As eclectic and unpredictable as the content here on Ramblingeveron.com can be, it should not be a surprise that every year around this time we explore Christmas hymns like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Our faith’s catalogue in this category in English contains an embarrassment of riches. So we regularly and vociferously celebrate it. We love the older classics. We meditate on newer contributions. And we defend oft-criticized selections. We’ve even run polls about this topic.
Ben Plunkett briefly but thoroughly covered “Hark! The Herald” last year in a ‘Best of’ list of theologically rich Christmas songs. The song is so profound, however, that even after his excellent treatment there is still more we could say. I’ve decided to do so, with the specific angle of looking solely at the names and titles of God and Christ that Charles Wesley used in his original version. The beauty and uniqueness of his lyrics find their anchor in these extraordinary phrases. Here are most of them:
“Desire of Nations”
You have to appreciate Wesley not just going to the New Testament, or even the Isaiah 7:14 or 9:6 well, but rather going to one of the more obscure minor prophets: Haggai 2:7. This communicates deep Biblical fluency. “Desire” from the old King James has been updated to words like “wealth” or “treasure” but the power of the name remains unchanged. The NLT says, “I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple. I will fill this place with glory, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.” In view of New Testament verses like Revelation 21:22 and 24, it is not hard to see how Christ fulfilled this prophecy.
“Sun of Righteousness”
If you google the lyrics to this hymn, you may see this phrase as “son of righteousness”. This would be one of those times the internet fails you. Wesley indubitably wrote “sun” and took this from Malachi 4:2: “But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall” (KJV). If there be any doubt, the lyric “healing in his wings” should eliminate it. I do not deny that “Son of Righteousness” sounds like a phrase that could describe Christ. But Wesley did not have this in mind.
Note again that he pulls from another minor prophet. Even seminary students seem to avoid these short but enigmatic Old Testament books. But not Wesley. Instead he utilizes the fact that the Old Testament repeatedly refers to God as light (Isaiah 60:1-2), and even the sun (Psalm 84:11). And how Christ therefore claimed deity by declaring himself the “Light of the World” in John 8:12 (cf. Isaiah 42:6). Zechariah also claimed this in his prophecy about Christ (Luke 1:78).
“Prince of Peace”
It has long fascinated me how Isaiah 9:6 is never directly attributed to Christ in the New Testament. This verse is where Wesley gets this title for Christ and a verse Christians quote abundantly at Christmas. So its absence in the Gospels or Acts or any of Paul’s letters is surprising.
Yet there is no doubt, based on the titles Isaiah used, that this verse can only refer to Christ. We can see “Prince of Peace,” for example, in the number of times NT authors call Christ a “prince” (Acts 3:15, 5:31, Revelation 1:5, notably in the KJV, which Wesley would have known) combined with how Christ preached a Gospel of peace (John 16:33).
Perhaps the most famous verse attributing eternality to God is Isaiah 40:28-31, which promises us that God never gets tired. And that he in turn can renew our strength when we cannot go further. Paul in the New Testament also refers to him as an “everlasting God” in Romans 16:26. Therefore, it is fitting that Paul would attribute honor to Christ as a “King eternal, immortal, invisible” and as “the only wise God”. To connect these two persons of the Trinity.
“Incarnate Deity” and “Emmanuel”
I put these two together because they basically communicate the same thing: That a man who was 100% God and 100% human connected God to man. The number of New Tesatement verses that teach this dual nature of Christ are well-known and legion. So instead of listing them I’ll use a few phrases from “Hark! The Herald” as evidence of my original point–that Wesley’s majestic turns of phrase in this hymn are rooted in these special names. I always stand in awe of these in particular:
“God and sinners reconciled” [This is the foundation of the Gospel in four succinct words.]
“Pleased as man with man to dwell” [Although this is one of several small changes to the original Wesley version, as he penned “appear” instead of “dwell”.]
“Mild he lay his glory by” [This makes me think of Philippians 2:5-8]
“Born that man no more may die” [Fantastic juxtaposition of verbs]
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” [I assume this refers to Exodus 34 where Moses had to wear a veil in God’s presence and how God in flesh doesn’t need such a veil. Regardless, superb lyric.]
“Fix in us Thy humble home”
This is powerful, timeless theology.
As with most of these, this is a familiar biblical phrase for Christ. And while no doubt Wesley took the exact words from 1 Corinthians 15, the fact that he goes on to plead for Adam’s image to be effaced and for Christ’s to be stamped on us in its stead causes me to think he was thinking of Romans 5:12-21 as well. “Reinstate us Thy love” is an appropriate reaction to that passage.
Along with “O Holy Night,” “Hark! The Herald” is easily the song I want to hear and sing the most this time of year, and we are wise to not limit it to just a few weeks in our calendar. Regardless, scrutinizing the lyrics only serves to increase our admiration for it. This is especially true for the many unique names of God it includes. They teach us significantly about His nature. And isn’t reacting to that what worship is about?