Last Updated on : November 23, 2014

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spacer An Appreciation and Explanation of
Handel's Oratorio "Messiah"

We trust this appreciation and explanation of Handel's Oratorio will help the viewer to better enjoy the beauty of the music and the wonderful words that accompany it. With the complete text of the Oratorio set out before you, you will be able to follow the dramatic development of the purpose of God in Christ (the Messiah) whose second advent, and ultimate world-wide triumph is, we believe, at hand. For that is the greatest drama of this Oratorio. The final part is yet to be enacted in the earth when the Lord returns to take up his great power and to reign for God to the wellbeing of man. Christadelphians delight in this theme, and will be pleased to share that pleasure with others who may be interested.


On the 13th April, 1742, the music hall in Dublin resounded to the applause of an enthusiastic audience. For the first time in history, the great musical oratorio, Messiah, had been presented; and the conductor on that occasion, was none other than the composer himself, George Frederick Handel. Since then, it has been rendered time and again, in all parts of the world, and thousands of people have sat enthralled by the majestic choruses, and moving solos, of this wonderful oratorio. The music is thrilling, rising to heights of drama and pathos that stir to the innermost being those who listen to it. But, unfortunately, the very grandeur of the music tends to overshadow the grand message and significant beauty of the words that are sung, so that those who sing, as well as those who listen, have little true comprehension of the great things of which they tell. Our object is to awaken the reader to some of these matters that when he/she hearkens again to this great oratorio he may listen to it with greater meaning and understanding.

George Frederick Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in the year 1685. His parents decided to put him to Law, and in his early years he was educated to that end. But Handel had no taste for Law. He was born a musician, and finally he was permitted to develop his latent talent. German Law missed nothing in its denial of Handel, but English music would have suffered an irreparable loss had his genius been denied it.

For a while he travelled Europe, enjoying considerable success from the various operas he composed. In the year 1711, he emigrated to England, becoming, in 1726, a naturalized British subject. Successful in music, he was a failure in business, and a financial loss in 1737 brought on an attack of paralysis. It led to him forsaking opera for the great oratorios for which he is now particularly known. In 1741, he was presented with a libretto from Scripture, which fired his imagination, and ultimately led to the composition of Messiah. He worked on the music at great speed, and though it seems incredible, the whole oratorio was sketched and scored, within three weeks.

Why Oratorio?

Oratorio means "oratory by music." Oratorios were originally designed to educate people in significant portions of the Bible. They date back to the time when Bibles were so expensive that few could afford them, and of the few who could, fewer still were sufficiently educated to be able to read them. To overcome the barriers of ignorance, or unavailability of the Scriptures, the great texts of the Bible were put to music, and men were taught to learn and sing them. Some of this sacred music of the past is now incorporated in the hymns familiar to people all over the world; particularly the Psalms of David.

Handel's oratorio presents oratory in music capable of thrilling audiences with some of the greatest and most beautiful truths of God's word. This seems to have been partly the intention of the composer. At the conclusion of the first innovation at Dublin a friend approached Handel. "I must congratulate you upon such a beautiful piece of entertainment," he said to the composer. "Entertainment!" exclaimed Handel, "That was not written for entertainment, it was written for education." It is said, that on no occasion did Handel conduct this oratorio for money, but invariably for charity. However, if education was, indeed, his primary concern, it has hardly been an unqualified success, for few have appreciated the power of the words sung or heard.

Who Is The Messiah?

Messiah is a Hebrew word, usually translated in the New Testament as Christ. It means "the Anointed" of God. The Oratorio aims to present an outline of the life and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ taken from Scripture; for all the words sung during the course of this piece of music are taken from the Bible, and when they are placed in their proper setting, they have a most wonderful and significant meaning. It opens with some of the Old Testament prophecies that proclaim the coming of the Messiah; then follows the birth of the Lord, his mission 1900 years ago, the Jewish rejection of his teaching, his death upon the cross, the sacrificial meaning of his death, his ascension into heaven, the proclamation of the Gospel unto all nations by the disciples of the Lord, the second advent of Christ, the resurrection and glorification of those who accept his message, and the subjugation of the nations to him.

