Handel's Messiah

Messiah Part One - Part Two - Part Three

A Messiah Sampler

Every Valley

He Shall Purify

Surely He hath borne . . .

He that dwelleth . . .


It's a scenario that plays out every year, and one in which you yourself may have been an observer, or even a participant.

The audience is assembled in the concert hall, or church, or school auditorium. The orchestra tunes, the conductor appears, the conversations come to a halt, there is a welcoming round of applause.

The orchestra strikes up a brief, vigorous overture. Then the tenor soloist rises to his feet and intones the opening words, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people" - and another performance of Handel's Messiah is underway.

But somewhere in that hushed auditorium, on one of those December days, more than one person must have wondered, as the tenor continues his introduction, just what does it mean to "speak comfortably to Jerusalem"? And just what is the "warfare" that is has been "accomplished"? For that matter, how is Handel's Messiah put together, given that unlike other oratorios, there is hardly any conventional narrative, or characters?

  Charles Jennens

The text of Messiah was assembled by a clergyman and man of letters named Charles Jennens, who drew primarily on texts from the King James translation of the Bible. Ranging freely over both the Old and New Testaments, he compiled a libretto in three sections, illustrating the themes of Jesus' birth, passion and resurrection, and his promise to believers. In some places, as in the opening recitative, the meaning has become a little obscure with time. In others, the words of the King James version still speak with wonderful directness. And in some places, as in the passage from Corinthians including the words, "This corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortality immortality," obscurity and poetic eloquence seem to go hand in hand.

What follows is Jennens's text for Messiah, accompanied in italics by the equivalent texts in a respected modern Bible translation, the New International Version. And in a few places where Jennens did some judicious editing work to gain literary conciseness, we've included the complete words of the original verses.

A Sacred Oratorio

Majora canamus.
(Let us sing of great things.)

And without controversy, great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen of angels, preached among the gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory. In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
--1 Timothy


Recitative (Isaiah, XL:1-3)
Jennens' text
Bible, New International Version
Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God: speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid. A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God."

Song (Isaiah, XL:4)
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low: the crooked straight and the rough places plain. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

Listen - Every Valley
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Chorus (Isaiah, XL:5)

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Recitative (Haggai II:6, 7)

Thus saith the Lord of hosts: yet once a little while, and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.

This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations and the desired of all nations will come."

(Malachi III: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.

"Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord Almighty.

Song (Malachi III: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.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire.

Chorus (Malachi III:3)
POETIC LICENSE: Jennens would sometimes pick and choose as he crafted his libretto out of Bible verses - quite selectively in this case of these lines from the book of Malachi.4

And he shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord as in the days gone by, as in former years.

Listen - He shall purify
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Recitative (Isaiah VII:14)

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel: GOD WITH US.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel

Song and Chorus (Isaiah XL:9)

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah: behold your God.

You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!"

(Isaiah LX:1)

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.

Recitative (Isaiah LX:2, 3)

For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee, and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Song (Isaiah IX:2)

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

Chorus (Isaiah IX:6)

STICKING WITH WHAT WORKS: Handel was a great recycler of his own musical material. When he wrote this chorus, he adapted an earlier duet written to an Italian text, with the result that the musical emphasis falls on the "wrong" words: "For" and "born," instead of "us" or "child."

A detail that has not greatly troubled generations of singers who have enjoyed singing this lively, exuberant chorus. (Maybe Handel knew exactly what he was doing.)

Portrait of Handel, minus wig and formal attire, by Philippe Mercier.

Fur unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Recitative (Luke II:8-13)

There were shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying,

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, I will bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you: He is Christ the Lord ..." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

Chorus (Luke II:14)

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

Song (Zechariah IX:9, 10)

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold thy king cometh unto thee. He is the righteous Saviour and he shall speak peace unto the heathen.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous . . . He will proclaim peace to the nations.

Recitative (Isaiah XXXV:5, 6)

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped: then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.

Song (Isaiah XL:11)

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.

He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

FROM FIRST TO THIRD: Jennens' most interesting revision, here (from Matthew XI: 28, 29) and in other "messianic" passages, is to change the original pronouns from the first person to the third person. The Messiah never speaks directly in "Messiah."

