Handel's Messiah: Its Impact on Listeners
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God!” These words from Isaiah 40:1, 2 are familiar, not only to Christians who know and love their Bible, but even to those who, while not professing to believe in Christ, appreciate great music such as Handel’s Messiah. This wonderful oratorio begins with the tenor singing, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God, Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isa. 40:1).
This beautiful aria, especially when sung by a first rate soloist, can so touch the emotions of the listeners that they look forward with great anticipation to the other stirring parts of the Messiah that follow. But impressive as the musical score and the vocal renditions of the various Scripture passages may be, the question is what benefit does one receive from listening to this famous oratorio?
John Newton’s Concerns
When during the centennial of Handel’s birth in 1785, the Messiah was performed in London’s Westminster Abbey, the event drew so much attention that John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace and other great hymns, felt he had to comment on the merits of the composer’s masterpiece. While agreeing that the Messiah was musically speaking, a superb work of art, and being especially impressed with the composer’s skillful use of Scripture passages, he nevertheless expressed his concerns about the impact the Messiah might make on the audience.
He was afraid that many of the people flocking to Westminster Abbey would not understand the meaning of the words that were sung. He was afraid that their emotions might be so stirred by the music that they imagined they were having a religious experience of some sort.
Sermons on the Messiah
To counteract this danger of self-deception, Newton decided to preach on all the passages Handel had selected to tell the story of Christ’s saving work. His purpose for doing this, he expressed this way:
If it could be reasonably hoped that the performers and the company assembled to hear the music were capable of entering into the spirit of the subject, I will readily allow that the Messiah, might afford one of the highest and noblest gratifications of which we are capable in the present life. But till then, I apprehend that true Christians, without the assistance of either vocal or instrumental music, may find greater pleasure in a humble contemplation on the words of the Messiah than they can derive from the utmost efforts of musical genius.
Newton’s fear that many people attending the Messiah would be more impressed by the music than by the words of the oratorio seems to have been a common observation of men of the Puritan school. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, for instance, writes in his memoir that after spending an evening listening to music — and we may assume it was wholesome, not worldly music — it left him unsatisfied. So he wrote: “June 4 — Evening almost lost. Music will not sanctify, though it make feminine the heart” (Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of R. M. M’Cheyne, Banner of Truth Trust, p. 22). What he meant was that spiritual benefit is derived from meditating on the words of Scripture rather than listening to (even) good music.
Most of us will not agree with this rather negative evaluation of the benefits of music. But is there not an element of truth to what these servants of God of a previous generation said? It is a fact that music can have an enormous impact on the human mind and soul, whether positive or negative. We read of king Saul that when David played his harp in Saul’s presence that the evil spirit left him (1 Sam. 16:23).
David’s harp strings produced such a calming influence on the king’s tormented soul that he found great relief. But it did not bring him closer to God. The relief, welcome as it was, lasted only a little while. Music alone could not effectively deal with Saul’s problem. For that problem a different kind of music was required: the music of the holy Gospel.
Music and Words Interact
Handel knew that too, of course, and that is why he produced not only beautiful, uplifting melodies but also comforting words from Scripture. Did Newton not realize this? Did he not know that music could be a great blessing if it is heard in conjunction with words from Scripture? Surely, this is something we have all experienced. You can listen to a CD with instrumental music playing psalms or hymns and right away the words of these songs come to mind and you start singing them.
That is also true of the Messiah. The relationship between the music and the words is such that not only do the melodies evoke the words, but the words also bring to mind the melodies with which they are associated.
I’m sure that Newton would grant this. But there was something else that troubled him about the performances of the Messiah and their potentially harmful impact on the audience. That was the message itself.
Comfort for Mourners
What is the message of the Messiah? We obviously cannot examine the entire libretto of this oratorio. So we will limit ourselves to the first aria that follows the overture: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” These are the words of comfort, which Isaiah the prophet speaks to God’s people. So far, his message has been one of judgment. Because of Judah’s sins, the Babylonians will come and take the people away into exile.
But in chapter 40 the tone of Isaiah’s message suddenly changes. Instructed by the Lord Himself, the prophet now begins to speak words of comfort to Judah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” With these words the Lord assures His people that though they have grievously sinned against Him, He still loves them and will forgive them if only they acknowledge their sins and repent. Most people, however, seemed totally unconcerned. A false sense of security prevailed. What could happen to Jerusalem, the City of God? The temple still stood and its courts were filled daily with worshippers bringing their sacrifices. Yet, among these thronging worshippers there were some who truly feared God. They were distressed about the low state of the church and the nation. They wept about the sins of the people and included themselves among those deserving God’s wrath.
It is to these people that Isaiah may now speak words of hope and encouragement. “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem” — speak to her heart, literally upon her heart, so as to let these words fall upon it as dew falls on a dry and thirsty land. Jerusalem here represents the Church, the people of God of all times and places. Blessed are they that mourn, Jesus said, for they shall be comforted. This is what Isaiah may tell the mourners in Zion too.
