When the music for this biblical passage began, King George, I believe, made a statement about royal authority and honor:

The Christian King of England is not the Supreme Authority, but he is one under authority and must show honor and respect to his Supreme Lord, the King of Kings. Just as people rise to show honor and respect in the presence of their English Royals, King George could do no less, as one under Authority.

Portrait of King George II (1683–1760)
Portrait of King George II (1683–1760), by Charles Jervas in 1727.

Here’s my argument for why the King George stood that day and why we should still do so today.

King George II stood up at the performance of George Frederick Handel’s “Hallelujah chorus” on March 23, 1743. No one knows for sure why he stood. He never explained his actions.

The most popular and most repeated modern myth is that “he was so moved” or “overcome by emotion” by the music that he felt compelled to stand. A few simple observations undermine this thin explanation:

  1. Kings are hardly ones to emote in public spontaneously (a review of English kings and queens over the centuries will reveal precious few instances of spontaneity or public displays of exuberance);
  2. Standing in the middle of a performance of a major orchestral and choral work today or in yesteryear is never encouraged–in fact, it would be considered rude and not something a King would likely do without a very compelling reason (even jazz musicians today only receive polite applause at the end of a praiseworthy set–rarely do audiences jump out of their seats during a formal performance);
  3. Kings sit (enthroned), subjects stand. The King was not stretching his legs, getting ready to walk out, etc.

This modern myth endures, I believe, because in our secular and egalitarian age folks simply no longer have the cultural bearings or theological categories to understand what was happening at that moment or what would have motivated the English king to stand at that particular moment in that particular performance.

The answer as to why the King stood there and then is rooted, I believe, in the political implications of the very specific lyrics of the chorus, particularly the words from Revelation 19, highlighted in bold, and their immediate context (see the updated note below):

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
For ever and ever, forever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign,
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!

King George was a Christian king, head of the English Church, and would have been knowledgeable of the Scriptures. He knew, from the moment the choir began singing that passage, that it was referring to his Lord, to a King greater than himself. The King of kings is the King of England’s superior. The King of England is a subject of the Greater King, the Creator and Sovereign of Heaven and Earth. As a Christian King who believed in the Divine Right of Kings, he would have acknowledged even at his own coronation that he rules England only by the grace of the Great King and no other. If the Triune God were to walk into the same room, the King of England would be compelled to rise and bow in His honor.

So when Handel’s music for this passage began, I believe King George made a political statement about divine and royal authority and honor in the political economy of England itself: the Christian King (or Queen) of England is a ruler under authority and must pay honor and show respect to his (her) Supreme Lord, the King of Kings, just as the people must pay honor and show respect to their English Lord.

Larry Spalink, a friend from Westminster Seminary and pastor laboring in Japan commented to me once that the context immediately preceding the Hallelujah Chorus are the words of Psalm 2, which exhort us to give honor to God’s Messiah. Or not, at our peril. 1

The people also stood with King George at that moment. The question is whether they stood because England’s King rose, or because the presence of the King of kings was evident in the Scriptures being sung. I like to think they stood together in solidarity at that moment as fellow subjects of the Greater King. If there were an emotional response, it was King George’s realization that the living God is his King and all other leaders of men and nations serve behind His beneficent rule and at His good pleasure.

For that reason, we all should stand whenever the King of kings and Lord of lords, our God’s Messiah’s presence is announced.

All rise!

And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings, forever and ever,
And Lord of lords,
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!

Related Resources: Handel’s Messiah (NSA Concert Choir; Ross Hauck) | Psalm 13 and Handel (Dr. David Erb) | Educating Royalty (Dr. Roy Atwood)

Dr. Roy Atwood and his wife BevDr. Roy Atwood is one of the founders of New Saint Andrews College and served as its President from 2004-2014. After serving as the Abraham Kuyper Distinguished Professor of Classics at Morthland College, he accepted a position Nehemiah Gateway University in Albania. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Dordt College (Iowa), a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Iowa.

Show 1 footnote

  1.  Psalm 2:1-12
    (1) Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
    (2) The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
    (3) “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
    (4) He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
    (5) Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
    (6) “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”
    (7) I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.
    (8) Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
    (9) You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
    (10) Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
    (11) Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
    (12) Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. 

Comments

  1. Enlightening….I have never heard that explanation before. I do unfortunately remember treating two school friends to The Messiah at Albert Hall in London one Christmas in the late 1940’s. To my sorrow they breathed a sigh of relief when I stood for Chorus. They thought it was all over and got ready to leave the Hall! ” Oh what a dusty answer gets the soul when hot for certainties in this our life”George Meredith was right!

  2. The Lord our God reigns forever and ever and ‘the kingdoms (governments) of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ’ starting in the hearts and lives of His overcomers who have escaped Religious Babylon. ‘Surely I come quickly. Amen’

  3. Your explanation is so interesting. The fact that a monarch would not do anything on such an auspicious occasion without serious thought, adds an even deeper level of reverence to the action of standing. The fact that even a monarch would publicly recognize God’s authority over himself should make the common man stand in even greater awe. Thank you for this insight.

  4. The Baron agrees with these interpretations. The Christian King George II not only was compelled y the poltico-religious understandings of the time – of his being under command of the King of Kings; but also by standing he also served to demonstrate the legitimacy of his own Kingship under the British monarchy.

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