Handel’s Messiah

Handel’s Messiah is often played at Christmas. Two choruses are particularly associated with the birth narratives: For Unto us a Child is born (correclty) and the Halleluliah Chorus (incorrectly). If people knew the true meaning of the latter, they might not be so keen on it!

Illustration: title page of Handel’s autograph score

Composer and Lyricist

George Frideric Handel, (1685-1759) a German-born naturalized (1727) English Baroque composer, was well known for operas, oratorios, anthems and organ concertos. Training in Halle, he worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712, where he spent the bulk of his career. Handel launched three commercial opera companies to entertain the English nobility with Italian opera. In 1737 he had a physical breakdown, changed direction creatively, and then served the growing middle class, making a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742) he never again composed an Italian opera. His orchestral Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks remain hugely popular today.

Handel had a genuine Christian faith. On Messiah he worked with Charles Jennes who provided the scriptural imprimatur via the King James Bible, and the Coverdale Psalter. Messiah was first performed in Dublin in April 1742 and received its London premiere a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music. Although its structure resembles opera, it is not in dramatic form; there are no impersonations of characters and no direct speech. Instead, Jennes’ text is an extended reflection on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The text begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds, the only “scene” taken from the Gospels. In Part 2, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part 3 he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

Messiah’s structure

I thought that decyphering the Handel/Jennes choral mastrerpiece from a scriptural perspective might be a challenge. In fact there is plenty of material on the internet, though their perspectives are not entirely consistent. See links immediately below: Handel’s Messiah – Scripture verse references: https://haventoday.org/blog/handels-messiah-lyrics-verse-references/ ; Handel’s Messiah – Scripture verse references: https://www.wordproject.org/bibles/resources/handels_messiah/index.htm ; Handel’s messiah – lyric summary – https://www.toledosymphony.com/clientuploads/20192020season/TSOinHD/2020_0412_Messiah_Lyrics.pdf

The Life of Jesus

The Messiah speaks very simply of the life and achievements of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Handel’s other oratorios display a keen sense of Scripture, and Handel/Jennes tackle Messiah in a broadly sequential way:

1 Overture
2 “Comfort ye, my people.” (Isaiah 40, vv.1–3)
3 “Every valley shall be exalted” (Isaiah 40, v.4)
4 “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (Isaiah 40, v.5)
5 “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3, v.1)
6 “But who may abide the day of his coming” (Malachi 3, v.2)
7 “And he shall purify” (Malachi 3, v.3)
9 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive” (Isaiah 7, v.14; Matthew 1, v.23)
10 “O thou that tellest good tidings” (Isaiah 40, v.9); “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen.” (Isaiah 60, v.1)
11 “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (Isaiah 60, vv.2–3)
12 “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9, v.2)
13 “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9, v.6)
14 Pastoral symphony
15 “There were shepherds abiding in the field.” (Luke 2, v.8)
16 “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,” (Luke 2, v.9)
17 “And the angel said unto them, Fear not” (Luke 2, 10–11)
18 “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude” (Luke 2, v.13)
19 “Chorus Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2, v.14)
20 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” (Zechariah 9, vv.9–10)
21 “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” (Isaiah 35, vv.5–6)
22 “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd” (Matthew 11, vv.28–29)
23 “His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light.” (Matthew 11, v.30)


24 “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1, v.29)
25 “He was despised and rejected” (Isaiah 50, v.6)
26 “Surely he hath borne our griefs” (Isaiah 53, vv.4–5)
27 “And with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53, v.5)
28 “And we like sheep have gone astray” (Isaiah 53, v.6)
29 “All they that see him laugh him to scorn” (Psalm 22, v.7)
30 “He trusted in God that he would deliver him” (Psalm 22, v.8)
31 “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart” (Psalm 69, v.20)
32 “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his” (Lamentations 1, v.12)
33 “He was cut off out the land of the living” (Isaiah 53, v.8)
34 “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell” (Psalm 16, v.10)
35 “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” (Psalm 24, vv.7–10)
36 “Unto which of the angels said he at any time?” (Hebrews 1, v.5)
37 “Let all the angels of God worship him.” (Hebrews 1, v.6)
38 “Thou art gone up on high” (Psalm 68, v.18)
39 “The Lord gave the word” (Psalm 68, v.11)
40 “How beautiful are the feet of them” (Romans 10, v.15)
41 “Their sound is gone out into all lands” (Romans 10, v.18)
42 “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” (Psalm 2, vv.1–2)
43 “Let us break their bonds asunder” (Psalm 2, v.3)
44 “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them” (Psalm 2, v.4)
45 “Thou shall break them” (Psalm 2, v.9)
46 “Hallelujah: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” (Revelation 19, v.6); “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11, v.15); “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.” (Revelation 19, v.16)


47 “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (Job 19, vv.25–26); “For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruit.” (I Corinthians 15, v.20)
48 “Since by man came death” (I Corinthians 15, v.21)
49 “By man came also the Resurrection” (I Corinthians 15, v.22)
50 For as in Adam all die (I Corinthians 15, v.22)
51 Even so, in Christ (I Corinthians 15, v.22)
52 “Behold, I tell you a mystery” (I Corinthians 15, vv.51–52)
53 “The trumpet shall sound” (I Corinthians 15, 52–53)
54 “Then shall be brought to pass the saying” (I Corinthians 15, v.54)
55 “O death, where is thy sting?” (I Corinthians 15, vv.55–56)
56 “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory.” (I Corinthians 15, v.57)
57 “If God be for us, who can be against us?” “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.” (Romans 8, vv.33–34)
58 “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us” (Revelation 5, vv.12–14)
59 “Amen.”

What’s with the Halleluliah Chorus?

Whilst the Halleluliah chorus (# 46 above) is often associated with Christmas, in Revelation it certainly is not! After this world ‘rages against’ the purposes of God (particularly it would appear, in relation to Israel, see # 42 above) so this world is ultimately to be laid low. It cannot stand against the vengeful might of God Himself.

The ugly story of Man’s final rebellion against God is played out in Revelation chapter 18. If there is a dominant word in Revelation 18 it is “woe”. The world system has done its worst in defying God (and His people here on earth), and now ‘Babylon’(code word for the world’s Man-centred system) is finally overthrown. Now only woe awaits as banking systems, trade systems and governance systems collapse. The final charge against the world’s merchants and ‘great men’ is brought in Revelation 18: 23-24; the judgment has come. The Lamb has won, and the World has lost! The very next word? Halleluliah! Heaven erupts in a huge cheer!

The Halleluliah Chorus is not, as so many seem to think, about Jesus’ birth. The Chorus is ultimately subversive, in the best sense of that word. It is about Jesus’ ultimate triumph in laying low and defeating everything this rebellious word has ever stood for. Praise God for that! Halleluliah indeed!


Peter Sammons is commissioning editor at Christian Comment. He is author of “The Empty Promise of Godism” which explores the ‘churches’ clear design to meld with the other religions of the world, following “god” as they see it, but minimizing the truth of the Cross.