Handel’s Messiah: The Gospel In Song

Messiah is an Oratorio comprised of 53 “movements,” from a libretto compiled by a man named Charles Jennens, an aristocrat and a musician, using 81 verses from 14 different books of the King James Version of the Bible; over half the verses used are from either Isaiah, Psalms, or 1 Corinthians. Jennens sent the libretto to George Frideric Handel, who began composing Messiah in August of 1741. In a letter, Jennens wrote, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other subject. The Subject is Messiah.”

Handel took only 24 days to compose the 259-page score. The first performance of Messiah was on April 13, 1742, the conductor being Handel himself. At the end of his work, he signed “SDG,” which stands for Soli Deo Gloria, a Latin phrase meaning, “To God alone the Glory.” Some believe that he was under divine inspiration.

He never performed Messiah for money; only for charity and education. Now, over 280 years later, Messiah is still performed in concert halls all over the world and is beloved by millions. The Gospel—the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ—has been put so wonderfully to music that the LORD has allowed to be preserved for almost three centuries.

Comfort Ye My People (Isaiah 40:1-3)

The first movement we’re going to listen to is the second movement in Part I (the first movement is an overture, called “Sinfonia;” there are no words and thus no Scriptures used); Messiah begins on a somber note, in Isaiah 40.

Isaiah prophesied to a people who would one day go into captivity; God’s judgment was coming upon them for their iniquity. For 70 long years they would be captives in the foreign land of Babylon as punishment for all their sins (Jeremiah 25:11). However, this was not without a message of hope: God had promised that he will never cast them off permanently; they are his covenant people (Romans 11:2). He therefore reminds his prophets to speak comfortably to Jerusalem, even though they would be many, many miles away from home while in captivity. The LORD would bring Israel back to their land again, but much more importantly, give them spiritual comfort and healing through the long-promised Messiah—thus removing what had been in the way all along. The LORD has a plan—not only for Israel, but for all of his people (Jeremiah 29:10-14), and he gives comfort and hope in the midst of trouble (Psalm 46:1; Isaiah 51:11-12).

Interestingly, there are 66 books in the Bible: Isaiah has 66 chapters; the 40th chapter of Isaiah begins with “comfort,” and the 40th book of the Bible (Matthew) begins with the genealogy of Jesus, who brings peace and comfort.

Every Valley Shall Be Exalted (Isaiah 40:4)

Staying in Isaiah 40: everything was about to change: the advent of the Messiah would be the greatest social revolution in human history. The weak would be made strong and the proud brought low (Isaiah 40:29-31; James 4:6), crooked ways made straight, and the roughness that abides in man, made smooth. What Jesus preached in his ministry—and what his followers preach now—was repentance (Matthew 4:17); to change our ways: “be ye transformed,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 12:2). Jesus is the great equalizer, the great leveler; we are all in need of a Savior; no one is “too good” that they don’t need him, or “too bad” that God’s grace and mercy cannot extend to them.

The same revolution will happen again at Jesus’ second advent, all around the world: the pride of man will be humbled; the meek, the lowly, those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, will be exalted. Dishonesty will be exposed and corrected; sin will no longer be tolerated. All that is wrong in the world will be made right, when Jesus comes to rule in truth and peace.

Enjoy now what is one of my very favorite parts of Messiah; the music in this piece is so exciting and fits so perfectly with the Scripture it uses. The Gospel comes to life and Handel invites us to jump out of our seats in the thrill of “Every Valley.”

And the Glory of the LORD (Isaiah 40:5)

One more from Isaiah 40: Moses, upon Israel leaving Sinai, asked the LORD to show him his glory (Exodus 33:18); the LORD responded by revealing his character: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…(Exodus 34:6-7).”

We were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), to reflect his character. Only Jesus has ever done that perfectly: he was the embodiment of God’s character; he came to show us the Father; those who have seen him have seen the Father as well (John 14:9; Hebrews 1:3). He is with the Father right now, but he will return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).

All flesh shall see it together; the day is coming when the knowledge of the glory of the LORD will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). All flesh will see the salvation of God; all the ends of the world and all the nations will worship before him (Psalm 22:27). The mouth of the LORD has spoken it.

And He Shall Purify (Malachi 3:3)

Back in “Bible times,” the Priests (the sons of Levi) were supposed to lead Israel to God. Instead, God’s chosen ministers did the exact opposite; they set a bad example and deceived the nation. God could have simply wiped them out, but instead, he promises to refine them. The coming Messiah would purify the priesthood by renewing what was in their hearts.

God’s people are called to be a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9); they must set a good example for others and their heart must be in the right place. It is not good enough to just go through the motions. God knows where your heart is (Proverbs 21:2; Jeremiah 17:10). Whatever you do, do it in love (1 Corinthians 16:14), for the LORD and for your neighbor. Ask the LORD to create in you a clean heart and to renew in you a right spirit (Psalm 51:10), to search you and know your heart, to see if there be any wicked way in you, and to lead in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24). Only then can an offering be presented to the LORD in righteousness.

