Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a strange song. Why would we sing to a city? The answer becomes clear by the end of the song: we’re not singing to a city so much as of a city, concerning a child born there years ago. This song is a remembrance of God’s glorious work in history, concluding with a prayer whereby we receive his wondrous gift.
Our hymn begins with a description of Bethlehem that has been criticized as unimaginative and lacking poetic beauty. Maybe it is. But perhaps that’s the point—the whole point of the first two lines is Bethlehem’s smallness and ordinariness. The Bible itself draws attention to Bethlehem’s insignificance among the cities of Judah (Mic 5:2). Bethlehem wasn’t anything to write home about, as we might say, and certainly not with poetic flourish. However, on a night just over 2000 years ago, in its dark streets shone the everlasting Light (John 1:4, 9-10; 8:12). Who is this Light? We’ll find out in the next verse.
The everlasting Light mentioned in the first verse is now identified as the Christ, born of Mary, whose birth angels proclaimed. In Luke 2:8-14 we read of angels appearing to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks in fields nearby. These angels announced and praised God for the birth of the Christ. We spend most of this second verse recounting that.
Except for those shepherds, the birth of the Christ went largely unnoticed. Almost everyone in Bethlehem and beyond was doubtless focused on the business of everyday life. What is more, the Roman emperor had recently kicked off a census of all the people in his sprawling empire, which made extra work for many of them (Luke 1:1-3). Consequently, we note in the opening line of this verse that God gave his wondrous gift, his promised Christ, so silently. That, however, would not be the last time God worked so silently. We immediately go on to observe that God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven in similar silence. In the remainder of this verse we acknowledge that no ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in. How do we know he does that? We are assured of it in John 14:23, where we hear Jesus say, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
In the light of all that, together with his crucifixion and resurrection, we now finish our song with a prayer, asking the holy child of Bethlehem to descend on us, cast out our sin, and abide with us. Is this your desire, your prayer? Or are you also too busy or distracted to notice God’s glorious work in history and receive his wondrous gift?
The words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” were penned by a New England minister named Phillips Brooks, after spending Christmas in Bethlehem in 1866. On Christmas Eve, 1868, the organist of the congregation he served, Lewis Redner, set the poem to music, and on the following day the carol was sung for the first time.