Do You Know What You’re Singing?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing here about some of my favorite, though somewhat obscure, Christmas Carols. I’ve made no bones about it, I love Christmas music. Not the materialistic, plastic-pop music that’s all about Santa and reindeer and snow (though I must confess that “I want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” does hold a dear place in my heart), but the good old Christmas carols and hymns that convey the message of Christ’s birth. I love that these songs are being played on radio stations around the clock right now, because, in the midst of all the other clutter, the truth is being spoken. Whether the listener knows it, the gospel is being preached, and God’s word will not come back empty (Isa. 55:11).

This is why I love the old carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” written by Charles Wesley in 1739. Though not a Calvinist per se, much of Charles Wesley’s hymns convey the reformed view of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and Wesley himself noted that he “was within a ‘hair’s breadth’ of Calvinism” (click here for the full interview).  

We sing “Hark! The Herald…” so often that I don’t know if we really stop to consider what we’re singing. The world’s casual familiarity with this song has people singing along, subversively teaching profound Biblical truth without the singer ever really knowing it. This hymn conveys the doctrines of incarnation, atonement, union with Christ, and sanctification.

I’ve included here the original lyrics of Wesley’s hymn. Today we usually only sing three verses, but I think that’s a shame considering what verses 4 and 5 contain. I’ve made some notations along the way for clarification. Enjoy!

Vs 1

Hark how all the Welkin rings
(Welkin – an Old English name for Heaven or sky)
Glory to the King of Kings,
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,
God and Sinners reconciled.
(Here we note the need of Christ’s coming – for the reconciliation of sinful man with a Holy God.)
Joyful all ye Nations rise,
(The Gospel isn’t for one ethnicity, but for all peoples who would come to Christ by faith.)
Join the triumph of the skies,
Universal nature say
(Romans 8 talks about all creation eagerly awaiting the revealing of the sons of God)
Christ the Lord is born today!

Vs. 2
Christ by highest Heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord,

(Essential to our understanding of the person and work of Christ Jesus for our salvation is the teaching that the Son of God is of one substance and equal with the Father, who, in the fullness of time, took upon him man’s nature, in order to serve as our Prophet, Priest, and King. This second verse teaches great incarnation theology.)
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the virgin womb
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to appear
Jesus, our Immanuel here!

Vs. 3
Hail the Heav’nly 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.

(This verse, especially the last half, brings to mind the substitutionary work of Christ in the atonement. He was born that Man no more may die. How? By dying in the place of sinful man. He was born to raise the sons of earth. How? By rising again from the dead on the third day. He was born to give man second birth. How? Not by reentering our mother’s womb, but by being born again of the Spirit, sent from Christ at Pentecost to all who believe.)

Vs. 4 
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.
Now display thy saving Pow’r,
Ruin’d Nature now restore,
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.

(Here, our union with Christ through faith is exemplified. United to Christ, the power of sin and death is crushed, and we are more and more made like unto Christ.)

Vs. 5
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,
Stamp thy Image in its Place,
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy Love.
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:
O! to All Thyself impart,
Form’d in each Believing Heart.

(Following the theme of union with Christ is the natural result of that union: our sanctification. No longer does the old Adam have dominion over us, but we live through the second Adam, who gives us life. What I love most about this verse is the desire for Christ. “Let us Thee, tho’ lost regain, Thee, the Life, the Inner Man.” To translate that for modern vernacular: “God let us, though lost, regain You.”)

My prayer is that the next time you sing this, you’ll contemplate the deep truths being conveyed here, and the message of the Gospel will ring clear this Christmas!

Here’s a Video from King’s College singing the Carol:


Unclean! Unclean!

My daily reading plan has me in the middle of the book of Leviticus right now, which is always a challenge.  I am constantly amazed at the amount of sacrifice, the blood required to atone for the sins of the people, the sacrifices given in praise, prayer, and petition to God. The ceremonial regulations are abundant and exhaustive.  When our culture seems so casual in its approach to the Holy God, the book of Leviticus seems very foreign and difficult to accept.

Today’s reading was Leviticus chapter 13, the laws regarding leprosy and a variety of skin diseases. “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean” (Lev 13:2-4).

If you read through the rest of the chapter, you’ll find calls for quarantining those who were symptomatic, to determine if it was leprosy or some other condition.  There are regulations about leprosy on the skin, beard, and in the clothes. If the priest determined it was leprosy, you were declared unclean, and thereby unable to come into the presence of the Temple for sacrifice and worship.

I can’t tell you how hard it was a a pimply teenager to read these passages and wonder if God would even hear my prayers in my current condition, or if I was too unclean to come before Him.

These regulations were in place for the sake of the community. In Biblical times, there was no cure for leprosy, but they knew it spread easily and quickly through a community.  If you were showing symptoms, you were required to let others know, and keep distance from the rest of the community.

I think we all know a little about this now. With the state imposed quarantines and calls for social-distancing over the Coronavirus, we see the cases come to our community and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” There is a palpable fear of the spread of this virus, of the infection spreading like wild-fire.  The worst part of this, unlike leprosy, Covid 19 may spread from those who are asymptomatic.  You could be carrying the virus and show now signs, but still pass it along to others.

So we stay home, out of love and concern for those around us.  We are, to some extent, embodying the practices of Leviticus 13.

But only to a certain extent.

It is equally important to remember that these practices were not just regulations for the community, they were regulations for the worshipping community. Leviticus was written primarily as instruction about how a sinful people were to approach a Holy God. If one were to come into the presence of God, still stained and burdened by sin, God, who is holy and just, would pour down unmitigated judgment upon the sinner. This is why there is so much blood sacrifice in Leviticus – the people were making atonement for their sins so that they could stand justified before a holy God.

Psalm 15, another reading of the day, asks and answers the question, “O Lord, who shall dwell on your holy hill?”  The answer given is this, “He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks the truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against he innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.” This is the one who may come before the Lord.

Leprosy, a disease of the skin, was symbolic of the disease of the heart – sin. Easily spread, entirely destructive.  Left untreated, it will bring about our destruction, and leave us separated from God.

What a wonder then to know that in Jesus Christ we have been washed and made clean (Hebrews 9:14; 10:13).  We, who were once stained with the sins of this world, are now declared clean, sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 6:11). The punishment for your sins has been placed upon Christ, and has been paid for in full. The veil which separated us from God has been torn open, and we have access to the Father through Jesus Christ our mediator.

What a blessing it is to know that, while we must be separated from one another for this time, nothing can separate us from the love of God the Father through Jesus Chris the Son (Rom 8:38-39).