The “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” You’ve Never Heard

by | Dec 23, 2018 | Special Day

Last year I wrote an article about the original lyrics to “America the Beautiful” for the fourth of July and since then, “The America the Beautiful You’ve Never Heard” has become the 4th most popular article on our website. Since it has received such a positive response, I figured I’d do a sequel about another classic American hymn that has changed over time. So I present to you, “The ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing’ You’ve Never Heard.”

"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a classic Christmas song that everyone knows, but how much do you really know it? The song was originally written in 1739, by Charles Wesley, an English Methodist preacher and hymn-writer. He is also responsible for popular hymns such as “And Can it Be,” “Christ the Lord has Risen Today,” “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and, of course, the topic of our article today, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Well, he would be responsible for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” except for the fact that, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” isn’t the original title of the song, if we were to refer to the song by its original title we would have to call it a "Hymn for Christmas-Day." Of course, if the title was the only thing that changed there wouldn’t be any reason for me to write an article. Quite a bit has been changed or left out since it’s original release in 1739, in fact, the original song didn’t even have the same tune as we use today and instead was sung to the tune of “Christ the Lord has Risen Today!” but, without further ado, let’s take a look at the original lyrics and see what Mr. Charles Wesley was trying to teach us through his original “Hymn for Christmas-Day.”

1739 Original1961 Revision
HARK how all the Welkin ringsHark! The herald-angels sing
Glory to the Kings of Kings,Glory to the newborn king;
Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,Peace on earth and mercy mild,
GOD and Sinners reconcil’d!God and sinners reconciled
Joyful all ye Nations rise,Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the Triumph of the Skies,Join the triumph of the skies
Universal Nature sayWith angelic host proclaim
CHRIST the LORD is born to Day!Christ is born in Bethlehem
Hark! The herald-angels sing
Glory to the new-born king"

So let’s take a look at the first verse of the hymn. As you can see, the changes to the lyrics are immediately visible with the first line being almost entirely different. Rather than the song being introduced as a song about the angels singing of Christ’s birth, the original ascribes the lyrics to “the Welkin,” which is an Old English word for “heaven or sky" and is a reference to the fact that “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1) As the original song continues it states that the heavens ring out “Glory to the King of Kings” which was later changed to be the “newborn King,” which, despite being more “Christmasy,” it’s less theologically deep and removed the intentional praise to God given in the original lyrics. The next two lines have been left unchanged, although the original parallelism in the 1st line (heaven) and 3rd line (earth) are lost.

The next change is the replacement of the line “Universal Nature say” with “With angelic host proclaim.” If you haven’t figured it out yet, the original hymn isn’t about angels at all, rather it’s about how nature bring glory to God. Charles Wesley’s purpose in this song was to state that the heavens and earth declare that Christ is Lord, which is echoed in the final line of the first verse which says, “CHRIST the LORD is born to Day.” It is important to note that this is a direct claim to the deity of Christ as it uses LORD in all caps which is the traditional English form of YHWH, the divine name of God. In this statement, Westley states that Jesus is Yahweh God. It is a shame this line was later changed to merely say that “Christ is born in Bethlehem." The original lyrics had a much stronger statement to make. The last change in the first verse is the addition of a refrain which repeats the first two lines of the song.

1739 Original1961 Revision
CHRIST, by highest Heav’n ador’d,Christ, by highest heaven adored
CHRIST, the Everlasting Lord,Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in Time behold him come,Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s Womb.Offspring of a Virgin’s womb:
Veil’d in Flesh, the Godhead see,Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’ Incarnate Deity!Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleas’d as Man with Men t’ appearPleased as man with man to dwell
JESUS, our Immanuel here!Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald-angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King"

As you can see, the second verse has survived almost unchanged except for spelling changes, the added refrain, the removal of the word "here", and the word “appear” being changed to “dwell.” Although the word “dwell” and “appear” have different meanings, the purpose of drawing attention to the humanity of Christ remains. I believe that this change is actually an improvement since it emphasizes Christ’s humanity better than the original phrasing. Wesley’s original emphasis on the heaven’s praise, the virgin birth, and deity of Christ remain unchanged in the newer versions. It is still easy to see that Wesley wants those singing or hearing the song to know that Jesus, the Lord of eternity came to earth to live among us as our Immanuel, which in Hebrew literally means, “God with us.”

1739 Original1961 Revision
Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild he lays his Glory by,Mild He lays His glory by
Born—that Man no more may die,Born that man no more may die
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,Born to raise the sons of earth
Born—to give them Second Birth.Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the new-born king"

The third verse has also been left almost identical to its original form with two exceptions, the first line which changed “Heav’nly” to “Heaven-born,” and of course, the addition of the refrain at the end. We are still able to see Wesley’s original song’s focus on creation bringing glory to God through his analogy between Christ and our Sun. Just as the sun brings light and life to the earth through heat to keep us warm, energy that grows food for us through plants, and light that helps us to see clearly; Christ brings light and life to the world spiritually through His saving work on the cross. Wesley continues by emphasizing that even though Christ is so great that the universe gives glory to His name, He gave up this glory to become a man so that He could die on the cross and we could be forgiven from our sins through the second birth which allows us to find resurrection from the chains of death.

