I’m more or less a musical Philistine so I don’t listen to much classical music. But last weekend I went along to the Sydney Opera House to listen to a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
It was an excellent afternoon.
Setting the scene
It was the beginning of a Sydney summer. The harbour was sparkling, and busy with yachts, ferries and other water craft. The Harbour Bridge formed a backdrop as we walked among buskers, tourists and al fresco diners from Circular Quay railway station to the Opera House.
Admiral Arthur Phillip called it “without exception the finest harbour in the world”, and I’m not about to disagree.
Inside, the concert hall stage was filled with 400 choristers of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, plus the Sydney Philarmonia Orchestra. And a “signing choir”, so hearing-impaired people could “hear” the words.
Isaiah and the Messiah
While this work is about Jesus, much of the lyrics come from the prophet Isaiah, writing somewhere around 500-700 years before Jesus.
I think many people, believers and unbelievers alike, misunderstand Jewish prophecy, especially prophecy about the Messiah. They think prophecy must predict the coming of Jesus accurately, and be interpreted literally. Some prophecies indeed work like that, but others give a graphic insight into God’s mind without necessarily predicting events accurately. And some passages applied as prophecies in the New Testament do not appear to have been seen as prophecy by the original writer, though presumably God intended the application.
And most prophecies had immediate application as well as Messianic, and so different aspects might apply more directly to one or the other.
The Isaiah passages in The Messiah seem to differ in how much Isaiah saw of the future Messiah, but are inspiring nevertheless.
From Isaiah 40:1-5
A word of comfort to a beleagered people, possibly living in exile in Babylon:
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.
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry moutain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
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.
From Isaiah 60:1-3
Hope for the future:
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people:
but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising.
From Isaiah 9:2
It is interesting that this is written in the past tense. Was Isaiah referring to an event of his own time, or was he “seeing” the future as if it had already happened?
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
From Isaiah 9:6
This is the pinnacle (I believe) of Isaiah’s vision of God’s plan. Isaiah somehow “saw” something beyond comprehension for a faithful monotheistic Jew – God’s purpose being fulfilled through the birth of a child who would be called the most exalted names possible:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
From Isaiah 53:4-6
This is an amazing switch – from the glory of God’s light to the suffering servant. Did Isaiah see them as being the same person? We cannot know, but his insight is nevertheless remarkable.
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!
He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
And with His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.
And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah speaks across 27 centuries
Because of the ambivalent nature of Old Testament prophecy, I don’t think prophecy can generally be used as a “proof” of Jesus. But these passages of Isaiah, taken together, and in the context of many other passages, are quite remarkable.
I find it hard to believe that a bronze age priest or nobleman in a small Middle Eastern vassal state came up with these insights without hearing from God.
It is no wonder that Isaiah was, after the Psalms, the book most quoted by Jesus, and in the whole New Testament.
Isaiah and Christmas
Sometimes it takes a great deal of faith to see that the child whose birth we remember truly has the government of the world on his shoulders, for things so often seem quite the opposite. But if Isaiah’s amazing insight truly came from God, but took 700 years to come to fruition, perhaps we can take heart.