For Unto Us A Child Is Born (Isaiah 9:6)

Messiah then moves into the part where Christ’s birth is prophesied; “Behold, A Virgin Shall Conceive and bear a son, and call his name, Immanuel, God with us (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23),” and he would save his people from their sins. Isaiah later writes, “the People That Walked In Darkness Have Seen A Great Light (Isaiah 9:2).” From the beginning, God says light is very good (Genesis 1:3-4). Jesus, the Messiah, is the Light of the World (John 8:12); he came the first time into a world where there was no guiding light. Much like in the time of the Judges, everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25). He will one day return again to a very dark world, to bring more light than ever before. Instead of walking in darkness, the nations will walk in the LORD’s paths (Isaiah 2:3). Those who have followed Jesus faithfully will shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever in the Kingdom of their Father (Daniel 12:3; Matthew 13:43).

God loved us so much that he sent his only Son, Jesus, unto and for us: you, and I, and everyone who will believe on him (John 3:16). All authority is given to him in heaven and upon earth (Matthew 28:18); he comes to rule the world in righteousness and the people with his truth (Psalm 96:13) and will have dominion from sea to sea and from the river unto the ends of the earth (Psalm 72:8). Jesus will be the all-wise, Wonderful Counsellor; his decisions will be immutable; he will be the “Mighty God” and his enemies will lick the dust (Psalm 72:9); he will be an Everlasting, compassionate and caring Father to his people (Psalm 103:13; Proverbs 3:12), and the Prince of Peace who makes wars to cease unto the ends of the earth (Psalm 46:9), when nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).

His Yoke Is Easy, His Burthen Is Light (Matthew 11:30)

So the Messiah was born; the angels, a multitude of heavenly hosts, praised God and sang, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth, goodwill toward men (Luke 2:14)!” It was prophesied of the Messiah, “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd (Isaiah 40:11); perhaps the most famous passage in the Bible is Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd.” David knew that because the LORD was his shepherd, he would not be in want, nor would he fear any evil.  The Good Shepherd cares for all his sheep: in Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd did not stop searching until he found it (Luke 15:1-7). He calls them all by their name, and they know his voice. There are many voices out there, but Jesus’ sheep obey only him. A Brother wrote, “We have a shepherd who is personally calling each one of us and he knows the experiences we are going through. He knows the difficulties of life. He knows the sadness, the sorrows, the depression, the anxiety, the fears. He knows also our joys and the times when we are exhilarated. He knows how happy we can be when we are doing the right thing. The Lord knows all of that. And don’t you think a shepherd has always got his sheep in mind? Does a shepherd lounge around in the sunshine reading a book and then suddenly think, ‘where are the sheep?’ Jesus is the ‘good shepherd,’ and a true shepherd will always be concerned about his sheep.” If you want your cup to run over, and to dwell in the house of the LORD forever, the LORD must be your Shepherd.

The first part of Messiah ends with an invitation; Jesus invites us to share the load with him. His commandments—to love the LORD and to love your neighbor—are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). Following him does require much sacrifice, but the world places a much larger burden on people than Jesus does. The LORD’s work is a joy, and the reward is far greater than anything the world could offer. “Lay aside every weight,” says Paul, and look to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). Cast your burden on the LORD; he cares for you and will sustain you (Psalm 55:22; 1 Peter 5:7). You can’t save yourself; only Jesus can. Jesus is our High Priest, who knows our infirmities because he has been there (Hebrews 4:15). He is gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29), and he now invites you and I to walk with him; he has already done the hard part.

All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray (Isaiah 53:6)

The second part of Messiah begins with the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world (John 1:29)!” Isaiah uses the analogy of a lamb led to the slaughter to describe the Messiah (Isaiah 53:7), who came into the world as a lamb without blemish and without spot (1 Peter 1:19), to do God’s will perfectly (Hebrews 10:7-9). Jesus did away with burnt offering and sacrifices—which the LORD takes no pleasure in—to replace them with living in love and obedience. In him is no sin (1 John 3:5), but he was despised and rejected of men (Isaiah 53:11); he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) God so loved the world that he gave his only Son; all who believe on him will have everlasting life (John 3:16). He shall see the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall God’s righteous Servant justify many (Isaiah 53:11). With his stripes, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

The prophet does not then say “some of us like sheep have gone astray,” or “a lot of us” or “most of us;” he says, “all.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); no one can claim perfection, except for the Messiah himself. For our sake, the LORD made him to be sin who knew no sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). He forgives us of all trespasses, canceling the record of debt that stands against us (Colossians 2:14). For that reason, esteem others as better than yourself (Philippians 2:3); God views all sins the same way, and it all leads to one place (Romans 6:23). But there is good news: the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls is waiting for you to turn back to him (1 Peter 2:25).

