This hymn was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of the famous evangelist John Wesley. The Wesleys were mightily used of God in the revivals in England in the seventeen hundreds. But they were banned from the Anglican Church. For one thing, they disagreed with some of the doctrines of the church; for another, their methods were different from those of other preachers.
Charles is also the author of other hymns such as “Love Divine, All Love Excelling,” and another of my favorites, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain An Interest In My Savior’s Blood?” and “Jesus Lover of My Soul.”
Yet, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” was the only song written by Charles Wesley that made it into the Church of England’s Common Book of Prayer. There is a story, perhaps, true, that a printer needed one more hymn to fit into the hymnal and thus the song was added. Attempts were made to remove the hymn, but because of its popularity it was allowed to remain.
Though “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” was appeared in ten stanzas with four lines each, today it has been reduced to four stanzas with ten lines each. Wesley often wrote his hymns quickly, without polishing them. There have been many alterations throughout the years, though we can be sure that the “gist” of the original has been retained.
This Christmas carol would probably have remained in relative obscurity, were it not for the fact that in 1840, Germany’s boy wonder, Felix Mendehlsson wrote an opera which later included the song. This popularized it and gave it a permanent position in the hearts of millions. Today it stands as one of our best loved Christmas carols.
To “Hark!” means to listen. The angels invite us to join them in praise to Christ. And the message they brought changed the world forever. “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased’” (Luke 2:13-14).
Luke wants us to understand that the angel appeared when it was dark; the shepherds were watching their flocks “by night.” The angels arrested the attention of these men with news that would change the world forever. We do well to “Hark” that is, to listen with care at the message they brought that night.
We can identify with the fear of the shepherds. When the first angel appeared, we read, “The glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were terribly frightened.” We would have also been frightened by their heavenly apparition. We would have been frightened to see a light brighter than the sun; the very light of a holy God. This mighty blaze lit up the heavens and turned midnight into midday. This was the shekinah glory, the heavenly light, the essence of God. The last time it appeared in Israel was when the temple was destroyed and the glory disappeared over the Mount of Olives. And now it returns to the outskirts of Bethlehem!
The cloud of glory exposes the sin of humanity. It is also the cloud that led God’s people in the desert. This return of glory in Bethlehem was a sign that the curse of the last 400 years was lifted and the presence of God had returned to encourage and bless. And now the angels sing of this glory. “Glory to God in the highest!”
The angels had been present at creation. They had seen Jehovah fashion the planets; they had seen many a star tossed into the endless reaches of space. But this time when they saw God step from his throne and become a baby, they lifted their voices in higher praise.
God is glorified in every drop of water; He is magnified in ever flower. He is glorified in every bird that sings; “But sing O universe till thou has exhausted thyself, thou canst not afford a song as sweet as the incarnation” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon. We echo his sentiments. Indeed, this song of redemption is more glorious than the song of creation. What justice is here: God has become man that He might be just and “the justifier of all who believe in Jesus.” What power is here, as God lays aside his glory and becomes a man; Behold, what faithfulness; what love. What wisdom is found in that one person can be called the son of man and the son of God.
Again I quote Spurgeon, “All the attributes of God were in that little child most marvelously displayed and veiled. Conceive the whole sun to be focused to a single point and yet so softly revealed as to be durable by the most tender eye, even thus the glorious God is brought down for man to see him born of a woman.” Well might the angels call us to attention.
Joy was offered to the shepherds to replace their fear. “Do not be afraid!” the angel assures them. “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” We are invited to join the shepherds and shake off our fears. Fear came into this world because of sin. Before they sinned, Adam and Eve had no fears; after they sinned they were afraid and “hid themselves from the presence of Lord God among the trees of the garden.”
Now, we are by nature enemies of God and have every reason to fear Him. But we also fear one another; we fear the future, we fear violence, and old age. We fear loneliness and sickness. Meet any person and he will have secret fears. Some of these fears may be proper. Fear of God’s judgment should make us flee to Christ who shelters us from His wrath.
But fear of death, poverty, violence, and sickness is quite another matter. If we believe that Christ came to reconcile us to God, we know that the most important questions in our lives have been answered. Christ has enabled us to prepare for eternity, thus we are quite ready to deal with the struggles in what we call time. If we need no longer fear death, we need fear nothing else.
Why can we cease fearing, “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Christ has come to take God’s enemies and win them over as friends. God had no obligation to do so. When our first parents broke the bonds of the covenant, God might have said, as he did to Lucifer, “I Give thee up, O Adam, and cast off thy race…” But the birth of Christ causes us to rejoice because God has come to be reconciled to us. We are not utterly cursed, for God has become one of us.
