A Bible Study Guide on Handel’s Messiah

This week I decided to treat myself by starting the Advent/Christmas season a few weeks early with this new study guide, The Messiah: The Texts Behind Handel’s Masterpiece by Douglas Connelly (InterVarsity Press, 2014). After all, since I was already celebrating Christmas in October, it seemed quite natural for my thoughts to turn next to Handel’s Messiah, which is a Christmas classic for many.

The Messiah (400x600)

There’s a lot packed into this study guide of under 65 pages:

  • 8 study sessions on the biblical texts behind Handel’s Messiah: mainly from Isaiah and the Psalms plus one passage from Daniel, paired in some cases with a New Testament text: Matthew, Acts, or Revelation.
  • each session includes suggestions for personal reflection and group discussion, study questions on the biblical text, and a brief section on listening to — or singing! — selections from Handel’s Messiah.
  • tips for personal and group study, plus a leaders’ guide written especially for the new leader.

The Messiah is part of the LifeGuide Bible Studies from InterVarsity Press — evangelical in its approach, thoughtful, personal, accessible. All of these are fine qualities, yet at some points the sessions seemed almost too personal, and I found myself wanting to explore more of the community implications of the text. For example in the session on Isaiah 53:1-10, the guide suggests “Spend a few minutes pondering Jesus’ sacrifice for you. Re-read Isaiah 53 putting your name in the text as the recipient of Jesus’ suffering.” I understand this as an exercise in personal devotion, but the Isaiah text is actually written to a community (Isaiah 53:4-5, New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

Surely he has borne OUR infirmities
    and carried OUR diseases;
yet WE accounted him stricken,
    struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for OUR transgressions,
    crushed for OUR iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made US whole,
    and by his bruises WE are healed.

Somehow it doesn’t seem enough simply to insert my own name into the text — or is that just my Anabaptism talking?

Still, there’s a lot to like in this study guide, whether or not you’re a fan of Handel’s Messiah. And discussing it together with a group should help to open up the personal emphasis to broader concerns.

The final session begins with a reference to a flash mob singing Handel’s Messiah in the food court of a shopping mall. The study guide doesn’t include the link, but here it is for your viewing pleasure:

What about you? Is Handel’s Messiah part of your Christmas tradition? Or is it still too early even to think about Christmas?

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this study guide from InterVarsity Press. As in all my reviews, the opinions expressed here are my own.



Categories: Book Reviews

Tags: , , ,

9 replies

  1. This looks intriguing! Thanks for the review.

    • You’re so welcome – thanks for commenting! While this guide is designed for personal and group study, I also see it as a resource for preaching. I’m thinking we could show the youtube version, then I could preach on one of the biblical texts behind Handel’s Messiah – that might work well for us on the Sunday after Christmas.

  2. Yes! And part of many other days of my life!

    • For many, Handel’s Messiah is a Christmas tradition, others associate it with Lent/Easter, and it’s beautiful and inspiring at any time of year, so I can see how you might listen (or sing?) on many other days as well. This study guide doesn’t emphasize the seasonal aspect, so it would be appropriate year round.

  3. I’ve passed this post on to the nurture team at our church. Sounds great. Thx for the early review!

    • Hi Melodie – thanks for your comment and passing this on to your nurture team. This would be great for small group Bible studies. We also have a Christianity and the Arts group at our church that will sometimes meet with a guest artist, see a play together, go to the art gallery, etc. and then discuss the experience. I can imagine them listening to Handel’s Messiah and using this study guide.

  4. Thank you, all, for your comments. I received another one by email saying that two women in my congregation had already discovered this study guide: “We started in September and have been working very slowly through this same book. We are heading into the Orpheum in December to hear it performed live.” I think it’s a great idea to pair the study with a live performance and/or Messiah sing-along.

  5. Thanks for the great idea for preaching on the Sunday after Christmas! I can talk about the background to Handel’s Messiah. And, there are plenty of wonderful texts to choose from, too! Even though I almost always use the Lectionary passages, I have been known to change it up. 🙂 Thanks again.

    • You’re so welcome, and oh! that would be great to both be preaching sermons related to Handel’s Messiah on that Sunday. I understand that some call it “Low Sunday” because worship attendance tends to be lower, but I’m thinking my message would be an uplifting Hallelujah! with Handel’s Messiah.