Handel’s “Messiah”, A Prophetic Masterwork – An Introduction
24 August 2022
We present the first of a series on the prophetic voice inherent in Handel’s musical masterpiece, Messiah. This piece of sacred music presents God’s word to listeners, speaking of comfort, strength and ultimate victory for those engaging in spiritual battle.
A few months ago, Warwick Marsh asked me if I would write an article on Messiah, the Sacred Oratorio composed by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), as we both felt that it was relevant to Daily Declaration readers, not merely as a celebration of one of the greatest musical masterworks in history, but primarily for the fact that we both felt it possesses a powerful prophetic anointing, which I’m not sure that the man who compiled the text entirely from Scripture, a rather vain and pompous aristocrat, Charles Jennens, was at all aware of.
But I realised very quickly that the subject simply couldn’t be covered in just one article, that the whole piece is so steeped in prophetic power. So, this will be the first in a series.
Reverberations Through the Ages
Before I get started, I want to appeal to those of you whose eyes just began glazing over when you saw this is about classical music, as though it’s just so stuffy and boring, especially when you compare it to the wonderful and inspiring contemporary worship music we’re blessed with today, or the secular music you may listen to. How can you possibly compare such out-of-date stuff to that?
The fact is that, without the music of Handel, and every great composer before and since, modern rock and other contemporary genres simply wouldn’t exist, and to listen to the masterworks of classical music with fresh ears will reveal why that is the case.
If any evidence were required, I can even go to the extreme of Heavy Metal, which my son loves in all its variants. He once loaned me a DVD series on its history, and the director of the documentary, who was also the “talking head”, first charted its origins to three particular classical composers: J. S. Bach (a direct contemporary of Handel — 1685-1750), Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), the first two being the inspiration for Hard Rock and Metal’s modal “Gothic” sound, and Paganini the violin virtuoso, whose showmanship is the model for every Rock guitarist, and whose style is a distinct influence for virtually every rock guitar solo.
If any proof were needed, here it is. First, compare the first three minutes of the Bach Toccata and Fugue for Organ with this clip for rock guitar.
Then listen to Wagner’s famous Ride of the Valkyries followed by its rock adaptation.
And finally to Paganini: (1) (2)
So much for “stuffy and boring”!
So, if you listen to the music clips from Messiah in this series of articles in the same way as you do the latest worship songs you will find that music is music, that there are many similarities, but they’re using different instrumentation and vocal techniques. To draw an analogy with speech, it’s not a different language, like English and French, but merely a different accent, like Aussie and American.
That’s because great music, of whatever genre or time period, has a paradoxical effect: it is both anchored in its own time, and yet timeless, all at the same time (actually, the same thing can be said in relation to the Bible).
So, in one sense, it is identifiable as belonging to the time and place it was composed; yet it can still profoundly impact us today — and that in a powerful way, body, soul and spirit (actually, the same thing can be said in relation to the Bible).
That fact holds whether it’s the secular music of Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert (my favourites), or in my own era growing up: The Beatles, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, Yes, Cat Stevens, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, The Moody Blues (also my favourites), or a hundred and one other great singer/songwriter/composers/bands of that time right up to the present.
The same holds for the sacred works of the past four centuries, the traditional hymns of Wesley and Watts and so many others, and those modern worship songs, some of which we’ve been singing for a few decades, and more that we’ll be singing for decades to come.
As Bill Muehlenberg noted in his recent article,
“When it comes to things like the arts (painting, sculpture, music, poetry, literature, and so on), there can be ungodly and immoral art, and there can be godly and moral art. The answer to the dark side of culture and the arts is not to say no to all these things, but to create good and godly versions of these things…
We can glorify God just as much in enjoying one of His beautiful sunsets, or by being enraptured by Handel’s Messiah, as by sharing our faith with others or by singing worship songs in church.”
