Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading II

Part I moves us from the prophetic anticipation of the coming kingdom through the appearance of the Christ child to a conclusion in the ministry of Jesus.  At the heart of this movement is a missional vision–God comes to give rest to the nations.

Handel weaves together texts from Isaiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Luke and Matthew to tell this story. He uses the following and in this order:

  • Isaiah 40:1-2a, 3-5
  • Haggai 2:6-7a
  • Malachi 3:1b-3
  • Matthew 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14)
  • Isaiah 40:9
  • Isaiah 60:1
  • Isaiah 9:2, 6
  • Luke 2:8-11, 13-14
  • Zechariah 9:9a, 10b
  • Isaiah 35:5-6a
  • Isaiah 40:11
  • Matthew 11:28-30

Isaiah 40–the announcement of good news to Israel in Babylon–frames and punctuates Part I. God is going to act–leveling every mountain and exalting every valley in order to make a level highway through the wilderness, and “all flesh” will see the glory of God (40:1-5).  The good news is that God will come again to Jerusalem (40:9). God will gather his lambs and carry them in his arms (40:11). This the shape of Park 1.  We anticipate the coming of God, God comes in the flesh, and the incarnate God shepherd leads us to peace and rest.

At the center is the incarnation, a child is born (Isaiah 9:6).  Previous to this choral announcement of the birth is prophetic anticipation (Matthew 1:23 quoting Isaiah 7:14) and following it is celebration (Luke 2:8-11, 13-14; Zechariah 9:9a. 10b).

The choice of Haggai and Malachi in the first third of Part I is significant. The prophets anticipate that when God comes he will “shake the nations” (Haggai 2:7a) and “purify the sons of Levi” (Malachi 3:3). As a result, “all nations shall come” (Haggai 2:7a) and Israel will worship “in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3). This shaking and refining has cosmic dimensions. When God comes to his temple, everything will change.

The incarnation is pictured as the coming of light into the darkness. “Darkness covers the earth,” but the light of God arrives–“thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen” upon the earth (Isaiah 60:1-2). This is the good news of Isaiah 40:9. And the light that has come is equated with the birth of the child (Isaiah 9:6). Significantly, “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (Isaiah 60:3).

The choral arrangement of Isaiah 9:6 is thrilling and a highlight of Part I. It is the announce of a new government, a new reign. This king is not the violent tyrants of the Ancient Near East but the “Prince of Peace.” A new king has come, and all other kings must submit and acknowledge him. All other kings must lay their crowns at his feet.

The significance of this birth is that “in the city of David, a Saviour, which is the Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).  In the context of the Greco-Roman world, this is political language.  The Emperor is the Savior of the world; Ceasar is Lord. But the royal city has produced a new king–the one who will save the world through his reign. The Emperor has a competitor; all the kings of the earth have a competitor.

The angels celebrate this birth with their own song which Handel makes a choral piece. The song reveals the divine intent:  “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men” (Luke 2:14). God is glorified as peace comes to the earth. The reign of “Christ the Lord” is the reign of a peaceable kingdom.

Brilliantly, Handel follows this choral piece with the exhortation of Zechariah 9:9a–“rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” because “they King cometh.” But who is he? “He is the righteous Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen” (based on Zechariah 9:9b, 10b). Handel supplies “Saviour” in order to connect with the previous quotation from Luke (and Zechariah 9:9b does say “having salvation”), and combines this with a phrase from the next verse in Zechariah.  The Savior will “speak peace to the nations” (NIV).

Handel then identifies something of this peace. He gives content to this salvation. Quoting from Isaiah 35:5-6a, salvation comes in the form of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dumb singing and the lame walking. Light dispels the darkness and heals the brokenness.

The healing ministry of this new king is then portrayed as the actions of a gentle Shepherd. The Alto-Soprano duet invites us to come to Jesus where we will find rest (Matthew 11:28-30). The choral conclusion assures us that “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.”

Part I is an invitation. We are invited to rest and peace. The ground of this invitation is a divine act of salvation–to save the world by giving birth to a new king who inaugurates a kingdom of peace and rest.

“All flesh” will see this. The nations will come to it. The kings of the earth will recognize it. Israel will be refined by it. Peace will reign upon the earth and God will give rest to the earth.

Handel invites us to “come” and be comforted.

One Response to “Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading II”

  1.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    I got to watch a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Columbia Cantatore. Very beautiful, very moving.


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