The Apologetics of Handel's Messiah


By Scott McClare

Every Christmas, I make a point of listening to George Frideric Handel's great oratorio, Messiah. So do many people. If you live in a large enough city, you could potentially attend a performance several times each December. And because of Messiah's lengthy performance history (and Handel's habit of modifying the score to suit his performers), the variations are endless: modern or period instruments, professional or amateur soloists, mass choirs or small ensembles—to say nothing of the extensive catalogue of recordings! A more recent tradition is the "sing-along Messiah," in which the choir invites the audience to bring their own scores and sing with them. Paradoxically, this makes the oratorio one of Western art's highest achievements, as well as one of its most accessible.

Messiah is a Christmas institution. So it may come as a surprise to many that its first performance—a benefit in Dublin, Ireland, for the relief of prisoners' debt—took place in April, 1742. (The performance was a success, raising enough money to release 142 debtors from prison.) Its official debut in London took place the following March. Handel himself never had Messiah performed at Christmas; it was for the Easter season. Only the first of Messiah's three parts deals with the birth and ministry of Jesus, telling of the promise of judgment, redemption, and salvation through selected Old Testament passages as well as the birth narrative from the Gospel of Luke. Most of the best-known selections come from Part 1, likely because of its association with Christmas.

However, Part 2 tells of Christ's passion, his death and resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and his glorification. It continues by speaking of the beginning of the spread of the Gospel, and its rejection by the world. It culminates in the "Hallelujah" chorus, which declares the absolute sovereignty of God:

Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. (Revelation 16:9)

The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)[1]

The words are so closely associated with the "Hallelujah" chorus that you probably think of the music while you're reading them. We hear this chorus every Christmas, but it rightly belongs to Easter! The meaning of Messiah is not "for unto us a child is born"; it's that He is "King of kings and Lord of lords." Hallelujah!

Finally, Part 3 promises eternal life, the Day of Judgment, and the final destruction of sin and death. The oratorio concludes with the exaltation of the Messiah:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, andriches, 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. (cf. Revelation 5:9,12-14)

Even less commonly known, perhaps, is that Messiah is as much an apologetic work as it is an artistic one. The libretto (text) was composed by Charles Jennens, Handel's friend and frequent collaborator. Jennens was a devout Christian who was concerned about the rise in popularity of Deism amongst England's intelligentsia. Deism is a philosophical theism that rejects divine revelation as a source of knowledge, concluding that human reason alone is sufficient to establish the existence of a deity. When God created the universe, He established natural laws for its running, but He does not involve himself in its activity. Jennens' brother had lost his faith and committed suicide after corresponding with a Deist. Grieving for his brother, Jennens composed the libretto to Messiah as a response to Deism, compiling Scripture after Scripture from the King James Version of the Bible (paraphrasing here and there) to show that Christ was the promised Messiah and that God took an active interest in the redemption of the world. Jennens was reportedly less than satisfied with Handel's score (which he composed in less than a month), complaining that some parts were "far unworthy of Handel, but much more unworthy of the Messiah." The judgment of history has, perhaps, been more favourable.

My favourite selection from Messiah takes its text from Isaiah 40:5:

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.

The last phrase is drawn out in long, solemn notes that underscore its significance. It is immediately followed by a bass solo that thunders out: "Thus saith the LORD of hosts" (Haggai 2:6). Jennens draws out the story of Jesus almost entirely from the Old Testament, primarily the prophet Isaiah, drawing from the Gospels only for the annunciation of Jesus' birth to the shepherds by the angles (Luke 2:8-14). The Creator is no mere spectator, and this birth is no mere accident of history. The mouth of the Lord has spoken it; therefore, it has come to pass.

There is a strong relationship between good art and a good message. I have met many Christians who can appreciate many kinds of mediocre art as long as they mention Jesus enough times and are helpful for sharing the Gospel. Yet, in Messiah, a devout Lutheran composer has created one of the acknowledged masterpieces of the Western musical canon, listened to by millions every Christmas. Thanks to his friend, a devout Anglican with a concern for the spiritual state of England, those millions flock into auditoriums and churches willingly to hear the Gospel sung to them.