In short, the same Holy Spirit who inspires our contemporary worship songs equally inspired the works of the past. This is all worship music! That’s why Handel, at the end of Messiah, wrote the letters “SDG” for the Latin phrase “Soli Deo Gloria”, which means, “To God Alone be the Glory”.
My plea, therefore, is that you will listen to be inspired in the same way as you do when you listen to hymns or contemporary worship songs.
So, now that I have your attention, a little background is required on Messiah as a whole.
Handel composed the music for Messiah in a feverish burst of inspiration in just 24 days in August and September 1741, after Jennens had compiled the text during July of that year.
When you realise that the whole work takes around two and a half hours to perform, and Handel was writing with a pen which had to be regularly dipped in ink, and that he had to compose separate music for vocal soloists, a four-part choir, five-part strings, trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoons, organ and harpsichord, you can understand how enormous a task this is.
As music commentator Miles Hoffman estimates, there are roughly a quarter of a million notes in Messiah. At a little more than three weeks of 10-hour days, Hoffman said that means Handel would have had to keep a continuous pace writing 15 notes a minute!
Credit should also go to Jennens for compiling his text exclusively from Scripture in a way that had never been done before, by linking seemingly disparate passages plucked from all over Scripture and showing how complementary they actually were.
This, too, in my opinion, points to its inspired nature, as this kind of work, the Sacred Oratorio, was usually an account of a story taken from Scripture relating to a major figure such as those Handel composed both before and after Messiah on such figures as Saul, Samson, Solomon, Joshua, or an event like the captivity in Egypt. In the same way, so many Baroque composers did the same with their Passions, based on particular Gospel accounts of Christ’s Crucifixion, like the most famous ones by Bach taken from the Gospels of Matthew and John.
So Messiah stands as a unique work in the history of sacred music.
Handel was also heavily criticised for performing a work based on Scripture in theatres, with the soloists also being well-known opera singers, some with less than unsullied moral reputations. In fact, according to Thomas E. Kaiser, Professor of History at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock,
“… it is one of Messiah’s strangest mysteries that many listeners in the eighteenth century, particularly clergymen, were outraged by the masterwork and condemned it as no less than a sacrilege.
Among them was one Reverend John Newton [composer of the hymn Amazing Grace], who, following a performance of the work in 1784, fired off more than fifty sermons assailing the oratorio as a trivial amusement ‘no better than a profanation of the name and truths of God and no less than a second ‘crucifying of the Son of God.’”
In response to such criticism, Handel once mentioned the fact that he didn’t compose it to entertain the audience, but to “make them better”.
I agree. What better place to evangelise than in a theatre?
Music and Text
And so to Messiah. First, a note on the performance videos and CD excerpts I choose to accompany these articles. Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of research done into the instruments and the performance practices of earlier times.
The orchestral and choral forces are also much smaller than those used in and after the 19th century. So the sound is much lighter and the tempos quicker than performances on modern instruments, restoring the vibrancy and the passion in the music. This is my personal preference, so unless there is only a performance on modern instruments available, that’s what you will see and hear.
Second, if your personal choice for a Bible is a modern paraphrase like the NIV or even The Message, you may find the text a challenge, as it’s the King James Bible, the only available English translation at that time. If that’s the case, I encourage you to concentrate on the richness of the language and to meditate on the depth of understanding that can be achieved by making that little extra effort.
The work begins with a “Sinfony” or “Overture” played by the orchestra. This serves the purpose of giving the audience an indication of the general mood of what is to follow — in this case, it is serious and dramatic.
Following that orchestral introduction, we have the first solo piece, from 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. 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.”
When you think of a work that has Jesus the Messiah as its sole subject, you would reasonably assume that the text is heavily dependent on the New Testament, and primarily the Gospels. But when you look through the text, roughly two-thirds of the passages used are Old Testament. That alone suggests its prophetic nature.
Straight away, in the very first line, the prophetic purpose of Messiah is established, and in a way that is consistent with the function and purpose of prophecy in the New Testament, and not that of the Old.
