Hark The Herald Angels Sing

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!”

Introduction

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is our fourth installment of the Twelve Days of Christmas Carols. We are slowly reaching more “modern” hymns, so unlike O Come, All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing underwent one revision for lyrics and for music.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is a beautiful carol celebrating the angelic chorus at the birth of Christ. Drawing on the Christmas narrative of Luke 2, the hymn masterfully depicts, lyrically and musically, the joyous climax–not culmination–of the gospel story in the Incarnation and eventually, the death and resurrection of Christ.

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History of the Hymn 

Many of the Christmas carols we sing have a rich theological tradition, Hark the Herald Angels Sing being no exception. Charles Wesley, an English Methodist leader and hymn writer and brother to the famous evangelistic theologian and founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, authored the hymn. In fact, Wesley wrote over 6,000 hymns, more than any other male hymnist (Fanny Crosby wrote around 8,000 herself).

Charles’ goal in writing hymn was to teach the poor and illiterate sound doctrine. His brother, John, once declared that Charles’ hymnal was the best theological book in existence. Some believe that Methodism was born in song and that Charles was the chief songwriter.

Inspired by the sounds of London church bells while walking to church on Christmas Day, Wesley wrote the “Hark” poem about a year after his Aldersgate conversion. His intention was that the poem would be recited on Christmas Day. The poem first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739. Hark the Herald Angels Sing was neither his title nor the words of the first line. The original hymn was ten four-line verses long, and began, “Hark, how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.”

‘Welkin’ derives from an Old English word meaning ‘cloud.’ In the poem, the word translates to the ‘vault of the sky’ or the ‘celestial abode of God.’ This term supported the common 18th century notion of the three-tiered universe, where the top tier includes the celestial beings, the lowest tier the normal activities of humanity (birth, death, marriage, work, sickness) and the natural created order (rain, drought, natural disasters), and the middle tier where celestial beings influence the activities of beings and events on earth with their superhuman powers.

Thus, Wesley’s first line meant, “Hark, how all the vault of heaven rings, glory to the king of kings.” Clearly, though, the word is archaic and we no longer sing the original lyrics of the hymn. Nor do we sing the original melody. Wesley sang this hymn to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.”

In 1753, George Whitefield, a student and eventual colleague of Wesley’s, adapted the poem into the song we now know–and love–today. Whitefield actually penned the phrase the “newborn King.”

Whitefield changed the first line of Wesley’s hymn to “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King.” A rough and tumble man, Whitefield did not bother to ask Wesley’s permission to make the change—perhaps knowing that Wesley would never approve. He just made the change, which included eliminating verses and adding new ones as well, and began using it in his great evangelistic meetings, where the adapted version quickly became popular.

In fact, Wesley was incensed—both that Whitefield had altered the words and that he had not asked permission to do so. Others had made amendments to Wesley’s hymns, and he resented them all. At one point, he wrote, “Many gentlemen have done my brother and me… the honor to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are.” He went on to state that, if anyone insisted on making changes, they should print a disclaimer absolving the Wesleys “for the doggerel of other men.”

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Musicality of the Hymn

As mentioned, the tune to which people sang the hymn changed. As Wesley was somber, he requested slow and solemn music for his lyrics. Obviously, Hark the Herald Angels Sing no longer bears a morose or dirge-like melody. One hundred years after the hymn was written, in 1840, English musician William H. Cummings would adapt Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata, ‘Festgesang’–written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press–to fit the lyrics of the carol.

First Change

First published under the title “Hymn for Christmas Day” in ten shorter stanzas, each stanza was half the length of the stanzas we sing today. The modern hymn is the result of many alterations by numerous individuals and hymnal editorial committees. In fact, Whitefield’s alteration of “King of kings” to “newborn King” caused great controversy. The former claims that the angels praised God the Father when Jesus was born, the latter claims Jesus Himself was praised. This change of the words created a rift between Whitefield and Wesley.

In regards to the first line, Wesley scholar and professor at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Ted Campbell, comments on Whitefield’s modification of the first line with characteristic humor: “I have wondered if anybody but Charles knew what a ‘welkin’ was supposed to be. Maybe John looked at the draft version and said, ‘It’s ever so lovely, Charles, but whatever on earth is a ‘welkin’?’ So, all the more reason to give thanks for the editorial work of George Whitefield.”

The familiar first line we sing today sets up the opening stanza as an expansion of the angelic song in Luke 2:14. Rather than exerting influence in the form of spirits, demons, or other beings said to inhabit the middle zone of the three-tiered universe, God, through the Incarnation, comes directly to earth in human form. The change in the opening line is perhaps the most significant alteration of the many that have taken place in this hymn over the centuries.

Second Change

The second notable change from the original is the addition of the refrain, reiterating the first phrase of Luke 2:14. This came about for musical reasons. As mentioned, Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata, ‘Festgesang,’ celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of moveable type by Johannes Gutenberg. A chorus from this cantata was adapted and paired with Wesley’s text in The Congregational Psalmist (1858) by William H. Cummings. A famous and influential hymn collection, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), carried this arrangement and helped to standardize its form and promote its broader use.

