Singing the praises of God has always been an important part of the Christian faith. This tradition goes back even to the days of the Old Testament. Moses, Miriam, David, and Solomon all sang songs that are recorded for us today. The book of Psalms was written in Hebrew poetry and the Israelites set many of its words to tune. God speaks with favor when it comes to worshipping Him with songs.
1 Chronicles 16:23-24 tells us to “Sing to the LORD, all the earth; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples.
The book of Psalms contains the phrase, “Sing to the Lord” 27 times.
Paul instructed the Colossians to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:16).”
Even in the final moment that Jesus was with his 12 disciples, on Maundy Thursday, we’re told that they sang a hymn together as they concluded receiving the Lord’s Supper.
This strong tradition of singing to God continues to this day with great strength in the Lutheran church. Of all the Christian denominations, Lutherans are most well-known for their rich musical heritage. An important development that sprang forth from the Reformation was an explosion of hymn composition. Today, we are blessed to have well-written and singable hymns for all times of the church year. We could all honestly admit that without this tradition of hymn singing, our faith simply would not be the same.
Perhaps the greatest of all seasons in our hymnal is upon us today. The birth of our Savior stands right next to Easter Sunday as the most joyous of times to express our belief of God in song. In fact, the largest section of hymns in our hymnal is the Christmas section, with 37 total. Today, let us delve into some of our well-known Christmas songs of praise. God-willing we will gain a greater respect and understanding of the reasons they were written and the value they hold for us today.
As we look at each hymn, I encourage you to open your hymnals to it since we will be discussing the doctrinal content that it teaches. The first hymn we start with is also the first Christmas hymn listed, number 76, “A Great and Mighty Wonder.” This is one the oldest known hymns in the Christian Church, yet it isn’t even the oldest Christmas hymn in our hymnal.
This hymn was so ancient that is was originally written in Greek, not Latin, German, or English. You’ll notice the original title listed in your hymnal is in the Greek language. It’s pronounced, mega kai paradoxe thauma. The literal translation of this title is, “A great and strange wonder.” You can see how the translator expressed it well. The Greek word, paradoxe, translated as “strange” or “amazing,” is where our English word, paradox, comes from. As we contemplate the birth of God’s Son into the world, the thought of a paradox is indeed fitting; for it far transcends anything that humans can imagine.
The author, St. Germanus, who was bishop in Asia Minor, built on this thought well as he describes the doctrines of the virgin birth and the dual nature of Christ in verses 1 and 2. The word, “cherubim” in verse 2 is an English pronunciation for the Hebrew word for angels. You may recall that the Ark of the Covenant had two golden cherubim on its cover. The same idea of power is conveyed in the Christmas story, as we picture the almighty hosts of the Father proclaiming the arrival of His Son, the long-expected Messiah.
The angels’ original song of praise, recorded in Luke 2:14, ties the hymn together and keeps its great and mighty wonders focused on Christmas night. As many Christian hymns do, so this hymn directs the believer to remember the future coming of this same Savior. In all our thoughts and praises, we do well to echo this same approach; for it helps us remember the very reason Jesus came.
Our next hymn of focus is 85, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This hymn is the second longest in the Christmas section and it is the most well-known Christmas hymn written by Martin Luther. Historians note that Luther really enjoyed celebrating Christmas and he wrote this particular hymn for his children in 1534. The way in which Luther designed this hymn was unique. He meant for it to read as if the first seven verses were sung to the hearers by an angel. They are written as God’s blessed tidings delivered to His people. Verse 8 marks a transition from the angel’s proclamation to the peoples’ response of praise. When reading and singing you’ll notice this change in style and it serves as a nice feature of the hymn.
In true Luther fashion, there is no shortage of rich Gospel themes through this hymn. Already in verse 3 he makes it clear that the mission of this child was about making payment for sins upon the cross. Luther goes on in verses 5 and 6 to describe the comforting scenes of the birth in Bethlehem. He makes mention of the swaddling cloths, the infant, the manger, and the shepherds.
