40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 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.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 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.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Comfort, and the circumstances that bring it, is a highly personal thing. Some people may react to a difficulty by needing to party, surround themselves with people, some need to sit quietly. Some need something in between. Healthy counters to the trials of life abound and, I argue, are all contained in these verses. The “comfort, O comfort” might be introspective and quiet, it might be energetic and joyful. There’s plenty in the text to suggest both, because there are plenty of times in life where both kinds of comfort are just the balm that’s needed.
This discussion, of course, sets me up for a discussion on the hymn set to this text, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People”, set to the tune GENEVAN 42 or the tune with a different rhythm is known as Freu dich Sehr. This melody and text can be heard in a variety of settings, some fast and joyous, making use of the bounce between the measures with a longer beat and those with shorter beats–this is commonly known as hemiola, although because this music developed from a French Renaissance folk music, applying that term isn’t 100% accurate. Usually, we call something a hemiola when it’s a disruption of the beat pattern, not an alternating feature of the music and beat as we hear in this tune.
Last week, we learned Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, a Lutheran Advent carol. GENEVAN 42 is so named because of its origin in the Calvin branch of Protestantism, which started in Geneva after Jean Calvin was run out of Catholic France for being a heretic. The Genevan Psalter, 1551 (which originally included this hymn tune) was the Calvinist attempt to purify the liturgy, as Catholic worship by the 16th century was notoriously full of non-scriptural elements. Luther, from how he adapted Catholic music for Lutheran use, was clearly OK singing non-Biblical texts (as is Savior of the Nations, Come). Calvin was more insistent on the primacy of scriptural authority and thus the music used by early Calvinists was from the Psalms. This text we now use with this hymn comes from a German theologian, Olearius, adapted from this Isaiah passage, verses 1-5. It’s not the original use for this music (which was secular/folksong–even Calvin made concessions!). Everything in modern worship is such a combination of different influences and histories. I find it inspiring to go beyond my tradition and really look for the One God who is much, much bigger than all our petty differences. But I digress…
As I previously mentioned, this is a boisterous tune, but a text that can be interpreted both as joyful but also as more quiet (“speak tenderly” but also “cry to her”). Both of these interpretations are valid. I, personally, LOVE to go Renaissance band on this hymn tune and really bounce it around, but I also found a very compelling and introspective organ setting of this tune. Ultimately, I think the message is this: God will meet you in whatever means you need for your comfort and salvation. God will be in your song and your dance (think: Purim, year of jubilee). God will also be in your confession, brokenness, pain, and meditation. The psalms are full of every sort of cry to God: rejoicing, mourning, rage, fear, and quiet joy. Shouldn’t the songs we sing at home and in corporate worship reflect that incredible diversity as well? Here are the words of the first verse:
"Comfort, comfort now my people; tell of peace!" So says our God. "Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow's load. To my people now proclaim that my pardon waits for them! Tell them that their sins I cover, and their warfare now is over."
There is definitely the quiet comfort you offer to someone mourning, and the joyous celebration of a war ended. Hearing it sung or played in both ways underscores the different ways to emphasize and engage with this text. I think it makes it more relevant and pertinent to us to hear this text in different ways.