Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading Part IV

Part III, the shortest, is humanity’s response to God’s redemptive act and is focused on the hope of resurrection which leads to a final praise of the Lamb. Handel ends his Messiah with the praise of the reigning King, a slain Lamb.

Handel weaves together texts from Job, 1 Corinthians and Revelation. He uses the following and in this order:

  • Job 19:25-26
  • 1 Corinthians 15:20-22
  • 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
  • Revelation 5:12
  • Revelation 5:9
  • Revelation 5:13

Salvation has been accomplished even though it has not yet been fully realized on earth. Heaven–and disciples on earth–sings “Hallelujah” because the Christ has been enthroned at the right hand of God. But even heaven–and certainly disciples on earth–yet hopes for the final defeat of the nations and death itself on earth. This hope, however, is not an uncertain wish but a certain anticipation. The war has been won though there are some battles yet to fight.

Part III begins by quoting Job. Though the meaning of the text is highly disputed in contemporary discussions, Handel uses the text in a traditional way as an affirmation of two interconnected ideas:  the resurrection of Jesus and our resurrection.  It comes in a first-person soprano aira that affirms “I know my Redeemer lives….in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).  Christ is raised and one day we will see God in the resurrected flesh.

This aira is a first person response to redemption accomplished. It affirms our faith and our hope. We are invited to confess. We are invited to sing, “I know my Redeemer lives…in my flesh shall I see God.” Part III is faith’s response to the exaltation of the God’s Messiah.

Handel immediately links this Jobian affirmation of faith with Paul’s theological description of Christ’s resurrection as “first fruits”–the resurrection of Jesus is a promise of a coming harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20). Our resurrection is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus; because he has been raised will we. Our resurrection is as certain as our death.

The hope of salvation is not flying away into some celestial city in the sky. Rather, the hope of salvation is resurrection from the dead.

The final solos of Handel’s work are bass. Singing 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, the emphasis is on the “mystery, ” and most importantly on the confession that “we shall be changed.” In this aria the bass repeats over and over “we shall be changed” while (in some versions) the trumpet sounds in the background. The combination of the trumpet with a triumphant bass voice booming in the foreground is absolutely thrilling.

Something has happened; something has changed. The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of Christ. Death has been defeated. One day heaven will come toearth and we, too, shall be changed.

One might imagine that the Messiah could have ended with the “Hallelujah Chorus” which concludes Part II.  But Handel added a third part. Would not anything after that be anti-climatic? But theologically and musically Handel pulls it off. The final choral arrangement, derived from Revelation 5, is an exclamation point to the whole oratorio with the final “Amen” as a conclusion to the choral doxology.

I think, however, we need to hear this final doxology in the context of the whole oratorio. Central to the the whole piece has been the reign of God over the nations and the proclamation of peace to the nations. In this final doxology the Lamb is proclaimed worthy of blessing, power, honor and glory; both to the Lamb and the one who sits on the throne.

Worth is assigned to the Lamb that is rooted in the fact that he is the slain Lamb who has “redeemed us to God by His blood.” The slain Lamb conquered nations. The slain Lamb defeated the powers. This is the redemptive mission of God–that the kingdoms of this world would become the kingdom of Christ. But not by force or violence, but by the suffering servant, the slain lamb.

Amen, and Amen.

We are followers of the Lamb, not the Emperor. We are citizens of the kingdom of Christ; we no longer belong to the kingdoms of this world. We sing, confess and praise because the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of Christ. The King of kings and Lord of lords has been enthroned.

Postscript:  The actual author of the text of the Messiah is not Handel but rather Charles Jennens.  Handel added the music to the text.  I have used “Handel’s Messiah” in a conventional way. The theology of the text is more attributable to Jennens than it is to Handel but it is difficult to separate the music and the text as they form a complete whole in this masterpiece.

2 Responses to “Handel’s Messiah: A Missional Reading Part IV”

  1.   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

  2.   David Fisher Says:

    John Mark,
    Just saw this today. I copied all four parts and will read it soon. The “Messiah” has long been a favorite of mine, since singing pieces of it in high school and in the choir when I was in the EUB church. I am looking forward to reading this. The “Hallelujah Chorus” I want to be used at my funeral and everyone better stand up! Trusting your Christmas and New Year’s have been and will be blessed.
    God’s blessings friend!
    David Fisher

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