Unsettling History of That Joyous
By MICHAEL MARISSEN
Published: April 8, 2007 in the New York Times
IN New York and elsewhere a “Messiah Sing-In”
— a performance of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah”
with the audience joining in the choruses — is a
musical highlight of the Christmas season.
Christians, Jews and others come together to
delight in one of the consummate masterpieces of
The high point, inevitably, is the
“Hallelujah” chorus, all too familiar from its
use in strange surroundings, from Mel Brooks’s
“History of the World, Part 1,” where it
signified the origins of music among cavemen, to
television advertising for behemoth all-terrain
So “Messiah” lovers may be surprised to learn
that the work was meant not for Christmas but
for Lent, and that the “Hallelujah” chorus was
designed not to honor the birth or resurrection
of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of
Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For
most Christians in Handel’s day, this horrible
event was construed as divine retribution on
Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s
While Handel scholars and enthusiasts say
repeatedly that significant numbers of Jews
attended the original performances of Handel’s
oratorios, they offer no compelling evidence.
Most Jews in 18th-century London were too poor
to attend such concerts, and observant Jews
would in any event have balked at the public use
of the sacred, unutterable name of God in the
oratorios, even though “Jehovah” was a Christian
misunderstanding of the prohibited name.
Handelians often assert too that the composer’s practice
of writing oratorios on ancient Israelite subjects (like
“Israel in Egypt” and “Judas Maccabaeus”) is pro-Jewish.
Handel and his contemporaries did have a high opinion of
the characters populating the Hebrew Bible, not as
“Jews” but as proto-Christian believers in God’s
expected Messiah, Jesus.
But what about their stance
toward living Jews and toward Judaism after the advent
of Jesus? Relevant contemporary British sources have
virtually nothing positive to say on that subject and
very little that is even neutral.
click for larger pic
The cover of a treatise by the Anglican bishop
Richard Kidder // " Kidder’s work reads like
a blueprint for “Messiah.”"
Actual Page From Original
To create the “Messiah” libretto Charles Jennens, a
formidable scholar and a friend of Handel’s, compiled a
series of scriptural passages adapted from the Book of
Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible.
As a traditionalist Christian, Jennens was deeply
troubled by the spread of deism, the notion that God had
simply created the cosmos and let it run its course
without divine intervention. Christianity then as now
rested on the belief that God broke into history by
taking human form in Jesus. For Jennens and others,
deism represented a serious menace.
Deists argued that Jesus was neither the son of God
nor the Messiah. Since Christian writers had habitually
considered Jews the most grievous enemies of their
religion, they came to suppose that deists obtained
anti-Christian ammunition from rabbinical scholars. The
Anglican bishop Richard Kidder, for example, claimed in
his huge 1690s treatise on Jesus as the Messiah that
“the deists among us, who would run down our revealed
religion, are but underworkmen to the Jews.”
Kidder’s title says it all: “A Demonstration of the
Messias, In Which the Truth of the Christian Religion Is
Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; but Especially
Against the Jews.” Jennens owned an edition from 1726,
and he appears to have studied it carefully. Kidder’s
work reads like a blueprint for “Messiah.”
Central to Kidder and his like-minded readers is a
mode of interpretation called “typology,” which means
that events in the Old Testament point to events in
Christian history not only through explicit prophecy and
fulfillment but also through the more mysterious implied
spiritual anticipation of Christian “antitypes” in Old
At Romans 5:14, for example, the Apostle Paul
describes Adam as a “type” of “the one to come” (Jesus,
Such thinking was the driving force behind Kidder’s
book and Jennens’s choice and juxtaposition of texts in
his libretto. In “Messiah” Old and New Testament
selections stand fundamentally in a typological
Jennens had the discernment to see that he couldn’t
thwart his adversaries simply by producing reading
matter insisting that biblical texts be understood both
typologically and as Jesus-centered. Like Arius, who won
popular opinion for his views with catchy anti-orthodox
jingles in the fourth century, Jennens resorted to
music, approaching Handel with his libretto.
What better means to comfort
disquieted Christians against the
faith-busting wiles of deists and
Jews than to draw on the feelings
and emotions of art over and above
the reasons and revelations of
“Messiah” does exactly
this, culminating in the
“Hallelujah” chorus. At Scene 6 in
Part 2 the oratorio features
passages from Psalm 2 of the Old
Testament set as a series of
antagonistic movements that precede
excerpts from the New Testament’s
Book of Revelation set as the
triumphant “Hallelujah” chorus: type
and antitype, prophecy and
The bass aria that opens Scene 6
asks, “Why do the nations so
furiously rage together, and why do
the people imagine a vain thing?”
But in the King James Bible and the
Book of Common Prayer, the passage,
Psalm 2:1, reads not “nations” but
“heathen.” Why the difference, and
where does it come from?
