Handel’s Messiah Christmas 1

Title: Biblical Passages in Handel’s Messiah 1

Text: Isaiah 40:1-5

Time: December 30th, 2012


For many years now I’ve wanted to examine the biblical passages contained in Handel’s Messiah, but I’ve never got around to it. But this year I’d like to take the opportunity to finally do it, that is, go through each verse in Handel’s Messiah and try to explain their meanings in the context of Christmas. As most of you know, it’s tradition to perform Handel’s Messiah around Christmas; and most big cities have a least some performances of Handel’s Messiah scheduled during the holiday season. It’s very popular, especially in and around colleges, universities and art or cultural centers. If you’ve never been to a performance of Handel’s Messiah let me quickly summarize what it is – it’s an opera based on biblical descriptions of the life of Jesus the Messiah. It starts with prophecies about the birth of Christ, then moves to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The performance is divided into three main sections, although I’ll only cover the first section because it deals with the holiday theme of Christmas, or the remembrance of Christ’s birth. The first section, or the one that deals with the birth of Jesus, is twenty-one verses long; but some of the verses don’t take up much time in the performance, while others take up more time. Today, I’d like to deal with the first three verses – “Comfort Ye” from Isaiah 40:1-2, “Every Valley” from Isaiah 40 4, “And the Glory of the Lord” from Isaiah 40:5. Now what reviewing the verses found in Handel’s Messiah will do is help us appreciate not only the birth of Jesus, which is the meaning of the season of Christmas, but it will also give us a deeper understanding of the prophetic context for the birth. The Jews had the entire Old Testament of the Bible at the time of Christ’s birth, and there are passages that lead up to and prophesy the Messiah’s birth. Handel seems to dwell on not only Christ’s birth but also the prophets who spoke of Christ in the Old Testament before the birth. Now for many of us, we’ve already seen a number of performances of Messiah before, but we really haven’t examined its content very much. Yes, we’ve enjoyed the catchy music, but have we really listened to what is being said? For the longest time I didn’t realize that the singers were only quoting biblical verses, nothing else. Then it was pointed out to me they were quoting scripture, and it really got me interested in examining every musical piece. So today I hope by going through Handel’s Messiah we can gain a greater appreciation for Christmas, and how rich it is in not only the New Testament accounts of Christ’s birth, but also the Old Testament prophet’s foretelling of it.


First, there’s “Comfort Ye.” Isaiah 40:1-3, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” and “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.” Handel’s Messiah first begins with an Overture of pure music, but then it heads into the first singing part – “Comfort Ye.” Now why does Handel the composer begin with Isaiah 40:1-2? He’s trying to set the tone for the Messiah’s birth, the first Christmas. It’s a comforting attitude on the part of God as voiced through the prophet. It isn’t a tone of judgment that we might expect given the sinfulness of humanity. All throughout the Old Testament prophets we see both the grace and judgment of God, so naturally when we think of the Messiah’s visitation, especially the Jews thought this, that it would mean fierce judgment and condemnation of sin. But the birth of Jesus, as we know now, wasn’t the beginning of judgment and wrath, but of grace and mercy. God was visiting mankind through a baby in Bethlehem, a most non-intimidating thing to do. It’s not that mankind didn’t deserve to be intimidated or judged or condemned, it’s just that God chose not to visit upon man these things in his appearance in Bethlehem. Remember the words of the New Testament, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him,” John 3:17. So the prophecy from Isaiah to begin Handel’s Messiah is appropriate, although it is a surprise. Even today, when we think of God visiting mankind we are tempted to think in terms of judgment and wrath for sin – and there is plenty in the Bible that could fuel such thoughts. But Handel surprises us by actually following God’s own script for Christmas – comfort, mercy and grace. When we think of Christmas each year it’s important to remember that the holiday represents an expression of God’s great mercy and grace, even though his judgment and wrath would be perfectly justifiable. Handel sets the right tone in his summary of the life and ministry of the Messiah Jesus Christ. Have you forgotten about the grace and mercy of God this Christmas? It’s easy to forget. But let’s make a point of remembering it this year. Finally, Handel quotes verse 3 – “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The prophet Isaiah is saying that God is bringing mercy and grace, so be comforted. Yet, he’s also saying, “Prepare yourself for the Messiah’s coming. Make preparation individually and as a community.” We ask the question, why is preparation for the Lord important? The next point explains it.


