Note: This is part of a series which began on December 10. To start at the beginning of the series, or to access the Table of Contents, click here.
At long last, we reach the climactic and most famous movement in Messiah: The Hallelujah Chorus. This is one of the most recognized and performed pieces of music ever composed. With text from the Book of Revelation, and with orchestration featuring trumpets and timpani, the Hallelujah Chorus is the quintessential “big ending”, both textually and musically.
Only it isn’t the end! This movement merely brings Part II of the oratorio to a close; the final section yet remains. While many have argued that this piece should be at the end of the oratorio, I think Handel and Jennings have put it precisely where it ought to be. As Christians, we have seen the end of the Story. We know that ultimately, Jesus Christ will triumph over death, and will reign forever and ever as King of kings and Lord of lords. This knowledge is not the end of our faith, however. It is knowledge that demands a response of worship and thanksgiving, which is exactly what we will find in Part III!
Revelation 19:6 — Hallelujah! for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Revelation 11:15 — 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 17:14 & 19:16 — King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
Professor Block offers quite a bit of commentary on this movement from his essay:
Unlike the previous segments of Part II, segment D consists of a single text (#42). But this is the most famous piece in the entire oratorio – the Hallelujah Chorus. If sentimental rhapsodists have imagined every note of Messiah to have been divinely inspired, nowhere is this more true than with reference to the Hallelujah chorus. Drawn into this romantic view of Handel is the story (which is incapable of confirmation) that while he was composing this piece he imagined seeing heaven before his very eyes and “the great God Himself” enthroned in glory. And whatever the origin of the custom, the piece has such emotional power that to this day in the English speaking world audiences rise as if in prayer as soon as the opening notes are struck. At the risk of pretending to know anything about the history of music, from what I know about their respective works, here, more than anywhere in the composition and anywhere in Bach, with Italian operatic flair Handel appears to have written for the applause of the audience. Not only does this piece have the climactic flourish that one expects at the end of an oratorio; even the text, a conflation of Revelation 19:6 and 11:15, drawn from the end of the Bible, and from God’s climactic act in history, leads one who hears this oratorio for the first time to expect the end of the performance. In fact, on both textual and logical grounds, one could wish that this chorus was transposed with “Worthy is the Lamb” in #51. Jennens’ insertion of this piece here was undoubtedly driven by a concern to declare the dissolution of the hostility that the kings of the earth had expressed in #38-41. There is no sentimentality in God and his Messiah who laugh the rebellious nations to scorn and who will break them with a rod of iron and smash them like a potter’s vessel. For those who have spurned his grace there is no hope. No wonder then that Jennens and Handel wanted to end this Part on a triumphant note: “Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign forever and ever. He is indeed ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” These last phrases are drawn, not from either of these texts but from Revelation 17:14 and 19:16.
With so much debate over interpretation of the Book of Revelation, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae of the differences of opinion expressed by various scholars and authors. Our bookstores are filled with pop-prophecy nonsense which turn debatable interpretations of difficult passages into major points of doctrine which can begin to affect other more important aspects of faith. While I firmly believe that it is important for Christians to know where (and why) we stand on our views of eschatology, the type of over-emphasis on the End Times that is prevalent in our churches today can be dangerous. When we concentrate on things which we expect in the future without placing Biblical prophecy within the context of the overarching Story of redemption, our response tends to focus on ourselves and the world around us, rather than on worship and thanksgiving toward a faithful, covenant-keeping God. We risk missing the whole point… just ask a 1st century Jew!
This is why I feel that the Hallelujah Chorus represents Handel’s best work. He has captured perfectly the sense of magnificent and reverent worship that is the major theme of John’s Revelation. All throughout the final book of Scripture we encounter images of worshipers surrounding the Throne of God. He is worshiped by angels, the four living creatures, the 24 elders, every creature in heaven and on earth, a great multitude, 144,000 redeemed from the earth, and those who had conquered the beast. This echoes the picture of the worship in Heaven which was seen by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Elsewhere we learn in Scripture that, ultimately, everyone who has ever lived will bow in worship to God.
No matter one’s particular understanding of who or what are the elders, the 144,000, or any of the other representations of worshipers in Revelation, the theme of worship is absolutely apparent. While much of what is written in Revelation is admittedly confusing and open to scholarly debate, when our focus is on the clear and unmistakable Truths presented in this book, our response will be the proper one: Worship of Almighty God.
Despite our differences, those who ascribe to any of the eschatological views which fall under the realm of Christian orthodoxy will agree wholeheartedly on these teachings from the book of Revelation:
- Jesus is God’s Son, and as part of the trinity, is God Himself
- Jesus is Lord over — and Head of — His Church
- God is Holy and worthy of worship
- Man is sinful and in need of a savior
- Jesus Christ is the savior of mankind, the only One who was able to conquer sin and death
- Jesus came to die in our place to offer us the hope of salvation
- Jesus rose again to reign with the Father forever
- Jesus is coming again, in the flesh and in power, to complete the final overthrow of Satan’s reign of evil
- All people will be resurrected to face the righteous judgment of God
- Those who have placed their faith in Christ have His righteousness imputed to them. They will be raised in glory to reign with Him for eternity
- Those who have not believed in Jesus will be found guilty, and will be cast into the lake of fire: The second death
- Christ’s eternal kingdom will be a restoration of the perfection that existed at Creation, before the Fall
- Eternity will be marked by everlasting praise of our Creator and Redeemer, Christ the Lord
Hallelujah! Glory be to God on high, and to His Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords! Only He is worthy to be praised for all eternity! He is holy, holy holy, and His kingdom is forever! Hallelujah, Amen!