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Reflections on G. F. Handel’s Messiah

Messiah: this age-old masterpiece was composed in 1741 in London, England. A brilliant musician and composer, George Frederic Handel completed his three-part oratorio in a mere twenty-four days. With words carefully selected from the entirety of the King James Version by English lyricist Charles Jennens, the story of our Savior was set to music. While many of us may not be familiar with this genre of music, anyone can understand what musical brilliance it would take to write two hours and twenty minutes of lyrical music, complete with scores for an entire orchestra, choir, and four soloists. Such ability is especially remarkable to those of us who can barely find middle C on a piano.  

I grew up listening to Messiah; it was nearly always played in our house in the days and weeks surrounding Christmastime. As a young child, I thought my parents were trying to punish me with what my siblings and I referred to as the “Horrid Singers.” Apparently, we were unimpressed by our first introduction to vibrato. But as I have matured, the beauty of the music and words have had a profound impact on me, and even served to strengthen my faith. Similar to our beloved Psalms that we sing in church each Sunday, this piece is composed almost entirely of Christ’s own words in Scripture. This is one thing that my wife and I have benefited from greatly. We often hear a Bible verse and instantly recognize it and are usually even able to recite it because we know it from Messiah.  

For some reason, music enables us to retain words that we normally would not take the time to memorize intentionally. I would feel confident saying that of the eighty-one verses used in Handel’s Messiah, I have nearly all of them memorized. This isn’t meant to show that I’m so great at memorizing; rather, it shows the power of words put to music. This is an important thing for us to remember. Music penetrates our minds, and eventually, our hearts. Believe me, words seared into your head by the hot iron of worldly music remain longer than you would think. I shudder to think of some of the things that I used to listen to, and I hope that you can learn from my mistakes. Take in music that is scriptural, edifying, and God-glorifying. Challenge yourself to be different than your peers. You don’t need the latest rap or pop song with a thumping bassline. It’s okay to listen to “uncool” music with a violin and a harpsichord. Learn to listen to music with discernment for its beauty and God-glorifying characteristics, not its beat. You will find that the positive impact it has on your life is far greater than any negative impact you may experience from the criticism of others.  

Good music like Handel’s Messiah has helped me to better understand and believe the infallibility and complete nature of Scripture. Most of the verses used to tell the story of Christ are drawn from the Old Testament. You may ask, why is that so great? Well, let it sink in for a moment. The story of Christ, told from the Old Testament! He wasn’t even born yet! But by a wonder work of God, prophets were moved to speak of the coming Savior in striking detail. Take Isaiah 7:14, an alto solo in Part 1: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Listen to the mezzo-soprano solo in Part 2 based on Isaiah 50:6: “He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off his hair: He hid not his face from shame and spitting.”1 These are just two examples, and are they not very literally what we find happening in the New Testament? See Matthew 1:23 and 26:67. Listen to the soprano solo in Part 3 based on Job 19:25–26 and 1 Corinthians 15:20 and notice the connection between these passages concerning Christ’s resurrection. Job, thousands of years before Christ, was so certain of his Redeemer’s victory over death that it carried him through an experience of crushing difficulty. We ought to be impressed by the way that Scripture confirms itself as absolutely true through prophecy and fulfillment.  

We know that as well as being entirely trustworthy, God’s word brims with comfort and encouragement for his people in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the main character of Messiah. The comforting nature of Scripture is made uniquely impactful to us when set to music. If you listen carefully, you may notice how closely the melodies composed by Handel relate to the words that they carry with them. I trust that you will find the soprano solo based on Isaiah 40:11 and Matthew 11:28–29 to be one such melody. What a balm to the weary soul to hear of our Savior who is “meek and lowly of heart” and will “gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Awed sorrow grips us when we hear from Psalm 69:20, “He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was none; neither found he any to comfort him.” Excitement fills our hearts when we hear that the Word is decreed to be shared with others in Psalm 68:11 and Romans 10:18: “The Lord gave the Word: great was the company of the preachers,” and “Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.”  

The conclusion of Messiah leaves us with no doubt as to Christ’s victory over sin and death for us. Take in the soprano/tenor duet from 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” Then, in glorious praise, we sing in our hearts with a full chorus, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. AMEN!” (Rev. 5:12–14). While certainly applicable for Christmas, Messiah is full of the story of our Savior’s life from birth to death, and even looks forward to that day when all his saints will praise him for eternity.  

So, perhaps you can use this Christmas season to start a new trend in the music you listen to. Maybe changing to a genre from the 1700s seems like a pretty extreme way to start, but I would argue that some good old-fashioned music might be exactly what you need. I highly recommend finding a local performance of Messiah and attending with your friends. It will not disappoint! But if the music style is just too much for you to overcome, you can easily use the verses contained in Handel’s Messiah as a study of Christ’s life in your personal devotions this Christmastime. You will find that the Scripture contained there is applicable for every season of life, not just Christmas or Easter. 

 

Jake is a member of the Beacon Lights staff and has served the magazine in multiple positions, including his current role as business manager. He attends Unity Protestant Reformed Church with his family.