Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” mixes praise with theology so seamlessly that the two are nearly impossible to distinguish. This centuries-old Christmas carol leads us in remembering and praising God for who the baby born in Bethlehem was and still is, together with what he was born to do.
Our song begins with the praise of the angels recounted in Luke 2:8-14. In that passage we read that an angel appeared to shepherds out in the field at night and announced to them the birth of Christ in the city of David (a common name for Bethlehem). Then a multitude of angels suddenly appeared, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” Here in the opening verse of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” we recount that message and call upon all nations to rise and join the triumph of the skies. The Savior has come, the one through whom God and sinners are reconciled (see also 2 Cor 5:18)!
In this verse we ourselves join the triumph of the skies. We declare with joy that:
We continue to praise God with joy and wonder in this final verse, but the focus is different. Instead of focusing on the fact of Christ’s coming, we focus here on the reason. We profess that he is the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) and Sun of Righteousness, whom God promised would rise with healing in his wings (Mal 4:2), bringing light and life to all (John 1:4). He laid his glory by (Phil 2:7), being born that man no more may die, but instead be born again to a living hope (Rom 6:23; 1 Pet 1:3). Thus it is fitting and right that we join the triumph of the skies, singing one last time, “Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King.’”
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the 18th century English minister Charles Wesley, famous not only for his many hymns, but also his leadership of the Methodist movement. He published this hymn in 1739, but at that point it had ten verses and no refrain. During the next seventy years, various people shortened and revised the hymn and added the refrain. The tune comes from a larger work by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. It was adapted to suit these words by William Cummings, an English tenor who was a fan of Mendelssohn. The popularity of the hymn soared after this new tune was published in 1861.