Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
It’s sometimes said that perspective is everything—how we look at the world and the flow of history goes a long way toward determining how we experience the events of life. “Once in Royal David’s City” excels not only at leading us in celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but also doing so with an eye on the bigger picture. As one author observes, it “sets the nativity of Christ into a much larger framework—the history of salvation.” Simply put, this song helps us get perspective, and thus also keep our heads and hearts as go we through life in this world.
“Once in Royal David’s City” opens with a retelling of Luke 2:4-7. In this opening verse we basically repeat the facts, plain and simple.
Building on those facts, the second verse leads us in taking a step back and marveling at just who the baby in the manger was (and still is!). In the light of what the angel declared later in Luke 2:11, as well as the likes of what we read in Philippians 2:5-7 and Hebrews 2:14-18, we express our amazement that this Jesus, who is God and Lord of all, came down to earth from heaven. At his birth, his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall. He truly lived on earth with the poor, mean (ordinary), and lowly. As Hebrews 2:17 teaches us, we who trust in him truly have a high priest like us.
Here our song fast-forwards through Jesus’ childhood, taking note particularly of his obedience and goodness. As we do that, we also note that we must be mild, obedient, and good as he was. That’s not to suggest that we could ever be perfectly mild, obedient, and good as he was, but simply to acknowledge our calling to follow him.
As we continue on, we make clear that our hope is not in how mild, obedient, and good we are or ever will be, but instead in this Jesus and his redeeming love. He demonstrated that love most notably in his death and resurrection to reconcile sinners like us to God. Thus we rejoice that the baby in the manger is our Lord in heaven above, who leads his children on to the place where he is gone. We know that from John 14:3, where we hear Jesus assure his disciples, “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
In the final verse of this song we continue to look ahead to the future, which we know something about because God has revealed it to us through the apostle John. The book of Revelation makes it clear that we shall see Jesus one day, but not in that poor lowly stable. We shall see him in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high, and all his children will be there with him. Will you be there too? Have you received and rested in Jesus? Will you today?
“Once in Royal David’s City” was one of a number of hymns written by Cecil Alexander, a 19th century Irishwoman, to help children understand the Apostles’ Creed. This hymn focused on what it means that Jesus Christ “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” She published it in her 1848 collection titled Hymns for Little Children. The following year Henry Gauntlett, a British organist, named composed and published this tune for it.