Posted by: alisonwalley | 20 December 2009

HarK, the herald angels sing

As Christmas approaches even nearer, Christmas songs are everywhere, ranging from the merely wintery (Frosty the Snowman), through Christmas as party season (I wish it could be Christmas every day) towards sentimental carols which romanticise the time of year (most by John Rutter), to songs which firmly imply that really, Christmas is to do with Christ.

It’s easy to get swept away in the emotion of Christmas, but in line with the theme of this blog, I thought I’d take a closer look at one of the best-loved and most enduring of our Christmas hymns, Charles Wesley’s Hark the herald angels sing (1739).

Of course to make a really great hymn you need an excellent tune, which Hark the herald finally got over 100 years later, when a great tune by Mendelssohn was harmonised for the hymn in 1857.

So why does the hymn fit with the theme of the blog? Because it’s firmly based on the Bible. The first verse is the most obvious:

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!”

This is Wesley’s exhortation for us, for all nations, to join the angels’ song as recorded in Luke 2:8-14. The second verse is more densely packed and I’ve hyperlinked various parts to the verses Wesley might have been thinking of :

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!”

In the final verse, the references to ‘Prince of Peace’ and ‘mild he lays his glory by’ take up two passages we’ve met already in the second verse. Isaiah 9 is often read at Christmas with its promise of a “wonderful counsellor” and “prince of peace”. Philippians 2 talks about how Christ “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, laying his glory by. Another of our Christmas readings, John 1, talks of Jesus giving “those who believed him” the right to become “children of God”.

And with the final verse, we also come back to that last of the Old Testament books, Malachi. In the King James Version, which Wesley would have used, Malachi 4:2 reads: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”

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!”

Great words, great hymn! But with these passages that stand behind we shouldn’t forget some of their contexts. John 1 says that many did not receive this Christ, Malachi 4 warns of judgement for the arrogant and evil doers, the passages from Isaiah are set in the context of “darkness and distress” and Philippians 2 reminds us that the reason Christ was made in human likeness was so that he could “humble himself and become obedient to death – even death on a cross”.

Have a great Christmas.


NOTE: Wesley originally wrote more verses than we now sing, and the words have been amended by various people from the original (which you can find here, though be prepared for the rendition of the tune on a tinny sounding electronic piano).

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