Every year Christmas arrives again, and every year I find myself once again surprised and amazed by the wonderful depth and truth of our most cherished Christmas hymns. I don’t really know why I still get so surprised each year; I suppose eleven months on the shelf is long enough for these songs to seem brand new every time we dust them off! One song which I find to be particularly rich and encouraging is slowly approaching its 300th birthday: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, written by the great hymnist Charles Wesley in the year 1739.
What strikes me most about this song is its clear and distinct theological depth. Wesley was not content to write a hymn that merely says, “Jesus is born!” It may begin there, but soon afterwards it tells us why the angles were singing— it tells us who Jesus is and tells us about the true nature of His saving work. And by this rich description of Jesus, this song puts the gospel clearly on display.
The first verse gives us the announcement we have rightly come to expect from a good Christmas hymn. The angels all sing to the shepherds in the field, “Glory to the newborn king! Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
The second verse tells us who Jesus really is—“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” He is “By highest heaven adored. The everlasting Lord.” He is “Our Immanuel,” who was pleased to dwell with us in spite of our brokenness and in spite of His infinite greatness.
Finally, the third verse gives us a sense of Jesus’ mission and purpose. “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.” Jesus didn’t come to this earth only to reign as a glorious king. Instead, he laid His glory down to save a broken world from sin. Through His perfect obedience and perfect sacrifice, all who believe in Him are given a second birth and raised to new life with Him forever.
Jesus’ arrival was indeed great news. In fact, it was the greatest news of all. And in a very special way, this long-treasured hymn reminds us why. As we wait with anticipation this Advent season, I would encourage you to take a moment to slow down, push past the familiarity, and be surprised and amazed once again by the great depth and hope of this wonderful Christmas hymn!
All the best,
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 angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel. [Refrain]
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. [Refrain]