Handel’s Messiah is the musical unfolding of redemptive history. It is very nearly a biblical theology of the Messiah, although many of the Old Testament references chosen veil the identity of the promised one. This work takes the form of three parts. The three parts of Messiah each have a similar structure of the Scriptures sung: Old Testament prophecy or anticipation, and New Testament fulfillment. The texts for Messiah were compiled by Charles Jennens, and arranged and put to music by George Frideric Handel.
The first part covers the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament, and his advent, the fulfillment of the promise in the New Testament. Isaiah 40 is the beginning text, as the Tenor sings “Comfort ye my people.” Isaiah 40 is an introduction to hope in Isaiah’s prophecy after the predominant theme of judgment up through chapter 39. This text takes us on a turn to God’s promise of blessing and restoration. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain made low, and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.
We also hear of the judgment that will accompany this day, as Jennens includes Haggai 2:6-7. The LORD will shake the nations. And who can abide the day of His coming? (Malachi 3:2) He will come bringing righteousness to the earth. Malachi tells us that His coming will purify the offerings of His people.
This is about the good news, about “good tidings to Zion,” (Is. 60) for God is come to be with us, Immanuel (Is. 7:14.)
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined. . .
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Let me add here that the chorus’s singing of “For unto us…” is extraordinary- one of my favorite parts of the whole piece.)
The piece turns now to New Testament fulfillment, the Pastoral Symphony setting the tone and making the transition. The shepherds see the coming of the glory of the Lord and hear the announcement that Messiah the Lord is come, born in Bethlehem and lying in a manger. We hear the call to rejoice, for the King is come (Zech. 9:9.) With Messiah comes sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and He will cause the lame to leap, and the dumb to speak (Is. 35:5-6.) This King is also the Shepherd of His people; He will feed His people, and provide a light and easy yolk (Matt. 11:28-30.)
So, in Part I of Messiah, Jennens and Handel present us with the promises of restoration to God’s people, of the coming glory of the Lord in the form of a man, Immanuel, God With Us, who would be born of a virgin. God comes through on His promises and in Bethlehem Jesus, who is the Messiah, is born, a great light to His people, the Shepherd of the sheep.