Bible Quizzes for Smart People XXXI
Bill Long 1/17/07
Handel's Messiah III
The long middle section of Messiah combines verses from Isaiah 53 and other OT passages to express the sheer anguish and pain of Christ's rejection. Handel uses Ps. 69:20 (the Scriptures were written out for him by his friend Charles Jennens) to capture the nadir of Christ's earthy experience of suffering: "Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,/ He is full of heaviness;/ He looked for some to have pity on Him,/ but there was no man,/ neither found He any to comfort Him." This then transmutes into the pathetic "Behold, and see if there be any sorrow/ Like unto His sorrow!" from Lam. 1:12. But then, after one more searching soprano Accompangato, the tone of the music dramatically changes. Here it is:
1. "But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell,/ nor didn't Thou suffer/ Thy Holy One to see corruption."
If the OT is replete with verses that can be interpreted to condemn Christ, it also is suffused with thoughts that aid us in thinking of his victory over death. This is one of them. Where do you find it?
2. "Lift up your heads, O ye gates/ and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors,/ and the King of Glory shall come in!/ Who is this King of Glory?/ The Lord strong and mighty in battle./ Who is this King of Glory?/ The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory."
Now we have a rich chorus which keeps repeating the refrain-- that the Lord of Hosts is the King of Glory. The music gradually rises by degrees as the one whose soul is no longer in hell is gradualy lifted up because of the work of the King of Glory. Several time the words "The Lord of Hosts" are sung, every time climbing a half tone. Certainly He, who was greeted by the lifted-up gates, who came in to His own Temple, will be able to redeem Christ's soul from death. Where do you find this one?
3. "Let all the angels of God worship Him."
Now that the King of Glory has come in, now that the everlasting doors have been opened, the Christ is also ushered into heaven. And he is greeted by a heavenly company of angels. The angels may be glorious but to none of them has God said, "Thou art My Son, this day have I begotten Thee" (previous Recitative). Instead, the angels of God are required to worship Him. The angels have to move over when the Son is here. The Son, once despised, and just recently so despised and rejected, is now a fit object of worship. But the Scripture doesn't come from the OT (hint, hint!). Where do you find it?
4. "The Lord gave the word:/ great was the company of the preachers."
Immediately after 3. comes a countertenor Air, "Thou art gone up on high..." I like this one because it has that most impenetrable of phrases: "Thou has led captivity captive." We don't know precisely what it means, but we get the impression that the Christ, who has now been raised and worshipped by the angels is either taking captives in his train (like the parade-like displays of captured generals common in ancient times) or is taking captive the hearts of people loyal to him before giving them gifts. But then comes this stirring Chorus. The Chorus begins with the straightforward "The Lord gave the word," clear as the Word itself, but then the second half shows Handel at his variegated best. The music winds and intertwines, reaching bold statement of confidence. The company is as diverse and as wonderful as the full range of human voices. It carries the message given by the Lord. Where do you find this one?
5. "How beautiful are the feet of them/ that preach the gospel of peace,/ and bring glad tidings,/ glad tidings of good things."
Now that Christ is safely in heaven, with the angels of God worshipping him, and now that the word has been given to the company of the preachers, we have a reflective soprano Air on the beauty of the preachers. Those who labor in preaching and teaching, we are told elsewhere, are worthy of a double honor. Certainly those who bring the great message of human redemption have a beautiful message in a beautiful container. In the Scripture's memoriable words, their feet are "beautiful." Time's up, where do you find this one?
6. "Their sound is gone out into all lands,/ and their words unto the ends of the world."
Well, what do you expect preachers to do who have a message? What can you expect those whose feet are beautiful to do once that message is burned into their hearts and mind? Well, it is natural that "their sound is gone out into all lands..." The message is one that may encounter some political and linguistic barriers but ultimately it is one that transcends every difference that humans can manufacture. The words go out to the end of the world..and until eternity. What a bold and powerful thought this is. Where do you find it in Scripture?
7. "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,/ Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."
It is not as if the message, when the sound goes forth unto the ends of the world, is gratefully received. Indeed, just he opposite is the case. The nations furiously rage together (a Bass Air) and the kings of the earth take counsel together against the Lord and His anointed. They will have none of this new message of redemption or peace because, ultimately, it will cut right to the heart of their pretensions for power. So, the kings of the earth plot. They want to "break their bonds asunder and cast their yokes from us" (next chorus). These two pieces, from Ps. 2, rather than indicating that the kings of the earth have unfettered ability to attack the good things of God, suggest they are already in some kind of bondage. And, indeed, as the quoted tenor Air says, God ultimately has the last word. This Air is one of the most evocative of the entire Messiah because the gradual rising and falling of the tenor's cadences approximates the dashing and smashing by a potter of a vessel that is no longer any good. The discipline against the kings of the earth is likened to breaking by a rod of iron. Surely the Israelites had seen their own people led away in exile with the iron rod prodding them on. Now, however, it is God's turn to turn the tables on the kings of the earth. The most powerful line is "like a potter's vessel." We can almost see the shattered pieces of the vain kings skitter over the tesselated floor.
But we need one more essay to bring this piece and our thoughts to a satisfactory conclusion.