Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled:
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb!
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen 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:
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.
Words: Charles Wesley (1707-88), George Whitfield (1714-70),
Martin Madan (1726-90) and William Hayman Cummings (1831-1915) Music: Mendelssohn, from a chorus by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-47), adapted by William Hayman Cummings

The carol we now know as "Hark! the herald angels sing" did not start life as such, and required at least four people to bring it to its current form. Wesley's original, written as a Christmas Day hymn and first published in 1739, is made up of ten four-line verses, rather than the longer eight-line verses with refrain which we have now.

It is interesting to note that in the original version of Wesley's, the heavens ring with the phrase "Glory to the King of kings," echoing Luke's "Glory to God in the highest heaven."

George Whitfield, who had been a student with Wesley, changed this to "Glory to the newborn King" in 1753. His fairly revolutionary Calvinist position was not compatible with Wesley's gentler reforming approach, which eventually bore fruit in the Methodist movement that he and his brother John inspired, Whitfield maintained the four-line verses of Wesley's original, but changed the angels' emphasis: "Glory to the newborn King" means something slightly but significantly different from "Glory to the King of kings." In the Gospel account, the angels praise God, whereas in "Hark! the herald angels sing," they are inaccurately described as praising Jesus. Furthermore, Luke does not say that the angels "sing," and so it may well be that this reinterpretation by Whitfield has emphasized the popular but unscriptural picture of angels singing the Gloria. ("While shepherds watched" also implies that they sang.)

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Whitfield also cut the final verses, which are now largely forgotten:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman's conquering seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruin'd nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thy image in its place.
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Form'd in each believing heart.

There is some real theological insight in these neglected verses. First of all we notice the Advent antiphon "Come, desire of nations, come," followed by a reference to the Fall, with the serpent bruising the heel of humanity and Adam bruising its head (Genesis 3:15). Wesley cleverly alters the meaning, asking that the serpent in us (sin) should be bruised (defeated) by Christ, the second Adam, who reinstates us as beloved sons and daughters of God. In the restoration of sinful humanity to a state of grace through the incarnation of Christ, the joining of divine and human nature is also achieved. Consequently, that which was lost (salvation) is gained and a new life is granted to all believers.

The tune we now call Mendelssohn comes from the second chorus, "Gott ist Light" ("God is Light"). While there can be no doubt that the marriage of Mendelssohn's tune and the adapted words has been most fortuitous, it is rather ironic that Mendelssohn, while recognizing the value of his tune, felt that it would be unsuitable for sacred words. Similarly, Wesley, when writing the original text, suggested that a slow, solemn tune would fit them best. He refused to sing Whitfield's reworking of his words, furious that he had presumed to alter them to suit his own ends. Nowadays, there would probably be an outcry if someone were to suggest even slight changes, and some attempts to "inclusivize" the language have been coolly received.

"Hark! the herald angels sing" has become part of the institution of Christmas, and while it contains inaccuracies, it also sounds out some wonderful theology, musically reminding us that Jesus, the "newborn King," is "Prince of Peace," "Sun of Righteousness," "Everlasting Lord," "Incarnate Deity," and, best of all, "Emmanuel" — "God with us." Whatever its creators would have thought about the hymn as it currently stands, it endures as a reminder of the great gift that our Father God has given us in his Son Jesus Christ, and which we will celebrate in only a few hours' time.

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Excerpted from O Come Emmanuel: A Musical Tour of Daily Readings for Advent and Christmas. Copyright ©2006 Gordon Giles. Used by permission of Paraclete Press, www.paracletepress.com.

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For more, go to our Christmas and Advent section.

Previous articles on hymns and music include:

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs | Worship music engages the eyes, not just the ears and tongues. (May 30, 2007)
Truth, Christmas, and the Eucharist | Why I didn't like the hymns and praise songs we were singing—and why I was missing the point. (December 2005)
Cease-Fire in the Worship Wars | A dispatch from the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. (February 1, 2000)
Hallelujah! | On a memorable London night, the bright and glistening theology of Messiah broke through my jet-lagged consciousness. (Philip Yancey, December 1, 2000)