Many Christmas hymns have amazing theology in their words. One perfect example is Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Charles Wesley. Its words wonderfully express the wonder and blessing of Christ’s coming along with the somber reminder that He came to die. The following is an exposition of the verses along with some of the scripture that they reference.
A short history
The words were written by Charles Wesley after he was inspired by the sounds of London church bells while walking to church on Christmas Day. The poem first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739 with the opening line of “Hark, how all the welkin (heaven) rings, glory to the King of kings.” George Whitefield altered it to the familiar opening line over the protests of the author in 1753. Wesley assumed the words would be sung to the same tune as his hymn, Christ the Lord is Risen Today. However, the tune most closely associated with the hymn was originally composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 for a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. In 1855 – after Mendelssohn’s death – Dr. William Cummings put the words and music together in spite of Mendelssohn’s instructions that his music not be used for sacred purposes. (Source: Songfacts.com)
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 host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
The angels that appear to the shepherds actually say, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Lk 2:14). God sends His Son to glorify Himself. As is so often the case, we benefit from God’s purposes – we have peace with God as He reconciles us to Himself in order to glorify Himself. When we understand the full impact of His coming we rise joyfully and join the triumph of the skies. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation (Rom 5:11).
Christ, by highest Heav’n adored; Christ the everlasting Lord;
We must understand Who comes. He is God. He comes from highest heaven. He is eternal and His Lordship is forever. …because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful (Rev 17:14).
Late in time, behold Him come, offspring of a virgin’s womb.
The Messiah has been promised for thousands of years. God promised Him after the first sin, and His people have longed and waited for generations (any follower of God knows He can be achingly slow in fulfilling His promises – a thousand years is as one day to Him). When Messiah DOES come, He comes in a way no one expected – as the child of a woman scandalously pregnant before marriage, as a miraculous birth to a virgin.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
He is the second Person of the Trinity and yet He is flesh. God becomes man! The Creator becomes a creature! He willingly takes on humanity to glorify the Father by redeeming us. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).
Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, ris’n with healing in His wings.
He is the Prince of Peace because He restores peace between man and God. He brings light to a dark world ruled by sin, and life to mankind living under the penalty of death. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn 1:4). Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). But for you who fear My name the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). The sun rises. It is a new dawn, a new beginning, bringing healing for old wounds, and light, and life. This is a sun of righteousness, a righteousness that will bring the fulfillment of hope for a truer and better world. It is embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The sun rises; unto us a Son is born. (J.R. Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns.)
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.
He willingly lays EVERYTHING aside to redeem us. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich (II Cor 8:9). We cannot overstate this. He lays aside His glory, His intimacy with the Father, His sinlessness – all to become human and pay the price we could not (we have NO hope apart from Him – we are dead to God and destined for hell). He is born that we may no longer die. We must remember amidst the joy of Christmas that His purpose in coming is to die. In His death He gives us a second birth (Jn 3:1-21). We are born again with a new nature and a new reason for living.
Come, Desire of nations, come, fix in us Thy humble home;
He does not leave us alone. He leaves His Spirit to indwell us, to make us more like Him and to enable us to obey and serve Him. We long for His presence in our lives and exult in our everlasting union. Remember His final words to His disciples: …and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt 28:20b).
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.
God told the serpent in Genesis 3 that the serpent would bruise the heal of the Seed of woman, but in so doing his head would be crushed. Christ is the victorious Seed who destroys the rule of sin in our lives and restores to us our intended nature. We are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to our Creator. The righteous order is restored and our lives transformed. God pardons and restores and gloriously unites to Himself all who call upon Him in faith.
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.
This is the ultimate prayer of the redeemed. “Scrape off the image of sin that is ours from the womb – replace it with the image of our Savior. No longer allow us to run headlong into hell amidst our sin – take it from us and give to us Yourself.” Jesus – the second Adam (For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive – I Cor 15:22) – comes to free us from our sin and reinstate us into fellowship with our Creator. What was lost in the Garden is now restored. Our intimacy with the Son is regained and we have Him in all things – our lives, our hearts, our inner man. We have HIM in our souls and we have HIM to walk with us and we have HIM to protect us and guide us and make us more and more like HIM. What we were created for is ours again – we live in a fallen world but we live for the glory of our Creator and experience His love and favor.
Wesley’s original version
Hark, how all the welkin rings, “Glory to the King of kings;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
Universal nature say, “Christ the Lord is born to-day!”
Christ, by highest Heaven ador’d, 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 men to appear, Jesus! Our Immanuel here!
Hail, the heavenly 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 them second birth.
Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering 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 Thy 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, Form’d in each believing heart.