Hark! The herald angels sing is a beautiful and majestic carol usually sung to a traditional tune by Felix Mendelssohn, but, the words first appear in 1739, written by Charles Wesley and adapted by George Whitfield. Later there is further editing of the texts, and the addition of the familiar “Chorus” at the end of each stanza as we sing today.
The words echo verses from the New Testament – the Gospel of Luke, and also verses from the Epistles and references to Isaiah and Malachi. There is a mixture of surprise, of encouragement and of theology. We see all this in the first verse alone.
“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 the angelic host proclaim
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald-angels sing
“Glory to the new-born king”.
This continues in the next verses and one writer comments “That teaching surely produces in us a childlike response of faith; we too can sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!’” Over time the original texts were altered and some references to the “Fall of Adam” were removed.
The tune as we have it originates in 1855 from Mendelssohn, but earlier hymn books p
ut it to the tune which we associate with “Christ the Lord is risen today”, and, it also fits the tune to “Thine be the glory” by Handel. It is one of the most favoured carols today, and many will know it as the final carol of Carol Services.
The carol speaks to us today as it simply weaves thought and prayers around the Christmas story so easily. We may well find the exclusive language unhelpful but it is hard not to be inspired this Christmas – after the year that we have had – in the words
“Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son 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”
Let us all hope and pray for the “healing in His wings” as 2021 opens before us.