It’s a rare pleasure to find fresh, powerful words to a deeply familiar tune. It might be a newly crafted stanza by a modern writer to accompany an old hymn. Or all-new lyrics to a preexisting melody, like Dustin Kensrue’s “All Glory Be to Christ” to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Even more delightful, at least to me, is to come into a long-lost stanza by the original writer. Like discovering that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” was originally six stanzas, three of which typically have not been widely enjoyed in recent history.
This Advent, perhaps the long-lost stanzas of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” can be that for you.
Join the Welkin Song
Charles Wesley (1707–1788), brother of John and one of the greatest hymn-writers in the English language, first published “Hark” in 1739, almost forty years before American independence. He titled it “Hymn for Christmas Day,” and it’s first couplet was
Hark how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings.
“Lowly as the birth may be, he is no ordinary infant. He is adored even by highest heaven.”
Welkin is olde English for the sky or heavens. Hark, of course, means listen or pay attention. So, in modern English, “Listen how all the sky rings.” The allusion is to the sky-ringing angelic multitude of Luke’s Gospel:
Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13–14)
Wesley’s friend, the great evangelist George Whitefield (1714–1770), then updated the lyrics, and most notably the opening couplet, almost twenty years later in 1758. It was Luke’s Gospel, with Wesley’s inspiration, and then Whitefield’s wordsmithing, that gave us the well-known lines today:
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Wesley’s original tune was slower and more solemn. William H. Cummings borrowed a slice of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1840 cantata to construct the upbeat carol we know today. The 1961 Carols for Choirs collection of Christmas hymns, published by Oxford University, added Whitefield’s opening couplet as a refrain after each verse.
Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See
If the well-known stanzas today weren’t already rich, it would hardly be worth digging up any more from the past. The first verse isn’t theologically textured, but it is a rousing invitation, to all nations and all nature, to join with the singing angels in celebrating the arrival of God’s long-promised Messiah — Anointed One, “Christ” — in this humble backwater called Bethlehem.
“Dads, seize upon the power and opportunity Christmas gives us to lead in song in the home.”
Who, then, is this Christ? The second verse answers. Lowly as the birth may be, he is no ordinary infant. He is adored even by highest heaven — and wonder upon wonder, he is the everlasting Lord God himself. This is the one of whom the apostle would write, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Galatians 4:4).
This newborn is God’s own Son and God’s own self. To see this Christ in the humility of humanity, the fragility of infancy, and the lowliness of a manger is to see the peculiar glory of God himself, praise him with shepherds (Luke 2:20), and bow with pagan astrologers (Matthew 2:11). And he is with us, among us, not by obligation, but gladly.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Verse three, then, marvels at the sacrifice and mission of God’s Son. In humility, he lays aside the comforts of heaven, takes on our frail humanity, even infancy, even lowly beginnings, in his mission to rescue. He is born to die that we might live. The extent of his descent is matched only by the ascent of grace we will find in him.
Mild he lays his Glory by
Born that Men no more may die
Born to raise the Sons of Earth
Born to give them second Birth
The Lost Verses
Wesley’s original had fourth and fifth stanzas. Whitefield chose his favorite quatrains from each and synthesized the fourth and fifth into just one, while Carols for Choirs dropped Whitefield’s fourth verse altogether. So Wesley’s hymn went from five stanzas, to four, then to just the three we sing today.
Before ending with Wesley’s fourth and fifth, perhaps I should make a suggestion for what to do with them, and how to make this little lesson in history and theology not just new information, but a catalyst for worship.
Maybe some worship leader reading this will be inspired to incorporate these rich lines into congregational singing, but the vast majority of readers will be, with me, less influential in service planning. One possibility would be introducing these verses into family singing. Dads in particular can seize upon the power and opportunity Christmas gives us to lead in song in the home. Advent is an especially good time to sing and to set the pace for the rest of the year.
But the lowest hanging fruit, and simplest application, might be simply to sing these aloud by yourself in a season of devotional reading and prayer. Music and song can be powerful means of God’s grace. Few of us wring the habit of personal, worshipful singing of its power like we should.
“Few of us wring the habit of personal, worshipful singing of its power like we should.”
And to make these two long-lost verses soar in meaning and power, I’ll suggest some texts you can meditate on to experience the depth and tenor of what Wesley meant. He was a Bible lover, and you’ll see he doesn’t stray far from direct biblical language in crafting his hymn. First the Scriptures, then the stanzas:
For the woman’s conquering seed, see Genesis 3:15; for Christ bruising the serpent’s head in us, Romans 16:20; for the restoration of ruined nature, Romans 8:19–24. The “mystic union” is our being joined to Jesus by faith; in this union, we belong to him, and he to us; we are his and he is ours (Song 2:16; 6:3; 7:10). For Jesus as the second Adam, see Romans 5:12–21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. For God’s restoring us to our original purpose and ultimate destiny by conforming us to his image in Christ, Romans 8:29 and 2 Corinthians 3:18; for Christian maturation as Christ is being formed in us, Galatians 4:19.
Come, Desire of Nations, come
Fix in Us thy humble Home
Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed
Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head
Now display thy saving Pow’r
Ruin’d Nature now restore
Now in Mystic Union join
Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine
* * *
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface
Stamp thy Image in its Place
Second Adam from above
Reinstate us in thy Love
Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain
Thee, the Life, the Inner Man
Oh! to All Thyself impart
Form’d in each Believing Heart