The final phrase of verse 11 is hard to follow in our English translation. It reads, “As ‘twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.” “’Twere” is an old English contraction of the words “it were.” What Luther meant to convey in this verse was that although the Christ-child’s immediate surroundings were the humblest of nature, hay and straw instead of silk and velvet, they didn’t diminish His power. The dominion of heaven was still Christ’s all along, throughout the entire course of his earthly journey. He simply chose to set it aside for you and me. Even though Jesus had a throne in heaven, this lowly manger now was his on earth.
The hymn ends with some very beautiful depictions of what the Christmas story means to each individual soul. Luther looks into each of our hearts as we sing, “Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, Make Thee a bed soft, undefiled, Within my heart that it may be, a quiet chamber kept for Thee.” As Luther proves here, good hymnody does not need to be void of feeling, emotions, or personality. One of the blessings of rich music is that it does touch the heart. When you add the truths of Scripture to this effect, the hymns become cherished for life and quite powerful to the Christian. We must keep this in mind. Not all subjective and personal thoughts are wrong. The importance is that they accurately convey Christ.
The next song of praise we look at is hymn 90, “Come Your Hearts and Voices Raising.” This hymn was written by Paul Gerhardt, a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1600s. Gerhardt is also responsible for 20 other hymns in the Lutheran Hymnal, including other well loved ones such as: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” and “Awake My Heart With Gladness.” Gerhardt has often been called Germany’s greatest hymn writer, even over Luther. In all, he wrote 123 hymns.
Gerhardt drew upon his life experiences in his hymn writing. He was one who truly knew and felt the comfort of the Gospel in the midst of hardships. From early on, Gerhardt was confronted with the pain of living in a sinful world. As a young child, he grew up in the suffering of the 30 years’ war. After the war subsided, Gerhardt was tested in the fires of holding to His biblical confession. At this point in history, Lutheran pastors were coerced to sign a confessional statement with Reformed churches, stating that there were no longer differences between them, at least not any that mattered before God. It was a complete compromise of the Lutheran faith. Gerhardt refused and was deposed from his office as pastor at the Church of St. Nicholas in Berlin.
Shortly before these proceedings Gerhardt had lost three of his five of his children to illness. During the deposition a fourth child died and his wife became seriously ill. The fact that Gerhardt could write this hymn in the midst of such trials is an amazing testament to the strength of his faith, but even more to the power and love of God. He was truly one whose mind was set on things above, not on this earth only. A year after Gerhardt wrote this hymn, his wife, too, passed away on Easter, leaving only a six-year old son left with him. Gerhardt would continue preaching and composing God’s word in song for 8 more years, when God called him to heaven.
One cannot say that Paul Gerhardt didn’t understand what it was like to suffer. And yet, his hymns contain no thought of complaint or the idea that he was ever mistreated by God. We see the source of Gerhardt’s peace immediately in this hymn as he gets to the full Gospel message. It is to this promise that Christians are to “cast their cares” and turn “from earth’s woes to heavenly joy” as he writes in verses 1-2.
Gerhardt makes reference to Balaam’s prophecy from Numbers 24 in verse 5, as he mentions Jacob’s star. God promised victory through His Son as it is written: “A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult.” We also see a clear example of the very teaching that Gerhardt held onto despite being persecuted – salvation by faith alone. From verse 7, “Oh, the joy beyond expressing, when by faith we grasp this blessing…” It is truly only by faith that we can understand and hold onto the gifts of God’s grace which He showers upon us through the birth of His Son. There is nothing on this earth, whether war, disease, death, ill-treatment, or poverty, all things Paul Gerhardt endured, that can rob us of God’s free love in Jesus. This is why we come with uplifted hearts and voices on every opportunity we have to hear and share God’s Word.
