The 5 Most Theologically Rich Christmas Songs

Thousands of Christmas songs and hymns have been written these past 2000 years. While many songs discuss sights of Santa and Rudolph, there have been others written to express the significance of God coming to earth and being born into a sinful world. These songs hold theological richness and can edify a group of believers during the Christmas season or any time of year.

Rather than reviewing every Christmas song that has been written since the time of Christ’s birth, this list was limited to those Christmas songs that are familiar to most modern Christians. In assessing the most theologically rich Christmas songs, it was considered: 1) Whether the song does more than cover the basics of the biblical story, digging into the deeper theological implications behind the story and; 2) Whether the song reveals these truths in a beautiful way that sincerely indicates the living presence of the Holy Spirit. Here are the five most theologically rich Christmas songs:

5. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

Phillips Brooks penned the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868. The words came to him one night as he rode from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by horseback to deliver a Christmas Eve message.

Many people are very familiar with the first two verses of the song. However, the last two verses are exceptional and should not be forgotten. The third verse in this classic hymn is particularly noteworthy. It speaks of “the wondrous gift” that was given. The thing about a gift is that it is not something we earn; a gift is freely bestowed. This “wondrous gift” is Jesus, who God the Father gave as a living sacrifice for humanity (John 3:16). He came to be our living sacrifice and to give man spiritual knowledge (John 10). In this fallen world we all must humbly accept our fallenness and our need for divine help. Only then can we rightly choose His hand of salvation (James 1:21). When our “meek souls” receive Him, “Christ enters in.” He has called us to eternal salvation through Himself. Will we listen?

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel.

4. “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne”

Emily Elliot wrote “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne” in 1864. The primary point of this song is the tremendous humility God expressed by lowering Himself for our benefit. He left His heavenly throne to come as a man to save us.

Echoing Philippians 2:7, the first two verses convey the awesome magnitude of His humiliation in becoming a lowly man. Jesus was born of a “lowly birth” and came in “great humility.” He did this for us—people who don’t deserve it.

The third verse alludes to Matthew 8:20, where Jesus stated that all earthly creatures had a place to rest—all except for Himself. He was saying His life was a difficult one and those who followed Him could expect the same.

The first four verses end with a refrain that declares we can now freely choose to make room for Jesus in our hearts forever. With our entire being, we fully trust Him as our eternal Savior (Romans 10:9). The fifth verse concludes with a declaration of victory, rejoicing that God has made room for us in His heavenly home!

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem's home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Heaven's arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

The foxes found rest, and the birds their nest
In the shade of the forest tree;
But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Thou camest, O Lord, with the living word
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn, and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

When the heavens shall ring, and the angels sing,
At Thy coming to victory,
Let Thy voice call me home, saying "Yet there is room,
There is room at My side for thee."
My heart shall rejoice, Lord Jesus,
When Thou comest and callest for me.

3. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was originally written in Latin, and many believe it dates back to the twelfth century. In 1851, John Mason Neale translated it into English. The English translation of the song contains several variations, and some versions include up to eight different verses.
It is easy to notice all the names and descriptions of Jesus presented in the song: Emmanuel (Immanuel), Dayspring, Wisdom from on High, Desire of Nations. These are all tremendous names and titles that describe the Messiah.

Each verse highlights one of them. What is traditionally viewed as the first verse highlights the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In Scripture, the name first occurs in Isaiah 7:14. This passage is quoted in Matthew 1:22 in specific reference to the infant Jesus who was God.
Another verse highlights the name Dayspring, which indicates how the Light of Heaven has delivered us from spiritual darkness. This was a name proclaimed by Zechariah in Luke 1:78 under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This song also gives Jesus the title Wisdom from on High. This may be a reference to Isaiah 11:2. The entire book of Isaiah is full of prophecies of the coming Savior. Only through this wisdom from Heaven (Jesus) may we may exit our fallen life and enter a new life with God.

The writer of this song also described Jesus as the Desire of Nations, a reference to Haggai 2:7. This is another prophecy of Jesus in which God foretold that great glory would one day once again fill the temple. Because He has finally come in His glory, we are freed from living lives of isolation and discord.

There are even amazing additional/optional verses of the song that refer to names like “Lord of might,” “Rod of Jesse’s stem,” and “Key of David.”. As this incredible song mentions, Jesus Christ has opened wide our heavenly home and therefore we can rejoice.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come Thou Dayspring come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Additional/Optional verses:
Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse's stem,
From every foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow'r to save;
Bring them in victory through the grave.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

2. “O Holy Night”

The French poet Placide Cappeau wrote the words to “O Holy Night” in 1847. In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight, a Unitarian minister, translated it into English. It is considered one of the greatest and most popular Christmas songs of all time, and for good reason. Its theological greatness cannot be denied.

The first verse describes our plight. Original sin introduced mankind to death (1 Corinthians 15:21-23). All of humanity inwardly longed for a deliverer who would set us free from this plight. So long did humanity toil under this that our individual souls got used to being away from God and we “lay in sin and error pining.” But then Jesus came with a message of hope and the “weary world” rejoiced. He did all of His saving work to retrieve each individual person (Luke 15:1-7).

