Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Hymn for Christmas Day
Charles Wesley, 1739; altered in 1753 by George Whitefield
Addressed to one another
Hark! the herald angels sing,Luke 2:13–14
“Glory to the newborn King;
peace on earth, and mercy mild,Is. 40:2
God and sinners reconciled!”Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,Ps. 67:4; Zech. 2:11
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”Mic. 5:2; Luke 2:15
   Hark! the herald angels sing,
   “Glory to the newborn King.”
Christ, by highest heav’n adored,Ps. 148:4; Luke 19:38
Christ, the everlasting Lord!Is. 40:28; 2 Pet. 1:11
Late in time behold him come,Gal. 4:4; Heb. 1:2
offspring of the Virgin’s womb.Is. 7:14; Matt. 1:23; Luke 1:31
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;Heb. 10:20
hail th’incarnate Deity,John 1:14a; Col. 2:9
pleased as man with men to dwell,John 1:14b
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
   Hark! the herald angels sing . . .
Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!Is. 9:6
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!Mal. 4:2a
Light and life to all he brings,John 1:4; 8:12
ris’n with healing in his wings.Mal. 4:2b
Mild he lays his glory by,John 8:50; Phil. 2:7
born that man no more may die,John 6:50; 1 Cor. 15:22
born to raise the sons of earth,Acts 3:25
born to give them second birth.John 3:3; 1 Pet. 1:3; 1:23
   Hark! the herald angels sing . . .

We have elsewhere focused our attention on the material that congregants sing to someone: to ourselves, to God, and to one another. But communication is, as the cliché has it, a two-way street. However good the material, it is only useful if someone listens to it. Just as we are to teach and admonish one another, so too are we to be taught and admonished. Wesley’s hymn for Christmas Day begins by asking us to do this very thing. Only, it is not our fellow congregants to whom we listen, but the Christmas angels, whose words appear in our own mouths as the song begins.

The “hark” of the first line and repeated refrain is more than a mere call to attention. It is a call to reflection. The hymn helps us in this by expanding many phrases in the angels’ song. “God in the highest” is here rendered “newborn king,” clarifying for us the relationship between the God of the angels’ declaration and the incarnate God that they celebrate. “Goodwill toward men” is here explained in the phrase “God and sinners reconciled” because it is this reconciliation which forms the essence of God’s goodwill “among those with whom he is pleased” (as the ESV puts it). The “great joy” that will be “to all people” is here changed to a command for the nations. They, having been giving good reason for joy, are asked to rise and join the angels in their song. For the angels’ news is “to all people.”

Whereas the first stanza paraphrases the angel’s song directly, calling us first to listen and then to join in, the second and third stanzas explain the significance of the song. Perhaps drawing on the language of Luke 2:11–12, the second stanza explains who this Christ is—eternally God, veiled in flesh, the virgin’s son, Emmanuel. As the third stanza further articulates the offices of Christ, it returns to the command to sing that we found in the first stanza. “Hail” here is an invitation to do what the angels do, now that we better understand their message. So Wesley’s text asks us to participate in both parts of the communicative process. We listen to the song of the angels and we sing it ourselves.

The reasons why we should do all this are apparent from the poem as well. The nations are joyful when the rise: they rise instead of bowing because Christ is “born to raise the sons of earth.” Christ is “pleased as man with man to dwell.” He does not begrudgingly surrender his glory, but “mildly” lays it by. When the final refrain comes, we feel we have been very good reason to “hark.” Only a fool would not wish to attend to and reflect on such good news.

The tune MENDELSSOHN is largely responsible for the familiarity of this hymn. Certainly the match is a useful one. Key to its success is the melody of line 2:


In its original context, it is the early climax to the tune’s first half. When the repeated Cs return to open the tune’s second half, we feel them justifiable because they evoke the melody of line 2, though the dotted rhythm has been removed:


In doing so, the tune creates a link between three articulations of praise (“Glory to the newborn King,” “Christ, the everlasting Lord,” and “Hail the Sun of Righteousness”) and the opening lines of each stanza’s second half. When in line 6 the repeated Cs come again, following on their own heels, they seem trumpet-like. Then, we find the pattern of twice-repeated notes yet again, in the very next line, transposed up a step for the tune’s climax:


Just as one might raise the pitch of his address if repetition has failed to gain him his audience, so here the repeated note rises with the angels to call us to attention. When these repeated Ds return as the opening of the refrain, joined to a different dotted rhythm, they are all but nagging. “Surely,” says the melody of the reprise, “you can no longer be deaf to this angelic song.”