The Oratorio thus dramatises the two advents of Christ. First, when he appeared as the Lamb of God for the sin of the world 1,900 years ago (John 1:29), and second, when he shall again appear to set up on earth the Kingdom of his Father, and to reign at Jerusalem over a world at peace (Acts 1:11; 3:19-21; Rev. 1:7; Jer. 3:17; Luke 1:32-33). The well-known and universally acclaimed Hallelujah Chorus celebrates this latter event. It is the custom of people in English-speaking countries to stand whilst this chorus is sung. Most probably do it unthinkingly, because it has become the custom of the years. But the Halleluyah Chorus is drawn from Rev. 19:6, 16 and chapter 11:15. These passages of Scripture speak of Christ having put down all earthy rule, authority and power (see 1 Cor. 15:24) and himself reigning as King on earth. The Scripture says: "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15). Thus the chorus is a hymn of praise commemorating the time when the Messiah shall reign as King on earth. The audience stands in recognition of this fact. The custom dates from the time of King George 1. So moved was he by the sentiments expressed in the chorus, and by the facts that if Christ is to reign then all earthly monarchs are necessarily subordinate, that he rose to his feet, and the audience rose with him. In following this custom, we acknowledge that the Messiah, manifested to the Jewish nation 1,900 years ago, and crucified on Calvary, is yet to return to "take up his great power and reign" as "King of kings and Lord of lords."


The Oratorio is divided into three main sections. The first part dramatises the great expectancy in Israel for the promised Messiah. It draws upon some of the great prophecies of the Old Testament that foretell his coming, and the work he will accomplish. He will comfort Jerusalem, cause its warfare to cease, subdue its enemies (Isa. 40:103). Nothing will be permitted to impede his path: "Every valley will be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain." In other words, every difficulty to the development of His power will be removed, every hindrance overcome, and as a result "the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."

The prophecies show that the Messiah will exercise considerable power in the earth, shaking the political heavens and earth out of position, overthrowing disobedient nations, establishing his own glorious rule so that "the desire of all nations shall come in." They predict that he will purify Israel (Mal. 3:3), elevate Zion, send forth his Law from Jerusalem, drive away the doubts of ignorance that enshroud men, and illuminate them with the glorious light of Truth (Micah 4:1-4). As a result, "the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." Messiah will be universally acknowledged as the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the manifestation of God on earth, the head of a Divine government that will rule all nations, the Prince of Peace.

Birth of Messiah

With these expectations in mind, there was considerable excitement in Jewry 1,900 years ago when the signs indicated the time was approaching for the manifestation of the Messiah. They looked for a great military Leader, and their keen disappointment in the lowly Nazarene who ultimately appeared in their midst, is expressed in the Oratorio.

The beautifully haunting melody of the Pastoral Symphony so suggestive of calm peace, as shepherds tend their flocks on the hillside of Judea, introduces this portion of the Oratorio.

But the peace is suddenly broken.

The music dramatises the fear and amazement of the shepherds, as there appeared before them an angel, and they heard words proclaiming the momentous : "Fear not, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a saviour which is Christ the Lord." The music rises to a crescendo of excitement, culminating in the angelic chorus: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill towards men" (Luke 2:10-14).

The first part ends by words that are suggestive of the ministry of the Lord. He travelled throughout Judea, calling upon those who were heavily laden with sin and trouble to come unto him; to learn of him, and accept his yoke, if they would find true rest and peace.


