The Sobering Reality of the Atonement, Isaiah 53:6
I’m a Geek when it comes to Handel’s Messiah. I listen to it all year long. I love to analyze the way Handel matches the music to the biblical text. It’s sheer genius!
The libretto that Handel used was compiled by his friend and colleague, Charles Jennens. Jennens wanted to compile a collection of Scriptures that would challenge the popular heresy of his day that said God did not interfere with or actively oversee human affairs. He wanted to demonstrate through Scripture that God indeed orchestrates all of redemption history, especially seen in the sending of his Son, his death for our sins, his resurrection and ascension.
After Jennens had settled on the libretto by midsummer, 1741, Handel composed the music in less than four weeks. And at the end of the work he signed it as he always did with SGD, “Solo Deo Gloria,” only to God be glory.
Those who are familiar with the Messiah (when means that they recognize more than the “Hallelujah Chorus” when they hear it), have their favorite parts. But for me, the most salient section the beginning of Part 2, where Handel uses the music to paint a biblical interpretation of the suffering of Christ.
The one I’m thinking of right now is the text of Isaiah 53:6.
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.
There are several recordings of this piece that you can listen to online, but they are not all equal in interpreting Handel’s arrangement. The choirs that get it right are those that capture the moment when the verse turns from our glib straying as lost sheep, to the effect of our wandering on the Son of God. (The recording that I am offering you here is one of the best I’ve heard.)
Handel’s conception of this verse is that we are wandering away in our sin, going off in every direction. When the sopranos sing “gone astray,” their voices trail off in high range almost like a doppler effect. The wandering sheep are also represented by an overabundance of melisma (vocal runs), that cause us to imagine that the sheep are happy or carefree, like people frolicking in their sin with no understanding of its consequences.
After about three minutes of this fast-paced, almost joyful-sounding oft-repeated representation of the first two lines of Isaiah 53:6, there is a sudden change in the tone, and the music grows heavy and somber, changing from F major to F minor. The last full minute of the song is the single statement, “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
It is this dramatic turn in the musical tone that speaks to something deep in our souls. It’s gripping and moving, even haunting, and inexorably sad. We think of our sin so lightly, and excuse those sins that do not seem very important to us. We wander away from the Lord untroubled by our sin, going our own way. Yet, our Lord Jesus Christ went to the cross to die in agony for each of those sins when we should have paid for them ourselves.
That is why God has given us art forms. Forms such as music can shape our affections sometimes in ways that a text cannot on its own. When we read the words of Isaiah 53:6, we can understand the logical meaning of the atonement. But when we listen to Handel shape the meaning for us, we understand what the atonement is “like.” The sobering reality is that our sin has devastating consequences that the Lord accepted on our behalf.
I invite you today, on this Good Friday, the day we remember our Lord crucified for our sins, to read and mediate on Isaiah 52:13–53:12. These verses actually represent five “songs,” three verses each, about the coming Servant who will die for his people. And I invite you to listen to this recording of “All We Like Sheep.” Listen to the full 2:43 minutes of fleetly-running, carefree sheep, and then let Handel remind you of that awful price of our wandering astray. Spend time reflecting on the fact that Jesus Christ died in our place. Ours was the sin. But the Father laid on the Son the iniquity of us all.
“Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” (Thomas Kelly, 1804)
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
see him dying on the tree!
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected;
yes, my soul, ‘tis he, ‘tis he!
‘Tis the long-expected Prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
by his Son God now has spoken:
‘tis the true and faithful Word.
Tell me, ye who hear him groaning,
was there ever grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning,
foes insulting his distress;
many hands were raised to wound him,
none would interpose to save;
but the deepest stroke that pierced him
was the stroke that Justice gave.
Ye who think of sin but lightly
nor suppose the evil great
here may view its nature rightly,
here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed,
see who bears the awful load;
‘tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.
Here we have a firm foundation,
here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
his the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded,
sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
who on him their hope have built.