Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading III (What is the Hallelujah Chorus about?)

Part II begins with the passion of Jesus through his resurrection to his exaltation as reigning Lord. At the end of this section is a missional proclamation:  Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Handel weaves together texts from John, Isaiah, Psalms, Lamentations, Romans and Revelation to tell this story. He uses the following and in this order:

  • John 1:29b
  • Isaiah 53:3a, 4-5b, 6
  • Psalm 22:7-8
  • Psalm 69:20
  • Lamentations 1:12
  • Isaiah 53:8
  • Psalm 16:10
  • Psalm 24:7-8
  • Romans 10:15
  • Psalm 2:1–4, 9
  • Revelation 19:6
  • Revelation 11:15
  • Revelation 19:16

One of the more fascinating aspects of Part II is that the resurrection only gets on brief, but significant, musical piece. Though brief, it is at the center of Part II. Psalm 16:10–“But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption”–is the hinge that swings the door from passion to exaltation.

The first half of Part II is focused on the cross, lament and atonement. The opening line–“Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b)–sets the tone for the first half and leads us into Isaiah 53 which bookends the passion story:  “He was despised and rejected…for the transgression of Thy people was He stricken.” Isaiah 53 is the substance of Handel’s presentation of the atonement and highlighted by the fact that three of the five Isaianic texts are choral arrangements.

But lament gets equal billing but in a different way. The arrangements here are solos and the only choral piece is the voice of the mockers at the cross (“He trusted in God that He would deliver Him, let Him deliver Him, if He delights in Him,” Psalm 22:8). The other pieces in this section are tenor presentations–they are the voice of the sufferer though in the third person. He is mocked (Psalm 22:7), “full of heaviness” (Psalm 69:20), and experiencing incomparable sorrow (Lamentations 1:12). We get a deep sense of loneliness and isolation as the tenor voices the sorrow of the crucified one.

Nevertheless, we are reminded by Isaiah 53:8 that his suffering is for the sake of others. It is not about him, but about us.

But! “But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell” (Psalm 16:10). Here is the slim hinge, the brief announcement by the tenor voice. However, the voice rings as a herald rather than in the solemnity of sorrow. Something has happened; something has changed.

The chorus twice repeats Psalm 24:7-8:  “Lift up your heads, O ye gates…the King of Glory shall come in!” This is not a description of resurrection but the command that the gates of heaven open so that the King may enter. Jesus has defeated death, the great enemy.  “The Lord [is] mighty in battle.”

But is it just about death? Here a major theme from Part I re-enters the Messiah. Instead of pursing the death of death, Handel turns his attention–through the use of Psalm 2–to the submission of the nations. The kingdom theme emerges as the pinnacle of the Messiah’s triumph. The King of Glory defeats the nations.

Amazingly, instead of pursuing some kind of individualistic notion of salvation, Handel focuses on the nations. The nations are aligned against the Messiah. Instead of talking about sin and death, Handel sings about  the powers of the earth. The Messiah defeated the principalities and powers of this world. Nations (the Empire) crucified him–“the kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed”–and by his resurrection Jesus defeats the nations. He “break[s] their bonds” and from his dwelling in heaven “laugh[s] them to scorn.” He breaks the nations like a “potter’s vessel.” The powers are defeated. Something has happened; something has changed.

This is, according to Handel, “the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15). The good news is the submission of the nations and the defeat of the powers of this world. “Beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15).

That Handel’s focus is on the nations and powers rather than on sin and personal salvation is evident from the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” that concludes Part II.  It is worth quoting in full (from Revelation 19:6b; 11:15; 19:16):

for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world is become
the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

This glorious praise chorus is not about the resurrection. Rather, it is about the exaltation and enthronement of the Lamb that was slain. It is the slain Lamb that becomes King and joins the Lord God on the throne over heaven and earth.

The announcement which excites heaven and earth (Hallelujah!) is the center piece of this chorus: the kingdoms of the world no longer reign. It is now the kingdom of Christ.

Handel’s Messiah does not locate salvation in a personal flight to heaven after death. Rather, it locates salvation in the reign of God over heaven and earth. The mission of God is to once again rule the earth in a way that transforms and renews it so that it will become the kingdom of Christ–a reign of peace, righteousness and  rest.

Heaven breaks out in “Hallelujah” because God reigns….because God has defeated the nations and now His Christ is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” This is a reign of peace; it is the good news of peace. It is the Prince of Peace who reigns.

3 Responses to “Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading III (What is the Hallelujah Chorus about?)”

  1.   Mike Says:

    I want to thank you for putting all of this together. With my limited knowledge of music I always thought the “hallelujah chorus” was Handel’s Messiah, I had no clue about the other parts. By the way, I came across your blog through the iPhone app called Zite under the topic of Theology.

    Merry Christmas,


  2.   Jeff Cozzens Says:

    Brother John Mark,

    Cathy (Shappard) Cozzens and I have song the Oratory The Messiah both in college and community chorus through the years. Further, we both studied this style of Baroque Oratorio through countless hours in Musicology classes in Higher Education. Reading your Biblical expository posting of this mid 18 century Masterpiece, gave both of us a spiritual walk through the history of man’s salvation experience that was knew and fresh. Indeed, you truly unpacked the text and helped us look at The Messiah through a fresh set of nuance and attention to “the word becoming fresh and dwelling among us. The 6 plus month that you spent at Sycamore View was a time of spiritual rebirth to our church and your impact is still felt to this day. Our church is looking more and more like Memphis.

    From the Cozzens to you and yours……………Jeff

Leave a Reply