Messiah Blog: Day 3

Note: To start from the beginning of this series, or to access the table of contents, click here.

Thus far, we’ve mainly concentrated on the text of the numbers we’ve examined. Today will be a good opportunity to talk about some of the compositional tools that Handel employed that make Messiah such a musical masterpiece. After all, it has been one of the most enduring and beloved pieces of music ever written. What is so special about it that such an overtly Christian work (of Baroque/Classical music no less) would be so popular today even among secular musicians?

Handel’s Messiah is considered such a treasure because it is not simply a musical composition, but a work of art! He makes heavy use of a technique known as tone painting (or word painting). This means that the music itself reflects the literal meaning of the text. We heard one great example of this yesterday in #3, “Ev’ry Valley Shall Be Exalted”. Notice in this excerpt (click to see larger) a few examples of this technique. The shape of the notes on the word “mountain” reflect the shape of an actual mountain. The notes go back-and-forth on the word “crooked” but stay the same on the word “straight”. He uses short, choppy notes on the phrase “and the rough places”, while holding out the word “plain” over several bars.

Here are some examples of tone painting to listen for today:

  • The Lord “shaking” the heavens, the earth, and the nations in #5
  • The urgency in #6 and 7 when the Lord is described as a refining fire
  • The way Handel uses major and minor keys to set positive and negative moods, respectively

And now on to the recordings! You’ll find textual commentary below:

#5: Accompagnato (Bass)
Haggai 2:6-7 — Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts; Yet once a little while and I will shake the heav’ns and the earth, the sea and the dry land: And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come.
Malachi 3:1 — The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts.

#6: Air (Bass)
Malachi 3:2 — But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire.

#7: Chorus
Malachi 3:3 — And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

Commentary on this section from Daniel Block’s essay (my comments in parentheses):

Speaking of all flesh witnessing the appearance of the glory (where we left off yesterday), Jennens’ thoughts were drawn to Haggai 2:6-7, which reminds the reader that the day of Yahweh, that is the return of the glory, has two sides. On the one hand, as the Isaiah text affirms, that day will indeed bring great comfort to God’s people who have been languishing in exile in a foreign land. But on the other hand, it will also be a day of judgment. Appealing to Haggai 2:6-7 and Malachi 3:1, Jennens associates the arrival of the Messiah with cosmic convulsions and the shaking of all nations, who bring their wealth to Jerusalem. But the reference of the sudden arrival of the glory of Yahweh in his Temple (#5) triggers a new thought: who can survive the lethal dose of divine glory? The implied answer is no one (#6). The return of the LORD may be cause for hope in Isaiah, but to Malachi this is a scary notion. But in Malachi 3:3 Jennens sees a silver lining even in this cloud: the day of Yahweh may be frightening, but because its purpose is purgative (meaning to cleanse), to rid the Levites, the professional attendants of God, of dross so they might present to God acceptable sacrifices, that is in righteousness, this is good news.

It should be noted that, while the Haggai text can be seen as foreshadowing Christ’s final coming at the end of the age, the text has been edited (whether by Jennens or Handel is uncertain) removing it from its original context. Here is the full text of Haggai 2:7, with verse 8 added for context (ESV) — And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts.

What the KJV translates as “desire of nations” is actually a monetary term, as verse 8 affirms. The immediate application at the time the Book of Haggai was written (520 B.C.) was for the reconstruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem when the nation of Israel returned from captivity. This was a promise that the Lord would provide financially for its construction, but that the Jews must first trust Him and keep up their end of their covenant with God. “Work, for I am with you, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt.” (Haggai 2:4-5). The immediate fulfillment of the prophecy in verses 6-7 came when the temple was completed in 515 B.C., though the ultimate fulfillment of the passage, including verse 9 which reads, “The latter glory of this house (the temple in Jerusalem) shall be greater than the former,” is yet future. In John 2, Jesus says that his body was “this temple”, and in Revelation 21 we learn that in the New Jerusalem at the end of the age, the temple will be “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”, and that their glory will fill the entire world!

The Jews expected their Messiah to come in great power. They expected their rebuilt temple to immediately shine with greater glory than Solomon’s Temple had done. Because it did not, they grumbled and complained, profaning the covenant they had with the Lord (Malachi 2:10), wearying the Lord with their words (Malachi 2:17). It was in response to this that Malachi pronounced the disputation in chapter 3, from which the remainder of the text of these three numbers comes.

In Malachi 3, the coming of the Lord is shown to have two purposes: Judgment and purification. Both prospects inspire fear, because the only way to avoid the eternal righteous judgment of sinners is to pass through God’s refining fire. This means that we can expect to be tested with intense trials that will often be painful. The author of Hebrews confirms this:

“It is for discipline you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” ~Hebrews 12:7,10-11

For the people of Israel, who had broken their covenant with God, the prospect of the coming of the Lord was truly terrifying, and Handel’s music reflects this. None would have been able to stand in His holy presence! But we are now people of a new covenant, for the Lord first came not in power as the Jews expected, but in humility, so that He might make a way for us to share His holiness that we might enter into a relationship with our Heavenly Father. We now wait in reverent fear of the Lord for the final consummation of all things, when He WILL return in power and glory! We turn now once more to Hebrews 12 which quotes from Haggai 2:6, giving us its true explanation, providing us with hope, not because of anything we have done, but because of what our unshakeable God has done for us!

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we refuse him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken — that is, things that have been  made — in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ~ Hebrews 12:22-29

On to Day 4

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