Next up we have verses four and five which have been completely removed from most hymnals. I find these verses very interesting as they are very rich in theology and have to do with the restorative power of salvation in Christ. Let’s take a look at them.

1739 Original1961 Revision
Come, Desire of Nations, come,– Removed –
Fix in Us thy humble Home,– Removed –
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed,– Removed –
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head.– Removed –
Now display thy saving Pow’r,– Removed –
Ruin’d Nature now restore,– Removed –
Now in Mystic Union join– Removed –
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.– Removed –

Here we see Wesley refer to Christ as the “Desire of Nations” a Messianic reference to Jesus in Haggai 2:7, which presents Christ as “the desire of the nations”, the one which all of humanity longs for, the one who would come and “fill this house with glory.” Wesley recognizes the fulfillment of this prophecy in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and gives the challenge for Christ to “Fix in Us thy humble home,” or in other words, for Christ to indwell us with His Spirit. He continues to reference the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, a prophecy about the seed (Christ) crushing the head of the serpent (Satan). Wesley uses this prophecy as an analogy as he asks Christ, as the Conquering Seed, to come into our hearts and crush Satan’s carnal influence in our lives.

Wesley continues by asking for Christ to show the healing power of His saving work by restoring the “ruined nature,” that is, by taking away mankind’s fallen nature and replacing it with the nature of Christ. Wesley refers to this process as the “Mystic Union,” explained in the Scriptures as the indwelling Spirit and the process of us being conformed to the image of Christ. (John 14:19-20, Romans 8:29) This verse has so much beautiful doctrine in it, it’s a shame it hasn’t survived to be a part of our modern version of the song.

1739 Original1961 Revision
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface,– Removed –
Stamp thy Image in its Place,– Removed –
Second Adam from above,– Removed –
Reinstate us in thy Love.– Removed –
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain,– Removed –
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man:– Removed –
O! to All Thyself impart,– Removed –
Form’d in each Believing Heart.– Removed –

The last verse continues the call for regeneration. Here Wesley calls for God to “efface,” or in modern terms, to “erase” the fallen image of man that was passed down through Adam and instead to form us into the faultless image of the perfect and holy God. He calls for this to be done through the “Second Adam,” which refers to Christ. This comes from 1 Corinthians 15:45-47 which presents Christ as the second Adam, a perfect man who fulfilled what the first Adam was to do by living a perfect and sinless life in union with the Father. Because of this position of perfection, it allowed Christ to make the sacrifice needed to reinstate us in a relationship with God.

The second half of the verse calls for Christ to restore others. Wesley asks for him and those around him to gain Christ in their life, so that they may have true life. Wesley then refers to Christ as the “Inner Man,” this comes from 2 Corinthians 4:14-16 in which Paul states that although we are to die to the flesh daily, our “inner man,” or spirit is renewed each day. Wesley connects this with Christ because Scripture tells us we are supposed to become like Christ, so naturally, that means one’s spirit should become like Christ’s Spirit and, as a result, Christ then would be the ultimate form of the “Inner Man.” Finally, Wesley closes by asking God to call others to salvation so that they can believe in Him and take part in becoming more like Him. This last verse is neat because It is extremely rare for someone to write a song that includes concepts such as the Second Adam, the image of God, or the inner man. They are just so obscure to the realm of spiritual music that it’s kind of refreshing to see it. It’s a shame we haven’t found a way to incorporate these lyrics into our newer version of the song.

After looking into the original version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” I feel like we’re really missing some of the spiritual richness that Charles Wesley gave us in this song. It’s a shame we haven’t reimplemented some of his original wording and lost verses into the newer version of the song. Even though some of the topics that the original lyrics present may be a bit advanced for the general audiences, they do contain spiritual truth that is important for every believer and presents us with the beauty of what Christ has done for us on the Cross. It emphasizes the saving, restorative power of our God, something that needs to be proclaimed now, more than ever before. While the new version may make an easy to sing Christmas carol about angels singing about Christ to shepherds in a field, the original presents Christ as Yahweh God, the Desire of Mankind, the One who crushes the power of Satan in our lives, the One who has offered to join with us in a spiritual union, and the One who promised to regenerate our lives and make us whole again.

So now when you hear the song “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” at Christmas, remember what Charles Wesley was trying to remind you. Remember what the God of all Nature has done for you and wants to do for others. Remember Christ’s work on the Cross and the work He wants to do in your life because that’s the reminder we all need and it makes the perfect “Hymn for Christmas-Day.”

Thanks for reading, and have a very merry Christmas!

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