Handel's Messiah: The Person and Work of Christ

1. A Work With a Purpose

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
"And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself."

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part one of a series

Charles Jennens, who compiled the Scripture texts for Handel, had a definite purpose in mind - the refutation of naturalistic Deism and the exaltation of the supernatural Christ.

Luke chapter 24 records the encounter of two disciples with the risen Christ (as yet unknown to them) while they were traveling on the road to Emmaus. They were walking along under a heavy burden of sorrow because Jesus of Nazareth, "a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people," had been condemned and crucified:

But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. Yes, and certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. And certain of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but Him they did not see. (verses 21-24)

In response to these words, Jesus said to them,

"O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

One of our trustees recently observed that as Jesus expounded these things to them "beginning at Moses and all the Prophets," it is highly likely that He called their attention to the Old Testament texts that are found in George Friedrich Handel's classic oratorio, Messiah.

A Work With a Purpose

The libretto of Handel's Messiah consists entirely of Scripture, forty-seven passages in all. George Friedrich Handel (1685-1759) composed the music of this massive, 259-page work in only twenty-four days. At the end of his manuscript Handel wrote the letters "SDG" signifying Soli Deo Gloria, "To God alone the glory".

Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who compiled the Scripture texts for Handel, had a definite purpose in mind. Jennens was a vocal opponent of the adherents of Deism, a then-popular philosophy that acknowledges the existence of a god who does not interfere directly in the universe, and denies the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, and miracles.

Jennens, in contrast, was a devout Christian who had a deep knowledge of Scripture and a high view of the Bible's inspiration and authority. Jennens intended the libretto of Messiah to be a forceful attack upon Deism's naturalistic thinking and denial of Christ. As historian David Daniell puts it, "the very title is an anti-Deist banner." Jennens' purpose was to point men to Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. [1]

The Structure of the Work

Messiah consists of three sections, beginning with the Old Testament prophecies of Christ's first advent and ending with His glory in the throne-room of Heaven as recorded in Revelation.

The first section, as Jennens put it, describes "the prophecy and realization of God's plan to redeem mankind by the coming of the Messiah." It consists of key prophecies describing His person and work, and the angelic announcement of His birth to shepherds.

The middle section, Jennens said, describes "the accomplishment of redemption by the sacrifice of Christ, mankind's rejection of God's offer, and mankind's utter defeat when trying to oppose the power of the Almighty." It consists of key passages describing the record of Christ's earthy ministry, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as the rejection of the Gospel by the rulers of the present world, and God's triumph over them in Christ.

The final section is, in Jennens' words, "a Hymn of Thanksgiving for the final overthrow of Death." It consists of passages proclaiming the promise of bodily resurrection to the believer, the coming Day of Judgment, the ultimate victory over death and sin, and the eternal glorification of Christ and His people.

A performance of the complete work (and these are rare) takes roughly two and a half hours. Most present-day performances of Handel's Messiah occur in the Christmas season and focus mainly on the first section, include some portions of the second, and end with very limited selections from the third. The parts most frequently omitted are those having to do with mankind's rebellion and rejection of the Gospel, and the coming Day of Judgment.

Our Focus in Coming Articles

We now begin a series of articles in which we plan to focus attention on each of the Scripture passages found in Handel's Messiah. Each installment, God willing, will give an exposition of the passages in sequence and in their context, their vital significance to the complete body of Christian theology, and their application to the people of God.

We pray that these articles will be a blessing and encouragement to believers, exalting the person and work of Christ and giving assurance of their security in Him. We also pray that this article series may be the means by which some who are not saved will turn from their sins, in "repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). To Him, indeed, be all the glory.


1. David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 563

Next: "Comfort Ye My People"


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