But the Jewish people were not satisfied with a meek and lowly Messiah. Their minds were filled with prophecies of the Old Testament that promised national greatness for Israel, when Jerusalem will be the Metropolis of the world, and a divine law will proceed therefrom the all nations, filling the earth with peace and goodwill (Isa. 2:2-4; 62:6-7; Psa. 87:3; Zech. 8:3). They had ample Scriptural testimony to support their anticipations and hopes, but they failed to appreciate the twofold mission of the Lord (1 Pet. 1:11-12). They did not understand that the cross must come before the crown, that the Messiah must first appear as the Lamb of God for the sin of the world, and, after ascending to heaven, return to take up His great power and reign. They expected a mighty military leader; they were disappointed to find a lowly Nazarene, a humble carpenter, proclaiming a doctrine of non-resistance to evil, calling upon men to submit to wrong and place their trust in God. He explained His mission to His disciples, telling them that he had appeared to "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Heb. 9:26), that his first advent was not the time of glory promised by the prophets (Mark 9:31), but that in due time he "Will come again" (John 14:1-3) in order that he might fulfil the great and thrilling prophecies of glory of which the Scriptures are full.

He tried to explain this to his disciples, but even they did not understand. He told them the parable of the noblemen "because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear." In this parable (Luke 19:11-27), he taught them that he must ascend into heaven, there to remain until the time of his return, when he would reward those who faithfully "occupy till hecome" (v. 13), and discipline those who refuse to submit to his teaching (v. 27). The Lord thus told the story of his second advent, a story re-echoed by the angels at his ascension into heaven: "This same Jesus, which is taken up into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

The tragic and sorrowful experiences endured by the Lord in his suffering for sin 1,900 years ago are told in some of the choruses and solos in the second part of the Oratorio: "He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." The Lord possessed the nature common to all mankind; one that has a bias to sin, and whose destiny is the grave. He had to conquer the former that he might snap the chains of the latter, for apart from a resurrection there is no hope for man; the doctrine of an immortal soul that ascends to heaven after the death of the body, finds no support in the Bible. The hope consistently set forth therein, is in a resurrection from the grave to life eternal upon the earth at Christ's coming (Psa. 37:9, 11, 22; Matt. 5:5; Rev. 5:9-10). Apart from this, as Paul so definitely states: "they which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (1 Cor. 15:18). Christ's mission was to open a way from sin and death for all who would accept him (Heb. 2:14; Rev. 1:18). To do that, he himself, submitted to its power: "He was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him" declares the chorus, quoting the words of Isaiah 53.

But though man forsook him in the time of his humiliation, God did not. He received strength from on high to conquer. Though he was put to death, his perfect obedience ensured his resurrection on the part of a just Creator and the world saw the amazing spectacle of a man brought again from the dead, and raised to glorious immortality (Acts 2:23-24).

The solemn, grave tones of the Oratorio in the early portion of the Second Part, suggest the tremendous burden carried by the Lord, as he was misunderstood by friends and foe alike. The drama of the music becomes intense, as it suddenly changes to portray the derision and scorn that people heaped upon him 1,900 years ago, as they rejected his claim to be the Messiah. "All they that see him laugh him to scorn," sings the soloist. It is followed by a chorus that echoes the mocking words of unbelieving Jews as he hung upon the cross: "He trusted in God that He would deliver him; let Him deliver him, if He delight in him." Even the disciples deserted their Lord at this time: "He looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him." And so, bearing a tremendous load of sorrow, sufficient to break his heart, "he was cut off out of the land of the living." He died upon the cross.

But there is a note of joy in the music, as the words from Acts 2 are sung proclaiming the fact that God brought Jesus again from the grave. He triumphed, not only over the Jews and Gentiles who quell) crucified him, but over the power of death itself. And this triumph makes possible the fulfillment of all the prophecies that tell of his ultimate glory. Thus the Oratorio bursts into the glorious chorus: "Lift up your heads, and the King of Glory shall come in." The risen Christ became the symbol of hope to his disciples, for what he is today they can become at his return (1 John 3:2). It became the basis of the gospel of peace which the disciples carried into all the world, as sections 37-39 of the Oratorio portray. That gospel message is still proclaimed today, telling the good of Christ's second coming, and the hope of eternal life in him. For as Christ triumphed, so also can others. By accepting his message, and passing through the waters of baptism, they can obtain forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and the hope of eternal life at his coming (2 Tim. 4:8). That is the grand message of The Messiah, without which all the glorious music and delightful singing is but a hollow mockery. Apart from an understanding of the message, the music can only tickle the ears, but the meaning of the words can set us on the road to life eternal; it can provide a peace of mind that "passeth the understanding of man." In this regard, we earnestly recommend the words of the Psalmist: "Taste and see that the Lord is good," for, in the words of Paul: "He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20).

