Posted by: rcottrill | May 23, 2011

We Three Kings of Orient Are

Words: John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (b. Oct. 28, 1820; d. Aug. 14, 1891)
Music: John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The Wordwise Hymns link includes a critique of this popular carol. The title contains one questionable assumption, and two errors! Even so, there is food for meditation here, though I’d argue a carol such as As with Gladness Men of Old has a more personal challenge. For another article on We Three Kings, see my book on 63 Christmas carols, Discovering the Songs of Christmas. Regarding the nature of the amazing star that led the wise men to the Saviour, see the article on the Bethlehem Star.

The record of the visit of the wise men to pay homage to the infant Jesus is found in Matthew 2:1-12. We know nothing about them, other than what we are told in this passage, but a great deal of mythology has grown up around them, over the centuries. The wise men supposedly were three in number, and they were given names–Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior–and were promoted by the mythology from being court wise men to being kings! Since they were thought to represent the divergence of ethnic groups descending through the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as a black man. But none of these notions comes from the Bible.

Even though we’re told little in Scripture, there are tentative assumptions we can make. It seems quite possible that these men who made their way to Bethlehem–whether two or twenty in number–had at least a basic knowledge of the God of the Bible, and were anticipating the coming of Christ. If they indeed came from the area of Babylon (or Persia), that was about a 600 mile trip. A huge undertaking in that day. Their determination to pay their respects to “He who as been born King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2), shows the depth of their dedication.

Over a hundred times, the Bible makes reference to gifts of some kind. But these were surely significant far beyond the understanding of the givers. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Unless God had given them a direct revelation, not mentioned in Scripture, it is unlikely that they understood the appropriateness of their gifts. Hopkins makes it sound as though each gift was precisely chosen by the giver, but that seems quite a stretch–especially in the case of the third gift. But it came about, in the providence of God, that each gift related to Christ in an amazing way.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

That the Messiah was to be Ruler in Israel was certainly known from the Old Testament Scriptures (Matt. 2:3-6; cf. Mic. 5:2; Isa. 9:6-7), and it was to pay Him homage that they came. Did they realize He was to be King “over us all,” Ruler over all the earth? I’m not sure.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

The wise men “fell down and worshiped Him” (Matt. 2:11). How much they understood about His identity as God the Son, the Word made flesh (Jn. 1:1, 14), we do not know. Was this simply a token of respect toward one they believed to be a king? No, I believe it was more than that. The efforts made to express their devotion suggest it.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

In this case, Dr. Hopkins seems to take us far into the realm of conjecture. He goes even further in his final stanza, addressing Christ as “King and God and Sacrifice.” Did the wise men realize that this One would one day die as a sacrifice for sin? It is doubtful. But God the Father knew, and led them to choose a gift that would reflect that coming event (cf. Mk. 15:23; Jn. 19:38-40).

1) What is the greatest gift God has given to us?

2) What is the greatest gift we can give to God?

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas
The Cyber Hymnal


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