As I do each year at this time, I’m drenching myself in my all-time favourite piece of music, Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah. Driving down the Queensway here in Ottawa, I sing along with it at the top of my lungs, conducting the London Philharmonic with my free hand. My absorption would probably be classified by an OPP officer as distracted driving–it would be interesting to argue that case in traffic court.
I never tire of this masterpiece, and can even forgive Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, for taking some biblical passages out of context. One of my earliest childhood memories involves this music—but that’s another story for another post. I learn something new every time I listen to Messiah, and I am prompted to contemplate different aspects of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus the Christ as dots from all over the Bible are connected in my mind.
Last year, it was the fact that religion fails to offer any savior—the True God is mankind’s only Saviour! This year, I was struck with the the motif of the “voice of the Lord” in the early passages. After the overture, the tenor starts by calling out through Isaiah to the listener—and to the nation of Israel (which, unfortunately, is not listening):
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”
On my recording, Philip Langridge continues through the early verses of Isaiah 40 and then the chorus breaks in and sings,
“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.”
The next singer is Ulrik Cold, the bass, who dramatically connects the words of the prophets Haggai and Malachi:
“For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.”
Throughout human history, God has spoken—in fact, the universe itself is a product of the voice of the Lord. The phrase, “And God said…,” appears nine times in the first chapter of Genesis alone. The writer of Hebrews starts out with a summary of how God has spoken through the ages:
“Long ago, at many times and in many different ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” (HEB 1.1-4)
Thinking of the voice of the Lord takes me to one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 29, which is a riveting description of a huge storm that moves across Palestine from north to south. It makes landfall on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and rips through Israel until it finally runs out of steam at Kadesh. As David looks on in awe, possibly from a cave, thunder cracks and roars through the valleys. Lightning splinters the stately cedars of Lebanon. Howling winds strip oaks of their leaves. Billowing black clouds obscure the sun. Driving rain drenches the land and causes the wadis and rivers to overflow their banks.
In contemporary Canaanite literature, Psalm 29 would have been considered an ode to JHWH, God of the Storm–much like one would encounter in Nordic sagas or Wagner’s operas. It is far more than that.
If the Bible is the metanarrative of history–and it is–then Psalm 29 is a metapoem. Using the storm as a palette, David paints a picture not of Mother Nature having a hissy fit, but of the eternal and sovereign Father God making a speech. The motif he uses is, “the voice of the LORD”, a phrase which is repeated six times between the initial call to worship and the closing petition.
The psalm opens with an exhortation not to people, but to angels. David commands celestial beings to observe a fearsome terrestrial event and join the people of JHWH in ascribing to God “glory and strength”. It ends with the benediction, “May the LORD give strength to his people! May the LORD bless his people with peace!”
The “heavenly beings” obeyed God’s command given through David. When they appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, these same angels shouted, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Luk 2.14)
As the shepherd-king David heard the booming voice of God when He ravaged Palestine with that violent storm, so the shepherds who went to worship the King of Kings that night in Bethlehem of Judea heard His voice. But it sounded very different. The voice of the Lord was the wail of an Infant, and His contented cooing as His young mother put Him to her breast. Most appropriately, those shepherds heard the voice of the Lord as the helpless bleating of “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (JOH 1.29)
This Christmas may not be as festive as others have been. As I type this post through my tears, my wife lies in a hospital bed on the other side of the city, suffering through the effects of pancreatic cancer and its treatment. But even though it may not be a festive holiday, it can still be a joyous one. Because God has spoken–at creation, in that storm David watched, through the prophets of old, and finally, through His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ–as I drive down the Queensway to visit my wife, I can sing with the London Philharmonic Choir those tender, comforting words of Jesus recorded for us in Matthew 11.30:
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
God still speaks to us on the pages of the holy Scriptures. Oh, dear friend, I beg you: Listen to the voice of the Lord!
To read a longer essay on Psalm 29, click here.
Image is from ACT Emergency Services Agency.