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Hymn Study

Hymn Study: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Last week we talked about one of my favorite carols, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Today is another favorite – one that had quite a circuitous route to becoming the version we sing today…


Complicated Carol

When you sing Hark the Herald Angels Sing” this year, I want you to take a moment to remember the song writer.

His name is Charles.

And George.

And Felix.

And William.

It takes a village to write a Christmas Carol.

This carol you’ve sung 1000 times is actually not at all what was originally intended. Imitable hymn writer Charles Wesley originally penned the lyrics as follows:

“Hark! How all the welkin rings!

Glory to the King of kings!”

Do you know what a welkin is? Is it some kind of new Star Wars character?

Welkin is old English for sky, firmament, heaven, etc. – the residence of the angels.

Here’s something noteworthy. I’m not sure you are ready.

Did you know the Bible never, ever mentions angels singing? It’s true. It never says they don’t sing, but it never says they do. It says they praise (and as a music teacher, I adore that the common cultural assumption is that praising is done through singing), but the Bible never says they actually sing. 

Hark! The herald angels said

Could have been the words instead

Back to Charles…

Here’s a joyful thought: Charles Wesley intended for his words to be very serious and sung accompanied only by a somber tune. (He probably would not have be down with this version.) 

A few years later George Whitefield got ahold of the words and decided to up the merry game by changing it to “glory to the newborn King.” He abandoned some other lyrics and consolidated the words into the version you know today. The tune was still snoozy though.

Enter the final two participants in this carol.

Felix Mendelssohn was born Jewish, though his family converted to Christianity when he was a child. In 1840 he wrote a little tune to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Mendelssohn had a specific request: that the music never be used for religious purposes. Spoiler: that did not work out. By 1856 Charles and Felix had both passed on into the welkin, so all bets were off.

It was William Cummings who, in an inspired you put peanut butter in my chocolate moment, combined Wesley/Whitefield’s words with Mendelssohn’s tune.

Christmas history was born.

God and Sinners Reconciled

“Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing” is one of my favorite carols because of the incredibly rich text:

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Glory to the newborn King

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled”

When I am teaching this carol to my students, I have them put one hand as high up as possible, representing God. I have them put the other hand as low as possible, representing themselves as sinners — desperately separated from a holy God.

As we sing the word “reconciled,” we bring our hands together with a loud clap to represent the restoration of our relationship with God — because of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is accessible theology, even for the youngest child.

As you sing this carol with your children this year, take a moment and explain the concept of reconciliation. Understanding the separation of God and man because of innate sin is crucial to our theology as Christians, and it can be beautifully taught through this carol.

A few versions I love for listening and pondering this Christmas:

Beautiful symphony version:

For the country fans:

And for the Irish Celtic/Bluegrass fans:

By the way, if you are looking for a fantastic Christmas album to add to your collection this year, I highly recommend Joy: An Irish Christmas by Keith and Kristyn Getty. It’s one of my favorite favorites. We’ve seen the Getty Christmas show several times and it is always a blessing – check it out if it ever comes your way!

I leave you today with another of my favorite lyrics from this carol we all know and love…

“Veiled in the flesh the Godhead see

Hail the incarnate Deity

Pleased, as man, with men to dwell

Jesus, our Emmanuel”

Veiling His holiness in human flesh, God was pleased to dwell with us, his people.

Let that make you merry this season, dear friends.



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Hymn Study: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen


Today I have lesson for you that spans hymn study, grammar, and Bible. This one is good for older elementary/middle grades students, although younger ones will enjoy listening and sketching to the music. There are many thoughts here you can use for igniting discussion with older students.

First, a question:

In the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – do you know where the comma goes? (I have omitted it here, obviously.) It has implications for the meaning of the song.

Consider the options:

God, Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

God Rest, Ye Merry Gentlemen

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen


What do you think? Which one? Keep reading and I will tell you in a minute.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (I’m still leaving out the comma) is one of the oldest carols sung today with roots back to 16th century. It is also rooted in rebellion. Yes, a rebellious Christmas carol.

See, at the time, church music was sung primarily in Latin. Commoners had little chance of ever understanding what they were singing. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written in English, which is markedly significant. It was written for the people, by the people (or at least, by a person – likely a very common person). It was a peasant tune, sung outside the church walls in the villages of England. No one considered it to be great music.

The carol’s trajectory was set when Charles Dickens quoted the lyrics in “A Christmas Carol.” Back in the day, being quoted by Dickens was equivalent to being re-tweeted by Justin Timberlake. #orsomethinglikethat

So, popularity firmly in place, fast forward to today and that pesky comma.

What did you decide? Where does it go?

Most people think the comma comes after Ye, reading “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” The implication is that Merry is an adjective to describe the Gentlemen in the song.

But that’s not where the comma goes.

It reads like this:

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”

Do you see the implication?

The hymn is calling us (the Gentlemen) to rest Merry. To Merry Rest. 

Joyful Rest.

Peaceful Rest.

See, we aren’t the merry ones. We are the downcast ones – in need of peace, rest, hope – and a Savior. This is Advent after all – it’s a waiting time, a watching time. A longing time.

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is reminding us of the joy that only comes through the Savior, because of his birth at Advent. A birth intended for death, a life intended for the grave.

“Let nothing you dismay.”

Can we be merry apart from Christ? Maybe temporarily so. Twinkle lights are always good for a quick jolt of holiday spirit. But it’s only temporary. Lasting joy only comes through Christ.

Because that life that was intended for the grave was also intended to rise. We have nothing to dismay. Death was defeated, and we can rest merry.

So Rest Ye Merry, dear friends. Find your comfort and joy in Christ this Christmas.

Two favorite versions of mine for listening, sketching, and pondering:

A slow, soaring classical version:

And a modern, driving take from Mercy Me (with a little “Carol of the Bells” thrown in):

Happy listening – and a Merry Christmas,