Glory to the Newborn King

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Moving into the Christmas season, I’m almost ready to start listening to the Christmas carols.  Popular radio stations jump the gun in my opinion.  December 1st is when I’m ready.

When it comes to Christmas carols, I like the ones that can (and should) be studied as well as sung.  Their content is so rich that you need to really take time and reflect on them.  “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is that kind of song.

Robert Morgan said it perfectly in his book, Then Sings My Soul.  Telling the story behind “Hark! The Herald,” he described the hymns of Charles Wesley like this:  “Each one packed with doctrine, all of them exhibit strength and sensitivity, both beauty and theological brawn.”

Amen to that.  For that reason, I can’t wait to begin a new December sermon series at Bethel Grace Baptist Church.  The series is titled “Glory to the Newborn King.”  It is drawn from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as we explore the all the titles used of Jesus Christ in that biblically rich song.  It will be a great way to learn about the One born in the stable and placed in the manger.

Here is an overview of the series and some amazing history behind the song.  Its original form was quite different from what we sing today.   Either way, it’s a treasured hymn of the Christian faith.  Not only is it my favorite Christmas carol, but one of my favorite songs ever.  I hope this blog will increase your appreciation for it.

The Newborn King 4

Its Author 

Charles Wesley was the brother of John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in the 18th Century.  He was the baby of the family, quite a position when you realize he had 17 older siblings.  Charles had a great musical gift, writing over 6,000 hymns.  The blue hymnal we use at Bethel Grace contains 16 of them.  “Hark! The Herald” is one of his best known.

Its Inspiration

The song’s inspiration came to Wesley’s heart walking to church one Christmas day.  Christmas bells were ringing through London, and his heart was moved.  It must have been something like, “Not only do the city bells ring, but all of creation rings with worship to the newborn King!”  This makes sense of the original lyrics to the song.  In a couple places, they were significantly different than what we sing!

Its Original Form

The lyrics we have are modified from what came from Wesley’s pen.  It’s ironic, because he hated when other pastors adjusted the language of his songs.  But Wesley’s original version of the song sounded forth with this refrain…

“Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of kings!”

“Welkin” is the whole celestial sphere, the stars and sky and the heavens above.  Wesley’s heart was overjoyed that the Creator entered into the creation as a newborn human being, and all heaven and earth rejoices in this truth.  Hearing the bells ringing forth in London on Christmas day stirred his heart with worship.

So… how did we come to get the new version with “angels singing” rather than “welkin ringing”?  George Whitefield of all people made the change!  Whitefield was a traveling preacher during the colonial days of the American history.  He helped spread the Great Awakening in Great Britain and the North American colonies.  In 1754 he published “A Collection of Hymns for Social Worship” and the song appeared with “Hark! The herald angels sing” as the refrain.  I guess he just felt that had a better “ring” to it.

The “collaboration” of Wesley and Whitfield on this song is a good example of how two men, one with Arminian leanings, and another with Calvinist leanings, can work together for the great blessing of the church.

Its Melody

If Wesley had it his way, we’d be singing the song to a different melody than we do.  He had the song written in the same tune used in another one of his songs, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today! Allelujah!”   The tune we know and love was written by Felix Mendelssohn.  Mendelssohn came from a distinguished Jewish family that converted to Christianity and worshiped Jesus.

Originally, Mendelssohn wrote the tune used in “Hark! The Herald” to commemorate Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.  It wasn’t until 1855 that an Englishman named William Cummings combined Mendelssohn’s tune with Wesley’s words.  Most think it was worth the 100-year wait.

Its Theology

The theology contained in the song is as rich as it can be.  As the carol itself would say, “You need to ‘hark.'”  That’s a rather archaic word that means to listen attentively.  Pay close attention!  The “herald angels” are proclaiming glorious truths!   And Wesley truly paid attention to the Word of God and captured rich doctrine in the song.

Though our sermon series will trace the song for the titles of Christ, you can also see the doctrinal emphasis of each stanza.  Notice in the first stanza reconciliation.  In Christ, the hostility between God and man is removed and harmony restored.  In the second stanza, notice incarnation.  The eternal Son of God added humanity to His deity.   He added human flesh to His eternal being.  In the third, stanza notice kenosis.  This is all about the emptying of the self-interest that would have kept Christ enthroned in glory, but moved Him to veil of His deity.  He was born as a man that we might be born again in Him.

I close by posting the lyrics themselves.   Let its theology (study of God) lead to your doxology (worship of God’s glory).

Merry Christmas!

 

Reconciliation & Worship

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 th’ angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Deity & Incarnation

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ, the everlasting Lord;
late in time behold him come,
offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’ incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

Kenosis & Regeneration

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 us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”

And Two Lesser Known Stanzas:

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.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
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.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.


Sources 

Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary Handbook 

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

SongFacts

Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn StoriesRobert J. Morgan 

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