For most of us, Handel’s Messiah is “The Hallelujah Chorus.” Understandable, inevitable even. It stands alone so well as a glorious anthem of praise. It is so fittingly placed in the oratorio that many, upon their first hearing of the full work, assume it is the ending of Messiah. After all, how can anyone ”top that?!”
This week we look at this familiar and quintessential Messiah chorus in context, as we take a quick walk through the ending of Part Two (most of which will not be sung on Sunday, April 1). While “Hallelujah” is a fitting conclusion to an Easter service (and yes, we will again use it that way this year at College Church), and while it’s certainly OK as a way to wrap up the Christmas portion (though I have long refused to do that, myself), its actual place in the oratorio is both fitting and stunning. Because in context what is being celebrated is the Messiah as judge.
After the Chorus sings “Lift up your heads,” two more scenes of this drama unfold the worship due to this resurrected Jesus, and the opposition that is also levied against him. Heavenly worship and gospel proclamation are contrasted with the reality that surfaced immediately in the church, opposition as pictured in Psalm 2.
First, the tenor asks, in the words of Hebrews 1, “Unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?” To which the chorus continues in reply: “Let all the angels of God worship Him.” The Alto continues, from Psalm 68: 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. Chorus: The Lord gave the word: great was the company of the preachers. (Psalm 68:5 and 6) What about that company? The Soprano describes them from Romans 10: How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! Chorus: Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words to the ends of the world. (Romans 10: 15, 18)
Now there is a scene change, and we get a glimpse of the action in Acts 4 – and a picture of the world against the gospel in every age. The Bass asks: 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. (Psalm 2:1-2; this aria will be sung on April 1) The Chorus takes up the psalm, speaking the words of the nations/rulers against the Lord: Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yoke from us. (Ps.2:3) The Tenor speaks of God: He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision. (verse 4) and to God: Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
So, from resurrection and ascension, through worship and proclamation, to opposition and judgment. Only then do we fully apprehend the glory and the praise expressed in “Hallelujah.” Look up the source of this chorus, in Revelation (chapter 19 and 15), and you’ll see (yet again!) that the Rev. Mr. Jennens got it right: “Hallelujah” is the biblical response to judgment and the victory of God. How we cultured modern people need to understand this:
Hallelujah! For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah! The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever. Don’t lose sight of those many repeated “forever and ever”s. There’s another bit of rhetoric, choosing to repeat just the right motif to get the point across. And yet, when sung well – and I dare say, you’ll hear this sung very well indeed – “forever and ever” is not interminable! King of kings, and Lord of lords; and He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!
The oratorio has reached a pinnacle, but we have not yet heard nor sung all that may be said of the Messiah. Part Three gets very personal. And we’ll look at that next week.