Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

By Tim Sullivan


Christmastime is my favorite season of the year, not only for the warm time of fellowship among friends and relations, but also for the special time of honor for the miracle of Christ's first coming. A great part of my joy comes in breaking out the songsheets for some of the great Christmas hymns, songs that are rich in lyric and melody. One of my favorites is called "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

The lyrics to this song were written by Charles Wesley, brother to John. They were first published in 1739 in a collection he called Hymns and Sacred Poems, making them at least 37 years older than the United States. Interestingly, Wesley wrote "Hark! How all the welkin rings," welkin being an archaic term for the firmament. Wesley's co-worker George Whitefield changed these words to the familiar, though less Scripturally accurate, words we know today. Many are the songleaders who like to point out, often with their noses lifted skyward, that the Bible has no record of angels singing.

Wesley intended his words to be sung to the same melody as his Easter hymn, "Christ the Lord is Risen today." The tune that became associated with Wesley's lyrics was actually composed about 100 years later by Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn himself thought this particular composition Festgesang was too secular for a sacred song.

Like many others before me, I was moved to look at many of the Scriptural passages that were the basis of Wesley's lyrics. I was left in awe of the theological depth of this Christmas hymn. The heart of the message would grace any church pulpit. That these riches are presented in meter and rhyme is almost beyond my comprehension.

The first verse transports us back to that holy night when the angels brought tidings of great joy to the shepherds in the field:

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 the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Luke 2:8-14:
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The wonder of Christ's first coming could only be overshadowed by its purpose. Jesus did not come to earth to mete out our most deserved punishment for dishonoring and neglecting the Almighty God. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:5). And yet, when God put himself into the midst of man's world, he did so under the covering of human flesh. That is the theme of Wesley's second verse:

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

As Hebrews 1:6 says, "When he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him." Christ is everlasting, "the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Hebrews 13:8). He came into the world at his appointed hour. "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman" (Galatians 4:4), that woman being the virgin of Isaiah's prophecy. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).

"In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily," says Colossians 2:9. He is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature" (Colossians 1:15). He was with God in the beginning (John 1:1), and then came the wondrous miracle:

John 1:14:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

"Pleased as man with man to dwell," wrote Wesley. Jesus "took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men," says Philippians 2:6. He is Emmanuel, "which being interpreted is, God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son 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
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

To "hail" is to praise, and who deserves it more than the "heav'n-born" (not earth-born!) Son of God? Wesley's third stanza recalls two great prophecies, one from Isaiah and the other from Malachi. "His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace," says Isaiah 9:6. "Unto you that fear my name," says Malachi 4:2, "shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings." And yet he did not come to be praised. He came into the world knowing he would be put to death by the very people he came to save! Jesus said, "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). He laid aside his glory and "he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8).

John 12:27
Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.

He was born that mortal man would die no more, but be raised in the resurrection of life. "He that believeth in me," said Jesus, "though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25). After that, "there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain" (Revelation 21:4). All this was accomplished through the miracle of the second birth, by which man is "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever" (1 Peter 1:23). We are born again by the word of God which was with God in the beginning and was made flesh. Jesus is "THE WORD which liveth and abideth for ever."

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,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

It is in Haggai 2:7 that Jesus is called, "The desire of all nations." People everywhere want peace, joy, and love. How tragic it is to see them reject the only one who can fulfill their heart's desire! The Son of God can dwell among us, no longer limited by the flesh, but through his word and his Spirit. "If a man love me," said Jesus, "he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him" (John 14:23). Wesley's lyric brings us back to the covenant God made with Adam after the fall. Jesus is "the woman's conqu'ring Seed," and because we have been born of that seed, the serpent's work in us is bruised. His saving power is great, for "he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). And now, through the great mystery pictured in marital love, Christ and his church are made one. Ephesians 5:32 says, "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church."

The final stanza is a prayer that Jesus might do a mighty work in us, at the same time reminding us of how such a thing is accomplished.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn king."

To "efface" is "to eliminate or make indistinct by, or as if by, wearing away a surface." The old nature is only completely put off by the death of the flesh, but in this life, it is worn away by putting on the new nature. The Holy Spirit works within us to replace sinful habits with holy ones.

2 Corinthians 3:18:
But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

To God be the glory (and not Charles Wesley!). He alone is the Alpha and Omega, the author and finisher of our faith. But I thank God for the life of such a man whose heart was so filled with the Spirit and the Word of God that he could give us such lyrics. Mendelssohn's concern about using this particular melody is justified; the words can get lost in such a happy tune. All who sing this Christmas carol will not do so with a "believing heart." But when you sing it in faith, "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19), you will be lifted up out of the doldrums of daily existence and into the joy of the Lord.

1 John 5:11-12:
11 And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
12 He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.


Presented December 9, 2018 in Pride, Louisiana