"Joy to the World"

Monday, December 26, 2016

When is a Christmas hymn not a Christmas hymn? When it’s message is equally strong in all seasons. Actually, that is true of every hymn we normally associate with Christmas. Even “Silent Night” can be sung in July as a reminder of Jesus’s love for us. But unlike most Christmas hymns, “Joy to the World” doesn’t even mention Christ’s birth except for the beginning reference to “the Lord is come.” It is truly a hymn for all seasons, and we should sing it throughout the year.

The 1719 lyrics by Isaac Watts are his paraphrase of Psalm 98. Here are verses 4–9 from the King James version, which was probably the one Watts used.

4Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
5Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.
6With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
7Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
8Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
9Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

And here are the words to “Joy to the World” as found in The Lutheran Service Book published by Concordia Publishing House.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love.

Praise God for the wonders of His love in 2017 and always.

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Monday, December 19, 2016

Is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” a hymn or a carol? I searched the Internet for the distinction and ended up even more confused. For example:

Hymns are traditional poems which have been taken from the Book of Psalms. They have been around for 100s of years and are sung by congregations while worshipping God in public. Carols, on the other hand, are festive songs. They are generally religious. [Quoted from http://www.differencebetween.net/miscellaneous/religion-miscellaneous/difference-between-carol-and-hymns/]

 Quick tip: One is sacred, the other secular. . . . Hymns are songs in praise of God and thus have a suitably portentous note about them. . . . Carols embody [secularism]. [Quoted from The Economic Times, December 23, 2012.]

Neither of these definitions works for me. Although all hymns are scriptural, not all of them come from the Book of Psalms. And although there are secular Christmas carols, many have a strong sacred component. I also found sites stating that hymns are solemn while carols are joyful, but that isn’t universally true, either.

So my best guess is that “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a carol rather than a hymn. The setting relates to current events rather than to Biblical ones, although it does have a strong Christian message in its final stanza. It doesn’t really matter what I call it, though. What matters are the words and what they convey.

As an aside, Longfellow titled it “Christmas Bells.” John Baptiste Calkin used the first line as the title when he set the poem to music in 1872. Calkin also used only five of the seven stanzas, dropping the two that referred to the Civil War.

The Internet is in conflict about when Longfellow wrote this poem, although most sites date it as either 1863 or 1864. The Civil war was raging, and Longfellow was grieving for his second wife, Fanny. Their older son, Charles, had enlisted in the Union army against his father’s wishes and was twice wounded, although he survived. The country itself was going through a very dark period in its history. So Longfellow had reason to despair.

And yet the final stanza of Longfellow’s poem says in ringing tones, “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail.” That’s a message of hope rather than despair.

Here is Longfellow’s poem as he wrote it.

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

May you experience that peace and good will this Christmas.


The picture at the head of this post is from a painting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was done by his younger son, Ernest Longfellow, in 1886. It is in the public domain because of its age.

"Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

Monday, December 12, 2016

This week I am covering another of Charles Wesley’s hymns. The angels in the picture will provide a clue, and the title of the post absolutely gives it away. Yes, I’m talking about “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

That wasn’t the original title or the original beginning. According to Hymnary.org, George Whitefield changed the first line in 1753, the refrain was added in 1782, and various other wording changes were made before the 18th century was over. The original version was also much longer, with ten stanzas rather than just the three we usually sing today.

Charles Wesley’s first two lines were:

Hark, how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings.

(According to my dictionary, “welkin” means the vault of heavens, or the sky.)

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is usually sung to the tune “Mendelssohn,” is also an anomaly. The tune is based on Felix Mendelssohn’s “Festgesang,” which the composer claimed was not fitted to a religious text. But William Cummings didn’t care what Mendelssohn thought when Cummings adapted the music in 1856 to fit “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

Here are the three verses that most of us know. Again, this version comes from The Lutheran Service Book published by Concordia Publishing House.

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 heav’n 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 Immanuel. Refrain.

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n 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. Refrain.

Next week I’ll discuss another Christmas hymn. Or is it a Christmas carol? I’ll cover that distinction, too.


The picture shows the indoor nativity scene at the Church of Ste. Genevieve in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. I took the photo in 2014.

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

Monday, December 5, 2016

Does Advent celebrate Christ’s first and second comings or His first, second, and third? Most Christians think of two comings: His birth and His return in glory at the end of time as we know it. But there is another coming between those two: when He comes to individual Christians to dwell in their hearts. “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” by Charles Wesley refers to all three.

Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, and many are still in use today. I will cover two of them in this blog.

According to Hymnary.org, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus) was first published in 1744 in Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord and contained two verses of eight lines each. Depending on which tune is used, however, some hymnals break it into four stanzas.

Wesley used near rhymes when he couldn’t find a true rhyme that conveyed his meaning. For example, “release us” is a near rhyme for “Jesus”; “forever” is a near rhyme for “deliver”; and “merit” is a near rhyme for “Spirit.” Although purists don’t like near-rhymes, many contemporary poets use them. And apparently it isn’t a new practice.

Wesley also used repetition to make a point. Notice the word “born,” which starts a line four times, including the three lines that begin the second (or third) stanza. This repetition emphasizes the incarnation. Lines 4 through 6 do not repeat a word but do repeat an idea, using a different description of Jesus in each line. That reminds me of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Here is the text in two verses as found in The Lutheran Service Book published by Concordia Publishing House. The four-verse versions simply split each of the two verses in half.

Come Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art,
Dear desire of ev’ry nation,
Joy of ev’ry longing heart. 

Born Thy people to deliver;
Born a child and yet a king!
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Join me next week for a look at a Christmas hymn that Charles Wesley also wrote.


The portrait of Charles Wesley at the head of this post was painted by John Russell around 1771. It is in the public domain because of its age.