Handel’s Messiah Christmas 3

Title: Biblical Passages in Handel’s Messiah 3

Text: Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 40:9, 60:1-3

Time: January 1st, 2013


We’re continuing in our examination of the biblical passages found in the world famous Handel’s Messiah – that’s the opera, or more correctly, the oratorio, dealing with a musical description of Jesus as Messiah. It’s technically an opera without any dramatic acting. In other words, it’s just like an opera, it’s sung musically in the style of opera, although there are no dramatic acting parts; it’s all singing and music. I noted before how Handel chose to put to music many of the more obscure prophetic passages of the Old Testament in dealing with the birth of the Messiah Jesus, rather than dwell on the more popular and familiar passages. This gives us a little different perspective on Christmas as we reflect on the events leading up to and including the Nativity. For a little history of the Messiah as an opera performance, Handel wrote it in the first half of the 18th century and it became popular even during his lifetime, but it really took off in popularity after his death as others adapted and experimented with different instruments and arrangements of it. Today, it’s probably the most popular classical musical performance of any. It’s certainly the most familiar operatic work. Handel was himself German, but he became a British citizen later in his life after taking up England as his home. He wrote many other musical pieces, but the Messiah is what made him most famous. At the end of writing Messiah, which only took him some twenty-two days to create, he penned the initials, “G.B.T.G.” – “Glory be to God.” He had written it for the glory of God, and from the looks of things God has indeed been glorified in the many hundreds and thousands, perhaps millions, of performances of Messiah all over the world during the last nearly three hundred years. But what is the appeal of Handel’s Messiah to so wide an audience? How can it be that even non-believers, skeptics, even atheists can attend a performance and walk away inspired? Could it be that God’s Word when set to music and simply sung can move people spiritually at a deeper level than the mere spoken word of a sermon? Perhaps. But it might be the combination of God’s Word and God’s Spirit working through the inspired musical composition of a man whose goal was to create a work “to the glory of God.” We can definitely say that Messiah has been a powerful witness through the centuries; and we can guess it will continue to inspire audiences of all kind in the future. So without further adieu, let’s continue on in explaining each of the verses Handel uses in the first part, or Christmas section, of the Messiah. I pray you are inspired as we learn about God’s Word put to song.


First, there’s “Behold a Virgin shall Conceive.” Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name Emmanuel. God with us.” Now the real irony here is this Bible passage is probably the most important and most famous scriptural quotation concerning the prophecy of the birth of Jesus. It’s quoted in Matthew 1:23 of the New Testament in the account of Jesus’ birth. So with that in mind we’d think that Handel might dwell on this passage at length, putting words to music in an elaborate opera piece. But no, he doesn’t. This passage is very short in Messiah, and it is only presented as a spoken piece with little music at all. A short, less than a minute in length, musical piece made up of a female vocalist and harpsichord background. Now why did Handel take this path in presenting the birth of Jesus in his musical presentation? Why not, as we might think, elaborate on this verse for a long while? Since it is the major prophecy concerning the Messiah in the Old Testament, why not elongate it and embellish it with a lot of song and music? I don’t know if anyone has a definitive answer as to why Handel approached this verse the way he did, but perhaps because this verse is so famous he chose to dwell on other less famous verses to make the musical piece fresh and new. If so, then this approach achieves its goal because like I said before of Handel’s Messiah as a whole, it helps give us a different perspective than the one we usually get concerning the birth of Christ. And isn’t that what we need, especially in today’s approach to celebrating Christmas? Our culture tends to take the very familiar themes of Christmas and overdue them to the point that by the time Christmas is over, we’re very ready for it to end, because of the overworking of the same old themes in uncreative ways. Added to that, our culture also is moving away from the biblical meaning of Christmas for purely secular themes. So when you take these two tendencies – overworking old themes and secularizing Christmas – you get a mix that becomes wearisome, to say the least. But Handel gets creative and mixes together not only the familiar passages, but also the less familiar ones concerning the Messiah’s birth. Now that doesn’t take away from the fact that Isaiah 7:14 is a powerful prophecy. Think about it. Seven hundred years before Jesus it was foretold that he would be born of a virgin. Mary’s name wasn’t mentioned, but it’s obvious that she’s who Isaiah is referring to. It gives us a sense of how God is in control of things, the past, present and future. God is sovereign, meaning, God is in control. It may seem that the world or your life is out of control, but nothing is out of control to God. He’s in charge. We need to remember that at all times.


