Of all the hymns written about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the words of Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” are among the most theologically dense and substantive–because all five stanzas are filled with Scriptural truths about Jesus. Before considering the Christology of this beautiful carol, though, it will help us to recall a little of the fascinating and ironic history behind it.
Charles Wesley first penned the words of this poem in 1739, a year after his conversion. He originally wrote ten shorter stanzas, without a refrain, and his first two lines were “Hark! How all the welkin rings // Glory to the King of Kings.” Nearly all of us today would ask, “What on earth is a welkin?” A welkin is actually not “on earth” at all. Rather, it is the archaic English word referring to the sky or the celestial sphere where the angels dwell with God.
Fifteen years after Wesley first wrote his poem, his friend, George Whitefield, changed the first two lines to the wording that we sing today. Wesley was not pleased – according to some sources, because he didn’t think the Bible taught that the angels sang, and perhaps also because in Luke 2:14 the angels give glory to God the Father, not God the Son.
Controversy has surrounded not only the words of this hymn, but the music as well. Wesley had intended his song to be sung in a slow, solemn manner, using a tune like the one for his “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” That would prove not be so. In 1840, 100 years after the words were written, the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a piece of music to celebrate the 400thanniversary of Gutenberg’s press. Mendelssohn did not believe that this piece of music was suitable for sacred words. However, the English composer, William Cummings, took Mendelssohn’s music and combined it with Wesley’s words (altered throughout the 18thcentury), and the rest is history.
We now sing a Christmas hymn whose original author didn’t like a number of the words, and whose original composer didn’t think the music should accompany biblical themes! It is, however, one of the greatest songs in our hymnals. In each stanza, Wesley points us a different aspect of Jesus’ person, telling us about the glory of this newborn babe. It will help us to consider each stanza.
- He is the reconciling King.
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!”
Wesley, with Whitefield’s edits, began by calling all the nations to rise and worship triumphantly at the birth of the King of the Jews and the King of the nations. The second through fourth lines are Wesley’s paraphrase of the angelic words in Luke 2:14. The peace of which the angels speak is peace with God for those He has chosen according to His good pleasure. Jesus isn’t merely a King, He is a reconciling King; the Man, Christ Jesus, is the only Mediator between God and man. Our sins separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2), yet in Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself, removing the ground of His alienation from us His people, counting our sins against Jesus rather than against us, and punishing His Son in our place (II Cor. 5:18-21). The angels proclaim peace to the shepherds because Jesus was born to die for the sins of His pepl. He became a man so that He might obey and suffer in our nature. This is cause for joy indeed!
- He is Emmanuel, God with Us
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 th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Jesus is not merely human, but the everlasting Lord of glory. He has come to this world, miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin. Twenty-three of his chromosomes came from Mary, and twenty-three came by the sovereign working of God’s power – not from a man. The baby in the manger is truly God, which is why His name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is Yahweh, pleased as man with men to dwell. As Wesley expresses it in another hymn, “Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made man.” Matthew tells us that the virginal conception and naming of Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” The glory of the manger isn’t just that the babe is God, but that He is God with us. All that the tabernacle and temple foreshadowed is fulfilled in the Word become flesh (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). God becomes man without ceasing to be God, so that He might dwell among us without destroying us with His glory. He desired to be with us, to sympathize with our weaknesses, temptations, and griefs as a man to share our humanity, our infirmities (without sin), our sadness, even our death. Thus with the angels we adore Him!
- He is the Sun of Righteousness
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.
The one who spent nine months in the darkness of Mary’s womb breaks forth as the Sun of Righteousness of Malachi 4:2. Jesus has come as the Light of the world, shining upon those who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:1-2). Wesley, a year removed from the dawning of the gospel light in his own heart, declares that the light that breaks through in conversion first broke through when Jesus, covered in afterbirth, made his first cry in Bethlehem. Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7), so that we might be raised up with Him in newness of life, and be born again to a living hope. He who was rich became poor for our sake, so that we through His poverty might be made rich in life, joy, hope, peace, and glory.
- He is the Snake-Slaying Seed
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.
The fourth stanza gives us a clear reference to Genesis 3:15, the first promise of the gospel, ironically addressed to Satan after the fall of man into sin. Jesus is the ultimate seed of the woman, who came to conquer Satan, to crush his head, even as the great deceiver bruises Jesus’ heel. Rather than having in view the cross/resurrection, the place where Jesus conquered Satan (Hebrews 2:14-15), Wesley individualizes the language of Genesis 3 – “bruise in us the serpent’s head.”
This stanza reflects the teaching of I John 3:8, which speaks to the purpose of the incarnation by declaring, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” The context of that passage is the sin within the life of a Christian (3:8 parallels 3:5, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins”).
This stanza is a prayer for Jesus to come and take residence within us, to powerfully fix up His place in us, as it were, to make our heart His home. It asks Jesus to save us not only from the guilt of sin, but from the power and practice of sin – “ruined nature now restore.” Ruined in Adam, we need restoration. And so Wesley cries for Jesus to unite sinners to Himself in mystic union through faith, to dwell in our hearts through faith, so that we might be conformed to His image rather than the image of Satan.
- He is the Second Adam
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.
Wesley finally turned to Paul’s language from Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15–not to focus on the federal/representative headship of Adam and Jesus (i.e. every single person dying in Adam, and those in Christ being made alive) but on the moral and spiritual kinship we share with our covenant heads. Wesley asked the Lord to efface (i.e. erase and expunge the corruption, rebellion, pride and unbelief) Adam’s likeness within us, and to stamp His own image in its place (Romans 8:29). In Jesus, we regain what was lost in the fall: a relationship with God, and an inner likeness to God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9ff). In conversion we have put off the old man, Adam, and have put on the new man, Jesus, the Second Adam. He is being formed in those who believe (Galatians 4:19), for we are in Him and He is in us by the power of His Holy Spirit. As we behold His glory, we are transformed into His image (II Corinthians 3:18).
And that is ultimately the point of Wesley’s hymn: to show us the glory of the newborn King – a reconciling King; Emmanuel, God with us; the Sun of Righteousness; the Snake-Slaying Seed; and the Second Adam – so that we might believe in Him with all our hearts. May the Lord give us grace to know and love the one of whom we sing.