We invite you to return every day during Advent for this devotional series
Listen to today’s accompanying audio track:
Evry Valley Shall Be Exalted
“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
Diogenes, the ancient Athenian philosopher and social critic, was once asked how he wanted to be buried. “Face downwards”, was his quick reply. When asked why, he explained that one day the world would be turned right side up.
You don’t have to be a philosopher to know that our world is turned upside down. We live in a society of inverted values, where good is often called evil, and evil, good. News headlines daily mock the song of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’. Oh how we all long for our world to be turned right side up.
Today’s Scripture and triumphant music proclaim Messiah coming to our upside down world. The prophet’s words tell how it is that God will bring comfort to His people – He will break into history on their behalf!
George Frederic Handel and Charles Jennens were concerned for people who denied God’s involvement in our world. Today many also think of God as unconcerned with what takes place on this planet third from the sun. But the prophet tells how the King is coming to our world. Messiah is on the move.
The prophet’s imagery in today’s text alludes to the ancient custom of preparing a highway for the arrival of an eastern monarch. The visiting king would send heralds ahead to repair roads, remove obstacles, and even to construct new roads. Heralds would go ahead and cry out: “Prepare the way for the coming king!”
Sometimes preparation meant that a road in a valley needed to be lifted, a rough way leveled, a crooked road made straight. Armies of workmen would busily prepare for the king’s coming. This is the imagery of today’s text: “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
Like all good poetry, we can read today’s text on more than one level. The prophet’s images hint at meanings beyond his literal words. He is telling us how Messiah will bring God’s justice to our world. He will lift up the downtrodden, bring down the arrogant, and make straight the pathways that are crooked.
Messiah’s mother, Mary, sings of God’s intervention in our world. She celebrates Messiah’s bringing down of the proud, and lifting up of the broken:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
No obstacle will stand before Messiah’s coming. Crooked lives must be made straight. Proud and arrogant ways must be brought down. The downcast must be lifted up. Advent calls to get ready. “Behold your God!”
In this joyful aria Handel employs a technique, common in the Baroque period, which he will continue to employ throughout Messiah. The technique is called “tone painting” or “text painting”, where a composer writes notes to mimic the words of the text. Handel uses music to paint an acoustic picture of the Scripture text. For instance, in the music listen to how the word “valley” ends on a low note, and how “exalted” ends on an ascending one. “Mountain” forms a high point in the melody, and “hill”, a smaller one. “Low” ends on a note further down the scale.
Listen how the soloist takes four notes to sing “crooked”, while singing “straight” in one straight, sustained tone. “Rough places” is short, separate notes making a rough sound.
The different sounds contrast the exalted and the low, the crooked and the straight, the rough places and plain. Handel’s use of tone painting helps us to visualize the transformation Messiah brings in His coming. It challenges all to be 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.