Posted by: rcottrill | June 1, 2011

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Words: Phillips Brooks (b. Dec. 13, 1835; d. Jan. 23, 1893)
Music: Lewis Henry Redner (b. Dec. 15, 1830; d. Aug. 29, 1908)

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: You can read about the history and meaning of 63 of our carols and Christmas hymns, including O Little Town of Bethlehem, in my book, Discovering the songs of Christmas, which can be purchased through the link to Jebaire Publishing.

Though I was born in a bustling industrial city in southern Ontario, much of my adult life, and my ministry, has taken me to small, rural communities. It has given me an special appreciation for the latter. Our cities have their place, as cultural centres. And they can provide many things, such as advanced medical care, that are impossible for smaller communities. But the neighbourliness, and real “community” of small towns is hard to beat.

In the ancient world, there were many important cities. In addition to Jerusalem, the city God chose as central for His people Israel, there was Babylon, Rome, Alexandria, Nineveh, Damascus, and more. Going back further, the city of Ur, in Chaldea, was one of the most technically advanced in the ancient world. And yet, the most momentous event in human history took place not in any of these centres, but in a small town.

In predicting the birth of Israel’s Messiah, the prophet Micah said, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2). “Little among the thousands of Judah.” The NIV has “small among the clans of Judah.” The NLT gives us, “Only a small village in Judah.”

No matter how you say it, Bethlehem, at least geographically and numerically, was not of much account. Yet it was involved in biblical history from quite early on. First mentioned in Genesis, it was the place where Jacob’s wife Rachel died (Gen. 35:16, 19). It was also the locale of the love story of Ruth and Boaz, recorded in the book of Ruth. And it was the birthplace of David, who later became the king of Israel.

During his reign, David’s son Absalom led a rebellion against his father. The king was forced to flee from Jerusalem, with his faithful followers. Finally, the rebellion was put down, and King David was escorted back to the city, and his throne. One of those who had supported him in exile was a man named Barzillai (II Sam. 17:27-29). On his restoration, David wanted to bestow some honour on this man. But Barzillai was an elderly man, and he requested that his son Chimham be favoured in his place.David consented, and did so (II Sam. 19:37-40).

Centuries later, we read of some travelers staying at the “habitation [a resting or lodging place] of Chimham, which is near Bethlehem” (Jer. 41:17). It is possible that this was an inn built by Chimham, on the property deeded to him by David, as a reward for his father’s help. And there is an interesting tradition that this was the inn at which Joseph and Mary stopped on that incredible night when the Saviour of the world was born. We cannot be sure, but it seems possible.

The name Bethlehem (Beyth Lechem, in Hebrew) means house of bread. And there, over two millennia ago, the One who called Himself “the Bread of Life” was born (Jn. 6:35). The little town was thus granted an honour beyond compare.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

There is one stanza of Phillips Brooks’ lovely carol (CH-4) that is seldom used. It relates to the fact that the song was originally written to be used by the children in his Sunday School, at their Christmas service.

Where children, pure and happy, pray to the blessèd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching, and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

1) Can you think of other people or things in the Word of God, perhaps small or insignificant in themselves, that God used in a wonderful way?

2) What is the lesson in this for us?

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas
The Cyber Hymnal


%d bloggers like this: