Well, it is that time of the year when — one way or another, the Bible is in the News. Many of us have been listening to Handel's oratorio — the Messiah. Some of us will be more familiar with it than others, though most will have heard the well known Hallelujah chorus.
For myself, it has been with me for most of my life. When I went to school in North Wales we sang it under the guidance of our headmaster, who also conducted the local choir in Llandudno. In fact I still have a newspaper cutting dated December 24, 1952.
Times have changed! Not many schoolchildren of today's world will be found singing Handel's Messiah, but 70 years ago the kids were singing "I know that my Redeemer Liveth" and other sections of the music — all based upon the Bible. It was a biblical culture that made a strong impression on all of us. And not just any version of the Bible; it was the King James Version, that was used in schools exclusively. The text of Handel's Messiah was based upon the 1611 King James Version.
The words of this oratorio are taken from a wide range of biblical passages and carry a message that has been before audiences ever since they were first performed. Beginning with words from the prophecy of Isaiah (40:1-5) they tell us of an inspiring message about Israel’s Messiah and the work of salvation accomplished in him — first for the nation of Israel, and then for the Gentiles — reaching down to our own time and beyond into his kingdom.
Messiah, is certainly the most famous of all oratorios (an oratorio is a dramatic choral work, often on a sacred theme).
Messiah, with words selected from the Bible by Charles Jennens (he was contemporary with Thomas Newton who published by “Dissertations on the Prophecies” in 1754), was composed extremely fast — beginning on 22nd August, 1741. It was completed by 14th September! Its first performance took place on 13th April, 1742, at the Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin.
It was a remarkable time in history as a biblical culture took deep root in society and in the minds of people; it was preparing the ground for the Truth which came through the instrumentality of John Thomas in 1848.
Messiah is certainly a masterpiece in music which explains its enduring status, but equal to that are the opening words addressed to the nation of Israel:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished.”
So the words, whilst being biblical are relevant to our current age when Jerusalem, Zion and Israel are constantly in the news. The ‘Messiah’ could be described as The Hope of Israel, set to music, for he is Israel’s Hope. In fact the Gospel (Good News) is the Hope of Israel in Christ.
Today there is added meaning to these things as we see Europe (the EU) gathering around the spiritual leader of Rome -- Revelation 17:12-14. Events are building up to that question of Psalm 2.
“Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.”
What a message there is in this incredible musical masterpiece. We can only marvel that it has been providentially preserved for this generation.
The oratorio closes with the words of Revelation 19, “Amen! Allelujah,” and here the musical genius shines forth so that we can only say that it is a work of providence to which we should pay earnest heed.
When I sang the words from Messiah as a boy soprano I could not see the developments of today, but I was instructed even as a young schoolboy to expect the nations to be in turmoil just before the coming of Christ, the Messiah of Israel.
This has been Paul Billington with you. Join us again next week, God willing, for another edition of the Bible in the News.