This article was edited and co-authored by Joe Palekas.

In the rush and hurry of the Christmas season in a consumer-based culture, we are quick to pay lip-service to the appropriate Christmas hymns, enjoy them for their nostalgic feel, and then jump right back in to planning our next Christmas party or browsing for the perfect gift. All too often, then, we miss the deep theological and doxological significance of the songs that we sing in this season. It was with this in mind that we explored the song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” last week and mined its depths for a better understanding of what we proclaim when we sing.

With the arrival of Christmas just days away, it is appropriate to explore a hymn based on an angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 2, a host of angels appear to shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night.” They proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest!” This proclamation of God’s glory would be the inspiration for a hymn written in the 18th century by Charles Wesley: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.

Origins of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

This hymn, widely regarded as one of the finest by Charles Wesley, is really a condensed course of biblical doctrine in poetic form. The carol opens with the announcement of the birth of the promised Messiah by the angels to the shepherds and proceeds to teach the truths of the virgin birth, Christ’s Deity, the immortality of the soul, the new birth, reconciliation and peace with God, and eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Charles Wesley, the famous Methodist hymnwriter, was the original author of the song, which first appeared in 1739 in his collection “Hymns and Sacred Poems.” The original text began with, “Hark! How all the welkin [vault of heaven] rings / Glory to the King of kings.” This opening line was rewritten by George Whitefield to be, “Hark! The herald angels sing / Glory to the newborn King.”

Wesley originally intended his hymn to be sung to the same tune as his hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but the tune that we sing today originated in 1855 when English musician William H. Cummings adapted Felix Mendelssohn’s theme found in the second movement of his cantata “Festgesang,” to fit the lyrics of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang” was composed in 1840 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. This tune perfectly expresses the joy and majesty of the angels’ proclamation.

Characteristic of Charles Wesley’s hymn writing, every phrase of this hymn is rich in theology and scriptural truth, clearly proclaiming the gospel in all of its glory. What follows is a systematic exposition of this hymn based on the Scriptural allusions and references scattered throughout. Notice how each verse has a theological focus which helps us, singing this hymn in the 21st century, to grasp the beauty of the Christmas season.

Verse 1: The Joyous Announcement of the Birth of the Promised Messiah, Deliverer, and Redeemer

Hark! the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King

Luke 2:8-15 – And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger. 

Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled

Romans 5:10-11 – For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19 – All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Joyful all ye nations rise, Join the triumph of the skies,

Psalm 67:4Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah.

With the angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem:

Micah 5:2But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

Luke 2:15 – When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

Verse 2: How Did the Promised Messiah Come?

Christ, by highest heaven adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord,

Habakkuk 1:12 – Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One?

Revelation 1:7-8 – Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so, Amen. “I am the Alpha and Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

Late in time behold him come, Offspring of a virgin’s womb!

Galatians 4:4-5 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Matthew 1:18-21 – Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Luke 2:31-35“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.”

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity!

John 1: 1-5In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

John 1:14-18And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. 

Colossians 1:15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel

Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Matthew 1:22-25 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus.

Verse 3: Why Did Jesus Come?

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

Isaiah 9:6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Malachi 4:1-2 – For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.  The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.  You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings;

Isaiah 9:2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.

John 8:12 – Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 12:46 – “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” 

John 10:10 – I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

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:

Philippians 2:7-8 – …but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.

John 3:16-17For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

I Corinthians 6:14 – And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 

I Thessalonians 4:14-7 – For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

1 Peter 1:3 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

Singing, in many ways, is about remembering. The singing of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a rehearsal of that first “Glory to God in the Highest!” Yet, it is also much more. We remember Christ’s first coming, but the words of this beautiful hymn point us forward to his second coming. As we sing of the angels proclaiming the glory of Jesus, one can’t help but think of what the angels will be proclaiming in the future, which is recorded in Revelation 7:9-12.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”

Amen! Come Lord Jesus, come.

Steve Martin is Principal Emeritus at Gensler, a leading international architecture firm, and an ordained Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. An organist, artist, and musician, he has a particular interest in both visual and musical aesthetics and worship.

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