The renowned hymn-writer Charles Wesley wrote “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in 1739 to be a Christmas day hymn. The song went through a few revisions after Wesley published it. The most significant revision was made in 1753 by George Whitefield, a colleague of Wesley, who trimmed off four verses, changed a few words, and gave it the melody which we use today.

    “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a song that is rich with theological significance. In continuation with our Advent sermon series at Redeemer, I’ll offer some brief theological and devotional reflections on Wesley’s brilliant hymn. 

 

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 angelic host proclaim “Christ is born in Bethlehem”

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

    The best songs make us think a little. Abstract art evokes feelings which we may reflect on. However, when art includes words, written or sung, it evokes thoughts that we must reflect on. What do the first words of this hymn mean?

    First, the word hark is an older English word which means “listen” or “pay attention.” We are immediately called to draw our focus to the story of this hymn, “Hark!” Second, “herald angels” are messengers. The herald was the official messenger for a kingdom. 

    Imagine the ancient Greek myth of Marathon. According to the legend, the Athenian army gathered in the plains of Marathon to fight the Persians, though they were outnumbered four to one. The Athenians fought with fierce bravery and defeated their enemies. Pheidippides was the herald that ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to declare their victory over the Persians. 

    Angels consistently fulfill the role of divine heralds in the Old Testament. Their presence was considered to be signifying a great event or act of God. Therefore, it is no surprise to find angels declaring the birth of Jesus (Lk. 2:8-14). These herald angels announced the arrival of the “newborn King” to the world. Wesley poetically captured the right response to the newborn King in this hymn. The results of Jesus’ birth are “peace on earth,” “mercy,” and joy. Jesus is a king who enters the world, not in a reign of terror, but in a campaign of great joy. 

    The birth of Jesus is a profound juxtaposition of glory and humility. Here is a newborn King, who will bring peace on earth, but he is born in a feeding trough. His arrival on earth is announced by a choir of herald angels, but they are singing to shepherds in the middle of nowhere. Thus we discover the profound juxtaposition of Jesus himself. He is the Sovereign Lord, but he is the Suffering Servant. He is a Lion and a Lamb. He wears heaven’s crown, but he wins it by a cross. 

 

Christ, by highest heaven 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 with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

    The second verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” contains one of the greatest mysteries of Christianity—the Incarnation. Christmas tells us that God, the second person of the Trinity, has “veiled” himself in flesh. Wesley modeled Christian worship in this one line. If you see the Godhead “veiled in flesh,” then the only proper response is to “hail the incarnate Deity.”

    When reading this verse, I cannot help but think of Phil. 2:5-7, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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.” Paul apparently understood the Incarnation to be a demonstration of Jesus’ humility. Jesus, who was in perfect unity with God the Father and equal in authority, “emptied” himself and took on the vocation of a servant. 

    Wesley wrote why Jesus would empty himself, for he was “pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.” As I wrote last week, Emmanuel means “God with us.” We may reflect on two truths here. First, the Incarnation tells us that God is willing to traverse the divide between heaven and earth, clothe himself in flesh, and live the life of a servant, all for the pleasure of dwelling with us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison cell, “And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

    Second, the Incarnation tells us that God has made himself accessible and approachable for us. Prior to Jesus’ birth, God had only revealed himself in terrifying manners. His presence was seen in a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, earthquakes and tornadoes. When he dwelled with his people, his presence was centralized in the tabernacle or temple. Even there the priests had to construct multiple layers of separation and veils. However, at Christmas God comes as the most approachable, vulnerable thing in the world—a baby. 

    Since God has now “veiled” himself in flesh, Christians have no layers of separation and no need for fear. We are granted full access into the presence of God. The gospel tells us that our sin, which made the veils necessary, has been removed by the work of Jesus. “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed…. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:16, 18).

 

Hail the Heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son 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!”

    This hymn ends on a high note. Wesley brings together some of the greatest themes of the gospel with the last lines. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, brought light and life, healing, and resurrection. Jesus was born “that [we] no more may die,” to “raise [us],” to “give [us] second birth.” However, Jesus’ birth would only bring healing and new life after his death. His birth gives us second birth and his resurrection raises “the sons of earth.” 

    We must remember that the herald angels declared the good news of great joy to shepherds. They did not go to the elites or the famous. They did not go to those who had something to bring to God. Jesus’ birth was first announced to those who could only come to him with empty hands. Therefore, we can only approach him with empty hands. He is the “Son of righteousness” and it would be inappropriate for us to bring any of our own righteousness. We simply come and sing, “Glory to the Resurrected King!”


I'll continue to explore the meaning of the songs that we sing at Christmas, like this one, in our Advent series at Redeemer City Church. Join us on Sundays at 10:15 a.m. from Nov. 27 through Dec. 25. 

Visit our videos page to see a music video of our worship team performing a rendition of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." 

Read my previous posts: Reflections on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

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