Sunday, December 02, 2012

CHRISTMAS HYMN STUDY: THE THEOLOGY OF “HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING”

Note:  I am taking a break from Jeremiah for the month of December. During this time we will study the theology of some well known Christmas hymns. We will examine their references to the Bible and the doctrines they teach.



CHRISTMAS HYMN STUDY: THE THEOLOGY OF “HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING”

History of the Hymn

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a Christmas hymn written by Charles Wesley. It was published in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Poems. The original music for it was slow and solemn. That was changed in 1840. That year Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. The English musician, William H. Cummings , adapted the music to fit the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. That is the melody we know and sing today.

As with many hymns, some of the words have been changed from the original.  Wesley's original opening couplet is "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings". “Welkin” is an old English word for heavens or sky. Wesley was inspired to write the hymn while walking to church on Christmas Day, listening to the church bells ring.

When the hymnal was published, George Whitfield changed the words to the ones we know now because he thought more people would understand it.

Let’s examine the lyrics. We will see that Wesley referenced specific scripture passages and the truth taught in them.

In the first stanza, we see that Wesley alludes to Luke 2. This passage tells the story of angels appearing to shepherds out in the fields, telling them that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem.

First, an angel appeared and said “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)(English Standard Version)

Then a host of angels appeared and praised God saying “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”  (14) Wesley captured this picture with the first stanza:

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

He took some literary license here. First, the angels did not sing, they spoke. Second, the angels gave glory not to Jesus but to the Father.

But Wesley got the gospel message right. The angels said there would be peace among those with whom he is well pleased. In the NIV, it reads “peace to men on whom his favor rests”. He emphasized it by saying that God and sinners would be reconciled.

Today, you will hear songs and speeches that interpret this as peace between nations and the end of war. But the context is peace between God and men. Jesus is the savior who will save people from their sins, reconciling them to God. They then have peace with God.

The idea is that Jesus removed our separation from the Father and allowed us to come to him. For example, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

While the Jews expected a savior sent just to them, the angel said the good news was for all people. (Luke 2:10) Wesley captured that by saying “joyful all ye nations rise”.

Now let’s look at the second stanza of the hymn:

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"


We know that Christ was adored by highest heaven, for the praise here is from angels sent from heaven. They radiated with the glory of God so much that it made the shepherds afraid. (Luke 2:9) We also know that the Father himself adored his son. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father said “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased”. (Luke 3:22) Revelation 4 shows all of the inhabitants of heaven and earth praise him. Revelation 19:16 pictures Jesus in a robe dipped in blood with the name written on the robe and on his thigh: king of kings and lord of lords.

Wesley also wrote that Christ is the “everlasting lord”. Jesus claimed this very thing, saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22:13) Jesus also said “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am”. (John 8:58)

Wesley then moves from Christ’s heavenly status to his earthly appearance. He mentioned Christ’s virgin birth (offspring of a virgin’s womb). Luke 2:26-27 mentions the virgin birth. Matthew went further, explaining that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son…”.

Jesus was born fully a man, but remained fully God. Wesley said “veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity”. In other words, at is birth (incarnation), Jesus’ divine nature was veiled by his human form. Paul, in Philippians 2:5 said “…Jesus Christ, who though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” In the third stanza of the hymn, Wesley also wrote “Mild He lays His glory by.


Christ then lived among men for his time on earth. Wesley said “pleased as man with man to dwell”. John the apostle said “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. (John 1:14)

Now, let’s examine the third stanza.

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The first two lines deal with titles given to the Messiah in the Old Testament, Prince of Peace and Sun of Righteousness. “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 9:6,which says

His name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Christ is also called the “sun of righteousness” in the Old Testament. Some have tried to correct this to “son” rather than “sun”. But the reference is to Malachi 4:2, which says “but for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise will healing it is wings”. We know this is correct because Wesley’s 4th line is “Ris’n with healing in His wings”. So you can tell he is referring to the verse in Malachi.

Malachi 4 is talking about judgment. He said that the day of the Lord would come, burning like an oven and setting all evil doers ablaze, or burning them up. (4:1) But for those who fear the Lord, the believers, that day will be a day that makes everything right, bringing healing and joy.

Wesley then moved to Christ’s mission: to bring eternal life to those who believe in him. He said Christ was born that man no more may die. Jesus said that God sent him so that those who believed in him would not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) He called it being born again. (John 3:3) Wesley wrote that Jesus came to bring the  “second birth”.

Eternal life also comes by way of resurrection. Our bodies die. But Jesus promised to raise them. Wesley said Jesus was “born to raise the sons of earth”. John 6:40 records Jesus as saying “For this is the will of my father, that everyone who looks on the son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”


The 4th stanza alludes to Genesis 3:

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

After Satan, in the form of the serpent, deceived Eve to sin, God pronounced a curse on him, saying “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heal.” (Genesis 3:15) The woman’s conquering seed, then, is Jesus as God said in Genesis 3.

The words “Ruined nature now restore” also refer to Genesis 2 and 3 and to Romans 5. God told Adam that, if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. (Genesis 2:17) Physical death came into existence because of Adam’s sin. God said “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. (Genesis 3:19) But Adam also suffered spiritual death, shown by God thrusting him out of the garden and forbidding his return.
Romans 5:12 says “Therefore just as sin came into the world through one man (Adam) and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

The last stanza of the hymn picks up the theme of Romans 5.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.


We see here that Wesley believed in the doctrine of original sin. This is the idea that Adam sinned as the representative for all mankind and so we all inherited his sin and fallen nature. That is why Romans 5 says sin came into the world through one man and death through sin.

Christ not only died to pay the penalty of our sins, but to restore our nature. Wesley  therefore calls Christ the “Second Adam”. By that he means, as Romans 5 says, that as Adam sinned as the representative for the race of men, Christ’s righteousness provides justification and life for men who believe in him.
 Augustine said all men inherit natural corruption. Wesley asked Christ to take away this corrupted nature and replace it with Christ’s nature or image.

Wesley also asked Christ to reinstate us into God’s love, again speaking of his work of reconciliation. Finally, he asked for sanctification, asking Christ to restore the inner man of each and every believer.

I like this hymn for it illuminates the whole mission of Christ. It does not just focus on a sweet baby in a manger, but shows that Christ came to die for our sins, and provide eternal life in restored fellowship with the Father and a changing nature that will increase in Godliness until Christ returns to transform us into full Godliness.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.


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