We come to another Christmas hymn by Martin Luther, “To Shepherd’s As They Watched by Night,” number 103 in the hymnal. Luther wrote this hymn for use around Christmas by those who thought “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” was too long. Apparently, even back then people only had so much of a tolerance for singing in the worship service.
But much more important than length, was what Luther conveyed through this hymn. All of the hymns in our hymnal have Scripture references attached to them. Most of these references, however, were not given by the authors. The connection to Bible references was made later, most of the time just by guessing what the author may have based his thoughts on. But in the case of this hymn, we know indeed that Luther based it on Luke 2:10-11, as you see near the title.
Those verses state the following: Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” These words are the angel’s famous proclamation to the shepherds. Each verse of the hymns builds on the imagery and thoughts that the shepherds experienced.
They were right outside Bethlehem as Luther mentions in verse 2 and just as the prophet Micah foretold. The rest of the hymn focuses on something that described the shepherds even more than the location of their flocks. What Luther relates is really how the humble a sinner feels at the prospect of God entering his life. The shepherds certainly would have felt this way, as they were lowly commoners. They felt unworthy; they quite possibly were unsure of how to present themselves before their Maker and Redeemer, even though He was a tiny baby.
Shouldn’t we feel the same way when we approach God in our lives? If we aren’t struck in our hearts with a feeling of humbleness we should really ask ourselves what’s wrong. The final four verses of this hymn remind us that we have nothing to fear when we face God, whether that be daily in His Word or on the Final Day. Sin and death can do no harm. Satan and hell can rage and fight all they want. Temptations may abound but the Christian cannot fail. Because the birth of Jesus represents the great length of God’s desire to save mankind. He is not a God who is distant or far from our pleas for help. He is a God who humbled Himself to our level. He did that because He cares for you.
The shepherds were inadequate to receive their Savior, but that was the entire point. God comes to those who don’t deserve anything. And you and I fit that bill too. But there’s no need to worry. He became like us, we are safe.
The final hymn we examine was written by the only layman on our list, 712, “What Child is This.” Yet, this fact does not in any way diminish the doctrinal truths contained within its words. This hymn focuses primarily on the humanity of Jesus. Several images are employed to re-create the scene in the hearer’s mind. Mary’s lap, oxen feeding, and the gifts of the Magi are a few examples. The final refrain, “The babe, the Son of Mary” reinforces this central theme.
While this hymn may not span the breadth of doctrines as we have seen with others, it doesn’t shy away from the reason that Christ became human either. Verse 2 speaks of the impending crucifixion with more pointed figures – nails, spear, and cross. Another interesting part about this hymn is its simplicity. There aren’t really any confusing words or thoughts. Each teaching from Scripture is described in such a way that any hearer understand get message, whether seasoned Christian or novice in the faith. For example, at the end of verse 2, the author describes Christ’s humanity without using the theological term, “incarnation.” Instead, he gives the simple definition without missing anything, that Jesus is the Word made flesh.
Although the words themselves are straightforward, the order of verse 2 could lead to possible confusion. When the hymn reads, “Good Christians fear; For sinners here, The silent Word is pleading…” the hearer may not immediately understand what is meant. To put it another way, what the author is trying to say is that Jesus, as the Christ-child, is the “silent Word.” Even as an infant, He was busy working on behalf of sinners, or “pleading” for them. It’s actually quite an astounding thought. Every breath that Jesus took on this earth was an act of service as our Mediator. He may not have been preaching or healing immediately, but His mission had begun. Even as a tiny infant who could not even talk yet, the silent Word made flesh, He was still the only hope for sinful mankind. That is why we Christians, fear, or respect our Lord and Savior, even at Christmas when He seems so helpless and innocent.
“What Child is This” reminds us that even the simplest of hymns can have a profound impact on our understanding of God’s Word. This is especially true for our children, who may not know all of the doctrines of the Bible, but can sing songs like Silent Night, Away in a Manger, and this very hymn. Take time with your children to lead and guide them in God’s Word, and use hymns like these to help.