Posted by: rcottrill | May 1, 2013

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Words: Charles Wesley (b. Dec. 18, 1707; d. Mar. 29:1788)
Music: Mendelssohn, by Felix Mendelssohn (b. Feb. 3, 1809; d. Nov. 4, 1847)

Wordwise Hymns (William Cummings)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The melody was taken from Mendelssohn’s cantata celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. It was arranged as a hymn tune by William Hayman Cummings (1831-1915). The Wordwise Hymns link marks the birth of William Cummings, but has more information on the hymn as well.

Charles Wesley wrote this hymn in 1739, calling it simply “Hymn for Christmas Day.” Before the use of Cummings’ tune Mendelssohn was established, it appears the hymn was sung to the tune Easter Hymn, now used for Wesley’s Christ the Lord Is Risen Today. (Try this with a congregation; it gives the hymn quite a different feel.)

Eventually the ten four-line stanzas of the original were combined into five eight-line stanzas, with the first two lines of the hymn repeated as a refrain. Various other changes were made by George Whitefield, and later by Martin Madin, but the essence of this truly great hymn remains.

Wesley began with the words “Hark, how all the welkin rings!” with “welkin” being an old word for the sky. It was George Whitefield who changed this to “Hark, the herald angels sing,” in 1753. Actually, we are not told that the angels sang. The Bible says, “There was…a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest’ (Lk. 2:13-14). However, the Greek word translated “praising” (aineo) can include praise that is sung, so it’s possible they did.

Hymnals commonly use CH-1, 2, and 3, with some adding a combination of CH-4 and 5, as follows:

4) Come, Desire of nations, come!
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

This extraordinary Christmas hymn ranks with Wesley’s Jesus, Lover of My Soul as his very best. Further, it is considered by many hymn historians to be one of the greatest hymns in the English language. The joy of worshipful celebration is combined with strong doctrinal teaching, making it a must to include at the Christmas season.

But it is this very strength that has bothered me on occasion, depending on who is singing it. Walking through a mall during the holiday season, one can hear this carol many times. But when some worldly, profane Hollywood type sings it, sometimes with a sexy, sensual voice, I cringe! “This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Mk. 7:6; Jas. 3:8-10).

This is a carol that definitely fulfils the Bible’s exhortation that we should be “teaching…one another in…hymns” (Col. 3:16). All through, the hymn either quotes or alludes to relevant Scripture texts. Take, for example, the combined stanza above. The first line is taken from Haggai 2:7; the second from Ephesians 3:17; the third and fourth from Genesis 3:15; the last four lines allude to First Corinthians 15: 22, 45, 47, and 49.

Ask two basic questions, and you will see that Wesley leaves us in no doubt as to the answers.

1) Who is this One born in Bethlehem?
He is “Christ,” meaning the Messiah, and the “newborn King” (CH-1; cf. Matt. 1:1; 2:2). He is “the everlasting Lord,” and “incarnate Deity.” He is the “Godhead…veiled in flesh” (Col. 2:9). “By highest heaven adored” (i.e. worshiped by angels, Heb. 1:6, 8), He is virgin born “Emmanuel [God with us]” (CH-2; cf. Mic. 5:2; Jn. 1:14; Matt. 1:21-23). He is the “Prince of Peace,” “the Sun of Righteousness (Isa. 9:6; Mal. 4:2). “Mild [i.e. willingly, in submission to God the Father] He [laid] His glory by” (CH-3; Phil. 2:5-8).

2) What did He accomplish through His coming?
Through faith in His saving work, “God and sinners [are] reconciled” (CH-1; cf. II Cor. 5:18-20). “Light [Jn. 8:12; Eph. 5:8] and life [Jn. 3:16; 10:10; 14:6] to all He brings.” As the Sun of Righteousness, He has spiritual “healing in His wings [poetic imagery for the sun’s restoring rays]” (Mal. 4:2; cf. I Pet. 2:24-25). He was “born to give [us] second birth” a new birth of the Spirit by which we’re raised to life everlasting (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3).

CH-1) 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 th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

1) Would it be possible for you to do a Christmas Bible study of this hymn and the relevant Scriptures?

2) What other carols do we sing that also provide solid teaching about Christ and His saving work?

Wordwise Hymns (William Cummings)
The Cyber Hymnal


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