Once in Royal David’s City

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary
Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848
Addressed to one another, especially children
Once in royal David’s cityLuke 2:4
   stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her babyLuke 2:7
   in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,Luke 1:38
Jesus Christ her little child.Luke 2:12
He came down to earth from heavenJohn 6:38
   who is God and Lord of all,Matt. 11:27; John 20:28
and his shelter was a stable,
   and his cradle was a stall:
with the poor, and mean, and lowly,Matt. 8–9; Rom. 12:16
lived on earth our Savior holy.
And through all his wondrous childhood
   he would honor and obey,Luke 2:51-52
love and watch the lowly maidenProv. 23:26
   in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be1 Pet. 2:21
mild, obedient, good as he.Ex. 20:12; Col. 3:20; Tit. 3:2
And our eyes at last shall see him,Ps. 17:15; 1 John 3:2b
   through his own redeeming love;
for that child so dear and gentle
   is our Lord in heav’n above,1 Pet. 3:22
and he leads his children onJohn 13:33–14:6
to the place where he is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
   with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him, but in heaven,
   set at God’s right hand on high;Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 7:55
when like stars his children crownedDan. 12:3
all in white shall wait around.Ps. 135:1–2; Rev. 7:9–15

Since children are an integral part of the congregation, we sing hymns addressed to them and hymns they can address to God and to us, songs that communicate the biblical ideas dearest to their hearts—not childish songs, but songs that respect the spiritual lives of the very young, like “Jesus Loves Me,” “We Have Heard the Joyful Sound,” “We Plow the Fields,” and “When He Cometh.” An adult Christian who feels self-conscious singing these has not grasped the generational nature of the covenant.

Christmas, certainly, is important to little ones, if sometimes for wrong reasons. This excellent hymn affords everyone, but especially children, an opportunity to wonder at the humiliation and exaltation of the incarnate Christ. We begin with the storyteller’s traditional first word, “once” as in “once upon a time,” and settle into that frame of mind, so familiar and so pleasant, in which one contemplates providence through narrative, to see how protagonists undergo hardship to live happily ever after. The first two lines vividly set the scene with the threefold contrast of royal–lowly, David’s–cattle’s, city–shed. The concepts of royalty, farm animals, mothers, and babies fascinate children. We introduce the characters by name as one does at the beginning of a story: Mary was the mother, Jesus her little child.

The story is profound. He who is God and Lord of all needed shelter—a cradle!—having come to earth to share our flesh and blood. He lived with the poor, mean, and lowly as our holy Savior: simple words which express the paradox and the love with perfect naturalness. In stanza 3 we look beyond the baby, lying in his mother’s arms, to the toddler, boy, and youth who would keep on watching her, to honor her and to obey her, fulfilling all righteousness for us even then, to save us from sin and to free us to follow the pattern of his own goodness (lines 5–6). As it turns out, we too are characters in this story with Mary and Jesus. It is no mere fairy tale. And it is far from over (stanza 4). Someday, because of “his own redeeming love,” we will see him not in our mind’s eye as we do now, aided by the storyteller’s art, but face to face in heaven, from where he reigns right now and to where he is leading us. The last stanza describes his appearance then by contrasting it with the opening scene: “not in that poor lowly stable” but exalted and glorious, not laid in a manger but “set at God’s right hand,” and attended not by oxen but by his children robed in his righteousness and shining like stars forever and ever. (“Wait around” in the last line is meant not in the colloquial sense of “linger” or “hang about” but in the courtly sense of “be in attendance around the throne, ready to serve.”) Thus the hymn changes slowly, imperceptibly, from a picture of something long ago and far away to a glimpse at the very purpose of your life and of mine; it can do so smoothly, because the picture and the glimpse are all of a piece, all one story.

The tune IRBY is idiomatic for children’s voices, with stepwise motion, lots of repetition, and nothing chromatic. The A section of a bar form unfolds neatly, with line 2 of the stanza matching the rhythm and contour of line 1 but cadencing on a downbeat (measure 4) to answer line 1’s weaker cadence (measure 2). The leisurely two-quarter-note pickup is as capable of hushed stillness in stanza 1 as it is of grandeur in stanza 5. After the A section recites its tale simply, in mostly tonic harmony, the B section (lines 5–6) expands to a soaring subdominant with ascending scales in the bass, which works well for the stirring words here in stanzas 4–5: “and he leads . . . to the place” and “when like stars . . . all in white.” Accompanists might want to consider keeping up a steady crescendo over the course of the entire hymn, playing the introduction at a true pianissimo and ending with all the stops.