Space precludes me from undertaking a widespread analysis of the differences, but for my purpose here it’s fair to note that in general Old Testament prophecy was directed toward nations in a predictive fashion, or to pronounce God’s judgement.
But New Testament prophecy is different in its purpose, as different to the Old as Grace is different to Law. As prophetic teacher Shawn Bolz says in relation to the gift in a New Testament (therefore also a contemporary) context,
“Prophecy calls forth the redemptive purpose of God.”
The apostle Paul gave us the primary means by which prophecy operates in a New Testament context in 1 Corinthians 14:3, through “edification, exhortation, and comfort”. And it’s the third of those, “comfort”, where the prophetic message of Messiah begins.
However, we need to understand what the word “comfort” actually means here, and why the prophet is told by God to cry out in a loud voice that our “warfare is accomplished” and our “iniquity is pardoned”.
This is one of those Old Testament prophecies that has multiple fulfillments. It speaks to the nation of Israel in relation to the time after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, to the promise of restoration. But it also speaks of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, in that it predicts John the Baptist’s call to repentance prior to Jesus and His ministry being revealed:
“I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the LORD,”’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:23 NKJV)
And it also speaks to us of the fact that by grace, through the overthrow of Satan by means of the Resurrection, we have the assurance of ultimate victory and redemption.
So how does our modern concept of “comfort” line up with this? It doesn’t. At least not in the sense that we think of it, as being in a state of ease and at peace, isolated from trouble. I found that the Hebrew word used here, nâcham, means something like “To strengthen. To encourage. It instils a sense of security”.
Likewise, the origins of our English word, “comfort”, are far removed from those modern notions of ease. It comes from the Latin word, confortare, “to strengthen much”. I also once read that in medieval times it had a military interpretation, “to push towards battle”. In this context, there is a panel on the Bayeux Tapestry, which records the Battle of Hastings in 1066, depicting the Anglo-Saxon King Harold “comforting” his troops at the point of his lance!
In that context, it would be the inspirational speeches given by kings and generals to their armies before going into battle. And we have no shortage of these taken from movies in recent times to inspire us. Here are two of my favourites, both taken from literary classics, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth.
So, the word to us is that we, as Christians, are involved in spiritual warfare. By submitting our lives to God, by becoming Christians, we have volunteered for war, which always involves personal risk and great sacrifice. But we can be comforted by the fact that our Captain has gone before us and paid the ultimate sacrifice, by dying in our place, and in doing so has stripped the enemy of his power and his claim against each of us.
Although the danger may still be “clear and present”, our cause is just and our Captain is all-powerful, because through Him our “warfare is accomplished” and our “iniquity is pardoned”, so that the weapons of the enemy are powerless against us, as long as we take the necessary precautions (Ephesians 6:11-18 NASB).
Thus we can confidently go out into the world and use the words of our Lord’s template for all praying as our battle cry: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” while we bring in His harvest.
That’s the “comfort”.
This leads to the next piece we hear, the tenor singing Isaiah 40:4,
“Ev’ry valley shall be exalted, and ev’ry mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.”
Followed by the choir singing the next verse, v. 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.”
This prophecy speaks of a time to come when all wrongs will be made right when He comes in His full glory, a promise of ultimate victory which flows out of the promise of “comfort” in the previous verses.
As we will see in more detail in the last article in the series, Jennens and Handel bring the whole work full circle with the fulfilment of Isaiah 40:4-5 in the last glorious and prophetic Chorus when they sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 5:12-14)
I truly hope that reading this, as well as listening to the music, has inspired you to both follow this series, to perhaps broaden your listening and musical appreciation, not to mention your understanding of what constitutes worship music.
Most importantly, in relation to the subject of this opening article, I pray that the prophetic power of Messiah is at least glimpsed, and in relation to this opening sequence that you are comforted for whatever part you play on the battlefield.
Photo by Roxanne Minnish.
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