First Thoughts

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

One of the first Christmas hymns that Charles Wesley wrote happens to be one of the greatest Christmas Carols of all time. How is that for beginner’s luck? In fact, many consider it one of the greatest hymns ever written (for any season). This is a remarkable feat, given that Wesley went on to compose over 6,500 hymns. He originally called it a “Hymn for Christmas Day.” He first wrote it in 1739 when he was 32 years old. It has since become one of the most beloved Christmas carols of Christendom, including us. Baptists have been singing this Methodist hymn for almost 175 years!

The original first line was “Hark, how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings.” Most people today don’t know what “the welkin” is, and you may have already looked that word up while reading that last sentence. The welkin is derived from an Old English word, weolcan, which means the clouds, sky, or celestial abode of God. Now that makes much more sense. The heavens are ringing! We know that the heavens displayed a great celebration the night Jesus was born. But we would never refer to it as “the welkin” today. (Which sounds like a menacing movie quote–“Release the welkin!”)

George Whitefield, a famous preacher during the Great Awakening and friend of Wesley, helped the hymn along by taking out the reference to the “welkin” and instead placed the impetus for these words in the announcement of the angels. They were the source of the ringing, and it makes more sense to feature them in this carol of proclamation (which changed the title since titles are often derived from the first line of the hymn). He also replaced the reference to the “King of kings” and instead emphasized the arrival of “the newborn King.”

Since Whitefield’s alterations were published in 1752, the church has been singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” each Christmas. But have you stopped to think about what a “Herald Angel” is? It is not a male name for an angel. A “herald” is an official messenger who brings important news. It is often used to refer to an official messenger from someone in authority to those under his authority–like a Regal to his subjects with a proclamation of good news from the King (“Hear Ye, Hear Ye…”). This reflects the scene that Luke paints for us in Luke 2:10–11:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The message the angels bring holds profound theological significance, and Wesley has captured that in one of the most theologically rich Christmas carols we sing (some have identified more than 25 scripture references in these verses).

In verse 1, we sing about the doctrine of reconciliation:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

In verse 2, we find profound words about the mystery of the incarnation:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

Finally, verse 3 provides the promise of substitutionary atonement that this newborn King will provide:

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.

Wesley’s first Christmas hymn provides both a celebrative sound and a deeply theological text for celebrating Christmas. In ways that exceed most other carols, “Hark! The Herald Angel Sings” provides the full, rich gospel story. It doesn’t just celebrate the birth of a newborn King. It foreshadows the sacrifice of that King’s death that will bring eternal life. By his death, we are given life. In his birth, we receive second birth. Rejoice as you sing this hymn today!

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Risen 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
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”

Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”

Chorus

Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”
“Glory to the new-born king”


Scott Connell (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

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