Pairing the tune with Wesley’s text caused two additional changes from the original. Two of Wesley’s short stanzas were combined to fit the longer tune; a refrain, repeating the first two lines of stanza one, was added to accommodate the tune. Undoubtedly, most of the alterations to Wesley’s original text combined with Mendelssohn’s rousing tune have helped to make this one of the most festive and popular of Christmas hymns.

Personally, I approve of the musical alterations. In Luke 2, we do not find angels singing a solemn chorus of praise and joy at the birth of the Messiah. Instead, the heavenly choir exults with infinite delight in the unfolding of God’s plan. They find intense pleasure in glorifying the Lord of Hosts. It is a significant occasion, but not one that requires a somber adagio. Instead, the adapted lyrics and music fit the magnificent miracle of the virgin birth and the Incarnation.

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Theology of the Hymn

The opening lines of Hark the Herald echo Luke 2:14, in which the angels proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” Immediately, the hymn writer established a cosmic connection between the heavenly chorus and our hope for peace on earth. While many Christmas carols recount, in one way or another, the Christmas narrative, Wesley provides a dense, rich theological interpretation of the Incarnation.

First Stanza

Wesley begins not with the prophets, the Annunciation to Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, nor the search for a room in the inn, but in media res – in the middle of the thing (story). Rather than citing the final phrase of Luke 2:14 – “good will toward men” – he offers his theological interpretation – “God and sinners reconciled,” which is true peace and joy. Note also that lines 2, 3, and 4 of the opening stanza are placed in quotation marks, an indication that they are virtually citations from Scripture. Furthermore, Wesley includes his theological interpretation of the last poetic line within the quoted material indicating the strength and authority of his perspective.

Within the first stanza, then, Wesley captures the picture of the angels appearing to the shepherds out in the fields, telling them of the Messiah’s birth. He also got it right that “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men” did not mean world peace as we define it today. Rather, it means that God would provide the means by which his creatures, and all creation, would be restored in relationship with the Creator.  

Second Stanza

The second stanza reads:

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!”

This verse drips with allusions to John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.” Jesus came, as a man, to live with men, to be ‘God with us.’ He was pleased–delighted–to obey the Father. Christ, the everlasting Lord, the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, stepped into time and space to redeem and restore His People.

“Though he was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 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.”

Philippians 2:6-8 (ESV)

Also, in case you were wondering, ‘late in time’ probably refers to Galatians 2:2, when Paul writes, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” If you’d like to know more about that particular phrase, click here.

Third Stanza

In the third stanza of the hymn, Wesley carries on similar themes, writing:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun 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!”

The first two lines deal with titles given to the Messiah in the Old Testament. “Prince of Peace” comes from Isaiah 9:6, which reads, “His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The “sun of righteousness is, as previously referenced, from Malachi 4:2. Hence Wesley’s fourth line, “Ris’n with healing in His wings.”

In the latter part of the stanza, Wesley moves to Christ’s mission: to bring eternal life to those who believe in him. Christ was born that man no more may die. Jesus said that God sent him so that those who believed in him would not perish but have everlasting life (Jn 3:16), would be “born again” (Jn 3:3). 

The “second” or “new birth” was essential to Wesleyan theology in light of a controversy with the Moravians. The importance of this John Wesley illustrated in his sermon, “The Marks of the New Birth,” which provides an extensive scriptural basis for his view. As a result of Christ’s resurrection, there will also be the resurrection from the dead for all believers. John 6:40 records Jesus’ words, “For this is the will of my father, that everyone who looks on the son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Final Four Stanzas

The final four stanzas of Wesley’s original are usually omitted. This is understandable as they are theologically and biblically dense with allusion and, perhaps, not as poetic as the oft-quoted stanzas. However, they provide insight into Wesley’s theology of the Incarnation:

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 power,
Ruined 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:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart

The allusions to Scripture and various Wesleyan theological concepts are numerous. “Desire of nations” is a reference drawn from Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come . . ..” Handel incorporated this passage into Messiah (1741) in a bass solo in the Christmas portion of the oratorio. John Mason Neale, translating the Latin hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel also cited this reference into the final stanza of his hymn: “O come, Desire of nations, bind/in one the hearts of all mankind.”

Wesley often used the words, “mystic union,” a Moravian concept that he incorporated into Wesleyan theology in the second stanza cited above. In the third stanza, we are reminded of imago Dei in the phrase, “Stamp Thine image in its place,” taking on the image of God in place of the image of sinful Adam, a reference to the Wesleyan concept of sanctification.

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Concluding Thoughts

Each Christmas season we are invited by this venerable hymn to join the angels in swelling the cosmic chorus. Hark the Herald Angels Sing is not just the angels’ singing; it is all creation joining our voices together in praise and adoration of our Savior. 

So join this Christmas, open your heart, lift high your head, and 

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

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