Messiah by Georg Frideric Handel

And he shall reign forever and ever
King of kings forever and ever
and lord of lords hallelujah hallelujah
And he shall reign forever and ever
King of kings and lord of lords
King of kings and lord of lords
And he shall reign forever and ever
Forever and ever and ever and ever
(King of kings and lord of lords)
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah

If you have attended a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you have noticed that the audience rises during the famous Hallelujah chorus.  No one is exactly sure how this tradition began, but the popular legend is that King George II, attending the London premiere in March of 1743, was so moved by the “Hallelujah’’ that he stood up – and if the king stands, everybody stands.  True or not, the majesty of the chorus itself continues to inspire audiences to a sense of an entrance to the presence of God.

As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:

For twenty-four days he rarely left the house, all his attention focused on the completion of the work at hand. When his servant brought him a tray of food, he would often find the previous meal untouched. Handel, a man known for his insatiable appetite, was so caught up in composing this music that he sometimes neglected to feed himself. The work came to him, he later testified, almost miraculously, and was fueled by the intense spiritual experience of writing it.

There was something unique for Handel about this particular piece. A friend who visited him during the throes of composition found him sobbing with intense emotion. All his heart, his faith, and his passion were being poured into the creative process. At times he could barely stand the pathos he felt, the overwhelming sense of human limitation in trying to express what he wanted to say through his music. At other moments he was overcome with exhilaration and wonder at God’s majesty. To his servant, who found him alone and weeping after completing the transcendent “Hallelujah” chorus, he could only murmur, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”

Which song most inspires you to a sense of God’s presence?

John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

D I G  D E E P E R


Georg Frideric Handel


And he shall reign forever and ever
King of kings forever and ever
and lord of lords hallelujah hallelujah
And he shall reign forever and ever
King of kings and lord of lords
King of kings and lord of lords
And he shall reign forever and ever
Forever and ever and ever and ever
(King of kings and lord of lords)
Hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah hallelujah


Georg Frideric Handel

Handel, George Frideric (1685–1759), musical composer. The original form of his name was Händel. He was born in Halle, Saxony, and spent the early years of his career in Hamburg and in Italy. In 1710 he visited London, which he made his home from 1712, becoming a naturalized British subject in 1727. He remained a *Lutheran, but worshipped regularly at his parish church, St George’s, Hanover Square. He is rightly regarded as the originator of the English *oratorio, with its prominent role for the chorus. As Handel was essentially a man of the theatre, his oratorios are generally highly dramatic in style; they include Esther (1732), Saul (1738), Israel in Egypt (1738), Judas Maccabeus (1746), and Solomon (1748). For the most part they were originally performed in the theatre, but without scenery or theatrical dress. The most famous of all, Messiah (1741, first performed in 1742) is atypical in being non-dramatic. It has always enjoyed immense popularity. Handel himself inaugurated annual performances of it for the benefit of the Foundling Hospital, and over the years it has helped keep many an amateur choral society solvent. His other religious music includes ‘Dixit Dominus’ (1707), the set of extended anthems for the Duke of Chandos (1717–18), and four anthems for the coronation of George II (1727), of which ‘Zadok the priest’ has been sung at every subsequent coronation. Handel’s genius may be said to lie in his ability to create the sublimest of effects with the simplest of means. He gave up composing after going blind in 1752, although he continued to play and direct performances of his works to the end of his life.

Collected Works ed. by [K. F. F. Chrysander for] the Händel-Gesellschaft (97 vols., pt. 49 never pub., Leipzig, 1858–1902); new edn. (‘Hallische Händel-Ausgabe’) by M. Schneider and others (Kassel, 1955 ff.). W. and M. Eisen (eds.), Handel-Handbuch (Gleichzeitig Supplement zu Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, 1978 ff.; incl. thematic catalogue and docs.). O. E. Deutsch, Handel: A Documentary Biography (1955). J. Mainwaring, Memoirs of the Life of the late George Frederic Handel (1760). P. H. Lange, George Frideric Handel (New York, 1966; London, 1967). C. Hogwood, Handel (London [1984]). D. [J.] Burrows, Handel (Oxford, 1994). H. Swanston, Handel (Outstanding Christian Thinkers, 1990). W. Dean, Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques (1959). D. [J.] Burrows, Handel and the English Chapel Royal (lecture [1985]). Id. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Handel (1997). K. Sasse, Händel Bibliographie (Leipzig [1963]; 2nd edn., 1967); M. A. Parker-Hale, G. F. Handel: A Guide to Research (New York and London, 1988). A. Hicks in S. Sadie (ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd edn.), 10 (2001), pp. 747–813, s.v.

