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Words: Louis Fitzgerald Benson (b. July 22, 1855; d. Oct. 10, 1930)
Music: Kingsfold, a traditional English tune arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams (b. Oct. 12, 1872; d. Aug. 26, 1958)
Note: Dr. Benson studied and practised law for seven years. He later served as a pastor. But his major contribution to the Christian community lay in his scholarly study of hymns and their history. On the Wordwise Hymns link you can learn a bit more about him, and see his description of what makes a good hymn.
Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Vaughan Williams was a central figure in British classical music in the early twentieth century, he wrote symphonies, chamber music, operas, choral music and film scores, and was a collector of English folk music. Though either an atheist or agnostic, he wrote or arranged a number of hymn tunes, and also helped edit two hymnals and The Oxford Book of Carols.
There are a number of our hymns and gospel songs that speak of the birth of Christ at the beginning, but which are not actually Christmas carols. They take in the broader scope of Christ’s life, sometimes stretching from eternity to eternity (as Wilbur Chapman’s One Day does). Other examples: Benjamin Hanby’s Who Is He in Yonder Stall?, Fanny Crosby’s Tell Me the Story of Jesus, and That Beautiful Name, by Jean Perry.
Benson framed the present 1899 hymn to relate to four geographical locations significant to the life of Christ: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and Calvary.
Bethlehem was a small town in Jesus’ day, overshadowed by Jerusalem nearby. But God chose it for an unparalleled event, the virgin birth of Jesus. That event stamps little Bethlehem with special importance (cf. Mic. 5:2). There the Light of the World was born.
CH-1) O sing a song of Bethlehem, of shepherds watching there,
And of the news that came to them from angels in the air.
The light that shone on Bethlehem fills all the world today;
Of Jesus’ birth and peace on earth the angels sing alway.
We know little of the early life of Christ. There is the once incident described by Luke when, at twelve years of age (Lk. 2:41-50), He was taken to Jerusalem, where Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple, interacting with the elders, who were “astonished at His understanding and answers” (vs. 47). Other than that, Luke gives us two general statements.
“The Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Lk. 2:40). “He was subject [submissive, obedient] to them [Mary and Joseph]…and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men” (Lk. 2:51, 52).
CH-2) O sing a song of Nazareth, of sunny days of joy;
O sing of fragrant flowers’ breath, and of the sinless Boy.
For now the flowers of Nazareth in every heart may grow;
Now spreads the fame of His dear name on all the winds that blow.
In the time of Christ, Israel was divided into three provinces: Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The author chooses Galilee (cf. Mk. 1:28) to show something of His years of ministry, from His introduction by John the Baptist, to the night of His arrest in Gethsemane. As with each stanza Benson describes how, what began so long ago, now touches lives all over the world.
CH-3) O sing a song of Galilee, of lake and woods and hill,
Of Him who walked upon the sea and bade the waves be still.
For though like waves on Galilee, dark seas of trouble roll,
When faith has heard the Master’s word, falls peace upon the soul.
What happened at Calvary has elements of both “glory and dismay.” For the disciples, it seemed the end of everything. The One they thought would begin His righteous reign immediately was dead. They were understandably filled with fear that they would suffer the same fate, as the Lord’s followers. But the glory of Calvary is that there Christ paid our debt of sin. Then He triumphed over the grave on Easter morning, and His resurrection guarantees our own, when we put our faith in Him.
“Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [in death]. For since by man [Adam] came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:20-21).
CH- 4) O sing a song of Calvary, its glory and dismay,
Of Him who hung upon the tree, and took our sins away.
For He who died on Calvary is risen from the grave,
And Christ, our Lord, by heaven adored, is mighty now to save.
1) If you could add one more stanza to Dr. Benson’s hymn, what would it be about?
2) Why do you think the Bible tells us so little about Jesus until He was around thirty years of age?