I wrote last Christmas about why the Incarnation is important. Only God, taking on true humanity, could atone for the sins of, and intercede for, the human race. Without that first Christmas, when "God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4 ESV), there would be no Easter—no cross to free us from the penalty of the law. But Charles Jennens and George Handel were right to focus on the work of Christ on the cross, and the blessings that result from it. Without the hope of Easter, there would be no joy at Christmas.

[1]Like the text of Messiah, Scripture passages are taken from the King James Version (KJV) unless otherwise indicated.

Logic and Worship

By Justin Wishart

As I was in a local Christian bookstore, I noticed a book simply titled Logic. Since I am fascinated with the study of logic, I grabbed the book. The author of this book was Isaac Watts who lived between 1674-1748,[1] with this book being first published in 1724.[2] I was very interested in the chronology of the book as a historical look into logic, as it was written before symbolic logic became a dominant way of teaching and doing logic. Another thing that really interested me was that Isaac Watts is much better known for writing hymns, some of which we still sing today.[3] Many people seem to think worship music and logic somehow operate in different spheres. While the book itself isn't about the relationship between logic and worship specifically, there are many clues as to what he thought that relationship might entail.

Isaac Watts
Isaac Watts

The first thing to do is properly define what worship means within Christianity. In the ESV translation, the word "worship" is used 110 times in 104 verses. Reading through the verses shows how big a topic worship actually is, and how the word refers to many different things. It can refer to religious ceremonies that one performs.[4] It could mean the actions one does in their life.[5] Worship can be done incorrectly (Deuteronomy 12:4), directed towards the wrong object (1 Kings 9:6), and if done incorrectly or to the wrong object there will be great consequences (Deuteronomy 8:19). Worship seems to be so much more than mere Sunday service songs, yet it also includes our sacred songs. Merriam-Webster provides some definitions that help sum up this encompassing view of worship:

2: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also: an act of expressing such reverence

3: a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual

4: extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem[6]

Particularly striking is definition 4, which has "devotion" as part of the definition, which really lines up with Scripture well (see Romans 12:1, for example). This means that worship is an all-encompassing trajectory of one's life. While it includes things we do, it also includes who we are. To worship God is to become godly. Once worship is biblically defined, we can see how logic becomes critical in proper worship. Jesus said, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).[7]

In the introduction of Watts' book, he spells out the usefulness of logic in a person's life.[8] We will go through what he says and apply it to worship as defined above.

Now the design of Logic is to teach us the right use of our reason, or intellectual powers, and the improvements of them in ourselves and others. This is not only necessary in order to attain any competent knowledge in the sciences, or the affairs of learning, but to govern both the greater and the meaner actions of life. It is the cultivation of our reason by which we are better enabled to distinguish good from evil, as well as truth from falsehood; and both these are matter of the highest importance, whether we regard this life, or the life to come.[9]

There seem to be three general prongs in Watts' quote. First, logic cultivates our inner self. Second, logic helps inform our actions in life. Third, logic is needed to know what is true.

Logic Cultivates Our Inner Self

This perhaps is the most profound relationship between logic and worship that Watts presents, because it does not merely indicate our outward expressions, but speaks to who we are. Scripture tells us that we are made in God's image, but what does this mean? The late theologian Gordon Clark gives the answer:

The Scripture teaches that God created man in his own image. Although the first chapter of Genesis does not say explicitly what that image is, it implies that the image distinguishes man from the animals. From Colossians 3:10 we may infer that the image consists chiefly in knowledge, rationality, or logic. . . . Therefore, the contention is that knowledge and rationality are the basic constituents of God's image in man.[10]

While some might protest against the idea that rationality is "the basic constituents of God's image in man," certainly one should recognize that logic is at least part of God's image. There is a relation, an image, between the mind of God and the image of God in man, to our mind.[11]

To develop one's logical abilities is a sanctifying process towards the pure design of God for man. God gave us logic so we can think His thoughts, communicate with Him, communicate about Him to others, communicate with others, and enact His will on this earth. All these things we understand to be exactly what worship is. Thus, the more we develop our internal logical faculties, the better we become at being vessels of worship of the creator who made everything logically and orderly. Logic is, therefore, critical to worship.