Second, there’s “Every Valley.” Isaiah 10:4, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.” Now these verses are plain in word or print, but when they are sung in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, they come alive. These are very familiar tunes, especially because they come at the beginning of Messiah, and so if anything is remembered of Handel’s work it’s these catchy songs. Now that doesn’t mean they are easy to sing; they aren’t. Try it sometimes, men  — these parts are sung by male voices, while other parts are sung by women or a combined choir. It’s really hard to sing the way the performers sing in this opera. But we can try, and so I try once in a while to do so, although out of the ear of others. Now, like I said before, I didn’t realize that the tenors and the other singers were singing Bible passages. I must have recognized that they were quoting some verses, but it didn’t occur to me that they were only quoting the Bible and nothing else. But it’s true. Handel’s Messiah, from start to finish is pure Bible. There’s no human commentary or opinion included. What a refreshing thing! Our world is so full of itself. We have talk radio and talk television that goes on and on with so-and-so’s opinion over this and that. I get sick of it. How our world longs for God’s Word, even if it doesn’t know it. Well, Handel’s Messiah is 100% God’s Word spoken and sung. That’s probably why it endures so and never goes out of date. Now what Isaiah the prophet is trying to say with his prophecy about every valley shall be exalted and every mountain made low, is that change is coming, so prepare for it now. Think about it. If every valley were raised up, if every hill and mountain were made low, if every crooked place were made straight and every ragged place made smooth, that’s essentially describing a total change in everything. That’s what Isaiah the prophet is saying about the coming of the Lord Messiah in Jesus Christ. And that’s what Handel is trying to communicate in his Messiah performance – the feeling of revolutionary change coming. We’ve been comforted, or in other words, spoken graciously to, but now we are being warned of change, good change, coming. God is still giving us this message, especially at Christmastime. As if to say, “I love you, I care about you, I have good plans for you, find comfort in this – but be ready for big change in your life as I remake you into what I originally created you for.” We need to keep this in mind at Christmas each year. God loves us and has big changes in store for us to remake us by his Spirit. Are you open to the changes God has planned for you? Why not say yes to all of God’s will this Christmas.


Third, there’s “And the glory of the Lord.” Isaiah 40:5, “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.” Another great thing about Handel’s Messiah is that it forces us to reflect and meditate on a specific verse of the Bible over and over again while it is sung musically. I often think, “What would the whole Bible sound like set to music?” What would it be like to have the Bible from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation sung like scripture is set to music in Handel’s Messiah? It would be great! Maybe it will be in heaven, I don’t know. A lot of the Psalms are set to music in different melodies over the years. For example, the 23rd Psalm has been set to music be different musicians, and we’ve sung a number of different versions in church over the years. But it’s really great to hear the Word of God come alive in song the way we see it being done every year in Handel’s Messiah. Now the phrase “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” is speaking about the appearance of the Messiah, first as a babe in Bethlehem, and later as a man with a ministry in all of Israel. Now how was the glory of the Lord revealed in the babe of Bethlehem? Did the people know that the baby Jesus was the Lord God of Israel? Yes and no. Yes, some knew, for example, Mary and Joseph knew something about this; but it’s hard to tell how much even they comprehended of it. Yes, the magi knew something of the glory of the Lord revealed in the baby Jesus; but no, they couldn’t have known even a fraction of what we now know about the Messiah Jesus. Yes, the shepherds knew what the angels had told them, so they went to Jesus to see him; but no, they didn’t know the full extent of God’s glory even as it lay before them in the form of the baby Jesus. So it’s really hard to say if anyone fully appreciated what was happening that first Christmas. But isn’t that still the case? Who among us truly comprehends and appreciates Christmas even today? I’ve studied theology for decades and I’ve been a born-again Christian for even longer, but I still don’t grasp the profound mystery of what the birth of the Incarnate Word of God fully means. That’s what’s great about Christmas each year – it forces us to think more deeply than we normally do about the mystery of the Incarnation. It calls us to appreciate the coming of Jesus even more. Have you taken the time this season to reflect on the profound mystery of the glory of God in Jesus Christ? Have you gained any extra insight into it? Let’s make a point to think about it this Christmas.


I’ve only covered the first few pieces of the whole Handel’s Messiah, but as you can see it’s rich in meaning. And isn’t that what we need today, especially what Christmas needs today – meaning and purpose and depth? We see our culture hi-jacking Christmas in order to encourage shopping and over-indulging and all kinds of other things. We all can see how secular society is changing and distorting the true Christmas celebration. But the question is, what can we do to prevent our own celebration of Christmas from being distorted by the errors of our fallen culture? Well, one of the ways is to search for the deeper and richer meaning of Christmas found in the Bible. And Handel’s Messiah helps us do that by setting God’s Word to music in a profound yet interesting way. It’s a treasure of deep and rich spiritual insight. It counters the superficial consumer culture that rises around the holidays. It brings us back to God and God’s Word in a creative way. Now I’m aware that it is classical music. It is what you might consider “high culture” or as some might call, “elite” music. But don’t let that bother you. It isn’t necessary to subscribe to the agenda of the social elite to appreciate the music of Handel’s Messiah. I think by now that it has transcended any class or strata of society. Anyone can buy a ticket and attend a performance. It isn’t just professional groups that put on the Messiah, but also local churches and community groups too. So it isn’t just an activity of the so-called upper class anymore, as it might have been in former days. And besides, what’s wrong with all of us taking a little break from the dominant popular culture? Don’t get me wrong. I like mostly plain music, the kind that’s easy to sing to, and not too complex to follow. But every once in a while I like to be challenged too. Handel’s Messiah challenges us both musically and theologically. Think about the Bible passages that are quoted. What do they have to do with the birth of Jesus – or the Christmas holiday celebration? What was the prophet trying to say by making these statements about the Messiah’s coming? What truths can we learn from listening and reflecting on this performance? Every generation emphasizes different truths, and ours is no exception. But since Handel’s Messiah is hundreds of years old and quoting from the text of the Bible that is thousands of years old, how might we gain a different perspective other than our own today? I hope you’ll use our review of the Christmas portions of Handel’s Messiah to gain a new and fresh perspective on the Lord Jesus this year. Let’s draw close to the Lord this year and let’s use Handel’s work to help us.


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