Hymn Guide: Zadok the Priest

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Zadok the Priest is a choral work by George Frideric Handel, and one of his four Coronation Anthems. It adapts the text of 1 Kings 1:38-40, which recounts the anointing of Solomon as the King of Israel, by Zadok the priest. Written for the crowning of George II in 1727, this anthem has been used in every British coronation since.

Even for those who lack interest in the British Royal Family, Zadok the Priest is worthy of reflection, for both its musical and theological value.

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Verse by Verse

The greatest drama of Zadok the Priest happens before a word is sung. For more than a minute, the orchestra plays a series of  arpeggios through chord progressions. In the hands of a lesser composer, this extended instrumental opening might feel boring, as merely a way to fill the liturgical space as the king is prepared for his anointing.

But Handel uses the opening to build anticipation, especially as the chord progression repeats. For a moment, a shift into minor modulations confounds the listener’s expectation, but when the chord progression returns, we feel an even more intense excitement for the appearance of the choir. Theologically, this anticipation should remind us of sacred history, as prophets looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one.

Finally, the choir arrives, together with three trumpets, heralding the news with deliberate grandeur.

Zadok the priestAnd Nathan the prophetAnointed Solomon king

Drawn from 1 Kings 1:38-39, the text of the anthem highlights the anointing of Solomon, mirroring the liturgical anointing which happens in an English coronation. Like the priest Zadok, the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the new King before he is crowned, symbolizing God’s calling of the King to political rule (in England, the King is also the Supreme Governor of the Church).

An important part of the Biblical text from 1 Kings is not sung: the description of Solomon riding the donkey of his father David. This is not only because there is no donkey in Westminster Abbey! It is also because the donkey motif would make a stronger analogy to Christ himself in his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. In other words, the British Monarchy aims to appropriate the symbolism of anointed kingship, but not of Messianic salvation. And of course the Royal Family would prefer the crowning riches of Solomon to Jesus’ crown of thorns.

The next verse draws out the rejoicing of the people in response to the anointing:

And all the peopleRejoiced, rejoiced, rejoice
And all the peopleRejoiced, rejoiced, rejoicedRejoiced, rejoiced, rejoicedAnd all the people
Rejoiced, rejoiced, rejoiced and said

The anthem here transitions from a bold and declarative tone in 4/4 time, to a more playful dance in 3/4 time. The repetition of the word rejoiced takes a cue from 1 Kings 1:40, which says that the people “rejoiced with great joy.” It also reflects an application of Paul’s teaching in Philippians, to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

The anthem shifts back to a weighty 4/4 for a declaration of God’s blessing on the new king.

God save the kingLong live the kingGod save the kingMay the king live foreverAmen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen, amenAmen, amen, alleluia, amen

The phrase “God save the king,” also drawn from 1 Kings 1:39, is better known in relation to the British national anthem. But the significance of the phrase here is that it performs a functional purpose, in prompting the homage of the people to the newly anointed King. Just as the proclamation “God save the King” recognized Solomon over the pretender Adonijah, the singing of Zadok the Priest also excludes anyone else who might attempt to take the throne.

The “God save the king” sequence is repeated twice further, giving time for the actual anointing, which happens behind a screen and is observed only by the King, the Archbishop, and their assistants:

God save the kingLong live the kingMay the king live foreverAmen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen, amenMay the king liveMay the king liveFor ever, for ever, for ever,Amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen, amenAlleluia, alleluia, amen, amen, amenAmen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, amen

Long live the king
God save the king
Long live the king
May the king live
May the king live
For ever, for ever, for ever,
Amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, amen, amen
Alleluia, alleluia, amen, amen, amen
Amen, amen, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, amen

The Amens and Alleluias are still situated in 4/4 time, but have a sense of liveliness and dance, like the section on rejoicing. They therefore provide a cheerful complement to the weighty anointing and declarations of fealty, and a sense of satisfaction at the culmination of the piece.

Now anointed, the King is ready to be crowned.

Learning from Zadok the Priest

Even for those who are not British, Zadok the Priest is worthy of appreciation (Handel himself was from Germany, and had only recently become British through a special act of Parliament). The anthem has one of the greatest openings in classical music, and it draws attention to an often-forgotten passage from 1 Kings, together with Biblical psalms concerning kingship and anointing (Psalm 45, Psalm 89).

Zadok the Priest also invites deeper consideration of the scriptural use of anointing, from the anointing of Aaron as high priest and of the tabernacle (Exodus 28, Exodus 30), to the anointing of the Kings of Israel (1 Samuel 10, 1 Samuel 16, I Kings 1) to the expectation of the prophesied Messiah, anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 61), and even to the anointing of the sick for healing in the church (James 5).

Insofar as anointing sets something apart for a special purpose, God’s intention is to anoint his entire church, to make us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). We are called by God in Christ, and set apart by his Holy Spirit. This is why every Christian is anointed at his baptism, with the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP 2019, p. 169).

Thus, when we watch the glorious splendor of a royal coronation service, we should realize that this is only a shadow, pointing to the brighter glory of the anointing of Christ and his Church.

On Video

We include three versions on video below. The first is an excellent performance on audio, from the Choir of Westminster Abbey. The second uses the music to Zadok the Priest as a background for video selections from the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. And the third is from the anointing of King Charles III, in 2023.

Published on

May 6, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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