Their Sound Is Gone Out (Romans 10:18)

All that saw him, laughed him to scorn, but he trusted in God that he would deliver him (Psalm 22:7-8). The Messiah’s final act of faith was to trust that the LORD would deliver him from the grave; that this was not the end, and that the LORD’s righteous will would prevail. “Commit your way to the LORD,” says the Psalmist, “trust in him, and he will act (Psalm 37:5).” He rescues those he delights in (Psalm 18:19). Jesus was cut off out of the land of the living (Isaiah 53:8), but the LORD did not leave his soul in hell (Acts 2:31); God’s own righteous standards demanded that Christ not remain dead; the grave itself could not hold him, because he was sinless (Act 2:24)! The greatest miracle in human history happened that day; then some 40 days later, Jesus ascended to heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God. Jesus’ final commandment when he was here on earth was to go out into the world and preach to the whole creation. 2021 has been a rough year for a lot of people, but the Messiah and his followers bring good news: a better day is coming; Jesus will be the ultimate solution to all the problems that plague humanity now (Psalm 72). The Gospel is the “good news concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ.” It is the greatest news in the world, and is only effective and contagious when shared (Matthew 5:16). The Gospel is now available everywhere more than it has ever been; the internet allows for worldwide preaching. The LORD has revealed himself to all creation; see it in the sunset and in the stars and in the seas; creation is without excuse; his invisible attributes are clearly seen in the things that were made (Romans 1:18-20). He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16).

Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage Together (Psalm 2:1-2), Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder (Psalm 2:3)

We live in a world very similar to what the Psalmist wrote about in Psalm 2; the nations are raging furiously together, and it’s only getting worse. The LORD offers a way to peace, but so many reject it; they think man can solve their problems, even though 6,000-plus years of history shows otherwise. Instead of appreciating the love of the LORD, the world sees Christ as a burden; a heavy yoke, and they want nothing to do with him. But it is written that it is a “vain thing” to fight against the LORD and his anointed, and they will not have their way; the LORD’s plan for the earth will come to pass.

Hallelujah (Revelation 11:15, 19:6, 16)

This next piece is the most famous: the great Hallelujah Chorus. The Apostle John had a great vision of the day when this song would be sung by a multitude with a voice like the roar of the sea and the thunder, when the judgments of God would bring righteousness to the world (Isaiah 26:9), and the blood of the saints would be avenged (Revelation 16:6) and sin subdued.

Upon finishing the “Hallelujah” Chorus, Handel said “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”

There’s an old story about one of the first performances of Messiah, that King George II was in attendance, and that he was so moved by the words and music of the Hallelujah Chorus, that he stood up; and when the King stood, everyone stood. Ever since then, audiences all around the world have stood at the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus; so if you’re willing and able, please stand for this one: for the LORD omnipotent reigneth; the kingdom of this world will one day become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; the LORD will be King over all the earth (Zechariah 14:9), and he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!

But Thanks Be To God (1 Corinthians 15:57)

The third and final part of Messiah begins in the Book of Job; a man who had a lot of grief and suffering. But he had full confidence, despite everything that had happened to him, better days were ahead for them that love the LORD. The Resurrection is not just a “New Testament” concept: Job looked to the day when he would see God. He will, as will all of the faithful. Messiah then moves into Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he writes that “since by man came death, by man came also the Resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). “The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23);” it’s what everyone is owed. The Messiah came to provide a way out; he is the Resurrection and the life; whoever believes in him, though they die, they shall live (John 11:25). Paul then writes, “Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed…then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law (1 Corinthians 15:51-56).” Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah (25:8), to whom it was also told by the LORD, “thy dead men shall live (Isaiah 26:19).” The prophet Daniel also was told of the Resurrection: “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life (Daniel 12:2).” Through the Messiah, the grave no longer has power; those who believe in him may die, but they have the hope of the Resurrection to everlasting life. The “law” that Paul references here is the Law of Moses was holy, just, and good (Romans 7:12) but it could not save, because it was impossible to keep; only Christ did that, and therefore, only he can save. Paul finishes his remarks on the Resurrection, in thanksgiving for the great work that has been done for all of us through the Messiah; through him, and thanks be to God, you can have victory over sin.

Worthy Is The Lamb (Revelation 5:9, 12-13)

“If God be for us,” asks the Apostle Paul, “who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)?” There is a very obvious answer to Paul’s question here: no one. But if you want God to be for you, you have to be for him; there is no halfway; either you are on the LORD’s side, or you are not. Those whom Christ died for and whom God has justified are innocent in his sight; Jesus makes intercession for them and their sins are forgiven.

Messiah concludes with the end of the matter; the conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who is worthy to be called the King of all the earth, the Lord and Savior; God’s Messiah; when ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, a multitude that no one can number, and every creature in the heavens and on earth and in the sea, beholds the Lamb upon the throne. Through Jesus’ work and sacrifice, and by the LORD’s grace, you and I can be accounted worthy to reign with him on the earth as Kings and Priests; to bring peace and truth and righteousness to this world; this is the great Bible hope. He that overcometh will be granted to sit with the Lamb on the throne, to be given power over the nations; he that overcometh shall inherit all things. Amen!