Handel’s Messiah: A virgin shall conceive

Handel's score

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel — God with us.” —Isaiah 7:14, NLT

Messenger of good news, shout to Zion from the mountaintops! Shout louder to Jerusalem — do not be afraid. Tell the towns of Judah, “Your God is coming!” —Isaiah 40:9, NLT

“Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all the nations to see! For the glory of the Lord is shining upon you.” —Isaiah 60:1, NLT

King Ahaz had just thwarted an attack on Jerusalem, but he was afraid for his life. His enemies were forming an alliance and planning to renew their assault. Isaiah says, “…the hearts of the King and his people trembled with fear, just as trees shake in a storm.”

The King was finding it difficult to believe Isaiah’s assurances that God would prevail. God offered to give Ahaz a sign, to prove that his promises could be trusted. “Ask for anything you like, and make it as difficult as you want,” said God.

But Ahaz declined.

And God, in exasperation over the lack of faith he found in David’s house, decided to choose the sign himself. “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!…”

Out of the fears and doubts of God’s people came the remarkable prophecy that marks the beginning of the Christian story: God himself will come to live with his people, and he will do so by mixing the ordinary and the miraculous — he will come as a baby, born to a virgin.

Handel gives Isaiah’s prophecy to a woman in a recitative that is as spare and unadorned a piece of music as you will ever hear. It suggests the young Mary on the night the angel came to her, alone, fragile, apprehensive about this thing God was asking, yet willing to be “the Lord’s servant.”

You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end! … So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. —Luke 1:32,33,35, NLT

God with us! But not in a way anyone could have predicted. Not coming on the clouds accompanied by a host of angels. Not appearing on a mountain amidst fire and earthquake. Not wielding the terrible, swift sword of his justice.

God with us! Gulping air in a cold Bethlehem stable, crying, hungry, innocent and vulnerable. Subject to every indignity of human experience and all the chaos of life.

The chorus Handel wrote to follow Isaiah’s announcement is exuberant and full of hope. Arise! it says. Be encouraged, it says. A light is coming that will put out the darkness, forever. A hope is coming that will calm your fears. Arise and spread the good news that God is coming to dwell with his people.

God with us!

Photo credit: Original Messiah manuscript, British Library

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  1. Merry Christmas Charlie!

    I love these Handel posts you’ve written.

    I hope you have a great Christmas – an awesome one. God with us – my favourite way of describing him!

    Looking forward to more of your blog in the New year – you have a gift and grace to go with it.

    God bless you and your family.

  2. Kelly Mallory says

    Just returned from Messiah Sing Along. It was wonderful, so uplifting and encouraging to hear the Word of God sung to such amazing music. It came from heaven.