April 19th, 2014| Topic: RaMbLeS | 6


My third and last installment of a few amateur reflections on the text and score of St. Matthew Passion by the venerable J. S. Bach (1685–1750).

This guy really is doing something with what he has composed. So there is real merit (and marvelous fruit) in not only just listening to the work, but also looking at it closely.

So also for all texts. Particularly, the Bible. The text, rather than being a plain-glass window, is actually a stained-glass window. The colors, shapes, lead, copper, etc., are telling a story in and of itself. So what we need to do is not look through the plain-glass window, but look at the stained-glass window!

Back to Bach! [I’ve always wanted to say that!]

After the Last Supper, the Evangelist and Jesus and the disciples sing:

As they were eating, He said,
“Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me.”
Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him,
“Surely not I, Lord?”
Matthew 26:21

What is striking is the disciples’ reply: “Herr, bin ich’s?” or “Lord, is’t I?”

“Lord, is’t I, is’t I?” is thrown around for five measures between the four parts of the first choir. And as you listen to it, you can’t make much out. But look at the score and—voila!

You see, if you count the number of times “Lord, is’t I, is’t I?” occurs, you’ll find it is exactly eleven! Yup, one of the twelve didn’t really need to ask! Clever.

This is immediately followed by a chorale (not part of the Scripture text):

’Tis I, my sin repenting
My hands and feet consenting
Should take the bonds of Hell.
The scourge and thongs which bound Thee
And all the wrongs around Thee
Are merit of my sinful soul.

Now that’s clever too. Whose sin was it that took Jesus to the cross? “Lord, is’t I?” they ask. And here’s the answer, sung by the congregation (who likely joined in the chorale): “’Tis I!”

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
Isaiah 53:6

Right after this confession by us all, that it was our sins for which Jesus died, we have Jesus prophesying that the one who dipped his hand with Jesus in the bowl would be the one who would betray him.

And then, then Judas goes:

“Surely it is not I, Rabbi?”
Matthew 26:25

By interposing the congregation’s response before Judas’s, there is no doubt in Bach’s mind, who the real betrayers were. “’Tis I!”

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross,
so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness;
for by His wounds you were healed.
1 Peter 2:24


A couple of weeks ago, I had mentioned that whenever the characters say something in the St. Matthew Passion, they are accompanied by organ + a bass instrument … except when Jesus is speaking (singing): he always gets some strings to give him an auditory “halo”!

But in one place—and only in that place—Jesus’ halo missing. With his last words.

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Matthew 27:46

Clever! Bach’s way of putting a biblical truth into music:

He [God] made Him [Jesus Christ]
who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf …
2 Corinthians 5:21

He took my sin. And yours. Paid for it. And rose again.

Praise God! Happy Easter!


  1. Kenkause@hotmail.com April 20, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    I like how you take us Bach to Jesus ! Ken

  2. Scout April 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    He is risen indeed.
    And that hope motivates some wonderful art.

  3. Lyons April 20, 2014 at 6:04 am

    Easter blessings to you!


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