Come unto him all ye that labor, and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest. Take his yoke upon you, and learn of him, for he is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Chorus (Matthew XI:30)

His yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

PACKING IN THE CROWDS: The first performance of Messiah, in Dublin in 1742, was an eagerly attended social event. To make sure everyone could fit into the auditorium, ladies were requested not to wear hoop skirts, and gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home.


Chorus (John I:29)
Jennens' text
Bible, New International Version

Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.

[The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said,] "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

Song (Isaiah LIII:3)

He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows , and familiar with suffering.

(Isaiah L:6)

He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off his hair; he hid not his face from shame and spitting.

I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard: I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
The Virgin with the Wreath of Roses, by Albrecht Durer, 1506

Chorus (Isaiah LIII:4, 5)

Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him.And with his stripes we are healed.

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Listen - Surely He hath borne . . .
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Chorus (Isaiah LIII:6)

All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

We all, like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Recitative (Psalm XXII:7)

All they that see him laugh him to scorn; they shoot out their lips and shake their heads, saying,

All who seek me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

Chorus (Psalm XXII:8)

"He trusted in God that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, if he delight in him."

"He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him."

Recitative (Psalm LXIX:20)

Thy rebuke hath broken his heart, he is full of heaviness: he looked for some to have pity on him, but there was no man, neither found he any to comfort him.

Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none.

Song (Lamentations I:12)

Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.

Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering [that was inflicted on me in the day of his fierce anger?]

Recitative (Isaiah LIII:8)

He was cut off out of the land of the living, for the transgression of thy people was he stricken.

For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

Song (Psalm XVI:10)

But thou didst not leave his soul in hell, nor didst thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.

You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

Chorus (Psalm XXIV:7-10)

Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts: he is the King of glory.

Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. ... Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty - he is the King of Glory.

Recitative (Hebrews I:5)

Unto which of the angels said he at any time, thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?

For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son: today I have become your Father"?

Chorus (Hebrews I:6)

Let all the angels of God worship him.

[And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,]"Let all God's angels worship him."

Song (Psalm LXVIII:18)

Thou art gone up on high, thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men, yea even for thine enemies, that the Lord God might dwell among them.

When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious - that you, O Lord God, might dwell there.

Chorus (Psalm LXVIII:11)

The Lord gave the word, great was the company of the preachers.

The Lord announced the word, and great was the company that proclaimed it.

Song (Romans X:15)

How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tiding of good things.

"How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Chorus (Romans X:18)

Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world.

"Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world."

Song (Psalm II:1, 2)

Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.

Chorus (Psalm II:3)

Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.

"Let us break their chains", they say, "and throw off their fetters."

Recitative (Psalm II:4)

He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn: the Lord shall have them in derision

The One enthroned in heaven laughs: the Lord scoffs at them.

Listen - He that dwelleth
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Song (Psalm II:9)

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.

You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

Chorus (Revelation XIX:6)

Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

...Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.

(Revelation XI: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.

..."The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever."

(Revelation XIX:16)

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Hallelujah.

[On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written;] King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Listen - Hallelujah
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"MESSIAH" OR "THE MESSIAH"? What is the correct title of Handel's oratorio? Well, the correct answer is Messiah - but we know that people starting talking about "The" Messiah within days of the first performance. If it's a mistake, it's certainly a time-honored one.


Song (Job XIX: 25, 26)

Jennens' text
Bible, New International Version

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.

(I Corinthians XV:20)

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

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

Chorus (I Corinthians XV: 21, 22)

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead;
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

For since death through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Recitative (I Corinthians XV: 51, 52)

Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

Listen, I tell you a mystery; We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.

Song (I Corinthians XV: 52, 53)

The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality

Recitative (I Corinthians XV: 54)

Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory.

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death is swallowed up in victory."

Duet (I Corinthians XV: 55, 56)

O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.

"Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?" The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.

Chorus (I Corinthians XV: 57)

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

But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Song (Romans VIII:31, 33, 34)

If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather that is risen again, who is at the right hand of God, who makes intercession for us.

If God is for us, who can be against us? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? Christ Jesus who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Chorus (Revelation V:9, 12-14)

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 honor, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever. Amen

"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" [Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them singing:] . . . "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever.!"


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