Jennens took his reading from
Henry Hammond, the great
17th-century Anglican biblical
scholar, whose extended and fiercely
erudite commentary on Psalm 2
suggests the advantage of “nations”
over “heathen”: “Nations” can
readily include the Jews. In the
18th century no one would have
uncritically used the King James
Bible and the Book of Common
Prayer’s word “heathen” for Jews or
Judaism. Even children would have
known this, from the famous hymn
writer Isaac Watts’s wildly popular
“Divine Songs for the Use of
Children,” which includes the verse
“Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace,
/And not to Chance, as others do,
/That I was born of Christian race,
/And not a Heathen or a Jew.”
Handel sets Psalm 2:1 as an aria
drawing on the stile concitato
(agitated style), with repeated 16th
notes as a convention for violent
affects to underline the raging of
the nations, pointedly including the
Jews. “The people,” when they
“imagine a vain thing,” are further
associated with a conspicuous violin
line of oscillating pitches.
A similar melodic idea depicts
the Jews in the earlier recitative
“All they that see him laugh him to
scorn; they shoot out their lips,
and shake their heads.” The
recitative sets Psalm 22:7, a text
that can be understood
(typologically) to foreshadow a New
Testament passage, Matthew 27:39-40,
which refers to Jewish pilgrims
attending Passover and Jesus on the
cross: “They that passed by, reviled
him, wagging their heads.” The
oscillating pattern and its scornful
tone capture the Jews’ rejection of
Jesus as the Messiah.
Later in Scene 6, at the tenor
aria, Jennens skips to Psalm 2:9,
“Thou shalt break them with a rod of
iron.” His excision of verses 5
through 8 makes the violent language
in “Thou shalt break them” refer to
the Jesus-rejecting Jews, because
without the intervening verses,
“them” refers to “the nations”
(including the Jews) and “the
people” (the Jews) of the bass aria,
rather than the gentiles referred to
in the missing Verse 8.
If Jews make up “them,” who is
the “thou”? Jesus, as John Newton
explains in his 1786 book “Messiah:
Fifty Sermons on the Celebrated
Oratorio of Handel”: The resurrected
Jesus, sitting at the right hand of
God, unleashed his anger on the Jews
by having the Roman armies lay waste
to Jerusalem and its temple in A.D.
Newton is best known today as the
author of the hymn “Amazing Grace,”
and he is a central figure in the
film of that name now in theaters,
in which he is portrayed as
repenting his devotion to the slave
trade in the 1780s. But his grace
apparently wasn’t amazing enough to
curb the constant affirmation of
anti-Jewish sentiment in his
Here he comments, “The music to
which Psalm 2:9 is set is so well
adapted to the idea that it
expresses, as, in a manner, to
startle those who hear it.” In
Jennens and Handel’s time,
Christians were all but unanimous in
believing that the violence depicted
in Psalm 2:9 represented the
prophesying type for a later event:
the destruction of Jerusalem and its
temple, the fulfilling antitype. So
when Jennens has brought in Psalm 2
and its understood prophecy of the
destruction of the temple, widely
understood as signaling God’s
rejection of Judaism, what is the
response? “Hallelujah! for the Lord
God omnipotent reigneth; the kingdom
of this world is become the kingdom
of our Lord and of his Christ”
(Revelation 19:6, 19:16 and 11:5).
Jennens undoubtedly got the idea of
juxtaposing these passages directly
from Hammond, who wrote: “Now at
Revelation 11 is fulfilled that
prophecy of Psalm 2. The Jewish
nation have behaved themselves most
stubbornly against Christ, and
cruelly against Christians, and
God’s judgments are come upon them.”
This is surely how listeners would
have understood the combination of
these texts in 18th-century Britain.
Handel’s music makes its own
contribution to the troubling
theological message here. The mood
of the “Hallelujah” chorus is
For the first time in “Messiah”
trumpets and drums are used
together, although they would have
been appropriate or welcome at
several earlier places. In Baroque
music trumpets with drums were
emblems of great power and of
victory. In “Messiah” the
combination is saved for celebrating
the destruction of Jesus’
prefigured in Psalm 2.
Read at Google Books
With Old Israel supposedly
rejected by God and its obsolescence
long before ensured, why did
18th-century writers and composers
rejoice against Judaism at all,
whether explicitly or, as here,
implicitly? There must have been
some festering Christian anxiety
about the prolonged survival of
Judaism: How could a “false”
religion last so long? Might Judaism
somehow actually be “true”?
These issues were a matter of
life and death, says Jennens’s key
guide, Kidder’s tome: “If we be
wrong in dispute with the Jews, we
err fundamentally, and must never
hope for salvation. So that either
we or the Jews must be in a state of
damnation. Of such great importance
are those matters in dispute between
us and them.”
This would represent ample
motivation for the text and musical
setting of “Messiah” to engage these
issues and would perhaps help
explain any lapse from decent
Christian gratitude into unseemly
rejoicing in the “Hallelujah”
While still a timely, living
masterpiece that may continue to
bring spiritual and aesthetic
sustenance to many music lovers,
Christian or otherwise, “Messiah”
also appears to be very much a work
of its own era. Listeners might do
well to ponder exactly what it means
when, in keeping with tradition,
they stand during the “Hallelujah”
Georg Friedrich Händel
A Sacred Oratorio
Words by Charles Jennens
1. Sinfonia (Overture)
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.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye
the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway
for our God.
