Our hymn this week is one of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns. He wrote it in 1737 during his personal quiet time! Much of what we sing today is true to his original, with the exception of the opening line. Wesley’s original opening line was “Hark! How all the welkin rings!” Welkin, a word that is almost entirely unknown today, is an old English word that literally means “the vault of heaven that makes a long noise.” Wesley was trying to convey the story of Luke 2, in which the heavens open and the host of heavens proclaim the birth of the Messiah King. With that opening line the hymn premiered. Later however, George Whitfield, a very well known Calvinist preacher of the time, decided to make use of the hymn but he did not like the first line. Whitfield thought it sounded too stodgy and he was a bit more loose in his biblical interpretation! So he decided to change the first line to “Hark! The herald angels sing,” and published it that way in his own hymnals - even though angels are never actually reported as singing anywhere in the Bible. When Wesley saw what Whitfield had done, he was enraged. Unfortunately for him, however, Whitfield was a very popular preacher and his version of the song was embraced very quickly. Even until his dying day, Wesley refused to sing Whitfield’s version of the song.
This hymn is remarkable because it takes the simple story of the announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2 as its basis, yet then goes on in consecutive verses to unpack some of the most profound theology on the person of Christ.
Veiled in flesh, the God-head see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Please as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel!
By articulating such incredible theology of the incarnation, Wesley gives a commentary on why the angels were making such a fuss that dark night. This announcement was so big that it warranted a whole chorus of angels lighting up the night sky. In seeing this baby, we see the God-head. In encountering this child, we encounter God in the flesh. No wonder the angels were rejoicing.
For preparation this week, read through the hymn and note all the different aspects of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ that Wesley writes about. Pray that the Lord opens our eyes to “see the God-head” in a fresh way as we prepare to celebrate Christmas.
Our weekly worship guide can be found here.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.
12 This will be a sign to you:
You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising
God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”