Hark! the herald angels sing

Merry Christmas!

Today’s (very familiar) hymn, like the first in the series, was written by Charles Wesley (keen minds may also have noticed they’re the only ones in the series originally written in English 🙂 ).

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!”

Refrain
Hark! the herald angels sing,

“Glory to the newborn King.”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Refrain

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Refrain

Source

In the first stanza, Wesley invites us to listen to the angels’ message. In the next two stanzas, he draws us in to worship the newborn King.

If you’d like to explore the biblical themes in greater depth, have a listen to this sermon by Ligon Duncan. Sorry for being brief, but I have some celebrating to do.

Hallelujah, Christ is born!

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Joy, joy, joy!

Tired of hearing and/or singing Joy to The World yet? Hopefully not, because the narratives of the birth of Christ have an undercurrent of joy (that continues through Acts and the epistles, but that’s another post):

  • When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he told him that the son to be born would be a source of joy and delight to both Zechariah and others (Luke 1:14). And so it was at John’s birth Elizabeth’s neighbours and relatives rejoiced with her (Luke 1:57-58).
  • Mary, on meeting Elizabeth, sang the Magnificat which begins with her rejoicing in God her Saviour (Luke 1:47)
  • The angel in the night sky proclaimed to the Bethlehem shepherds good news of great joy (Luke 2:10).
  • Finally, the Magi also rejoiced at seeing the star that had led them to worship the King of the Jews (Matthew 2:10).

Why did God choose to send His joy to an ordinary priest and his barren wife, a young woman in an unimportant village, a bunch of smelly herders, and despised Gentiles? Indeed, if you’re a Christian, why did He send the joy of His salvation to you (1 Peter 1:8-9)?

The short answer is God’s mercy (Romans 9:15-16). For that we rejoice some more and glorify Him, as did the shepherds (Luke 2:20). Don’t ever get jaded. Don’t ever lose your amazement at God’s salvation. Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly!

PS: If this post has left you feeling a little underwhelmed, then click over to The nativity and the art of hiding in plain sight, it’s a great read!

Seed: preserved

The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ
Image via the Brooklyn Museum

In a few days, we’ll be celebrating the miraculous birth of Jesus. Have you ever considered how the fact that it happened at all was a miracle? Allow me to explain how God physically preserved and sustained His promise:

Cain & Abel: In Genesis 3:15, God promises that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. In the very next chapter, unrighteous Cain murders righteous Abel [1]. Could this be the end of God’s promise, over so quickly? Short answer: no.

Abraham & Isaac: God makes childless Abram some gargantuan promises [2]. Abram (later Abraham) has to wait decades until the child of promise, Isaac, is born. Isaac and his wife also struggle to have children. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no difficulty procreating [3]. This whole business of  Abraham’s descendants being a great nation seems implausible.

Jacob:  In his 12 sons, we begin to see some hope. But a famine threatens to wipe the family out [4]. However, God had acted some 20 years earlier in sending Joseph to Egypt and they are saved from famine. The messianic line is safe.

Exodus: Safe until a murderous pharaoh decides some Jewish population control was needed [5]. To keep His plan on track, God used some women: the Hebrew midwives [6], Moses’ mother [7], Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter [8].

80 years later, Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and 40 years after that Joshua led them into the promised land. And thus some of the promises made to Abraham were fulfilled [9].

David: Some centuries later, God chose a ruddy shepherd boy and had him anointed king. The then-king tried to kill him (or have him killed) on a number  of occasions [10]. But David outlived Saul.

God revealed to David that He would establish the kingdom of one of David’s sons forever [11]. In the rest of the account of David’s life, we read of the deaths of his sons Amnon, Absalom and Adonijah. God’s promise isn’t looking very healthy at this point.

Athaliah: She was Ahab’s daughter and Omri’s granddaughter [12], and she married one of David’s descendants. At one point, she went on a killing spree, murdering her own sons and grandsons [13]. Yet again, God used a woman to spare the life of a baby boy [14]. The Davidic line, which had come so close to being snuffed out, was safe.