Second, there’s “O thou that tellest good tiding to Zion.” Isaiah 40:9, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, and be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!” And Isaiah 60:1, “Arise shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” So we move from the most famous prophecy concerning the Messiah’s birth, Isaiah 7:14, where very little time is spent, to a rather obscure verse that isn’t often linked to Jesus’ birth, and Handel deals at length with it. Go figure. Could it be that the two verses lend themselves to music differently? Or could it be simply the strange thing called inspiration? It could be that Handel was simply inspired more with an obscure verse than with a most famous one. Who can tell when and where inspiration comes? If it was pure inspiration that drove Handel to write the Messiah, then this could be the answer to why he chose some verses to make much ado over while leaving others with not much. That’s apparently the reason for the time and attention given to Isaiah 40:9 in the Messiah performance. It’s one of the most catchy and memorable songs in the whole work. But what is the verse saying? It speaks of good tidings or good news – sound familiar? When we Christians think of good news or “gospel” we immediately think of the salvation message of Jesus Christ, which is, through the cross we are forgive, through faith we are saved. Anyone and everyone who confesses and repents of their sins, and who looks to Christ by faith can be saved. This is the good news or gospel of salvation. Isaiah’s verse is talking about good news, the news of the coming of the Lord. Christmas is a time when we look back at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the babe of Bethlehem. But this message often gets buried under a lot of other Christmas themes. Yet it is most important. Christmas is about the gospel of salvation. It’s about the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, coming to begin his mission of salvation for us sinners on earth. It’s the start of a chain of events on earth that will lead to his atoning sacrificial death and his glorious resurrection! No Christmas, no Easter. No birth of Jesus, no death and resurrection. So Christmas is good news. Do you realize how good that news truly is? Or have you been tricked by secular society in celebrating the celebration. Americans are always looking for a good party, so they use Christmas as a good excuse to party without stopping long enough to think what it all means. As Christians, let’s reflect on the meaning of the good news of salvation this Christmas. The Savior is born in Bethlehem. Our Savior.


Third, there’s “For behold darkness shall cover the earth.” Isaiah 60:2-3, “For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon them, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of they rising.” I think about the only way we can interpret this, another obscure passage or prophecy, is to see the darkness on the earth is the darkness of sin and death brought about by the historic Fall of Adam and Eve passed on to every individual thereafter. If we look at human history we see indeed great darkness and death brought about by sin and evil. So the darkness in the world of people is the darkness of sin. But then a light arises in the dark world, and this can be none other than the birth and life of Jesus Christ. I think that’s what Handel is trying to point us to in bringing up this verse at this point in the Messiah performance. “But the Lord shall arise upon them, and his glory shall be seen upon them.” Then the passage makes reference to the Gentiles coming to the light, and this can only mean that the Messiah comes not only for Israel or the Jews, but also for the non-Jewish people of the world. As we look back upon history, we now see that it’s mostly a non-Jewish population that accepted the message of Christ’s gospel, while the Jews for the most part rejected it. So Isaiah correctly predicts a great non-Jewish movement towards God through the light that comes into the world, the light of Christ that began in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. We celebrate Christmas each year, but do we remember that as Gentiles or non-Jews, the prophecies were read and believed at first only by the Jews. Very few Gentiles even paid attention to the Jewish Old Testament writings, although some did. The expectation of Messiah was mostly a Jewish hope, not something non-Jews spent very much time dwelling on. But we can see that the Prophet’s message indeed came true because while the Jews rejected their Messiah Jesus, the Gentile populations, as it turned out, accepted him.  Thank God there was a plan for you in the salvation plan of God. Remember at Christmastime that God made room in his heart for not only his chosen people the Jews, but also for all peoples as well. Christmas started out as essentially a Jewish event – Jewish prophets predicted it, the participants: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were Jewish, and the whole thing made sense only from the Jewish perspective. But many years later, it’s a holiday celebration appreciated mostly by non-Jews. Thank God there was a bigger plan in the mind of God than just a Jewish Messiah bringing salvation to the Jews. It includes us all now. Praise the Lord!


Again, I think we gain a larger and better perspective by examining some of the more obscure verses in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah’s birth. All of the verses that Handel includes in the musical Messiah do relate to the Incarnation, the first Nativity, although it might take a bit of reflection to see how they relate. Ultimately, they all do relate and give us a deeper appreciation for the holiday of Christmas we are celebrating. Yes, I love to read and retell the accounts found in the New Testament, in Matthew and Luke, which describe the first Christmas.  But I also love to uncover new and different verses in the Old Testament that shed new light on Christ’s birth. That’s what Handel does for us in his Messiah performance. Have you learned something helpful today? Have you gotten a greater appreciation for the richness of Christmas? Isn’t it amazing that prophets writing hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus can throw out hints and clues about his coming? I can imagine a Jew who knew the Old Testament thoroughly beginning to put the pieces together during the time of Christ. Perhaps that’s what drew some of the disciples to Jesus, because they connected the dots in the Old Testament prophets and came to the conclusion that Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah. How did Christianity spread so rapidly in the midst of a hostile Jewish environment in the first century? Probably because some of the Jews began to see the connections between Old Testament passages, the main prophecies of course, but also the more obscure verses like Handel points out, and this led to many conversions to Christ and many joining the Christian church. There are a lot of riches in the Bible that we still have to cover that deal with the first Christmas event. Let’s not waste the Christmas season pursuing worldly and foolish things as a substitute for the wealth of spiritual treasures we find in the Bible. Let’s take time this season to think about and reflect on the many passages and teachings of the Bible concerning the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Are you well versed in the Jesus prophecies? Have you listened to what God said to people in his Word before the time of Jesus? Only by hearing what God was speaking before Christ can we fully appreciate everything that happened during and after Christ. That’s what Handel and his Messiah give to us – it challenges us to think further back than just the New Testament, and to go into the Old Testament, and not just the obvious Messiah passages, but go deeper even into the minor prophecies; draw from these as well. If we do, our lives will be richer for it. Let’s pray.


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