(Isaiah 40: 1-3)
Ev'ry valley shall be exalted, and ev'ry moutain and hill
made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
(Isaiah 40: 4)
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh
shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken
(Isaiah 40: 5)
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little
while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea
and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations
(Haggai 2: 6-7)
The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple,
even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in;
behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.
(Malachi 3: 1)
Alto or soprano
But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand
when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner's fire.
(Malachi 3: 2)
And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer
unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.
(Malachi 3: 3)
Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall
call His name Emmanuel, God with us.
(Isaiah 7: 14; Matthew 1: 23)
9. Air and Chorus
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into
the high mountain. O thou that tellest good tidings to
Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be
not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god!
(Isaiah 40: 9)
Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the
Lord is risen upon thee.
(Isaiah 60: 1)
O thou that tellest. . . etc.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross
darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and
His glory shall be seen upon thee.
And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the
brightness of thy rising.
(Isaiah 60: 2-3)
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light;
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon
them hath the light shined.
(Isaiah 9: 2)
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the
government shall be upon His shoulder; and His name shall be
called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the
Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9: 6)
13. Pifa ("Pastoral Symphony")
There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch
over their flocks by night.
(Luke 2: 8)
And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory
of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore
(Luke 2: 9)
And the angel said unto them: "Fear not, for behold, I bring
you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord."
(Luke 2: 10-11)
And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the
heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
(Luke 2: 13)
"Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will
(Luke 2: 14)
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of
Behold, thy King cometh unto thee; He is the righteous
Saviour, and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
Rejoice greatly. . . da capo
(Zecharaiah 9: 9-10)
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of
the deaf unstopped.
Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of
the dumb shall sing.
(Isaiah 35: 5-6)
20. Air (or Duet)
(Alto &) soprano
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather
the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and
gently lead those that are with young.
(Isaiah 40: 11)
Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are
heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and
lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(Matthew 11: 28-29)
His yoke is easy, and His burden is light.
(Matthew 11: 30)
Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the
(John 1: 29)
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and
acquainted with grief.
(Isaiah 53: 3)
He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that
plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and
He was despised. . . da capo (Isaiah 53: 6)
Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows!
He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for
our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.
(Isaiah 53: 4-5)
And with His stripes we are healed.
(Isaiah 53: 5)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one
to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity
of us all.
(Isaiah 53: 6)
All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn; they shoot out
their lips, and shake their heads, saying:
(Psalm 22: 7)
"He trusted in God that He would deliver Him; let Him
deliver Him, if He delight in Him."
(Psalm 22: 8)
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.
(Psalm 69: 20)
Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto His sorrow.
(Lamentations 1: 12)
Soprano or tenor
He was cut off out of the land of the living: for the
transgressions of Thy people was He stricken.
(Isaiah 53: 8)
Soprano or tenor
But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell; nor didst Thou
suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.
(Psalm 16: 10)
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, The
Lord mighty in battle.
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 of Hosts, He is the King
(Psalm 24: 7-10)
Unto which of the angels said He at any time: "Thou art My
Son, this day have I begotten Thee?"
(Hebrews 1: 5)
Let all the angels of God worship Him.
(Hebrews 1: 6)
Alto or soprano
Thou art gone up on high; Thou hast led captivity captive,
and received gifts for men; yea, even from Thine enemies,
that the Lord God might dwell among them.
(Psalm 68: 18)
The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the
(Psalm 68: 11)
38. Air (or « duet and Chorus »)
Soprano or alto (or soprano, alto and Chorus)
How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of
peace, and bring glad tidings of good things.
(Isaiah 52: 7; Romans 10: 15)
39. Chorus (or air for tenor)
Their sound is gone out into all lands,
and their words unto the ends of the world.
(Romans 10: 18; Psalm 19: 4)
40. Air (or « Air and Recitative »)
Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do
the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel
together against the Lord, and against His anointed.
(Psalm 2: 1-2)
Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes
(Psalm 2: 3)
He that dwelleth in Heav'n shall laugh them to scorn; The
Lord shall have them in derision.
(Psalm 2: 4)
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash
them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
(Psalm 2: 9)
Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19: 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: 15)
King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19: 16)
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand
at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I
(Job 19: 25-26)
For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of
them that sleep.
(I Corinthians 15: 20)
Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection
of the dead.
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made
(I Corinthians 15: 21-22)
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we
shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an
eye, at the last trumpet.
(I Corinthians 15: 51-52)
The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised
incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this
mortal must put on immortality.
The trumpet. . . da capo
(I Corinthians 15: 52-53)
Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written:
"Death is swallowed up in victory."
(I Corinthians 15: 54)
Alto & tenor
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the
(I Corinthians 15: 55-56)
But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our
Lord Jesus Christ.
(I Corinthians 15: 57)
If God be for us, who can be against us?
(Romans 8: 31)
Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is
God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? 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: 33-34)
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to
God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that
sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and
(Revelation 5: 12-14)