The Second Coming Of Christ

The nations will not accept Christ any more readily at his second coming than they did at his first. The heart of man is evil, and not until the "judgments of God are in the earth" will they "learn righteousness" (Isa. 26:9). The Oratorio shows this. It includes the words of Psalm 2: "Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and 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."

The setting of this Psalm is at the second advent of the Lord. But the nations will find that they are not dealing with the "Lamb of God," but with the "King of glory, mighty in battle." Some will attempt to reject his authority, but they will be faced with almighty power vested in the Lord's anointed. He will drive asunder the warring nations, and with a rod of iron he will destroy their power. The Divine purpose shall then be fulfilled: "The God of heaven shall set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed; but it shall break in pieces and consume all kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever" (Dan. 2:44). The establishment of this Divine kingdom on earth is the great theme of the Bible. The call of the Gospel is to a participation with Christ in that kingdom. He comes to reward his friends, and to assert his authority throughout the earth, "for the nation and kingdom that will not serve him shall perish; they shall be utterly wasted" (Isa. 60:12). The great drama of the ages will then be revealed; the humble carpenter of Galilee will become the mighty conqueror of the world, and the glory of the victory will be his. In this Oratorio it is expressed in the most thrilling of all the choruses, the Hallelujah Chorus.

Halleluyah Chorus

Who has not been thrilled by this magnificent chorus, as the glorious combination of words and music rises higher and higher: a majestic crescendo of sound, proclaiming glory to the Lord God of heaven and earth, and to His own son, the Messiah! Who has not been impressed with the setting of these words telling the triumph of the Lord Jesus as "King of kings and Lord of lords," as he takes his place as universal monarch of the earth! "The kingdoms of this world" will then be subject to him, and his power and authority will be everywhere acclaimed. But the chorus becomes even more stirring when it is realised that this is the teaching of the Bible, and not merely the climax of a wonderful piece of music. If the Bible means anything, these words are yet to be fulfilled in the earth: the kingdoms of this world are literally to become the possession of Christ, and praises to his name as King of kings and Lord of lords are yet to ascend on high (Acts 17:31).

A significant feature of the Halleluyah Chorus is that it has never yet been sung by those for whom it was originally designed. For though Handel's music may be inspiring, it is but the work of fallible man, whereas the words used are the words of Inspiration recorded in the Bible, yet to be sung, to the praise and honour of the Messiah by immortal voices. The word "Halleluyah" is compounded of two words, signifying praise and Yah---a contraction of the Hebrew name of God. Halleluyah means Praise ye Yahweh. The word occurs in Revelation 19:1-6,where it is shown that this anthem of praise is yet to ascend from the hearts and lips of innumerable immortal men and women, individuals who have allied themselves to Christ by submitting to the Divine requirements, during the centuries of man's rule. At the appearance of the Lord Jesus, they will be raised from the dead (John 5:28-29),caused to pass before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10),and if found worthy will receive immortality (Matt. 19:29).

In company with these immortal friends, Christ will bring all nations into subjection to the Law from heaven (Rev. 2:26). The nations will be first disciplined, as he breaks in pieces their power, and then educated and instructed in Divine ways, and counselled to render unto God, the homage due to His holy Name.

