I will never forget the first time I sang Hark! the Herald Angels Sing as a genuine believer in Jesus Christ. It was Christmas 1984. I had been saved about seven months. For the first time, I understood the words I was singing and I could feel tears begin to well up. The message that had escaped me for nineteen years was now crystal clear as if a floodlight had been turned on.
This famous carol was written by Charles Wesley. Charles and his brother John were major instruments of the Lord’s work during the third great awakening in England. On Sunday, May 21, 1738, after reading Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians, Charles was converted. He testified, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ…I saw that by faith I stood; by the continual support of faith.” John was converted three days later.
After their conversion to Christ, these brothers were filled with an unquenchable zeal for preaching the Good News. However, the established Church of England considered their preaching “old-fashioned” and became closed to their ministry. As a result, they mounted horses and took to open air preaching in the fields and streets. History records that John traveled over 200,000 miles on horseback in England alone. Concerned that “converts” be properly discipled, John formed what became known as Methodist societies, which later developed into churches and eventually a separate denomination itself.
While both brothers were itinerant preachers, Charles possessed a love and talent for poetry, which he used in the writing of more than 7,000 hymns. John Woodbridge, in Great Leaders of the Christian Church, writes, “There was scarcely a day in the fifty years following his evangelical conversion in which he did not set down some lines in verse. His last hymn was dictated from his deathbed when he was too weak to hold a pen.”
Kenneth W. Osbeck writes in 101 More Hymn Stories, “’Hark! the Herald Angels Sing’ is … thought to have been written approximately one year after his dramatic…conversion experience of 1738.” The tune for the carol, which we are familiar with, is called “Mendelssohn” and was written by “one of the master composers of the early nineteenth century, Felix Mendelssohn. He was born into a Jewish-Christian home on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany, and died at Leipzig, Germany, on November 4, 1847. Mendelssohn was a highly acclaimed boy prodigy, making his first public appearance as a pianist, at the age of nine. Felix Mendelssohn was not only a noted performer and conductor, but also a prolific composer throughout his brief life-time.”
Let’s think about the theology of this Christmas carol by noting the main theme of each verse and its developing points. I will then direct you to specific Scriptures which form the basis of these truths.
Verse 1: THE PROMISED ONE HAS COME
Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ With th’angelic host proclaim. Angels are messengers of God who proclaim His announcements.
- Angels brought news to Zechariah that he was to father the forerunner of Christ (Luke 1: 5-25).
- Angels brought the news to Mary and Joseph concerning the birth of the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38).
- Angels announced the birth of Christ to shepherds in the fields (Luke 2:1-21).
“Are they not all ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb 1:14).
Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah. The Jewish people were told by the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Luke 2:1-14 records the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Verse 2: ETERNAL GOD DWELLS WITH MORTAL MAN
Christ the everlasting Lord!
- Jesus Christ is eternal God (Micah 5:2; John 1:1; Rev 1:8)
- Jesus Christ was born at God’s perfect time. Late in time behold Him come does not mean His birth was late. No, it was at the perfect time. “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5).
- Jesus Christ is virgin born. Offspring of the virgin’s womb (See Isa 7:14 and Luke 1:26-27). This of course was fulfilled by the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary so that she conceived the child supernaturally.
- Jesus Christ is the God-man. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity, pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. “For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him” (Col 1:19).
Meditate on the humility of the Son of God, which moved Him to give us His life in order to purchase ours.
Verse 3: RIGHTEOUS GOD REGENERATES UNRIGHTEOUS MAN
Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness.
- Jesus Christ came to provide peace with God. Faith in the prophesied Prince of Peace is the only way for us as sinners to be at peace with God (Rom 5:1).
- The resurrection of Christ ensures spiritual life for all who believe. Light and life to all He brings, ris’n with healing in His wings. Consider Romans 6:4.
- God regenerates sinners by means of the new birth. Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. The Scriptures are clear that God is the Author of the new birth. The Holy Spirit, by means of the Word of God, is responsible for the regeneration of lost, spiritually dead souls (See, for example, John 3:8 and 1 Pet 1:23).
Verse 4: THE SECOND ADAM RECREATES HIS IMAGE IN BELIEVERS
Rise, the woman’s conq’ring seed, bruise in us the serpant’s head.
- The indwelling Christ provides victory over sin and the devil. (See Gal 2:20 and Heb 2: 14-15).
- The indwelling Christ replaces sin with righteousness. Adam’s likeness now efface, stamp Thine image in its place: Second Adam from above, reinstate us in Thy love (See Rom 5:17; 2 Cor 3:18).
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing is a concise theology. It has endured the test of time because of its solid, rich, biblical message which the angels announced.
- The eternal Son of God fulfilled the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s coming when He voluntarily laid aside His glory, was veiled in human flesh, and born of a virgin in Bethlehem.
- He came to reconcile man to God by becoming the means to obtaining peace and righteousness through His sacrificial death on the cross.
- Having been raised from the dead, He ever lives to give life to spiritually dead sinners causing them to become new creations of God who can live in the victory of his resurrection power.
What a great message! What a great song!