The Scripture in Handel's Messiah

Notes for Dec. 3, 2017

Biblical Background

This week’s study will be structured differently as the Sunday worship service will include an abridged performance of George Frederick Handel’s musical composition, The Messiah, which was performed for the first time in Dublin on April 13, 1742.

Handel was a German composer who was discovered as a child prodigy.  Over the years, he took a circuitous path all over Europe composing operas, oratorios and other pieces for wealthy patrons, kings and queens.

He became quite famous and actually accumulated a fortune over the course of his lifetime as he invested well in the London stock market.  He was very generous with his money toward many philanthropic causes.  In fact, he gave the proceeds from the first performances of The Messiah to a debtor’s prison and hospital in Dublin.

When the piece was first performed in Dublin, it drew record crowds.  Handel was a “rock star” in his day and he had hired a popular celebrity soloist, Susannah Cibber, a contralto, who was going through a scandalous divorce at the time. In order to allow for greater seating capacity in the concert hall, women were requested not to wear hoops in their skirts and men were asked to leave their swords at home.

From the opening lines of the oratorio, the crowd was mesmerized and it’s told that when Cibber began singing the verses, “He was despised and rejected of men…” that the Rev. Patrick Delany was so moved by her solo that he cried out, “Woman, for this, be all thy sins forgiven thee!”

It is a tradition than when the “Hallelujah Chorus” is sung toward the end of The Messiah that people are supposed to stand. This goes back to the first performance in London when it was reported that the King stood out of respect for the King of Kings during the part of the music.  (Whether this is a legend or not, it is still a wonderful tradition and befitting the message of the music).

The “libretto,” the lyrics of The Messiah, is taken from the King James Version of the Holy Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.  The piece is really Scripture put to music. They were compiled by a British aristocrat, Charles Jennens, who collaborated with Handel on a number of oratorios.

Originally, The Messiah was not considered to be a Christmas piece as it tells the complete story of Jesus’ life and is divided into three sections: the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Thus, it paints a complete picture of the incarnation, the substitutionary atonement, and the resurrection and victory over sin, death and the devil accomplished by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – the Messiah.

The titles given in the piece for the three parts are:

  • PART ONE: The prophesy and realization of God’s plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah

  • PART TWO: The accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Jesus, mankind’s rejection of God’s offer, and mankind’s utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty

  • PART THREE: A Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death

“Messiah,” is a Hebrew word which means, “the anointed one.”  The Hebrew prophets, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke of the one to come, the Messiah, who would bring salvation both to Jews and Gentiles.  The prophet Isaiah is quoted heavily in this musical piece.

The Gospels of the New Testament tell the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection and are also quoted extensively in Handel’s work.

Discussion Questions

  1. Read the lyrics a section at a time using the small headings as your guide which are marked with lower case Roman numerals: (i)The prophecy of Salvation; (ii) The prophecy of the coming Messiah; (iii) The prophecy of the Virgin Birth, etc…

  2. Have someone read the solo part in a section and then have everyone read the chorus parts together with a given section.

  3. Stop after the reading of a section and discuss the following questions as appropriate:

    1. What is the primary message being spoken by the prophets? Gospel writers?

    2. What do you think it felt like to hear these words being spoken by the prophets or Gospel writers prior to the coming of the Messiah? After the coming of the Messiah?

    3. How do these words make you feel?

    4. How do these truths impact your life today?

    5. What do these words say about the character of God? the Messiah?

    6. How does it make you feel knowing that God had set a rescue plan human beings in motion immediately after sin and death entered the world and carried it out to completion?

    7. How can I share this good news with others?

  4. Work your way through the score discussing the implications and allowing yourself not to get bogged down in one section – keep the pace moving so that you can read through the score.

  5. Listen to the Hallelujah chorus as recorded here or via some other device and sing along.

  6. End your time in praise and thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done for us!