Handel’s Messiah Christmas 4

Title: Biblical Passages in Handel’s Messiah 4

Text: Isaiah 9:2, 6, Luke 2:8

Time: January 2nd, 2013


We’re officially past the Christmas season, but that isn’t entirely so, because there is the tradition of the twelve days of Christmas that begins on Christmas day and continue, well, twelve days; and then, of course, there’s the Eastern Orthodox church’s celebration of Christmas that doesn’t even start until into January of the new year. So I’m still on safe grounds for talking about Christmas even after Christmas. We’re continuing our examination of Handel’s Messiah by looking at each of the verses he uses in his opera or oratorio. We are going through every verse from the Bible found in Messiah, only the first section, or the Nativity section. Handel divided his work up into three sections, but we’re only interested in the first section because it deals with the Christmas theme. I’ve already pointed out that instead of emphasizing the standard biblical texts concerning the birth of Christ, Handel dwells on the more obscure verses in order to give us a new and fresh perspective – and a greater appreciation for the prophecies leading up to Christ’s birth. From my own experience, upon reading through the verses Handel uses in his Messiah musical, I must say that a few of them I’ve never seen connected with Christmas at all. I don’t think most people have ever connected them with Christ’s Nativity, although I’m sure a few have. In all my studies I haven’t seen the commentaries link them up with the birth of Jesus, although upon reflection I can see why Handel does associate them with Christ’s birth and life. Something else we should know is that it wasn’t Handel himself who gathered all the different verses together for use in the Messiah; it was a clergy friend Charles Jennings who selected the biblical texts and delivered them to Handel for his masterpiece. So we shouldn’t credit Handel alone for the verses that are used throughout, but also others who helped him put it all together. But of course, the final decision was Handel’s as to which verses to use and how to use them. There must have been some reason why he used the Bible passages the way he did; although we just don’t know for certain. Personally, I’m rather happy he did pick the passages he did, because like I said before, it makes things interesting. So today we continue in examining the Messiah’s biblical quotations. We’re up to numbers ten, eleven and twelve on the list – “The people that walked in darkness” from Isaiah 9:2 and “For unto us a Child is born,” from Isaiah 9:6, and “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” from Luke 2:8.


First, there’s “The people that walked in darkness.” Isaiah 9:2, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath a light shined.” This prophecy in Isaiah is clearly a reference to the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ because it is quoted again in Matthew 3:16 in describing the beginning of the Lord’s ministry. Again, the picture is one of darkness, which represents sin and death dwelling upon earth as the result of Adam’s sin and original sin found in every man and woman. The earth is full of darkness due to sin, but a great light enters the world in the form of the babe of Bethlehem and grows brighter as the baby grows into childhood and eventually adulthood in the ministry of Christ on earth. The greatest light shinned forth on resurrection morning after Christ’s crucifixion and burial. But the image of darkness that Isaiah and then Handel after him mention really gives us a great context for appreciating Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. It’s something we often miss today because of our culture’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin. Ever since the days of the Enlightenment movement in Europe three hundred or so years ago, a gradual secularization has taken place in the West and along with it important key truths of Christianity have been nearly abandoned by the culture. The original Fall of man in the Garden of Eden has been questioned and rejected by many, as well as original or inherited sin. Today it’s popular to see mankind as perfectible or at least born neutral with unlimited potential. Self-esteem psychology has taken the place of biblical theology on this point. Of course, teachings about God’s judgment and eternal punishment likewise have been rejected by many today. So when the Bible talks about people walking in darkness, that is sin and death, it’s hard for people to relate to, except about death. But again, the idea that death is the result of sin is nearly incomprehensible to modern people today, although it is clearly taught in the Bible. This is another good reason why Handel’s Messiah is important in today’s modern world – it reminds us and calls us back to important long-lost biblical truths that we’ve either forgotten or rejected. The fact is, people today are still walking in darkness if they’ve never come to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. Even though the light has come, it’s as if it hasn’t if we reject it. This verse calls us back to the realization that without Christ and the light of God’s Word, we are in darkness, not only the world but also our individual lives. Are you in the light? Or are you still stumbling around in the darkness of sin?


