Comfort ye, my people
The magnificent arcs of Handel’s music have made these words particularly memorable for a lot of people. Supported by an orchestra which both echoes them and lets them ring out clearly, they sound like an address to the listening congregation, or audience, offering comfort at a time of year which can be equally joyful and trying. For some that comfort will be spiritual, and for some aesthetic, and both come as a reminder of the realities beyond shopping and meal planning. Though of course, the text doesn’t actually say that, and it all hangs on a comma and the grammatical quibble which goes with it.
The text Handel set is from the Authorized Version (or King James Bible), which renders the beginning of Isaiah 40 as “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God”. As many people reading this will know, the shifts in English grammar since the Authorized Version appeared mean that modern readers are liable to mix up the grammatical implications of the line. When this line is taken out of context (and set so beautifully, as in Handel’s Messiah) it sounds as if God is saying “Comfort yourselves”, to the people. In fact the line is addressed to Isaiah himself, so a more modern rendering might run “You, go and comfort my people”, and later versions often print it as simply “Comfort my people”.
This meaning becomes clear as the chapter continues:
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
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.
This is the prophecy that John the Baptist cites when he is questioned as to his identity in today’s Gospel reading. After he denies being the Messiah, or Elijah, or “the Prophet”, he reveals himself by referring to the voice which appears slightly inexplicably in Isaiah’s prophecy:
He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
As we discussed a couple of days ago, identifying someone as “a voice” is an odd matter. John has something of the quality discovered in the “reordberend”, presenting himself as a voice which responds to God’s creative act and gestures away from the speaker towards God again. He does not call himself “the one whose voice is crying in the wilderness” but “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, fitting with John’s insistence in this chapter that he doesn’t matter, that his value is what he can direct other people’s eyes and lives towards. Unlike Jesus, in his account he is not both sign and signified, but just the sign.
It also seems probable that John is making a pun here. And not just any pun, the best and most Scriptural sort of pun, which revolves around the absence of punctuation and the ambiguity of a word’s grammatical category. The Authorized Version, perhaps influenced by the later Christian understanding of the prophets (especially Isaiah), renders the voice as
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
However, the crux which John may be exploiting becomes clearer in a later translation of the same line, such as the NRSV:
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
This version chooses a different reading, placing the punctuation between the speaker and the wilderness. In the original, lacking punctuation, it would be unclear whether the voice was crying in the wilderness or crying out that in the wilderness a way should be prepared.
Though this is less close to what John the Baptist says, I think it makes more sense of his proclamation. John’s enigmatic reply to the priests and Levites does not simply identify him with a figure – or rather, a voice – from the Isaianic prophecies, but creatively rereads those prophecies. The urban prophet had apparently heard a voice which ordered the preparation of a road in the deserts, and that voice’s words had been kept and studied by his prophetic school. Centuries later, a holy man was attracting attention in the wilderness beyond the Jordan, and the priests and Levites came to question him as to his identity. Refusing to give himself a title or a full name, he recited the prophecy, but did so in a way which altered their meaning. The voice which the prophet had heard in Jerusalem was itself in the wilderness, and it was from the wilderness that the call to repentance was being made.
It’s a grammatical quibble, but one which is rather characteristic of both Christian and Rabbinic thinking. Read one way, the prophet in the city had been told to civilize the wild land beyond the city, but read another way, the desert was calling out to the city to “repent and believe”. The sermon I heard this morning from Mother Judith Brown stressed the theological depth of “the wilderness” as both a psychological metaphor and a major theme in Israel’s history. It was in the wilderness that God appeared as cloud and fire, that God fed the people with manna, and that God gave the Law to Moses. Jesus would go into the wilderness for a period of fasting and prayer which is described as “forty days and forty nights” to parallel Israel’s wanderings.
John’s answer is both a pedantic grammatical clench and a profound spiritual challenge. In his demand that the people “repent” we can hear the literal meaning of teshuvah, “to return”. He asks the Levites to return to the Scriptures to find a meaning they had missed, and asks his own followers to return to the wilderness where God had sheltered Israel. It is, in many ways, a very dry pun.