words ‘that her warfare’ building a tension for the coming announcement, as the phrase ‘is accomplished’ comes down in a sudden cascade, and is not repeated. It is final. The same resolution comes on ‘that her iniquity is pardoned,’ but this time, lest the news be too good to be believed the phrase is repeated, with a drawn out flourish.”
After this lyrical, soothing opening there comes the bold, strong command: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. The musical accompaniment is reduced to simple chords so that we might hear this lone voice crying out in the wilderness: The time for Messiah has come. Our iniquity is fully pardoned. We must make ready!
- What do you sense that God might be saying to you in today’s Scripture text and music from Messiah?
- What do you want to say to God?
- Now take a few moments to be still in God’s presence.