Messiah's reign will extend to all parts of the earth. The lowly Nazarene, born to be King, who walked the dusty roads of Palestine, scorned and mocked because he revealed the evil of man's ways, will return to earth, as universal monarch, with supreme power, to enforce his righteous rule (Psalm 72). Then will the words of the Lord's prayer find fulfilment: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." It will be the triumph of Righteousness over evil, of God's ways over the ways of flesh. Christ will ultimately eliminate war, destroy every evil traffic or degrading vice, and educate mankind in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Isa. 2:24; Isa. 11). This is the picture behind the words of the Halleluyah Chorus, causing us, indeed, to thrill to the significance of it all, and from our hearts "Praise Yahweh" for His goodness unto the sons of men.

With resistless authority Christ will compel all nations to ultimately submit to his rule. From Jerusalem (Jer. 3:17; Isa. 2:2), his law will go forth for all the world, causing widespread moral, industrial and religious changes throughout the earth. No longer will ugly slums disgrace the cities, no longer will poverty and plenty exist side by side, no long will fear and hatred and the threat of war divide humanity. Trade and commerce will be founded on Divine principles, dedicated to the benefit of mankind (Isa. 23: 18). Universal peace, equality and goodwill will characterise Christ's reign on earth. The golden rule of love will be everywhere acknowledged: "Do unto others as you would they do unto you."


The Oratorio passes on to solemn matters of personal concern. These relate to things of individual hope and the personal triumph of those who have accepted the message of the Lord Jesus Christ, and have taken his yoke upon them. The words of Scripture are quoted, that though a man might die, yet he can have hope in the resurrection when, "at the latter days," the Redeemer shall "stand upon the earth" (Job 19:25). This solo is followed by quartet and chorus which proclaims the hope of the Apostle Paul: "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die; even so, in Christ, shall all be made alive." The words of Paul that follow, unfortunately omitted by the Oratorio, tell when this shall be: "Christ the firstfruits, and they that are Christ's at his coming" (1 Cor. 15: 21-23).

Here is a personal triumph. As Christ rose from the dead, and was clothed upon by glorious immortal nature, so also can those be who are his. The succeeding duet, chorus and solo speak of the great personal victory that will be the lot of those who come unto the Messiah in the way appointed. It will be a victory over sin and death, a moral and physical victory which will find reward for them in the bestowal of immortality by their Lord, when he comes to reign on earth as King.

The Chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb," is taken from Revelation 5, and is part of a number of divinely inspired songs recorded in that wonderful chapter. The language is symbolic, depicting the Lord Jesus in the fulness of his glory, when he reigns in Jerusalem as King. The record says, He "hath prevailed" (v.5), and in consequence thereof, he is shown surrounded by his resurrected and glorified friends, who in adoration, sing his praises, telling what he has done for them: "Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to Cod by thy blood; out of every kindred, and tongue, and people and nation, and hast made us unto our God, Kings and Priests, and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:9-10).

This is the song of the Redeemed, the song of men and women who have not merely listened to the glorious music of The Messiah, but have taken heed to the message of its words. Their song of glory and praise is followed by one in which all creation join-- angels, mortals and immortals:

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. . .Blessing and honour and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever" (Revelation 5:13).

Despite the "time of trouble" (Dan. 12:1) that is slowly but surely coming in upon the present civilization, there is a glorious future for this earth which Handel either consciously or unconsciously expressed in his Oratorio. That future will be revealed in the second coming of Jesus Christ, a doctrine prominently taught throughout the Bible. Christ comes for the purpose of rewarding those who have diligently sought to serve him in truth (Rev. 22:12); he comes to establish his kingdom on earth, and to reign from Jerusalem. We would suggest that as you hearken to the glorious music and wonderful words of this Oratorio, you seek to understand its message, and comprehending it, you follow him in the way appointed (Gal. 3:26-28). By so doing, reference will not be made to "Handel's Messiah," but rather, "our Messiah," and we will be able to look forward confidently and expectantly to the glorious consummation of the drama set in motion 1,900 years ago. With that in mind, we can surely enter into the spirit of the final majestic chorus of the Oratorio--"AMEN"--"So be it!"

H.P. Mansfield
From his booklet entitled "The Gospel In Song"