When the angel said that “A Savior has been born for you,” they were announcing that God had, as it were, married into the race; the son of God, has become the son of man. God has not united Himself to any other creature. God has united Himself with us, so that He has become our brother. What great thoughts and love He has toward humanity. As Spurgeon says, “If a king’s son marries a rebel, then for that rebel race there are profound prospects of reconciliation. The Incarnation, bodes well for our race. The baby born in Bethlehem means that God intends blessing for us.”
The nature of man and the nature of God need not be permanent enemies if God has taken human nature to Himself. The infinite gulf between us and God has been bridged. We have a God who hears us; a God who seeks our reconciliation.
“For unto us is born a Savior…” Those who will rejoice the most are those who know that they are sinners. If an angel had come to save us, we might have reason to rejoice. But the better news is that God, the infinite; the Almighty has come to be our Savior. In the Old Testament God had come to Mount Sinai to reveal His law; He came to disobedient Israelites as an avenger. Only now did He come as a Savior. God’s omnipotence has condescended to our feebleness. Infinite majesty has stooped to our infirmity.
“And on earth, peace among men with whom he is pleased.” Wars have filled the world. There are wars within as well as wars without. There has been no peace on earth since Adam fell. But now in Bethlehem Christ came in the white bands of peace.
True, there is no peace in the world today; but peace there shall be. The “Prince of Peace” will return to set the record straight. But until then, there can be peace in our hearts. “Peace I leave unto you. My peace I give to you.” Christ assures us.
To quote Spurgeon once more, “That manger was the place where the treaty was signed, whereby war should be stopped between man’s conscience and his God.” No greater act of kindness could be offered from God to us than that he should offer His son to us.
What would it have been like if Christ had not come? Moral decay without remedy; suffering without comfort; war without peace; guilt without forgiveness; death without hope. Take this Christ-child away and peace becomes impossible. Take him away and joy becomes a mirage.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”
I stand amazed at the delight of the angels. They rejoice though they derive no direct benefit from Christ’s coming. These are the righteous angels, those who stand before God and sing his praises. Their eternal destiny was not at stake. Whether Christ has come to earth or not, their relationship with God was secure and fulfilling. Yet how they delight in the coming of God’s Son!
The angels rejoice for us. They are wholly free from all envy. They rejoice when one sinner repents and takes advantage of Christ’s coming. They are friends of Christ and therefore rejoice when He rejoices. And they rejoice when we rejoice. After the first angel came to the shepherds I think God could scarcely restrain the others from joining him. “There appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…”
But if the birth of Jesus was so captivating to our created cousins, what should it be for us? If heaven opened its gates to let a million of God’s hosts come to Bethlehem for worship, what should it do for us who are redeemed by the Incarnation?
You are so lonely in the world, but Christ is your brother. You who have sinned so greatly you thin k you cannot live with yourself; come to Christ. With the disciples, hurry to Bethlehem. For the baby grew up and became our Savior.
In 1955, Don Richardson dedicated himself to become a missionary to the head-hunting tribes of New Guinea. He was sent to a tribe that combined cannibalism, head-hunting and treachery. He agonized over the question of how they could ever come to understand that a loving Savior died for them. In their eyes, Judas, not Jesus was the hero of the salvation story.
Then Don discovered the key that would unlock the door to their understanding. When he and his wife were about to relocate because their friendship with some of the Sawi tribe were causing open warfare among three other tribes, the leaders persuaded the couple to stay, saying they would make peace among themselves.
Visualize the peace ceremony: a young child from each of the warring tribes was exchanged. As long as any of those children lived, peace would continue. The decision as to whose child would be exchanged was wrenching indeed. Mothers clutched their children, hoping theirs would not be selected. Finally, a young father grabbed his only child, and rushed toward the enemy camp and gave his son to one of his enemies. He, in turn, received a child from the hands of the enemy. It was a peace based on trust; a tribe that exalted treachery believed that only when a man gave his son could he be trusted.
Just so, God gave us his son. We, however, gave him, no child in return. In fact, we killed His son. We, however, gave him no child in return. In fact, we killed His son. Yet even the death of his beloved did not cause him to turn his back on us, but actually this crime because a part of the redemptive story. Salvation is all one sided; we do the sinning; he does the saving. And although we abused his son, he reminds us that even this was a part of the redemptive plan.
That night on the outskirts of Bethlehem, the shepherds who were told they would not discover him in the halls of the princes; nor in the golden cradle of the king’s palace. The king arrived with a peasant for a mother and a carpenter for is foster-father. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
Though there were many other people in the country that night, only a few shepherds were invited to see the Christ. Today, our responsibility is to spread the word everywhere, “Christ has come; He invites us, not to a stable, but to a cross and an empty tomb!” How slow we are to worship! How reluctant our world is to join the shepherds adoring the Christ.
When the angels sand, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased,” the good news was limited to those who would accept the gift of Christ. Not all men benefit from Christ’s coming, but only those who experience the favor of God: only those who know come under the shelter of His grace and protection.
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 a second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”