Unpacking the Theology of a Christmas Hymn

When you sing your favorite Christmas hymns, have you ever really focused on the words? Many years ago, when I was teaching at a university in a Third World country whose government was hostile to Christianity, I found out that I was allowed to tell my students something about American holidays. With Christmas approaching, I decided I would show and tell them something about it, including through a couple Christmas hymns. One of my favorites is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” so I printed up the words and handed them out to my students. However, it soon became apparent that many of the words, as well as the theological truth behind them, were well beyond my students! I decided to just play the song on a cassette tape and let them sing; while they may not have understood what they were singing, they enjoyed it anyway.

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought I would take another close look at this wonderful hymn. Following are the words with my attempt at exegesis. (You may be more familiar with a version of verse 3 that essentially switches lines 1-4 with lines 5-8. There are also two more less-well-known verses that I am not including.)

Hark! the herald angels sing, (Listen to the message that the angels are singing!)
“Glory to the newborn King!” (Give Jesus, the baby King, all the glory!)
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, (Jesus is merciful and will ultimately bring peace on earth.)
God and sinners reconciled (Through Jesus, we can be made right with God.)
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, (Jesus is for people from every nation and language; arise and be joyful!)
Join the triumph of the skies; (Sing with the angels.)
With the angelic host proclaim, (Along with the angels, tell everyone.)
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.” (Jesus has been born in Bethlehem.)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest heaven adored: (All of heaven worships Jesus.)
Christ, the everlasting Lord; (Jesus has always been and will always be the Lord.)
Late in time behold him come, (The prophets have been telling us about the coming of the Messiah for many hundreds of years, and now He’s here!)
Offspring of a virgin’s womb. (Jesus was born of a virgin.)
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; (Jesus is both God and man; what a wonder!)
Hail, the incarnate Deity: (Give glory and honor to the God-man, Jesus.)
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, (Jesus is pleased to live with us on earth.)
Jesus, our Emmanuel! (God is with us!)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail! the heaven born Prince of peace! (Give glory and honor to Jesus, Who has come to us from heaven; He alone can give you the peace that passes all understanding.)
Hail! the Son of Righteousness! (Jesus is God’s Son and is holy.)
Light and life to all he brings, (Jesus is the Light of the world and the Giver of all life.)
Risen with healing in his wings (If you trust Jesus, He will save you and spiritually heal you.)
Mild he lays his glory by, (Jesus loves us so much that He has temporarily given up His home in heaven.)
Born that man no more may die: (Jesus has come so that we can have eternal life.)
Born to raise the sons of earth, (Jesus will save and ultimately resurrect to eternal life all those who believe.)
Born to give them second birth. (Jesus will give you a new heart that is turned to Him.)
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

May the words of this hymn bring peace and joy to your soul. Merry Christmas!

(A year ago, I made a quiz about Christmas that you may enjoy taking a look at; click here if you’re interested: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/12/16/a-christmas-quiz/)

9 thoughts on “Unpacking the Theology of a Christmas Hymn

  1. Hi Keith, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is the most biblically accurate Christmas hymn or carol that I am familiar with. I wish you and Yolande a blessed Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen! Powerful witness! I also had the opportunity to use Christmas as a wonderful time to share Jesus Christ with my students in Communist Vietnam. Thank you for sharing this Keirh. Merry Christmas and a Happy Healthy Blessed New Year to you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Keith, this Christmas season, our church’s senior fellowship is singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”. Even though this was originally a Roman Catholic hymn, it quotes biblical phrases and is rather profound theologically.

    Liked by 1 person

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