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Handel’s Messiah

December 2011 | by Roger Carswell

Composed by George Friedrich Handel, it is loved by all who ap­preciate music the world over. Handel said of the oratorio that he did not merely want to entertain, but to make his listeners better people.

He was the son of a 63-year-old surgeon-barber, born in Halle in Saxony on 23 February 1685. His father did not encourage his son’s talent for music, but from the age of four George began to play the clavichord.

Not until he was seven did his father discover his son’s talent, so that later he learned the organ, harpsichord, violin and oboe.

George studied law for a short time at the University of Halle and was appointed as cathedral or­ganist. But he left both to pursue a career in music, moving to Eng­land in 1720. He was appointed composer to the Chapel Royal in 1723.

Creative fires

Despite great successes, his life was full of misfortune, though he had an unshakeable faith. Writing after the death of his mother, he said, ‘It pleased the Almighty to whose great, holy will I submit myself, with Christian submis­sion’. A tall man, he was a devout Lutheran.

By 1741, he gave what he said was his farewell concert. His fi­nances and health were in ruins, as he suffered from a kind of paral­ysis. A few months later, he was shown the text of a long choral work — a libretto written by Charles Jennens which traced the life of Christ.

It contained the prophecies concerning Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, the bless­ings he would bring for those who trust him, as well as the punish­ment for those who turn their back on him.

This libretto fanned the crea­tive fires in Handel again, and so Messiah was composed. It was first performed in Dublin in 1742. Handel knew the Bible, and was familiar with its dominant theme, that Messiah would come.

Using the Bible, Messiah de­scribes our human plight: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:6).

We hear too that we deserve the judgement of God: ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them like a potter’s vessel’ (Psalm 2:9).

But Handel knew that the Bible teaches God’s answer to our sin and guilt is that he came into our world: ‘Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6).


Jesus came to save us. He could only do that by bearing in his own body the sin of the world, paying the eternal penalty in his suffering on the cross: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him. And with his stripes we are healed. He was cut off from the land of the living: for the transgression of thy people he was stricken’ (Isaiah 53).

Then, it describes Jesus rising from the dead: ‘But thou didst not leave his soul in hell, nor didst thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption’ (Psalm 16:10).

Before giving us glimpses of heaven, Handel brings Jesus’ invi­tation to us all: ‘Come unto him, all ye that labour, come unto him all that are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-30).

Whilst composing the Halle­lujah Chorus, Handel’s assistant walked into his room and found him in tears. When asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to the music and said, ‘I did think I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself!’

King George II was in attend­ance when Messiah was first per­formed in London. As the first notes of the triumphant Hallelujah Chorus rang out, the king rose to his feet and remained standing until the end of the chorus.

Following royal protocol, everyone else in the monarch’s presence stood, including the audience, chorus and orchestra, so beginning a tradition which has been continued for over two centuries.

The Hallelujah Chorus clearly places Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords, so it is right that even our royalty should stand in his presence.

The chorus is based on words in the final book of the Bible, where we read of ‘the King of kings and Lord of lords’, who ‘will reign for ever and ever’ (Revela­tion 19:16; 11:15).


With such a wonderful gospel mes­sage, it is bewildering that nations and people still reject the Lord Jesus. Handel took up this theme too: ‘Why do the nations so furi­ously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his Anointed’ (Psalm 2:1-2).

Like Bach, Handel went blind. But he continued to work, con­ducting this great piece more than 30 times, and usually to support a hospital of which he was a bene­factor.

He conducted a last perform-ance of Messiah a fortnight before he died — on Easter Saturday, 14 April 1759, in his house in Mayfair.

He had expressed the desire to die on Good Friday, certain ‘of meeting my good God, my sweet Lord and Saviour, on the day of his resurrection’.

Above Handel’s grave in West­minster Abbey is a monument where the musician’s statue holds the musical score to the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’.

Go and hear Messiah. Enjoy it, but more — I encourage you to read the Gospel of Luke or John and let Jesus reintroduce himself to you. Trust him as your Lord and Saviour. Ask him who loved you and gave himself for you on the cross to forgive you.

Receive the risen Jesus into your life to keep you through life and death, and into eternity. Re­member, one day ‘the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed’ (1 Corinthians 15:51- 52).

Are you able to say, ‘I know that my Redeemer lives. Halle­lujah!’?

Roger Carswell  

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