Logic Helps Inform Our Actions in Life

In Deuteronomy we read, "You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way" (12:4). The immediate question should be: how shall we not worship God? There is also the question of who the real God is that we should worship. In the same book we read, "And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish" (8:19). It becomes extremely important that we have the right God, and that we worship God correctly. This is no easy task, but it is a task which requires logic to complete. Without logic, you could not tell the difference between Christ and Krishna, or know whether to communicate with the spirit world, or partake in Communion.

Given our definition of worship, we need to know to whom we worship and how we are to act in our worship before we can know our proper actions. Thus, in order to be worshipers who worship in truth in our actions, we need to have solid development of our logic and reasoning. As mentioned, this process is not always easy, but the more we develop our logical faculties the more competent in worship we become.

Logic is Needed to Know What is True

Obviously, if we are to be worshipers who worship in truth, then knowing what is true becomes critical. When Jesus proclaimed, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus equated Himself with truth (John 14:6). As Christian worshipers, the truth, or Jesus, must be defining our lives because worship is our lives. Logic becomes critical in distinguishing, as Watts said earlier, "good from evil, as well as truth from falsehood." Should we act one way or another in some situation? Should we sing this hymn or that hymn? Should we worship this God or that god? Is this experience we are experiencing from God or from a demonic angel of light? We cannot even begin to answer these questions until we can distinguish truth from error. This is but another way that logic is necessary to our worship.

Even when we look strictly at worship music itself, we see that logic is necessary. Do we want to sing words of error if we are to worship in truth? On the back cover of this book, Doug Wilson says the following:

Fuzzy thinking is one of the great sins of our age. Christians who seek a return to the clear-mindedness which characterized the church of previous generations will certainly welcome the return of this great text on logic by Isaac Watts. The clear devotion of Watts' hymns came from a clear mind – and that was no accident.

Many people wrongly characterize logic as somehow a "cold" exercise that is not a befitting pursuit for a Christian. Logic is certainly not an easy field of study, it is true, but neither is becoming good at the piano easy. However, when we look at what logic is and how it applies to worship, we see that logic is truly a beautiful thing. It is a gift from God, and allows us to have a real and meaningful relationship with Him and with others. It allows us to become the creations He meant us to be. It allows us to follow God's commands in our lives because our love for Him compels us to do so (John 14:15). Because of logic, we can become the true vessels of worship we were intended to be, and really, what could be more beautiful than that?

[1] "Isaac Watts," Wikipedia, updated August 19, 2015, accessed October 30, 2015,

[2] The copy I purchased was a reprint: Isaac Watts, Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993).

[3] Notable ones are "Joy to the World" and "As I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

[4] For example, in Acts 24:11, Paul says he went to Jerusalem to worship, meaning he went there for the religious ceremonies done at the Temple.

[5] For example, in Romans 9:4 worship has been translated from the word λατρεία which means "service rendered for hire; any service or ministration: the service of God; the service and worship of God according to the requirements of the Levitical law; to perform sacred services." Also look at Hebrews 12:28.

[6] "Worship," Merriam-Webster, accessed October 30, 2015,

[7] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[8] Watts, Logic, 1. Watts defines logic as "the art of using Reason well in our inquiries after truth, and the communication of it to others."

[9] Ibid., 1-2.

[10] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 2004), 308-09.

[11] Augustine also held this view. For more, see Ronald Nash's book, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine's Theory of Knowledge (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1969).