Babylonian conquest: Not all is well just yet. When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they carried off Jehoiachin, the last rightful heir to the throne [15]. His uncle Zedekiah was then installed as a puppet king. The last hing Zedekiah saw before being blinded by the Babylonians was his sons being killed [16]. So much for the promise of an everlasting Davidic kingdom, it would seem.

Exile: Haman the Agagite devises a plan to kill all Jews in general, and Mordecai in particular [17]. Haman should have listened to his wife [18]. God preserved His people from extermination, and kept the Seed safe.

Jesus’ life: Centuries later, at just the right time [19], God made good on His promise to send a Messiah. Mary’s pregnancy, we assume, was healthy and uneventful. The baby Jesus was preserved from both childhood maladies and the murderous raging of paranoid king Herod. The Seed was preserved right until the hour for which He came [20]. Then the seed died and produced many seeds [21]—the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham!

Revelation 12: This chapter can be understood as a ‘behind the scenes of Christmas’. The dragon first tries to devour the child; when that is unsuccessful he pursues the woman; failing at that he turns on the rest of her offspring [22]. God preserved the seed of the woman.

So what?

Don’t skip over the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Read that mix of familiar and unusual names and let yourself be overwhelmed by the God who keeps His promises for redemption even through the most unpromising of times and people!

Notes:

[1] 1 John 3:12

[2] Genesis 12:2-3, 15:1

[3] Genesis 25:12-18

[4] Genesis 42:1-2

[5] Exodus 1:16

[6] Exodus 1:17

[7] Exodus 2:1-3

[8] Exodus 2:4-10

[9] Genesis 15:13-14, 18-20

[10] 1 Samuel 18:10-11, 17, 19:15, etc.

[11] 2 Samuel 7:11-16

[12] 2 Kings 8:26

[13] 2 Kings 11:1

[14] 2 Kings 11:2-3

[15] 2 Kings 24:8-14

[16] 2 Kings 25:7

[17] Esther 3:6

[18] Esther 6:13

[19] Galatians 4:4

[20] Luke 4:28-30; John 8:58-59

[21] John 12:24

[22] FWIW, I don’t think the woman is Mary, but the personification of God’s covenant people.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

Happy 4th and last Sunday of Advent!

Today’s hymn has been a favourite of mine for about a decade. I love the plaintive melody, and now that I know more about the words, I appreciate it even more. Have a listen:


If you’re feeling adventurous, here it is in Latin, with subtitles of a sort (you only need to watch the first 3.5 minutes, as the rest is a repetition).

The original text for the hymn comes from an 8th century Latin poem comprising seven stanzas. In the course of time and translation, some stanzas have been dropped and different English renderings of the Latin phrases adopted. If you’re thus inclined, you may compare 30 different hymnals. Here’s an eight-stanza version I found:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Refrain
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Refrain

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Refrain

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Refrain

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Refrain

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Refrain

O come, Desire of nations,
bind In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Refrain

[Source]

The first line of each verse refers to a messianic title found in the Old Testament:

Title Reference
Emmanuel Isaiah 7:14
Wisdom Isaiah 28:29
Rod (branch) of Jesse Isaiah 11:1
Day-spring (morning star) Numbers 24:17
Key of David Isaiah 22:22
Lord of might Exodus 19:16
Root of Jesse Isaiah 11:0
Desire of nations Haggai 2:7

In the medieval church, they’d sing one stanza a day during each of the seven days before Christmas. Which means this post is just in time!

Sources, and for more info:

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light

Happy third Sunday of Advent!

Today’s hymn is another one I wasn’t familiar with before starting this series. As always, two renditions:


The original (in German) had twelve verses; I’m glad we have only one in English:

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,
and usher in the morning.
O shepherds, shudder not with fright,
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.
[source, where there’s a second verse written some 2 centuries after this one]

Now for the scripture in the song:

  • The phrase ‘break forth’ in the KJV (the Bible translation in use at the time this hymn was translated) is almost always used in relation to singing, especially in the book of Isaiah.
  • Secondly, the image of light ushering in the morning brings to mind John 1:5, 8:12, 12:46; Malachi 4:2, and maybe even Revelation 21:23.
  • The third and fourth lines allude to Luke 2:8-11, even though those verses contain no warning (I’m guessing that it’s there to rhyme with ‘morning’).
  • The next two lines, I think, can’t be pinned down to a specific verse. Though that doesn’t diminish their veracity in the least!
  • In the seventh line I see Genesis 3:15, John 12:31, Ephesians 4:8, Colossians 2:15, Hebrews 2:14 and 1 John 3:8.
  • In the last line I see Micah 5:5a and Ephesians 2:14,17.