F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 738.

Messiah in Literature

“Messiah” is a transliteration of Heb. mashiaḥ, an adjective which means “anointed,” and so can refer to anyone with a divinely appointed mission—kings (e.g., 1 Sam. 24:6; Lam. 4:20), high priests (Lev. 4:3, 5, 16; 6:22), priests (Exod. 28:41; Lev. 10:7; Num. 3:3), and even the Gentile king Cyrus (Isa. 54:1). The term mashiaḥ is not, in fact, ever used in the OT as a reference to Messiah. The KJV twice mentions “the Messiah” in the OT, but it is now recognized that “the anointed one” is a more apt translation, since KJV’s “the Messiah the Prince” (Dan. 9:25, “the anointed prince”) probably refers to Cyrus (see Isa. 45:1), and “the Messiah” (KJV Dan. 9:26, “anointed one”) to Onias III.

The OT does, of course, give voice to messianic longings and expectation. Gen. 49:10 is a very early messianic prophecy: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Moses promised that “The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet … like unto me” (Deut. 18:15). Often such prophecies look forward to a time when Israel would again be united as it had been in the time of David: “Then shall the children of Judah and the children of Israel be gathered together, and appoint themselves one head” (Hos. 1:11), and at this time “shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king” (Hos. 3:5; see also Amos 9:11–15). This leader, this new David, will be a scourge to the foes of Israel, such a one as had been prophesied in Num. 24:17: “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.” For the Psalmist this all-powerful, all-conquering king of Israel is “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (110:4), a spiritual leader, then, as well as political—and eternal in his rule.

Sometimes this idea of the messianic reunification of Israel is expanded to envision all the peoples of the world coming to Zion. Isaiah gives the most powerful and the most extended expression to such hopes: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains … and all nations shall flow into it … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isa. 2:2–4; Mic. 4:1–4); and for a ruler “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa. 11:1–2; Isaiah is recalling the anointing of David, son of Jesse [1 Sam. 16:1–13]). Another image is provided by the “suffering servant” of Isa. 40–55, who has “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2), one who labors for a time in vain, who suffers at the hands of the wicked, and who dies for his people, a “Redeemer of Israel” (Isa. 49:7). Yet this Redeemer will also be “a light to the Gentiles” and “salvation unto the end of the earth.” He will “say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves” (Isa. 49:1–9):

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. … He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief … and we esteemed him not. … But he was wounded for our transgressions … and with his stripes we are healed. … he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter. … his soul an offering for sin. (Isa. 53:1–10; see also 35:4; 40:10; 42:1–9; 52:13–15; 59:20)

For Daniel the mysterious and awesome figure associated with the triumph of the elect is at once human and divine: “behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days” (7:13–14).

In the NT, where Jewish hopes for a Messiah are seen as fulfilled in Jesus, the evangelists portray Jesus drawing all these—and other—strands together into a single thread of prophecy: “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life up as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In this one passage, Jesus casts himself as “the Son of man” of Dan. 7:13, as the “servant” of Isa. 49:3, and as the suffering Redeemer of Isa. 53:4–9. Jesus makes explicit his messianic role in John 4:25–26: the Samaritan woman “saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ. … Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.” And in John 1:41 Andrew says, “We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ”; indeed, since Christ was the Greek equivalent of Heb. mashiaḥ, “the anointed one,” every reference in the NT to Jesus as “the Christ” is a reference to Jesus as “the messiah” (see, e.g., Matt. 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 2:11; John 10:24; Acts 18:5).

Ps. 110 was given a messianic interpretation at least as early as the time of Jesus, and so was the most widely quoted Psalm in the NT: “Jesus saith unto him … Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64; there is also a reference here to Dan. 7:13; for other NT references to Ps. 110, see, e.g., Matt. 22:41–46; Acts 2:34–35; 5:31; 7:55; Rom. 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:13; 5:6, 10; 8:1; 10:12–13; Rev. 3:21).

For patristic writers, of course, there was no question that many passages in the OT referred directly to Christ. St. Ambrose, e.g., writes that Gen. 49:8–12 only “appears” to refer to Judah, while “indeed … that later Juda is meant”—Christ (FC 65.251). Ambrose goes on to gloss Isa. 11:1: “The root is the household of the Jews, the rod is Mary, the flower of Mary is Christ” (65.252); this interpretation originated with Tertullian, De carne Christi, 251.5). St. Augustine understands Ps. 1:3 as referring to Christ: “That ‘tree’ then, that is, our Lord, from ‘the running streams of water,’ that is from the sinful people’s drawing them by the way into the roots of discipline, will ‘bring forth fruit,’ that is, after He hath been glorified” (Enarr. in Ps. [NPNF 8.1]). The Vg sometimes even translates OT “anointed one” with Christus (e.g., Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:25–26). Indeed, this christological reading of the OT encouraged the Fathers to find references to Christ in a very wide range of OT events; Eve’s issuing from a wound in the side of Adam, e.g., was seen as a type for the blood issuing from the side of Christ (St. John Chrysostom, ACW 31.62).

The assumption of such passages is that God so arranged the events of history that they would be meaningful, functioning as a broad and detailed prophecy of the Messiah and his mission. History leads up to and is granted retrospective significance in terms of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Subsequent history likewise is adequated to the predicted eschaton: Christian historiography in the Middle Ages is charged with messianic expectation, and numerous attempts were made to correlate proximate historical events to biblical prophecy so as to arrive at a probable date for what Christians anticipated as the Second Coming of Christ. Favored dates (in their various periods) were A.D. 1000, 1233, 1260, 1300, 1333, 1360, and 1400. But Jewish speculation on the coming of the Messiah and the corresponding millennial reign was comparable: the year 1358 was the favorite Jewish date in the 14th cent., though the De Jure Belli of Giovanni da Legnano, written in 1360, refers to 1365 as a likely date (ed. T. E. Holland [1917], 77-78).

The first advent of the Messiah, in a Christian perspective, and expectation of his final coming and judgment, determine the structuring (or restructuring) of biblical narrative in numerous works of medieval English literature. In the 14th cent., e.g., one typically finds in the cycle plays not only a Prophets’ Play, wherein the coming of the Messiah is explicitly foretold, but also such detailed prefigurations as the child-lamb being born to Gil in “The Second Shepherds’ Play.” In bk. 1 of The Faerie Queene one finds not only the messianic structure, with the dragon-devil waiting to be defeated at the coming of the Christ-like Redcrosse Knight, but also such typological details as the child playing with the dragon-serpent (FQ 1.12.11) in fulfillment of Isa. 11:8, “And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den” (see J. C. Nohrnberg, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene).

Eighteenth-cent. interest in the Eclogues of Virgil and the Sibylline prophecies, thought then to be parallel in many respects to OT prophecies concerning the coming Messiah, encouraged imaginative treatment of some of the chief “messianic” portions of Isaiah. Alexander Pope freely blends elements from Virgil’s Pollio eclogue (Eclogues, 4, esp. 6-46) and Isaiah (7:14; 11:1; 40:1–4; 45:8, etc.) to create his “Messiah,” first published in the Spectator (1712). Pope’s stirring phrases reveal, however, a dominance of scriptural idiom:

The SAVIOR comes! by ancient Bards foretold:
Hear him ye Deaf, and all ye Blind behold!
He from thick Films shall purge the visual Ray,
And on the sightless Eye-ball pour the Day.
’Tis he th’obstructed Paths of Sound shall clear,
And bid new Musick charm th’unfolding Ear.
The Dumb shall sing, the Lame his Crutch foregoe,
And leap exulting like the bounding Roe. (37-44)

Pope’s triumphant concluding lines are consistent with the whole poem in their indebtedness to Isaiah (esp. 51:6; 54:10; 60:19–20):

One Tyde of Glory, one unclouded Blaze,
O’erflow thy Courts: The LIGHT HIMSELF shall shine
Reveal’d; and God’s eternal Day be thine!
The Seas shall waste; the Skies in Smoke decay;
Rocks fall to Dust, and Mountains melt away;
But fix’d His Word, His saving Pow’r remains:
Thy Realm for ever lasts! thy own Messiah reigns!

The most celebrated Messiah of the 18th cent. is undoubtedly that of G. F. Handel (1742). The oratorio is atypical in Handel’s canon in that it tells no story; rather, it sets forth a series of scriptural texts arranged as a litany of meditations on redemption, commencing with a series of OT prophecies (notably centering on Isaiah again) and moving through the ministry of Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection. It was a peculiar accomplishment of Handel’s composition that, as William Cowper put it ironically, thousands of auditors with no interest in the Messiah (or, he implies, in redemption) thus heard a fair précis of scriptural salvation history for the sake of Handel’s great music. In Cowper’s wry reflection:

Man praises man. Desert in arts or arms
Wins public honour; and ten thousand sit
Patiently present at a sacred song,
Commemoration-mad; content to hear
(Oh wonderful effect of music’s pow’r!)
Messiah’s eulogy for Handel’s sake! (The Task, 6.632-37)

Cowper’s priest, fellow hymn writer (Olney Hymns), and mentor at Olney, John Newton, having later become rector at St. Mary Woolnoth in London, was happy to take advantage of an extremely successful rerun of Handel’s Messiah at Westminster Abbey during 1784-85 to preach a remarkable series of fifty sermons. These were published with considerable success as Messiah: Or, the Scriptural Passages which Form the Subject of the Celebrated Oratorio of Handel (1786). Handel thus has come to figure largely in English allusions, literary and otherwise, to “the Messiah.” Interestingly parallel, however, is Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s religious epic Messias, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost. After appearing in Germany in 1748 and 1773 it became well known also in England and America.

A contrasting deemphasis of the subject, or redefinition of it, becomes apparent in later literature. For Blake, who in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell wants to exalt the Subconscious (or hell) at the expense of Good and Reason, the Messiah becomes simply Desire: “the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss” (Complete Writings [1966], 149, pl. 5). In a related vein, Coleridge sees the integrated consciousness or “whole one Self” as “the Messiah’s destined victory!” (“Religious Musings”). The American poet Robert Lowell, in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” asks his readers to see in the killing of a sperm whale a reenactment of the Crucifixion and so calls the whale “Jonas Messiah”—with a typological pun on Jonah (see also Lowell’s “No Messiah” and “Once to Every Man and Nation”). Gore Vidal’s Messiah (1954) is a parodic “fifth gospel,” recounting the life and cult of John Cave, an unlikely savior and founder of Caveway, a new religion promising solace through death.

The term Messiah or “new Messiah” occasionally occurs in literature either as a term of derogation or in a purely secularizing sense. Dryden, e.g., disparages the motives of the refugee French Huguenots coming to England, suggesting in his Catholic poem The Hind and the Panther (1687) that since their motives are really materialist, it is British affluence which is their “new Messiah by the star” (3.173-78). Similarly, there are references to other “Christs,” such as Oscar Wilde’s “These Christs that die upon the barricades” (“Sonnet to Liberty”). A. M. Klein’s acerbic “Ballad of the Days of the Messiah,” from the section “A Voice was Heard in Ramah,” in his Collected Poems (1944), bitterly heralds “Messiah in an armour-metalled tank,” the liberation soldier arrived too late to redeem six million Jews. Klein’s World War II poetry has many such references to the failure of Messiah to appear in the darkest hours:

Where is the trumpeted Messiah? Where
The wine long-soured into vinegar?
Have cobwebs stifled his mighty shofar? (“Reb Levi Yitschok talks to God”)

This poem, a troubled rabbi’s series of unanswered Job-like questions, complains of a protracted historical silence of God and with it of the emptying out of meaning in messianic promises. Representative of a fair portion of Jewish poetry written through and after the Holocaust, both poems are at a far remove from Klein’s early (ashkenaz) alphabetic “Messiah” (1927), a joyous, whimsical children’s song about the golden messianic age which might have been written in the age of Maimonides.


Ames, C. R. “False Advertising: The Influence of Virgil and Isaiah on Pope’s Messiah.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 28 (1988), 401-26; Axelrod, S. G. Robert Lowell: Life and Art (1978), 54-64; Brown, R. E. The Birth of the Messiah (1977); Greenstone, J. H. The Messianic Idea in Jewish History (1906), 21-80; Scholem, G. The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971); Werblowsky, R. J. Z. “Messianism in Jewish History.” Journal of World History 11 (1968), 30-445.

David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Keates, Jonathan. Handel: The Man and His Music. New York: Random House, 2009.
Slover, Tim. Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio. Chicago: Silver Leaf Press, 2007.


Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey

Terry Glaspey is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God.

He has a master’s degree in history from the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), as well as undergraduate degrees emphasizing counseling and pastoral studies.

He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know:  Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.

Terry enjoys writing and speaking about a variety of topics including creativity and spirituality, the artistic heritage of the Christian faith, the writing of C.S. Lewis, and creative approaches to apologetics.

He serves on the board of directors of the Society to Explore and Record Church History and is listed in Who’s Who in America Terry has been the recipient of a number of awards, including a distinguished alumni award and the Advanced Speakers and Writers Editor of the Year award.

Terry has two daughters and lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).

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