George Frideric Handel’s Messiah is one of the most beloved musical works of the western world, playing an especially sentimental role in many people’s Christmas traditions. The libretto of the work, taken directly from the King James Version (KJV) text of 14 books of the Bible, has turned many phrases into memorable, singable, cherished lines of Scripture.
Bible Gateway interviewed Jessica Miller Kelley (@JMillerKelley), editor of the devotional book, Every Valley: Advent with the Scriptures of Handel’s Messiah (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014). Forty reflections journey in order through the oratorio, taking the reader deeper into less-often studied texts like Malachi 3:3 and bringing new light to oft-recited passages like Luke 2:9-14. Each reflection offers the libretto from Messiah, the same passage in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and a brief commentary on the text, written by a respected scholar or pastor. Readers can peruse the book at leisure or examine one reflection per day throughout the Advent, Christmas, and Easter seasons.
For those who don’t know it, describe the context of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah oratorio.
Jessica Miller Kelley: Handel composed the music for Messiah over the course of just 24 days in 1741, after receiving the libretto (the words) sent to him by his patron, friend, and collaborator Charles Jennens. It’s not entirely accurate to say Jennens wrote the libretto because it’s comprised of Scripture passages from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Jennens used verses from 14 books—prophets, psalms, Gospels, and epistles—to tell the story of God’s anointed one (“Messiah”) from his foretelling by the prophets to Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection to the heavenly celebration of his triumph over evil and death.
How is the message of Messiah more than only a Christmas season tradition?
Jessica Miller Kelley: It’s funny that Messiah is so associated with Christmas, and so often performed during Advent (the four weeks of preparation leading to Christmas) when actually only about 20 of the 53 movements in the oratorio focus on the coming and birth of Jesus. Much of Part I is from the book of Isaiah—when the prophet offers words of comfort to the exiled people of Israel, promising that God will one day send a savior—and after telling of Jesus’ birth with passages from Luke 2, Part I ends with just a few verses about Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Parts II and III are all about Jesus’ death, resurrection, and eternal reign—but while we focus so much on the manger at Christmastime, reflecting on Scriptures telling Christ’s whole story at this time of year reminds us what the incarnation is really all about. If your church sings the “Hallelujah” chorus on Christmas Eve, picture the majestic scene in Heaven it’s describing, knowing that this helpless baby one day “shall reign for ever and ever”!
Describe the makeup of Every Valley.
Jessica Miller Kelley: Every Valley is a devotional for the Advent and Christmas season with 40 short chapters covering the entire libretto of Messiah. Each devotion includes a movement or two of the Messiah libretto, followed by a modern translation of the Scripture from which those movements were taken, and a few pages of reflection on that Scripture. The reflections were written by a variety of pastors and scholars, shedding light on the meaning of the Scripture and how we might respond to it.
What refinement is referred to in the phrase “he shall purify”?
Jessica Miller Kelley: That’s actually one of my (many) favorite parts of Messiah: the Alto air “For He is like a refiner’s fire,” followed by the chorus “And He shall purify….” Those movements are drawn from Malachi 3:2-3, where the prophet Malachi, like Isaiah, is promising the coming of the Lord. Malachi has been berating the people of Israel for their faithlessness—not bringing their best offerings, disobeying God, and committing adultery—and he warns that God’s appearance to them (something they’re eager for) might actually be a bit painful.
If God is “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap,” then the people are the precious metals and fine cloth in the metaphor. The refiner would use very hot fire to burn out the impurities from gold or silver, and the fuller would use strong soap to bleach and clean woolen fibers. Likewise, God will strip away all that’s wicked and selfish in us, so we can be made pure in God’s image. To be purified by God doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience, but it’s a good and valuable one.
From where in the Bible is the “Hallelujah” chorus taken and what is the reflection about it in the book?
Jessica Miller Kelley: The “Hallelujah” chorus is taken from three verses in the book of Revelation (Rev. 11:15, 19:6, and 19:16). That reflection in Every Valley reminds us that Revelation is ultimately a book of comfort and encouragement for people experiencing severe persecution by the Roman Empire. The message, in short, is that despite all evidence to the contrary, Rome is not the ultimate power—God is. “Hallelujah” means “praise the Lord,” and for the early Christians, it was a bold rejection of the world that commanded them to praise Caesar. “No way,” they say. “Praise the Lord!”
What’s your favorite part of Messiah and why?
Jessica Miller Kelley: I like to be able to sing along, so my favorite parts are the really well-known pieces: “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” “His Yoke Is Easy,” “All We Like Sheep,” and of course, “Every Valley.” I love when I’m reading the Bible and stumble upon a verse that’s been made into a song (from Messiah or otherwise). That’s how the idea for Every Valley was born, actually. I came across a verse, probably in Isaiah or the Psalms, that’s used in Messiah, and couldn’t help but start singing it to Handel’s tune!
I wondered if other people do that, and thought how special it would be to have devotions helping people connect with Scripture using music they already know and love. That was my hope for Every Valley—to deepen people’s understanding of Scripture and the whole story of the Messiah’s coming as we prepare to celebrate his birth.
The Scriptures of Handel’s Messiah
(In order of the libretto)
Comfort Ye My People — Isaiah 40:1-5
I Will Shake All Nations — Haggai 2:1-9
He Shall Come — Malachi 2:13-3:1
And He Shall Purify — Malachi 3:2-4
God With Us — Isaiah 7:10-16
O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings — Isaiah 40:6-9
Arise, Shine — Isaiah 60:1-6
The People That Walked in Darkness — Isaiah 9:1-2
For Unto Us a Child is Born — Isaiah 9:3-7
Keeping Watch — Luke 2:8-10
Born This Day — Luke 2:11-12
Glory to God — Luke 2:13-20
Rejoice Greatly — Zechariah 9:9-12
The Lame Shall Leap — Isaiah 35:1-7
He Shall Feed His Flock — Isaiah 40:10-11
His Yoke is Easy — Matthew 11:16-30
Behold the Lamb — John 1:29-34
He was Despised — Isaiah 52:13-53:3
He Bore our Griefs — Isaiah 53:4-5, 9-12
All We Like Sheep — Isaiah 53:6
They Laugh Him to Scorn — Psalm 22:1-15
There was No One to Comfort Him — Psalm 69:7-20
Sorrow Like unto His Sorrow — Lamentations 1:1-12
He was Cut Off — Psalm 16:9-11
He is the King of Glory — Psalm 24
Let All the Angels Worship Him — Hebrews 1:1-8
Even from Thine Enemies — Psalm 68:1-12, 17-20
How Beautiful — Romans 10:8-15
Into All Lands — Psalm 19
Why Do the Nations Rage? — Psalm 2:1-3, 7-8
The Lord Shall Break Them — Psalm 2:4-6, 9-12
Hallelujah — Revelation 19:6-16
My Redeemer Liveth — Job 19:23-27
For Now Christ is Risen — 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
All Shall be Made Alive — 1 Corinthians 15:21-22
We Shall be Changed — 1 Corinthians 15:51-53
Death, Where is Thy Sting? — 1 Corinthians 15:54-58
If God be For Us — Romans 8:31-39
Worthy is the Lamb — Revelation 5:11-13
Amen — Revelation 5:14
Bio: Jessica Miller Kelley is an acquisitions editor for Westminster John Knox Press. A graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Jessica is former managing editor of MinistryMatters.com.
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