Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
DR Christmas 03

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2:14

"Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" is one of the most familiar and popular of Christmas carols. Like "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," it was written by the musical prolific poet Charles Wesley. Or, at least that's what most hymnals and Christmas songbooks suggest. But, in fact, Wesley did not pen the opening line of this carol, though he was responsible for most of the other lines. The song that Wesley called "Hymn for Christmas Day" began, "HARK how all the Welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings, Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild, GOD and Sinners reconcil'd!" Yes, that's right, "welkin." No herald angels in Wesley's original hymn. Just a ringing welkin.

In case you're wondering, "welkin" was common in older English. It appears, for example, eighteen times in the plays of Shakespeare. The word referred to what we might call the vault of heaven, the place where both stars and angels dwell. It's quite likely that Wesley was thinking of the angels in Luke 2 when he referred to the ringing welkin, especially given his use of "glory" and "peace on earth." As the angels announced the good news of Christ's birth to the shepherds, the heavens rang. It was Wesley's friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, who changed the first line of "Hymn for Christmas Day" to "Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king." Yet, Wesley did not appreciate this change to his original hymn. Ironically, Whitefield's version soon became the standard and this surely helps to explain for the extraordinary popularity of carol as we know it. I expect we would not be singing Wesley's original version today.

The verse upon which this hymn is based, Luke 2:14, has also seen a change in its English wording during the past centuries. The King James Version offered the familiar line, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Here, the birth of Christ bring two things to people: peace and good will. But, virtually every contemporary English translation tells a slightly different story. The NIV, for example, reads, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." Notice, Christ brings one thing to people: peace. And this peace comes in particular to those who are favored by God. The modern translations aren't being stingy. They are correctly translating the Greek original of Luke 2:14. (The KJV used unreliable manuscripts.)

This verse does not mean, however, that Christ brings peace only to those who, in the past, were favored by God. Rather, through Christ, God will extend his favor far beyond national or ethnic borders. As the angels suggested, Christ came to bring peace on earth, not just a small part of the earth, but the whole earth. He came to make right what was made wrong by sin. He came to inaugurate God's kingdom and the peace that follows when God rules. Christ came to bring wholeness to broken people, broken relationships, broken families, broken nations, and a broken world. He came to bring the peace of God, which includes justice and blessing for all.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Where do you need to experience the peace of God in your life? Are you willing to talk to God about this and to ask for the gift of peace this Christmas?


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 th' Angelic Hosts proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King."

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting lord
Late in time behold Him come,
Off-spring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail, the incarnate deity
Pleased as Man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn king!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace,
Hail, the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen 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.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn king!" Amen.

Verses 1, 2, and 3 of "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," by Charles Wesley (1739). Amended by George Whitefield (1753) and others.