While Christmas may not be a holy day for many people in our society, most people are happy to observe it as a holiday. And while few people know much about the meaning of Christmas, most still know some of the traditional songs of Christmas—songs known as “carols”.
The music and lyrics of many Christmas carols are strikingly beautiful. Today they are probably the only Christian songs that are known (and even loved) by people in the wider community.
In one way or another, carols tell and celebrate the story of Christmas, which is the true story of the miraculous birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
Some carols combine simple, narrative facts with insightful, theological truths—that is to say, they describe the account of Jesus’ birth and relate the significance of it as well.
One such carol is “Hark! the herald angels sing”. Originally written by Charles Wesley over 260 years ago, this carol (now somewhat altered) has become a favourite among Christians and non-Christians alike.
The first line of the carol refers to the angels who heralded the birth of Jesus: Hark! the herald angels sing. These angels appeared one night to some shepherds who were caring for their flocks in the fields close to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. First the angel of the Lord spoke to them, then a multitude of angels sang to them (Luke 2).
The next three lines of the carol record the angels’ message to the shepherds: “Glory to the newborn King;/ Peace on earth, and mercy mild,/ God and sinners reconciled!” These words are a poetic summary of what the angels said and sang. They declare that the newborn child is a King who has come to establish peace between holy God and sinful humans, a King whose reign will be marked by mercy towards those who welcome him as Saviour and Lord.
The final four lines of the first stanza record the song-writer’s glad and urgent invitation to all people to join with the angels in praise and worship of Jesus: Joyful, all ye nations, rise,/ Join the triumph of the skies;/ With the angelic host proclaim,/ “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” Christianity is an inclusive religion, extending a genuine offer of salvation to all who will recognise Jesus as “Christ” (ie, God’s chosen and anointed deliverer) and receive him as King.
The carol’s second stanza begins with two lines that emphasise the majesty of Jesus: Christ, by highest heaven adored;/ Christ, the everlasting Lord. Jesus came to earth from heaven, where he enjoyed the adoration of the holy angels. And one reason why the angels adored him is because he was and is “the everlasting Lord”. He is “everlasting”, meaning that he had no beginning and has no end. He is “Lord”, meaning that he has the same name, nature and authority as the Lord God Almighty, and so is worthy of the same love, reverence and adulation.
The majesty of Jesus portrayed in the first two lines stands in marked contrast to the humility of Jesus portrayed in the next two lines: Late in time behold him come,/ Offspring of the Virgin’s womb. Jesus left heaven where he was adored by angels to come to earth where he would be despised and rejected by men. He came “late in time” in the sense that a long time elapsed between the first promise of his coming (Genesis 3:15) and the fulfilment of that promise. He came as the long-awaited Messiah (or, Christ). And the way he came was through conception and birth.
However, the songwriter alerts us to something unique about Jesus’ conception. He was the offspring not merely of a woman’s womb, but of a virgin’s womb. Jesus was not conceived through the natural process of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Rather, “the power of the Most High overshadowed” a virgin named Mary, and she conceived Jesus miraculously (Luke 1:35).
The next two lines of the second stanza celebrate the dual nature of Jesus: Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;/ Hail the incarnate Deity. Jesus is both fully man and fully God. Although his “Godhead” (his divine nature) was partly “veiled” (concealed) by his “flesh” (his human nature), it was not diminished. He was the incarnation, the embodiment, of God. Indeed, in him “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). The newborn Jesus was no ordinary baby. The songwriter urges us to “see” and “hail” his deity in his humanity.
The final two lines of the second stanza emphasise Jesus’ identification with us: Pleased as man with men to dwell,/ Jesus, our Emmanuel. Jesus became one of us so that he might live among us, sympathise fully with us and do everything necessary to save us. And he was pleased to do this! He did not come to earth grudgingly, or under compulsion. Despite the suffering that he knew awaited him, he came willingly and gladly.
The songwriter here mentions two names for the “newborn King” whom until now he has simply called “Christ”. The first name is “Jesus”, meaning “Saviour”—a name given to him shortly before his birth by an angel (Matthew 1:21). The second is “Emmanuel”, meaning “God is with us”—a name given to him seven hundred years before his birth by a prophet (Isaiah 7:14).
The first two lines of the third stanza present two more names for Jesus: Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! The title “Prince of Peace”, first used by the prophet Isaiah (9:6), highlights the power of Jesus to establish peace in the lives of his people. The title “Sun of Righteousness”, first used by the prophet Malachi (4:2), emphasises the majesty of Jesus as the one from whom the light of purity and truth shines forth.
The next two lines extend the image of Jesus as “the Sun of Righteousness”: Light and life to all he brings,/ Risen with healing in his wings. Just as the sun is the source of all physical light and life, so Jesus is the source of all spiritual light and life. Further, as exposure to sunlight helps in the healing of physical wounds and mental depression, so exposure to Jesus heals the wounded soul.
The next line brings us back to earth, as it were: Mild he lays his glory by. Mildly, without fuss, this Prince of Peace, this Sun of Righteousness, laid aside his glory to become a baby.
The final three lines of the carol explain why Jesus came to earth as an infant: Born that man no more may die,/ Born to raise the sons of earth,/ Born to give them second birth. Jesus was born to be our Saviour. He came to deliver us from the death we deserve because of our wrongdoing. He came as a baby to the cradle so that he could go as a man to the cross to make amends to God for our sins. He was born so that we could have forgiveness and eternal life.
The salvation that Jesus won for us is likened to a “second birth” because it involves a whole new life-principle, a radical change in perspective and desire. Jesus himself said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). This new birth, he said, requires the miraculous intervention of the Spirit of God. And God’s Spirit intervenes to bring about this second birth whenever a person humbly believes in Jesus.
New life and eternal life are promised to all who trust in Jesus—the Jesus who is both Man and God, the Jesus who is both Sacrifice and Saviour, the Jesus who is celebrated in the Christmas carol, “Hark! the herald angels sing”!
Copyright © Andrew Lansdown 2000
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
by Charles Wesley
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!”
Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun 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 sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.