Smite Us and Save Us All

This past Sunday, the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, my church sang G.K. Chesterton’s hymn, O God of Earth and Altar. It is a beautiful and powerful hymn, especially appropriate for our current political situation, I thought. And thus I share it here:

O God of earth and altar,
    Bow down and hear our cry. 
Our earthly rulers falter,
    Our people drift and die; 
The walls of gold entomb us,
    The swords of scorn divide, 
Take not thy thunder from us,
    But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
    From lies of tongue and pen, 
From all the easy speeches
    That comfort cruel men, 
For sale and profanation
    Of honour and the sword, 
From sleep and from damnation,
    Deliver us, good lord.

Tie in a living tether
    The prince and priest and thrall, 
Bind all our lives together,
    Smite us and save us all; 
In ire and exultation
    Aflame with faith, and free, 
Lift up a living nation,
    A single sword to thee.


Alfred the Great: An Appreciation

King Alfred the Great is one of Christendom’s great heroes. He remains one of England’s most loved monarchs, both in his own time and throughout history. His leadership of Wessex and the English kingdoms saved his people from the Vikings and left a lasting legacy of Christian virtue on the nation to come.

King Alfred and the Vikings

Saxon England in the 8th century,

Alfred was king of Wessex in the days when England was divided into separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Before his reign, during the reign of his brother, Ethelred, the Danes had invaded and settled in kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, and gradually moved into Wessex. Though England was not one united kingdom at the time, during these times of Danish occupation, the eyes of the English kingdoms looked to Wessex for leadership. The presence of a royal dynasty, the organization of local defensive shires, and the geography of Wessex made it the most strategic kingdom to lead in the defense of the English kingdoms.

Ethelred and Alfred lead the defensive against the invading Danes, seeking to guard Christindom on the island against the invading pagan forces. They met success at the battle of Ashdown in 871, the first defeat of the Vikings by the English. Bishop Asser, from whom much of the information we know about Alfred the Great comes, wrote of the battle,

The heathens had seized the higher ground, and the Christians had to advance uphill. There was in that place a single stunted thorn tree which we have seen with our own eyes. Round about this tree, then, the opposing ranks met in conflict, with a great shouting from all men- one side bent on evil, the other side fighting for life and their loved ones and their native lands.

The Danes were driven away and defeated soundly, losing one of the Viking kings. Ashdown was an important victory against the Danes. Churchill, in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, says, “If the West Saxons had been beaten all England would have sunk into heathen anarchy. Since they were victorious the hope still burned for a civilised Christian existence on this Island.” This first victory was instrumental in giving the Saxons momentum against their adversaries.

Ethelred was later killed in battle, and Alfred succeeded his brother as king.* After a series of defeats by the Vikings, an arrangement was made for the Danes to leave Wessex, at least for a time, and stay in their occupied lands in Mercia. After a period of peace, the Danes broke their agreement with the West Saxons and attacked again, eventually sending Alfred and a band of his men into hiding in the marshes of Somerset. After several years, the king was able to summon his thegns and ealdormen to raise up the militias, mounting a counterattack on the Vikings and reclaiming Wessex and control of parts of the northern kingdoms. Many of the former pagan enemies were later baptized and nurtured in the Church, and Guthrum, king of the Danes, was adopted as Alfred’s son.

Statue of Alfred the Great at Winchester,

King Alfred’s Contribution

  • Through Alfred, the Saxon peoples and the Danes who settled in the land blended to form what would become a Christian English nation.
  • Alfred strengthened the defense of his kingdom. He developed the English navy. He also strengthened the strategic system of burhs, military fortresses and places of refuge for the villagers. Both of these allowed the Isle to resist future Viking attacks from the Continent.
  • Alfred revived learning in the English kingdoms. He himself was a scholar, largely self-taught, who personally translated Latin works to English and oversaw the translation of others. He established schools for children of noble and common status alike, emphasizing the study of English and Latin, writing, and the liberal arts.
  • Alfred pursued justice, writing law codes based on the best of the old laws as well as including provisions to prevent oppression.
  • He saw to the spiritual well-being of his people, both those in his court and the kingdom in general. He emphasized Christian piety and devotion, translated theological works, sought to appoint wise and faithful bishops, and strengthened monasticism after many monasteries suffered under Viking attacks.

King Alfred is the only monarch in English history to be given the title “The Great,” and with good reason. His life of courage, leadership, endurance, and Christian virtue shaped the future of England.


*Alfred was the youngest of four or five brothers. Their father had arranged that the younger brothers would succeed the older upon death of the king, to keep from having a boy on the throne when military strength and leadership was needed against the Danes.

– Churchill, Winston. A History of the English Speaking Peoples: The Birth of Britain.

– Roberts, Roberts, and Bisson. History of England.

Messiah Part III: Defeat of Death

Part III, the shortest of the three parts, begins with Job’s declaration that “My Redeemer liveth, and… in my flesh I shall see God.” This shows an intensely personal side, a relationship with the now reigning Messiah. Bringing a New Covenant perspective, included in the song of the chorus is 1 Corinthians 15.20,

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

This functions now as confirmation that our Redeemer reigns, that we shall see his face. His resurrection is the garuntee of ours. For “since by man came death,” so Christ, the second Adam, brings life to all who are in him. Those who are in Christ by faith are federally his new humanity, a new race. As the human race is naturally under the curse of death because of our own sin and the leading of our federal head, Adam, so Christ gives new life, resurrection, the reversal of the curse, to those who are federally his.

