Join in singing a 280-year-old Christmas Carol December 23rd, 2019 Bryan Park
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Join in singing a 280-year-old Christmas Carol December 23rd, 2019 Bryan Park
Bible Engager’s Blog

I have a particular fondness for old hymns of the faith. A good hymn allows us to sing Scripture, and when we sing Scripture, we’re interacting with the Bible, which shapes our choices and transforms our relationships. And since we are just a few days away from Christmas, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite Christmas hymns that’s saturated with Scripture.

In 1739, Charles Wesley wrote a 10-stanza poem called “Hymn for Christmas Day.” It is what we know now as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Wesley takes biblical phrases from the prophets, the Gospels, and the epistles, and weaves them together poetically to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to explain why the Incarnation happened. Let’s take a look inside this hymn.

Glory to God in the highest!

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th' angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”

The first stanza focuses on the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds of the birth of Christ. Luke 2:13 and 14 say that suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The stanza invites all the nations to join the celebration of the angels. And look at the phrase “God and sinners reconciled.” That’s the whole point. Remember that the fundamental problem of all human beings is that our sin separates us from God. We deserve to die for our sin. Our relationship with God is broken, but the gospel message is that Jesus came to atone for our sin. He came to die in our place; he took the punishment that we deserve. By believing in Jesus, our relationship with God is restored. In 2 Corinthians 5:19, it says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see

Christ, by highest heaven adored:
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the favored one.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th' incarnate Deity:
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!”

Stanza two speaks of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and affirms that this new baby is the Incarnation of almighty God. Look at the second line, “Late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb.” It echoes Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.” In the hymn we sing “Offspring of the virgin’s womb … Jesus our Immanuel,” which is a paraphrase of Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us.” And I love the phrase “veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” which echoes John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace!

Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

Stanza three continues the themes of greeting the newborn King in his glory and reminding us why he was born. Prince of Peace is the title given at the end of Isaiah 9:6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In the hymn we sing “Hail! the Son of Righteousness! Risen with healing in his wings,” which is almost verbatim Malachi 4:2, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” When we sing “Mild he lays his glory by,” we are reminded of the great Christological hymn of Philippians 2, which includes the phrase “[he] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (verse 7). And we sing “Born that man no more may die,” and “Born to give them second birth,” as we read in 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Some Christmas songs do not reflect the significance of Christ’s birth. As we raise our voices in adoration of our King, let us remember the glory of God that is wrapped up in this newborn baby, and the reason he came. By one man came death for all humanity, and by one man, Jesus Christ, all may have eternal life (see Romans 5:12-21).

Read more posts about: Spiritual Formation

Bryan Park
Bryan Park

Bryan Park serves as a project associate at American Bible Society. He grew up in New York and has lived in Philadelphia for 13 years. Bryan loves the arts in Philadelphia, the Eagles, and singing in choirs.

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