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Posts Tagged ‘Messiah’

One of the dominant motifs for Israel’s judgement in the book called Isaiah is the felling of the mighty tree that is Jacob/Israel. In fact, this notion occurs in the prophet’s Generative Encounter at Isaiah 6.13. There, restoration is hinted at—arguably—by the final clause, where ‘the holy seed’ and ‘its stump’ appear to refer to a remnant of the people that is eventually to be restored.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:13 (NRSV, quotation marks removed)

The stirring oracle of regeneration that appears in the book’s fourth chapter does something quite similar.

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 NRSV)

In a manner that anticipates several restoration motifs in this book, the ‘fruit of the land’ and quite possibly ‘the branch of the Lord … and the fruit of the land’ stand over against ‘the survivors of Israel’. The images are not, by appearances, coequal.

There exists a different interpretation of the syntax and the vocabulary that removes this ambiguity, reflected as early as the Septuagint and as recently as the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible:

Τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐπιλάμψει ὁ θεὸς ἐν βουλῇ μετὰ δόξης ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τοῦ ὑψῶσαι καὶ δοξάσαι τὸ καταλειφθὲν τοῦ Ισραηλ…

Isaiah 4:2 (LXX)

But on that day God will gloriously shine on the earth with counsel, to uplift and glorify what remains of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (NETS = New English Translation of the Septuagint)

In that day, The radiance of the LORD Will lend beauty and glory, And the splendor of the land [Will give] dignity and majesty, To the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:1 (JPS)

It would probably be inaccurate to render this interpretive tradition as anti-messianic. Rather, it represents a non-messianic reading of a text that jostles uneasily with the Masoretic tradition. Targum Jonathan is an early voice that reads the text messianically in a way that reflects the path taken by most translation of Isaiah into modern languages, including English.

In that time the Messiah of the Lord will be for joy and for glory, and those who perform the Law for pride and for praise to the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (The Aramaic Bible)

For our purposes, it is important to note that the Masoretic presentation of 4.2 envisages a dual presence in the land inhabited by restored Israel, one that perhaps foreshadows the presence of the intensely personified servant over against a restored remnant population in the fourth servant song at 52.13-53.12. In each case, the people are there, alongside another presence that remains enigmatic that is at points a collective and at others a singular entity, yet always profoundly conjoined to the people.

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Why is it at once surprising and unsurprising to learn that George Frideric Handel wrote Messiah in one of the lowest moments of his life. England’s debtors’ prisons beckoned and all seemed bleak.

This is but one of the details that Patrick Kavanaugh’s lovingly written introduction to the Handel-Jennens libretto of this most majestic and enduring musical, human, and spiritual accomplishment brings to light. I am listening to yet another rendition of Messiah as I tap out these observations. Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s worknwsa-messiah2 is adorned in this case by Kiri te Kanawa, Anne Gjevang, Keith Lewis, and Gwynne Howell. But this is just one of a dozen offerings of Messiah that I might have chosen from Apple’s iTunes offerings on his cold Connecticut evening, proof perhaps that civilization has not ended just yet.

As the author of Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers and Spiritual Moments of the Great Composers, Kavanaugh treats seriously Handel’s religious motivation as indeed the overwhelming spiritual experience of writing Messiah over a period of weeks that the composer himself described in the moment.

We are reminded that King George II of England spontaneously rose when ‘the first notes of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus” rang out …” Audiences have been rising ever since.

Hearts too, accompanied sometimes in the life of this listener and of many others by irresistible tears before the sheer force of such a beautiful telling of what Christians believe to be the largest and best story of history.

 

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