We believe in “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” as the Apostles’ Creed says. What power does death have now? “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.”

But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Looking to the risen Christ gives great confidence to the believer. Who can be against us? It is God who has justified us, and it is the risen Messiah who now intercedes for us before the Father! The only proper and logical response to this truth is to fall before the throne and cry out “Worthy is the Lamb!”

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 ever. Amen.

Messiah Part II: Suffering Servant and Victorious King

Part II of Handel’s Messiah takes on the themes of the passion of the Messiah and his resurrection and victory. Overall, Handel and Jennens seem to give more attention to Christ’s death, resurrection and glorification, victory, and reign than to his birth.

Following the chorus singing John the Baptist’s announcement of “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” we move to the servant songs of Isaiah. This Lamb of God, Isaiah prophecies, is a suffering servant, despised and rejected in the world to which he is sent. This very likely dashes the expectations of his coming as a warrior-king or political ruler. Beaten, scorned, spat upon, and mocked, this Anointed One is the bearer of our griefs and our sorrows. His stripes bring healing to us wayward sheep. Our real crime for which he is being punished is our straying from the way of our Shepherd and seeking our own way. Turning to Psalm 69, we hear of his abandonment. “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart,” and he is left alone, forsaken, cut off from the land of the living.

Important to note here is the emphasis in Isaiah 53 that Christ’s role in his suffering and death was a substitutionary one. He suffered in the place of his people. The passage also brings the idea of atonement. He made an offering for sin, acceptable in God’s sight. Messiah justifies his people; he shall “make many to be accounted righteous.”

The tone takes a dramatic turn from the Messiah’s suffering and death to his glorious resurrection as the tenor sings “But thou didst not leave his soul in Hell [Sheol].” The Father did not leave his Son in abandonment; the grave could not hold the eternal King, the Mighty God. In his resurrection, Jesus conquers death, the enemy from old. He has the victory at his resurrection, and will finally vanquish death for his people at our promised resurrection. Handel moves to celebration of the resurrection from Psalm 24. The proper response to Christ’s resurrection is joyful and robust worship of the Lord of Hosts, the King of Glory.

Finally, the piece turns to Christ’s position as King reigning over the nations. Psalm 2 is one of the great anthems of God’s people, declaring the worthiness and might. As the rulers of the earth rebel and set themselves against the LORD and his Messiah, the call to them is to repent – “kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way,”- or be broken under the rod of his wrath. Here is wisdom: fear the LORD- glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever. King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah!

Messiah Part I: Promise and Advent

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.


Handel’s Messiah and God’s Story

Yesterday, my wife and I had the privilege of hearing George Frideric Handel’s Messiah performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO.) The performance was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. It was an incredible experience. The Cathedral was an excellent setting in which to take in the oratorio; the building was filled with reverent and beautiful art and architecture, and the large sanctuary and high ceilings made for good acoustics.

    Messiah is, musically, a spectacular work. Its beauty ranges from the pensive and even despairing to the sublime and majestic, grandiose and triumphant. A chorus and orchestra of about 60- the original number of musicians Handel wrote the piece for- joined with four soloists from the Florentine Opera Company under the direction of Christopher Seaman (who conducted from the harpsichord, like Handel) to present this glorious work.

    George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. His father was a court “barber-surgeon” who urged his son to study law. After obeying his father in his studies, Handel began his musical career by taking a post as an organist. His career took him from Germany to Italy and England. His great love was for opera, a style he picked up in Italy, and he spent much effort attempting to revive opera in England after it had gone out of vogue. His attempts were largely unsuccessful. However, he was brought to the oratorio style by Charles Jennings. Oratorios differ from operas in that there is no dramatization or stage props or costumes- simply a musical piece. Commissioned by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Handel began work on the Messiah, using Scripture lists from Jennings (drawn from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.) Amazingly, he completed the work in three weeks.

Needless to say, when one today hear’s of Handel, Messiah is usually the first thing that comes to mind. This is certainly a masterpiece. His musical skill extended beyond this one piece, though, and earned him praise and respect from both Beethoven and Mozart.

    Messiah is the story of salvation history put to music. The text for the oratorio is Scripture drawn from the Old and New Testaments. These tell of man’s plight in sin, of the need and promise of a Redeemer, of the Messiah’s advent and suffering, and of His victory over death and the rebellious kingdoms of man. Messiah tells, essentially, the Gospel story in grand musical form. The three movements of the piece bring the audience through redemptive history: Part 1 tells of the promise and anticipation of the Messiah, Part 2 tells of his suffering and victory over the world, and Part 3 tells of his victory over death.

In the next few days, I will be moving through how each of these parts takes us through the Scriptures and unfolds the glorious story of redemption. In the meantime, listen to Messiah for yourself. You really oughta’ go hear it live. But if you can’t, well, listen whatever way you can.