HARK! The Herald Angels...Sing?
By Loren Sommer
… And when Charlie Brown asks “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” Linus says, “Sure Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” And then Linus walks onto center stage and recites the Christmas scripture from Luke 2 in full, glorious KJV. That was brilliant for Charles M. Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, to insert that text. It has since been declared on national TV every Christmas season! The Peanuts Christmas story ends with everyone gathered around Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree under the stars singing Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. I think Charles M. Schulz picked this hymn written by Charles Wesley deliberately, because it is packed full of gospel. Let’s take a peek.
Charles Wesley wrote over 6000 poems and hymns in his lifetime, with his emphasis on teaching the poor and illiterate some solid Christian doctrine. This poem first appeared in 1739 in his collection of Hymns and Sacred Poems and was titled Hymn for Christmas Day. The first line initially read “Hark! How all the Welkin rings/ Glory to the King of Kings. (Welkin is an archaic English term for “heavens” or “vault of heaven”.) In 1753, an English preacher named George Whitefield changed the first line of the carol to “Hark! The herald angels sing - Glory to the newborn King!” I know, I know… there is no record of angels singing on earth in scripture. I think Whitefield was referring to Luke 2:13 which says “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men’”. Every translation I have found states that the angels said, not sang. What’s the difference? I like to think of it this way: almost always, when there’s an account of an angel in scripture, the person seeing the angel is incredibly afraid. The angel’s message is usually “God is doing something big and you are part of it.” Luke says the shepherds were sore afraid. So if the angels were singing, maybe it was really bad? More likely it was a multitude of the heavenly host shouting louder than any Seahawk crowd you ever heard, “Glory to God in the highest!” Sort of brings chills to your spine, doesn’t it? But I digress…
Despite Whitefield’s changes, the hymn was still theologically rich. It retells the Christmas story, the fulfillment of prophesy, and the hope of the second birth. Peace on earth refers not to lack of confrontations between men, but to peace between God and man (James 2). Late in time refers to Hebrews 1:2 “but now in these last days he has spoken to us through his son”. Pleased as man with men to dwell refers to Colossians 1 “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him”. Risen with healing in his wings refers to Malachi 4:2. Theologically rich it was, but not really that popular. Wesley had requested and received slow, somber music for the poem. 100 years later William Cummings adapted Feliz Mendelssohn’s secular music from Festgesang to fit the lyrics of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing as we know it today and the rest is history.
So, when you hear this song this Christmas, pay particular attention to the words. Proclaim God’s majesty with the angels, whether or not they sing! That is the first commandment. And secondly, especially considering the isolation created by this pandemic, think of others that might be lonely like Charlie Brown; people who are looking sadly into an empty mailbox, or cupboard, or email/text inbox. Who can you love on this Christmas? Send a card, take some cookies to that person down the block, call up someone from our Hope family. By this you are fulfilling the second commandment our Lord gave us. We are all like coals on a fire. If we get separated we could go out, but if we stay together we will keep burning with the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s richest blessings to you this Christmas!
For an amazing presentation of this hymn search “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing - Concordia Christmas Concerts” on YouTube or click the photo.
Performed by Concordia College Moorhead, Minnesota