Handel's irony

It's that time of year again. Churches all over are sponsoring "Messiah" sing-a-longs or rehearsing for formal "Messiah" performances complete with orchestras and professional soloists. I must confess a long love affair with Handel's "Messiah." Growing up I always thrilled at my church choir's performance of the Hallelujah Chorus, and later as a young adult I participated in as many "Messiah" sings as I could find. A great thrill for me was singing in the last performance of Luther College's annual "Messiah" performance led by the legendary Weston Noble. Handel's "Messiah" is a truly inspiring oratorio and its annual December performances a highlight of the Christmas season for many people. But for all the beauty and passion of these soaring solos and thrilling choruses, a great irony lurks at the center of this most beloved representative of the Christian sacred music tradition.

Handel's "Messiah" is an oratorio clearly designed to celebrate Jesus's status as the Messiah. The libretto (written by the wealthy English gentleman Charles Jennens) is based entirely on the text of the Bible, with the book of Isaiah providing the words for many of the oratorio's most familiar movements. For example, the work begins with the reflective tenor recitative "Comfort Ye My People" (Isaiah 40:1-3). It then continues with the energetic tenor air "Every Valley" (Isaiah 40:4) followed by the stirring chorus "And the Glory of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:5). Handel's "Messiah" is based on the traditional Christian idea that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the coming of Jesus and his messianic status seven hundred years prior to Jesus's birth. For many, these prophetic predictions stand as proof that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. But herein lies the rub—the only figure that Isaiah ever actually refers to as Messiah by name in the entire sixty-six chapters of his book is the Persian king Cyrus the Great!

In a passage understandably omitted from Handel’s "Messiah" and regrettably forgotten within the Western Christian interpretive tradition, Isaiah proclaims:

            Thus says the Lord to his Messiah, to Cyrus,

                        to subdue nations before him

            and strip kings of their robes,

                        to open doors before him—

            and the gates will not be closed. (Isaiah 45:1)

For Isaiah, Cyrus is the Lord's Messiah, not Jesus! And the 2,000-year-old interpretive tradition that reduces Isaiah to nothing more than a prophetic predictor of the coming of Jesus erases the far more prophetic message standing at the heart of Isaiah's proclamation, a message that renders the appearance of Isaiah's text in Handel's "Messiah" most ironic indeed.

Why is Isaiah's identification of a Persian king as the Messiah so significant? Biblical scholars believe this section of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) constitutes an originally independent work written by an anonymous figure during the Babylonian exile. They call him Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah's vision for a restored post-exilic community contrasts sharply with that of another prophet of exile—Ezekiel. The latter's vision revolves around a restored community that is becoming increasingly ethnocentric, turning in upon itself and separating from its neighbors and those it deems "foreigners." For Ezekiel, God is a God of only the members of the exiled community of Judah, not a God of the whole world.

But Second Isaiah articulates an entirely different vision. He believes the restored community of Judah carries the obligation to be "a light to the nations" (42:6), to "establish justice on the earth" (42:4), to "bring forth justice to the nations" (42:1). The community is not to turn in upon itself, but to become a servant to the larger world and become a force of justice for all people. By declaring a Persian king to be the Messiah (the Persian king who made it possible for the exiles to return to Jerusalem), Second Isaiah powerfully registers his opposition to the ethnocentric vision of Ezekiel.

Second Isaiah's vision, like the other anti-ethnocentric voices in the Bible (Ruth and Jonah, for example), invites us to think deeply and critically about our own penchant to restrict God's love and caring only to those who are like us. Do we recreate God in the image of American patriotic nationalism (God bless America; but never God bless the world!)? Do we draw arbitrary boundaries between us and them, whoever the them comes to represent: undocumented immigrants, Muslims, gays? Do we label people non-Christian if they happen to ascribe to a view of the Gospel different from our own? If we answer yes to these questions then we are Ezekiel, trapped in a restrictive understanding of God that limits our imagination. Second Isaiah challenges us to say no to these questions, to embrace a much larger view of God that moves us beyond immediate interests and into a larger world.

Reading Isaiah as a book of predictions about Jesus unfortunately helps to reify ideas of Christian exclusivism and triumphalism. Christianity has to be the only true religion because Jesus fulfills all the prophecies of the Old Testament. This is seen as proof that other religions are false. The central irony of Handel's "Messiah" is that it draws on the writings of a biblical prophet who challenges the very exclusivism the oratorio's support of the prophecy/fulfillment scheme serves to perpetuate.

So should we stop singing "Messiah"? No; the music is just too inspiring. But let's make sure we do not silence the true prophetic voice of a figure like Isaiah through a slavish adherence to traditional theological formulations that limit our imagination on the true scope of God's universal love. Let's not force Isaiah to speak our truths; let's free him to speak his own.

Headshot - Bob ShedingerRobert Shedinger is an associate professor of religion at Luther College. He is the author of several books, including "Was Jesus a Muslim?: Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion" and "Radically Open: Transcending Religious Identity in an Age of Anxiety."