Christmas Carol Theology: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
Since Pastor Michael will be preaching on the angel’s song in Luke 2:14 this Sunday, it seemed appropriate to write on the theology of my favorite Christmas song: “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Originally written by Charles Wesley in 1739, this song has gone through a few significant lyrical edits. In fact, it was George Whitfield himself who changed the first lines from “Hark, how all the Welkin [archaic term for the heavenly realm] rings/‘Glory to the Kings of Kings’” to the familiar “HARK! the Herald Angels sing/‘Glory to the new-born King’” You can see a helpful chart of the songs development over time here.
While this song brings to mind the declaration of the angelic host, the core doctrine of the song is the Incarnation, or the Son of God’s entrance into the world as a human.
Sidenote: The word “hark” is not a word that is commonly used today, but all it really means is: Listen, pay attention!
1. 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 th'angelic hosts proclaim, "Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
The first verse announces the birth of the “newborn King” and makes a poetic reference to the announcement of the angels to the shepherds in Luke 2:14: ““Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The angels declared that the birth of “Christ the Lord” would result in reconciliation and peace between God and men (Lk 2:11). The birth of this child was certainly “good news of great joy… for all the people,” and Wesley rightly desired all nations to join in the proclamation and celebration of the birth of the Savior of the world! We are then invited to proclaim specifically that “Christ is born in Bethlehem” (this is another Whitfield edit). As we see in Matthew 2:5-6, Christ’s birthplace is a fulfillment of Micah 5:2, which promised that the “one who is to be the ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from ancient days” would arise from Bethlehem. By declaring that Christ was indeed born in Bethlehem, we are declaring the faithfulness of God to fulfill His promises, even one that was made over 700 years before the birth of Christ!
2. 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 th'incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.
The second verse deals specifically with the second Person of the Trinity, the Son, taking on human flesh through a virgin birth. We start by singing of Christ’s eternality, that He was the “everlasting Lord” adored by all the heavenly host, and by the Father Himself. It’s this high and lofty position of the Son that makes the next few lines so incredible. Though He was the heavenly Lord, Christ “emptied himself” and “became flesh” through His birth to the virgin, Mary (Jn 1:14; Phil 2:7). This is incredible for two reasons.
- First, it is amazing that Christ, the glorious Son who was worthy of everlasting and maximum glory, was “veiled in flesh” by becoming a human. Christ veiled the fullness of His glory behind the ordinariness of His humanity; this is evidenced at the Transfiguration, when Christ “was transfigured before [James, John, and Peter], and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matt 17:2). This was a glimpse into the glory of the Son, yet He chose humbly to veil and conceal the fullness of His glory. What humility our Savior has.
- Second, Christ’s virgin birth is an incredible miracle. It testifies to the the faithfulness of God to fulfill the promise He made in Isaiah 7:14 as well as the promise that He made to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. It also demonstrates the holiness and uniqueness of Jesus Christ; only He has been conceived by God without a human father (Lk 1:35). Thus, He is called “holy- the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). God did not send a mere human to be the saving Messiah, He sent a Savior who, as fully God and fully man, could be the mediator between us and God (2 Tim 2:5).
It is because of these truths that we can sing that Jesus is “our Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matt 1:23). God Himself entered earth in flesh and dwelt among us, sinful man, for 30 years. It is because of this that the author of Hebrews can write:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
3. 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 we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
The third verse of the song focuses on the work of Christ that He would accomplish thirty years after His birth. However, we are first instructed to “Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace” and “The Sun of Righteousness.” These titles for Christ are direct references to the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 9:6 and Malachi 4:2. Wesley decided to write more in reference to Malachi 4:2, which says “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.” Wesley sees this connecting to the resurrection of Christ, and he goes on to write the last three lines of the stanza on this connection. He gives three reasons for the birth of Christ.
- First, Christ was born that “we no more may die.” Christ died in our place upon the Cross, but this could have never occurred if Christ did not take on flesh that could be crucified. In fact, Philippians 2:5-11 tells us that a main purpose of the incarnation is the Crucifixion. Christ’s “act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5:18). Romans 6:8–9 connects this truth very personally to the life of every believer: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”
- Second, Christ was born to “raise us from the earth.” Christ’s resurrection is now ours in the form of spiritual resurrection (what Paul calls “newness of life” Rom 6:4), but it is also the promise of a future literal resurrection unto a glorified body (Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 15, Col 2:13). Christ’s resurrection happened to His actual human body, and transformed it. The same will happen to those who believe in Christ. Our new body, according to Paul, will be “imperishable… raised in glory… power… spiritual” (1 Cor 15:42-44). Without the incarnation, there is no resurrection!
- Third, Christ was born to “give us second birth.” As seen already, without the incarnation, there cannot be a crucifixion, and without a crucifixion, there cannot be a resurrection. If you don’t have these things, you don’t have the Gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5)! The apostle Peter says that we can only be born again “through the living and abiding word of God… and the word is the good news [gospel] that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:23, 25). Without the birth of Christ, there is no second birth.
Truly, there is so much more that could be said about the rich doctrine of this hymn! As you sing it throughout the Christmas season, remember the incredible work that has been accomplished through the Incarnation of the Son of God and sing with the angels: “Glory to the newborn King.”