Yes, Christmas is past, but I’m still singing this hymn myself. It’s based on this Scripture:
Near Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, there was a multitude of the heavenly host (angels) praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14)
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a Christmas carol, whose lyrics expand on the theme of Jesus’ incarnation (the in-fleshing of God’s pre-existent Son), but I sing it all year round. It helps me live by God’s Scriptures, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!…The Lord is near….A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones….Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy….The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”1
The lyrics to the hymn were composed by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and revised by his friend George Whitefield (1714-1770). Like many of Wesley’s hymns, this song is a condensed course in Bible truth. Here are some of doctrines that the song touches on:
1. The hymn reminds us we are sinners. The uncomfortable truth is that sin is disobeying or not conforming to God’s law in any way. Sin is humanity’s declaration of independence from God our Creator, a slap on His face. We ought to love and obey the Lord because He shows kindness by giving us rain from heaven, providing us with food, and filling our hearts with joy.2 But we fail to love and serve God. He says, “If anyone knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”3 All human beings except Jesus Christ fall short of the Lord’s design and demand for us. But Pastor Jack Miller says, “Cheer up! You’re a worse sinner than you think you are, and you’re infinitely more loved in Christ than you could ever hope for.” Admitting the bad news about ourselves is the first step to receiving God’s good news in Jesus. Without being honest about our sin, there’s no hope.
2. The hymn reminds us that Christ came to reconcile God and sinners. Reconciliation means that the Lord Jesus took our place on the cross that we might have His peace with God; He took our sin that we might have His salvation. Scripture says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”4 Another hymn says: “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned Jesus stood; He sealed my pardon with His blood: Hallelujah! What a Savior!”5 When Christ reconciles us, His Father becomes our Heavenly Father and Jesus becomes our Elder Brother. Jesus brings us into God’s holy family.
3. The hymn reminds us that Christ is fully God and fully human in one person; He is unique. God’s Son took the nature of a servant to be our Savior, while He retained the nature of God! Jesus’ incarnation is exactly what makes our salvation possible and He achieves it. Christians do not say in dismay, “Look what the world has come to.” We say with delight, “Look, God’s Son has come to the world to save us!”6 The Bible says, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting peoples’ trespasses against them.”7 Salvation is not humans working our way up to God, but God coming down and saving us. That’s the best news!
4. The hymn reminds us that Christ comes to give us new birth and to empower us for holy living. We rejoice that Christianity is not making a new start in life. It is receiving a new life from God to start with. Since we were born God’s enemies, we must be born again to be His sons and daughters. When God designs to forgive us, He changes our hearts and turns us to obedience by His Spirit.8 Out of gratefulness to God for so great a salvation, Christians make it our goal to please God, loving Him by keeping His commandments by the power of the Spirit. Jesus said, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”9
5. The hymn reminds us that Christ was raised from the dead so that Christians share in His resurrection and will be raised with Him when He returns. Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die….My Father’s house has many rooms….And I go to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”10 Revelations chapters 21-22 describe our heavenly home.
6. The hymn reminds us of some of Christ’s many names in Scripture. Jesus is the King, the everlasting Lord, our Immanuel, the Prince of Peace, and the Sun of Righteousness risen with healing in His wings.11 Evangelist Billy Sunday said there are 256 names in the Bible for Jesus because He is infinitely precious, beyond all that any one name can express. Elmer Towns wrote about over 700 names of Christ in Scripture.12 God wants us to know how wide, long, high, and deep Christ’s love for us is, and that Jesus’ love surpasses knowledge, so that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.13
Wesley’s hymn helps me to rejoice always, to pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus. Eric Routley said that Wesley’s hymns were composed to help people sing their way into knowing God, led into His truth by the gentle hand of melody and verse. That’s why I sing this hymn and meditate on its Bible truths all year long. Try it yourself.
Soon will look at Charles Wesley, the hymn writer and faithful servant of the Lord.
Go in peace, beloved. Walk with King Jesus today and be a blessing to others!
Notes (various translations are used): 1 Phil 4:4,5; Prov 17:22; Psalm 126:2,3. 2 Acts 14:17. 3 James 4:17. 4 1 John 4:10. 5 from the hymn: “Man of Sorrows” by Philip Bliss. 6 adapted from Carl F. H. Henry. 7 2 Cor 5:19. 8 John Calvin. 9 John 3:3. 10 John 11:25; 14:1-4. 11 Matt 27:37; Gal. 4:4; John 1:14; Isaiah 7:14; Matt 1:23; Isaiah 9:6; Mal 4:2 (NKJ); Phil 2:7-8 and many others. 12 The Names of Jesus: Disciple’s Book (1987) by Elmer L. Towns. 13 Eph 3:18,19.