As Christians reflect on those last two lines, we look back to the cross where Christ won the victory for us and we also look forward to the ultimate consummation of the breaking of Satan’s power when Jesus Christ returns with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones (1 Thessalonians 3:13, 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Jude 1:14)!

Let all mortal flesh keep silence

Happy second Sunday of Advent!

Two weeks ago, I’d never heard of this hymn. One week ago, I had over ¾ of it committed to memory. Have a listen to any of the two renditions below:

Audio version (opens in a new window)

Not for the faint of heart, the original Greek version.

Here are the words: [Source]

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

I was intrigued at how—for a hymn I found in the ‘Advent’ section of the hymnal—at how unconcerned it was with the events at Bethlehem. I also wondered at the John 6 reference in the last line of the second stanza. So I did some research.

The words of this hymn are taken from the Liturgy of St James, which as far as I can tell is used only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The hymn is a celebration of the Eucharist, not the Incarnation, as I was informed by a comment under one of the many YouTube videos I sampled. I am thus fully aware that by including it in my Advent roundup, I’m propagating an improper use of the hymn. So why did I choose it?

First, the idea of singing the same song that countless other brothers and sisters in Christ have sung throughout the centuries blew me away. The liturgy of St James is said to go all the way back to the brother of our Lord Jesus, though its current form is from the 4th century. It is always good to remember that God’s redeemed people have been singing to Him long before our time 🙂

Second, I think the hymn does an excellent job  of presenting the incarnation (without all the contemporary sentimental fluff). Yes, Christ did descend as a baby, but he is also King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the object of the angels’ unending praise.

As to scriptural allusions, here’s what I think:

  • The first line is an echo of Habakkuk 2:20 or Zechariah 2:13 or Zephaniah 1:7.
  • The titles ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Lord of Lords’ are found in Revelation 19:16.
  • ‘As of old on earth he stood’ may be an allusion to the last line of Micah 5:2 (the Bethlehem verse)
  • Christ’s taking on human flesh is found in John 1:14.
  • The last two lines of the second stanza allude to John 6:25-59 (the Bread of Life discourse)
  • The themes of light and darkness (stanza 3) are prominent in John’s gospel. Christ is the light of the world (8:12)
  • Isaiah’s vision (6:1-7) introduces us to the six-winged seraphim. Incidentally, their cry, “Holy, holy,holy,” is here modified to “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

And what a climax that is, for the hymn ends with our gaze resting on the Lord Most High!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus

Over the next five Sundays (the four of Advent and Christmas day), I’ll be posting on some of  my favourite hymns of the season. Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we start with Come, thou long expected Jesus. Here are two versions of it:


Why did I choose it? For one, it was written by Charles Wesley. Secondly, it expresses Scripture without exactly quoting from it.

Here’s the text of the hymn (source)

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear Desire of ev’ry nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child, and yet a King,
Born to reign in us for ever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

The first line invites us to view the coming of Christ from an Old Testament believer’s point of view. A connection could be made to Simeon, who in Luke 2:25 was waiting for the consolation (or deliverance or restoration) of Israel (Isaiah 40:1, 49:13, 57:18, 61:2). As the stanza goes on, it is clear that Jesus is not only Messiah of Israel, but also the hope of all the world (Isaiah 49:6, 1 John 2:2).

The second stanza takes on a more New Testament stance. I see allusions to Matthew 1:21, 2:2, 6:10, Colossians 3:1 and Revelation 3:21. Overall, the hymn excels at portraying the double nature of Advent—celebrating Christ’s first coming to earth as we eagerly expect His second coming.

Resources: