Judas Maccabeus was Handel’s most famous oratorio during his lifetime, more popular even than the Messiah. There are many wonderful moments in it, especially its bold and brave choruses. Written in 1746, it covers the biblical events of 170–160 B.C., when Judea was ruled by the Seleucids and the people were compelled to worship Zeus. Some resisted; others obeyed. The priest Mattathias went to the hills and gathered others who were willing to fight for their faith. This is all recounted in the First Book of Maccabees in the (complete) Catholic Bible. The words to Judas Maccabeus largely paraphrase the biblical text and were written by Thomas Morell.
Of all the arias in the oratorio, I’ve often thought that this one should be more well known, due to its keen reminders to us:
Wise men, flattering, may deceive us;
With their vain, mysterious art;
Magic charms can ne’er relieve us,
Nor can heal the wounded heart.
But true wisdom can relieve us,
Godlike wisdom from above;
This alone can ne’er deceive us,
This alone all pains remove.
It’s a simple teaching, but so easily forgotten. In a world of false prophets and hucksters with empty promises of what are at best passing comforts, we need to recognize that we are easily deceived. In fact, we seem to enjoy being deceived more than we’d probably like to admit.
Flattery refers to excessive and insincere praise, especially praise given to another in order to further one’s own interests. It is used to beguile or to gain another person’s attention. It is likely of Germanic origin, stemming from a word that meant to stroke or caress repeatedly.
Many, from marketers to politicians to ideologues, seek to ingratiate themselves to us in order to sell products, ideas, or philosophies. The ideologues, especially, try to present themselves as great humanitarians, caring more than others do. They use euphemisms such as choice, progress, death with dignity, and tolerance, so as to stroke us to sleep, to beguile us, to hide the ugly reality (often the death of other human beings) of what these things produce.
So easily do they deceive us. I have noted in other posts that the root of the word deceived lead to the definition “to be picked up and carried off.” The image that comes to mind is that of limp prey in the mouth of a lion as it is carried off to be consumed.
Strangely, we often seem to like being deceived. Sometimes lies and euphemism help to hide uglier realities we would rather not face. It’s as if we say to the flatterers and liars, “Please lie to me. It’s just too much trouble to look at what’s really going on behind the veiled language.”
The text of the oratorio speaks of vain, mysterious art. Something that is vain is ultimately empty on the inside even if on the outside all seems wonderful and in good order.
The phrase mysterious art does not necessarily refer to magic, but to that which is unknown. Some flatterers like to use fancy terms, photos, movies, colorful graphs, and the like to impress us with their knowledge or to mesmerize us so that we dare not question or protest what they say.
However, as the text of the oratorio goes on to say, none of this can really help us. There may be momentary comforts, but soon they are gone. Satan (and to a large degree, the world) promises happiness now, but the bill comes later. In contrast, God often asks for sacrifice, discipline, and perseverance through difficulty up front and then lets us reap the reward later. Indeed, the cross produces glory far beyond the sufferings it brings: For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4:17).
The oratorio goes on to teach that our wounded hearts need more than relief; they need healing, which only godlike wisdom from above can accomplis. Why? God Himself tells us why:
The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind (Jer 17:9-10).
To find healing, go to God and to His revealed Word and sacred teachings. He knows your heart because He made you. He knows what will really heal and nourish your heart. Be not deceived and mesmerized by false prophets, hucksters, and merchants of the mediocre; God alone can fill the God-sized space in your heart. Only God, who made us for Himself, can satisfy our longings.
Enjoy the aria!