Story Behind the Song ~ Hark the Herald Angel Sing

Posted by on Dec 21, 2010 in Christmas | 3 comments

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 th’ Angelic Hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King.”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting lord
Late in time behold Him come,
Off-spring 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 New-born king!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His Wings.
Now 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 New-born king!”

Come, Desire of nations come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface:
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,
Glory to the Newborn King.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing remains one of the most well known, and, in my opinion, the most theologically filled Christmas carols. This sing was written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, who founded the Methodist denomination. Charles still holds fame for writing over 6,000 hymns along with the lyrics of over 2,000 more. Some you may recognize include: And, Can it Be that I should Gain?; Christ the Lord is Risen Today; Jesus, Lover of My Soul; and O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, among others.

When Charles first wrote this hymn for a Christmas Day service, he arranged the lines of the song differently, had slightly altered lyrics, and wanted the tune to consist of slow, solemn music. A few years later, in 1753, Charles’ friend, George Whitfield, changed a few of the words from Wesley’s original, “Hark, how the welkin (heaven) rings, Glory to the King of king” to the now famous words, “Hark, the herald angel sings, Glory to the newborn King.” He further cut the last two verses which few people include currently in the song. The pattern was also turned from ten, four line verses to a eight line verses with a chorus. Charles Wesley was not pleased with another person, even a friend, altering the his hymn. But what was done, was done, and the song would probably not be as popular today without these changes.

In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata in honor of the anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg press. Several years later, organist Dr. William Cummings put these lyrics and this music together to form what we now know as “Hark the Herald Angel Sing.” The first publication of the current version of the song occurred in 1856.

Whether placed at the end of movies such as Charlie Brown’s Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life, or used in a church service or heard on the radio, this Christmas song is certainly a staple at this time of the year. This song reminds 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.” It speaks of Jesus coming as the “second Adam” to be born that we as mere men may no longer face death! God Himself was veiled in human flesh. What wonders this song shows in its few lines!

One challenge I would offer you is to sit down with a pen and paper and rewrite this song in your own words. Do it on your own or as a family project. I guarantee that you will be awed anew at the miracle of Christ’s birth and will want to shout, “Glory to the Newborn KING!”

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  1. One time I did a concordance search to locate all of the scripture references in this Christmas carol. I got excited about it and quizzed the congregation about all the quotations. (It was Wednesday night Bible study, and I was the music director at the time.) For some reason, they didn’t get as excited as I did. Maybe they just wanted to sing the song.

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