The second verse makes us firsthand witnesses of the holy child. We are one with the wise men who, like us, followed a light by faith to find Jesus. Jesus would not be a mere prophet of God or just a good man. The baby in the manger was the “King of Kings.” He was and is the Son of God who is one with God the Father (John 5:16-18).

The third verse exalts in the implications of Jesus’ earthly ministry leading up to His death. He taught mankind “to love one another” (cf. John 13:34-35) and broke the chains of oppression. Like the first two verses, the third verses finalize the song with an exuberant call to praise God the Son for His wonderful salvific work. This time the call is for everyone to unite in a magnificent song of praise lauding the holy birth.

It is rare to find a song whose melody actually works with and bolsters its message quite this well. In my opinion, “O Holy Night” does that better than any other song under Heaven. The last refrain of each stanza is full of genuine passion, exalting in the beauty that is the incarnation of Jesus.

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

1. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

Charles Wesley wrote the words to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in 1739. This song is absolutely loaded to the brim with incredible theological meat!

The first verse reveals why the baby in the manger is so special. This is not just any king who has been born. Through this baby “God and sinners [are] reconciled” after a long separation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18). This makes very valid the call for “all ye nations rise” and joyfully rejoice!

The second verse explains how this “offspring of a virgin’s womb” was qualified to do any divine reconciling. He was able to do this because He was the “Christ,” which means, “anointed.” In other words, He was the Messiah and king of mankind (Luke 23:2-3). But He was more than a mere human king. He was God in human form—“veiled in flesh” and the “incarnate Deity.” Jesus lowered Himself by taking on the complete form of a man (Philippians 2:5-7). Our God could have remained in His comfortable position in Heaven but He was “pleased as man with man to dwell.” He was literally our Emmanuel—our God with us.

As a result of the work of Christ, the third verse calls us to praise Him for His infinitely gracious act. He is our “Prince of Peace” and our “Sun of Righteousness.” God’s Son came to give all men the truth of God’s redeeming and life-giving grace. How did He do this? By being born. He did this so we could experience a second birth and be born again into a new life in Him, living forever in His kingdom.

The fourth verse in some of today’s hymnals is a fusion of the original fourth and fifth verses. Since the fused version is the one many are most familiar with, that is what I am including here. It tells us that as a man, Jesus was physically born into a very humble home. Now that He has died for all mankind, we should invite Him to reside within us by confessing full belief in Him (Romans 10:9). Its last few lines hearken both to Genesis 3 and 1 Corinthians. In Genesis 3 we find the world-changing act of original sin. In this same chapter, God placed a distinct curse on each of the two human wrongdoers and all of their descendants. He also cursed the snake (Satan). His curse to the snake included a prophecy of Jesus’ final victory over Satan (Genesis 3:15). This is a prophecy of the Son of God who would one day come to earth to die. In so doing He would finally “bruise . . . the serpent’s head.” Wesley lauded the beauty of this story. Jesus’ work of atonement successfully displayed His saving power. It is in 1 Corinthians 15 that the first man and Jesus are famously referred to as the first and second Adam. Jesus, the second Adam from above, sacrificed Himself for all mankind, reuniting us with God.

Charles Wesley’s beautifully penned words not only bring about a feeling of the Christmas spirit, but beautifully explain the gospel message and give us reason to proclaim “glory to the newborn king!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild;
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun 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.

Come, Desire of nations, come!
Fix in us Thy humble home:
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head;
Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Final Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

This article first appeared in The Brink magazine.

Ben Plunkett

Greetings from the booming metropolis that is Pleasant View, Tennessee. I am a man of constant spiritual highs and spiritual lows. I pray that I serve God at my highest even when I am lowest.
Ben Plunkett

Latest posts by Ben Plunkett (see all)

Ben Plunkett

Greetings from the booming metropolis that is Pleasant View, Tennessee. I am a man of constant spiritual highs and spiritual lows. I pray that I serve God at my highest even when I am lowest.

6 thoughts on “The 5 Most Theologically Rich Christmas Songs

  • December 24, 2018 at 6:24 pm
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    Good choices all, although there are some others I’d have right up there, too. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” would probably my number one as well.

    Reply
  • December 25, 2018 at 12:55 pm
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    You hit on many of my favorites. Well done, sir!

    Reply
  • December 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm
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    Great list! Proud that this is on REO.

    Reply
  • December 25, 2018 at 7:56 pm
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    Good list. I think Hark is as theologically rich as any song out there, much less Christmas songs.

    Reply
    • December 26, 2018 at 8:36 am
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      I think there are many Christmas songs that are theologically rich as any other songs out there – which makes it a shame when we only feel like we can sing them for one month out of the year.

      Reply
  • December 28, 2018 at 8:35 pm
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    Thanks for the lyrics and reminders. Traditional carols usually publish the untainted Gospel of our LORD Jesus Christ Himself, before academics think that they can critically better the message.

    Reply

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