Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light
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Words: Johann Rist (b. Mar. 8, 1607; d. Aug. 31, 1667); translated by John Troutbeck (b. Nov. 12, 1832; d. Oct. 11:1899)
Music: Ermuntre Dich, by Johann Schop (b. circa 1590; d. _____, 1664); harmony by Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Mar. 21, 1685; d. July 28, 1750)
Note: Rist wrote a nine-stanza hymn in German which he called (in English translation) “Bestir Thyself, My Feeble Soul.” The first of these nine was translated by Troutbeck around 1885. A second was added by Arthur Tozer Russell (1806-1874). English pastor, Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), wrote an entirely new version for the United Methodist Hymnal. The version used here is the two stanzas of Troutbeck and Russell.
Bach arranged Schop’s tune and used it in his choral setting of the hymn in the second part of his Christmas Oratorio (1737).
Isaiah declares, “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the LORD is risen upon you” (Isa. 60:1). The hymn is based on–or inspired by–another text from Isaiah.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined…..For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this (Isa. 9:2, 6-7).
The Bible often speaks of the glory of God. Frequently that “glory” was a visible light that represented both the presence of God, and His majesty and splendour. When Jehovah God appeared on Mount Sinai to give the Law to Moses, we read, “The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Exod. 24:17). A “consuming,” devouring fire that filled the people with fear. When the glory filled the tabernacle of worship, and later the temple in Jerusalem, we read that no one dared to enter for fear of it.
The brilliance of it also seemed to have a dangerous aura almost like atomic radiation. The brightness of that light blinded Paul when he met the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:10-11). Yet it is a glory shared by the angels of heaven, and a glory that will one day be revealed in the saints. And it is important to note that the visible display is only representative of something far richer. It stands for all God is, in the majesty of His Person, and for the beauty of His holy character–that is also to be reflected in us (Col. 1:27; 3:4).
The glory light of God was seen by the shepherds of Bethlehem. When an angel appeared to announce the birth of Christ, we read, “The glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid” (Lk. 2:9). An understandable reaction! Yet they were encouraged by the angel that his presence was wholly benevolent, that he came with “good tidings of great joy” (vs. 10). God’s Deliverer had come, the Saviour who would, in the words of Genesis, crush the serpent’s (Satan’s) head (Gen. 3:15).
In 1641 the present carol was published describing this angelic encounter and its meaning. The author, Johann Rist, was the son of a pastor, who became a teacher and hymn writer. He was highly honoured by the German government. In 1653 the emperor Ferdinand II made him a member of the nobility. His hymn–one of many he wrote–speaks of the heavenly light described above that appeared to the shepherds.
Though the context is different, the author hymn seems to echo the promise of God to Israel that if they would turn back to Him and repent a new and glorious day would dawn for them (Isa. 58:8). Rist made it analogous to the new day dawning for needy sinners
CH-1) Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
And usher in the morning;
O shepherds, shrink not with afright,
But hear the angel’s warning.
This Child, now weak in infancy,
Our confidence and joy shall be,
The power of Satan breaking,
Our peace eternal making.
2) Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
To herald our salvation;
He stoops to earth–the God of might,
Our hope and expectation.
He comes in human flesh to dwell,
Our God with us, Immanuel;
The night of darkness ending,
Our fallen race befriending.
1) What is it about the character of the Lord that is particularly “glorious” to you?
2) What, to you, are the most meaningful and inspiring Christmas hymns?