What is it that he must cry out to Jerusalem? That her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned and that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. Isaiah here foresees the end of Judah’s captivity and her restoration, a restoration that will be initiated by the Persian king Cyrus. This king, however, is only a type of Christ who is the true Deliverer of His people. The prophet sees the Messiah bringing salvation and blessedness to His people who now sit down in fear of being taken away into exile.
Isaiah’s message of comfort consists of two parts. First, there is the removal of evil: her warfare is accomplished; and secondly, there is the bestowal of good: she hath received at the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
When the prophet says that Judah’s warfare is accomplished he means it has been completed. The word “warfare” refers to military service. But Isaiah uses it in a figurative sense, indicating a period of hardship and misery. The reference is to the long period of exile as punishment for her sins. That period has now come to an end. But not only that — the cause of Jerusalem’s trouble has also been removed. Tell her that her iniquity is pardoned, the Lord says. Tell her that God is reconciled to her, and that she is no longer viewed as guilty in God’s sight. God now looks upon Jerusalem with pleasure and with satisfaction.
Forgiveness Based on Sacrifice
How can God say this? On what basis can He regard His sinful people with favour? Because a sacrifice has been made and accepted on the basis of which God can now pardon the iniquity of His people. Divine forgiveness results from satisfaction that has been made. Isaiah is pointing sinners to Christ and His finished work long before that work was performed. On the basis of His shed blood God could pardon sin retroactively.
But not only has Judah’s iniquity been pardoned. This is only the negative effect of Messiah’s work. There is also a positive good that has been bestowed. Zion has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. This means she has not only received from the Lord’s hand the cup of wrath, which has been poured out to the last drop, but from that same hand she also receives a double blessing. The word “double” refers to an abundance of blessings. Where sin abounded — and it did in Jerusalem’s case — grace did much more abound. The sacrifice of Christ is of such infinite value that it is more than double in power and efficacy than the harmful effects of sin.
What is the application? Would these words, spoken so long ago by Isaiah, bring comfort to all people? Potentially yes, but only if they will humble themselves on account of their sins. There were many in Jerusalem and Judah who heard these words from the prophet’s lips and remained unmoved by them. They had not heeded his warnings and therefore felt no need for comfort either. While mourners in Zion were told that their warfare or troubles were over, those who were at ease in Zion should draw the conclusion that their troubles remained and would only get worse.
This is still true of most people today, not only unbelievers in the world around us, but many nominal church members as well. Both categories may join true believers in attending performances of the Messiah all over the world. But while the latter listen to the Gospel contained in those familiar passages and sense something of the wonder of God’s grace for sinners, the latter hear the same words without understanding their meaning and their relevance to their own lives. Like the masses in Isaiah’s time, they are not bothered by their sins; they are not troubled by their iniquity. Therefore the Messiah means nothing to them.
They my rave about the quality of the performance but they see no beauty in Christ that they should desire Him. They go home without feeling any need to be saved by Him. If they die in their sins their warfare will never be accomplished. Their troubles will never end.
A Warning and an Encouragement
Here is a solemn warning, which we can only ignore at our peril. But if we do take it seriously and humble ourselves before God, there is a promise of forgiveness for all who believe in His Son. He is the only refuge for sinners and therefore the only comfort for believers who trust in the work He has accomplished on the cross. His sacrifice is abundantly sufficient to cleanse us from all our sins.
Therefore believers in the God-given Messiah, rejoice, yes, rejoice greatly. Your sins are forgiven. Your warfare is accomplished. Your troubles are over. God is no longer angry with you because He was angry with His Son on whom He poured out the full load of His wrath. Yes, your Saviour was troubled in your place. In all your afflictions He was afflicted (Isa. 63:9). Therefore,
Comfort, comfort ye my people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.
May this gospel comfort be yours when in this advent season you will perhaps attend a live performance of the Messiah or listen to a CD featuring this matchless oratorio.
The Value of the Messiah Today
John Newton was afraid that the performance of this sacred oratorio was wrong because it could easily lead to sacrilege or self-deception. No doubt, that was a danger then and still is a danger today. But while this fear may have been warranted in the age of Christendom in which most people lived by biblical values and principles, even if only outwardly, today we face the prospect of the end of Christianity as a public force in society. Ours is a thoroughly secular society that is determined to rid itself of all vestiges of biblical religion.
Therefore we should be thankful that sacred oratorios like the Messiah are still being performed today. For many people it provides the only opportunity to hear the Gospel of Him who shall reign forever and ever — King of kings and Lord of lords! Hallelujah! As Mariano Di Gangi wrote back in 1984 when church attendance was still significant compared to today:
Aware of the secularism and sensuality that pervade and pervert the contemporary world of entertainment, we should be pleased to see this fine expression of the Judeo-Christian tradition rendered in concert halls as well as churches today. God’s Word is meant to be heard. Let it be sung and spoken with dignity and clarity to reach perceptive minds and understanding hearts.
Understanding Handel’s Messiah, p.10