Second, there’s “For unto us a Child is born.” Isaiah 9:6, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the might God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Finally, at least we come to a famous biblical passage that Handel does utilize at length in his Messiah musical! We’ve seen how before he uses obscure verses and dwells on these, while bypassing the most famous verses or only dealing with them in passing. But here, in this instance, he grabs a well-known Messiah birth passage and develops it musically through word and music. This is perhaps one of the most well known parts of the entire Handel’s Messiah. Not only is the verse a great quotation, but the music is also one of the better songs of the entire work. It’s easy to recognize this tune from the Messiah. It’s a catchy musical theme. Now the biblical passage is such a powerful prophetic foretelling of Jesus the Messiah that it deserves an entire message to unpack it. In the past I’ve given entire sermons on just this one passage, even a message series on this one verse, because it’s easily broken down into different parts. Today, I don’t have the time to do that, but just to say that every description given by Isaiah is clearly applicable to Jesus. It speaks of Christ’s deity – “the mighty God.” It speaks of Christ’s future leadership role – “and the government shall be upon his shoulders.” It speaks of Christ as a broker of peace, spiritually first, and ultimately in every possible sense – “the Prince of Peace.” And other descriptions that could only point to the historical person of Jesus Christ. In another message I’ve explained that while one or two of these descriptions could possibly apply to some other great historical person, all of them together can only represent Jesus Christ. That’s why this prophecy is so important in identifying Jesus as the Messiah. The early Christian church saw it is powerful proof of Jesus’ identity, and so have Christians throughout the ages. It’s still a proof of sorts for the task of evangelism today. If you ever have the opportunity to speak with people who haven’t made a commitment to Christ, share with them the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus. Show them Isaiah 9:6 and ask them to think of another historical figure who could fit the bill other than Jesus. It’s a powerful witness to the truthfulness of the gospel message. And the great thing is it’s something that we can talk about at Christmas, a time like no other time of the year when people’s hearts seem to be a little more open than usual.


Third, there’s, “There were shepherds abiding in the field.” Luke 2:8, “There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo! The angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round them; and they were sore afraid.” After a brief “pastoral symphony” consisting of pure music and no singing or spoken word, Handel’s Messiah continues to the next biblical quotation. This verse marks the first non-prophetic passage. In other words, we move from the Old Testament foretelling of the coming of Messiah to the actual historical account of Jesus in the New Testament. This is the first instance in the Messiah that quotes primarily from the New Testament. We can feel the transition from talking about the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament to the actually appearance of him on earth described in the New Testament. Here again is another reminder by Handel that there is progress, there is flow to the Christmas Nativity story; it isn’t just about one event in one place at one time. It doesn’t just start in Bethlehem of Judea, but actually starts hundreds and hundreds of years before, coming from the prophecies of Isaiah and other prophets, foretelling of the Messiah’s coming. Almost the entire first section of Handel’s Messiah deals with the foretelling prophecies. How important this is. Yet how often we modern Christians simply skip to the Christmas accounts in Matthew and Luke directly without understanding the context. How much richness we miss in our celebration of Christmas because we do this. But thanks to Handel’s presentation we can correct ourselves of this omission. Is it any wonder why our contemporary Christianity is superficial and weak? How can we appreciate our faith unless we know the whole story? But how can we learn the whole story if we don’t understand the Old Testament foundations? It’s vitally important for us to learn the Jewish foundations found in the Old Testament of the Bible, and especially the prophecies concerning Christ. Only then can we fully appreciate what took place back in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Do you grasp the context yet? Did the shepherds who were visited by the angels understand?  Probably not fully, but they knew enough about the Messiah prophecies, as all Jews did, that they immediately understood the importance of seeing the special child born in the manger. A great spiritual light entered the world in the birth of the baby Jesus. It was so important that angels heralded its arrival. Can we grasp this significance? Can we catch a glimpse of its importance today? I hope we can begin to see it.


Handel’s Messiah is a masterpiece of music, but that’s not why it’s so valuable. The musical quality and creativity are superb, perhaps unequaled but that’s not why it’s so important. It’s most important because it teaches a profound spiritual message. There are other great musical works, and we can appreciate them on their merits alone. But Handel’s Messiah brings us both great music and a great message – the message of salvation found in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus. That’s why is so special. It’s a wonder why more scriptural verses haven’t been set to music like Messiah; yet, perhaps it takes a level of genius that doesn’t exist only in rare instances. In other words, maybe there just aren’t very many artists like Handel, and among these fewer still that are so inspired to attempt to hit such a high spiritual mark. When we look upon our world in the early decades of the twenty-first century there is cause for much sadness at the way people who come from traditionally Christian lands have fallen away from the Lord. But as long as Handel’s Messiah continues to play during the Christmas holiday season there’s reason for hope! The world listens mostly because of the beauty of the music, rarely understanding or comprehending the biblical quotations. But even so, the seeds of God’s Word are planted, and as the Bible itself says, God’s Word never go forth void, but accomplishes that for which it was intended — Isaiah 55:11. Handel’s Messiah is not only a great evangelistic tool in the hands of Christians; it’s also a great discipleship tool for the Christian church. Not only is our task great in reaching the world for Christ in evangelism, but also our assignment is made even tougher in disciplining those who believe. It isn’t enough to bring a person to simple faith in Christ, we must move on and teach the fullness of the Christian faith. That is achieved little by little as heart, soul and mind are gradually and slowly transformed by God’s truth. Our lives our changed from sinful and selfish individuals into more and more the character of Christ. This happens as we expose ourselves to God’s Word on a regular basis. Why not make a point this Christmas season, what’s left of it, and all Christmas seasons, to not only think of Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem, but also to take the time to understand the context of that birth. Let’s do what Handel did and look back before the time of Christ and hear the prophets foretelling all that we know now in the New Testament. Only when we do so can we fully appreciate how special is the Christian faith we hold.


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