Handel’s Messiah

In December I plan to take the family downtown to see Handel’s Messiah performed at the Washington National Cathedral. To prepare for the event, I recently read the excellent new book Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People by Calvin Stapert (Eerdmans, 2010). Stapert, a professor of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, explains the musical and historical background of Handel’s oratorio. But he also provides a very helpful theological commentary on the narrative that traces Jesus’ birth (act 1), suffering, death, resurrection (act 2), and His eternal reign (act 3). Messiah is the gospel set to 2.5 hours of music, complete with a personal invitation (part 1, scene 5).

To enjoy Messiah is—in the words of one friend—to be washed with the Gospel.

The musical score was written, of course, by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759). The narrative (or libretto), is a carefully woven mix of biblical passages, the work of Charles Jennens (1700–1773). Stapert does a fine job explaining how these men worked together to produce the masterpiece. But here is what I find most interesting: Messiah, first performed in Dublin on April 13, 1742, was intended to be something of an apologetic, according to Stapert. He explains on pages 75–76 in an excerpt worth quoting at length:

Messiah tells a deliverance story—the story of God’s ultimate deliverance of his people from bondage to sin and death. But it is a story that increasing numbers of Europeans were disbelieving, and therein lies the motivation behind Jennens’s compilation of the Scripture passages that constitute the libretto for Messiah.

The Enlightenment was in full swing, and the church was severely threatened by those who denied that Christ was the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah who would deliver his people from bondage to sin and death. Of course the church had always faced threats to the faith from unbelievers. But the number of unbelievers in Europe increased significantly during the Enlightenment, a movement that fostered “natural” religion that proclaimed a commonsense social morality and an optimistic view of human nature. Typically it took the form of Deism.

Deism did not deny the existence of a Supreme Being who created all things but claimed that after creation that Being left humans to themselves. According to Deists, humans had no need of a god because they were innately good and had the resources to solve their own problems. Human perfectibility could be achieved by human resources without divine intervention. Thus Deism was fundamentally at odds with Christian beliefs that humans are basically sinful, that they are incapable of saving themselves, and therefore that they need a Savior. In other words, Deists did not believe in the need for a Messiah.

Messiah was born into this world of growing Deistic threat to the church. It was not only that Deism added substantially to the number of Europeans who didn’t believe Jesus to be the Messiah, but also that unlike other disbelievers (Jews, Muslims, atheists), Deists were often within the church, even among the clergy—”profane scoffers among our selves,” as Richard Kidder called them. Committed orthodox Christians like Jennens had reason to be concerned, and that concern spawned an outpouring of works that reaffirmed the historic Christian beliefs, the chief among them being that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah. Jennens’s libretto for Messiah joined a host of writings on the subject. Treatises and tracts, poems and periodical articles were written to prove that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

Stapert makes an interesting point. We can pray that the Lord will use the many performances of Messiah this winter for that very same purpose—to open the eyes of sinners to see their need for a messiah, and to see the sufficiency and suitability of Jesus Christ to be the very Messiah for which the weight of our eternity rests.

Note: you can listen to a recording of Messiah online via NPR here.

5 thoughts on “Handel’s Messiah

  1. Great post, I will be attending the performance in Grace Cathedral San Francisco this year, the performance features the American Bach Soloists. I am sure that it is going to be a highlight of the holiday season.

  2. Tony, I appreciate your site. Thanks for your review of this book and alerting us to it being a free download from Christian Audio.

    Over the past thirty or forty years, I can’t help noticing that so many peopel want to relate to Messiah on a strictly musical basis and the wonderful message does not seem to penetrate.

    I suppose you are one of the two and a half million viewers of the pseudo-impromptu version of the Hallelujah Chorus in a Canadian shopping mall food court.

    If you haven’t seen it, type “Christmas flash mob” into Youtube and have a feast.

  3. I wish you would point people to the more polished published version of the essay:
    “Handel’s Messiah: Biblical and Theological Perspectives,” in Didaskalia (italics) 12 (2001): 1-23.



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