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Songs of Exile, Advent 2 (B) – 2005

December 04, 2005

In the year 539 BC, Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians, conquered the Babylonians. A relatively benign and tolerant ruler, in the following year Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and Judea and resume their customs and traditions, provided that they recognized his authority. Around the time of Cyrus’ decree, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it… (Isaiah 40.6-7)

When we read Isaiah we should remember that the prophets of Israel were poets. Modern translations of the Bible are helpful, because unlike older translations, the newer ones arrange many of the words of the prophets in poetic lines and verses. Not only was Isaiah a poet, there is an inherently musical quality in many of his words that musicians throughout the ages have recognized.

There can hardly be a person in most churches who can hear or read the first verse of Isaiah 40 without mentally hearing George Frederick Handel’s magnificent setting of the Authorized Version of this text: “Comfort ye, my people.” That setting, of course, is one of the arias in Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that premiered in Dublin in 1751

But how many people also hear in their heads Johannes Brahms’ setting of verse 7: “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it…” Brahms set Isaiah’s words for his moving German Requiem that premiered in Dresden in 1868.

The two settings could not be more different. Handel’s setting of the words “Comfort ye, my people” is tender, sweet, and lyrical. Brahms’ setting of “the grass withers, the flower fades” is rugged and stern. Handel’s music lulls and soothes us with its message of profound comfort; Brahms’ music is a chilling but necessary reminder of our mortality. Yet, there was one inspiration for both composers: Isaiah’s words spoken to Jewish exiles in faraway Babylon.

What possible connection could the two messages have? Could chapter 40 of Isaiah have been sung by the Jewish exiles in Babylon? We know that they sang. Psalm 137 records the poignant lament of the exiles: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.1-4) Music has a remarkable power to refresh, sustain, and lift spirits. Think of the African-American spirituals sung by captured Africans in their exile. Like the words of Isaiah, the words of the spirituals are both comforting and mournful: “Deep river… my home is over Jordan…” , “Steal away to Jesus…”, and “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…”.

The Jewish exiles in Babylon needed comfort, for they knew all too well that human flesh was as weak and frail as the grass and flowers that briefly flourished on the Judean hillsides before being blasted and withered by the hot, dry winds. Like the scorching sirocco they had seen the Babylonian chariots sweep down on them. They had seen Jerusalem and Solomon’s great temple burn like so much dry grass. And like dry straw scattered in the wind they had been scattered; some of them had gone into exile in Egypt, most had been taken by the enemy to Babylon. What they had not yet seen was this “comfort” of which Isaiah spoke.

Advent reminds us that we, too, are exiles. The exiles in Babylon looked back to the days when they lived peacefully in their own lands and looked forward to their return. Like the exiles in Babylon, we live between the times, looking back to God’s coming among us in the babe of Bethlehem and to his coming again “in power and great glory”. Like the Jewish exiles and like African captives brought to America, we need songs to sustain us. We need songs to lift our spirits, because we also know that “all people are grass,” that human flesh is as insubstantial as a flower in the desert.

Interestingly, the word Isaiah used for breath (ruach) is also the word for wind and spirit. God sends the sirocco from the desert and the breath in our lungs and the spirit that sustains our being. The sirocco withers the grass; the body dies when the breath is withdrawn; and the spirit isGod’s to send or withdraw as God pleases. Just as we fill our lungs with air to sing our songs of exile, so God’s Spirit fills our beings.

The familiar songs of Advent are often songs of longing and exile: “O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel that waits in lonely exile here…”. But Advent points us toward a future when we will be given a new song to sing, not a song of exile but a song of triumphant redemption. For we journey through a world and a time when there is often little sign of God’s presence. The spirit or wind that touches our lives seems too often to be the hot, dry desert wind that withers the flowers of the field. But we journey on with God’s song on our lips and God’s breath in our lungs and God’s spirit sustaining us. We journey on toward a world and a time when the grass and the flowers will flourish, the trees will clap their hands, and all of God’s creation will sing joyously, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Even so, quickly come, Lord Jesus.

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Christopher Sikkema