We conclude our series of devotions based on the popular hymn Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.
Hail the heaven-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 us second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King!”
This verse starts with a couple of allusions to Old Testament passages, namely Isaiah 9 and Malachi 4. The reference to Christ as the “Prince of Peace” is from Isaiah 9:6–a passage familiar to many this time of year. Verse 2 of Isaiah 9 begins: “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light”–perhaps this is partly what Wesley refers to by the line “Light and life to all he brings.” More on that in a moment. The chapter continues to describe the work of the Messiah, who will “multiply the nation,” “increase their gladness,” and “break the yolk of their burden.” This One certainly is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, and the Prince of Peace.
Note also, He is the “heaven-born” Prince of Peace. Jesus was born of Mary, but His origin was not earthly. He is the gift of heaven to men: “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us.” When Mary quizzed Gabriel over his news of her upcoming pregnancy despite her virginity, he simply said that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. This was not a physical union between God the Father and the human Mary; this was an act of God’s power by means of the Holy Spirit. Jesus truly was heaven-born, his lowly crib notwithstanding.
“Sun” in “Hail the Sun of Righteousness” is not a typo! This is a direct reference to Malachi 4 which prophesies the judgment of the enemies of God’s people and the coming of their Saviour:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the Lord of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall. You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the Lord of hosts.
Does Jesus bring “light and life to all”? This seems a very Arminian statement, and certainly can be understood that way. Of course, given Wesley’s own theological persuasion, it is possible he intended it that way. However, I believe the term “light and life” here can be understood both in terms of that special revelatory light God bestows upon His elect leading to everlasting life, and also the light of common grace God gives to all men by which they are able to make some sense of the world around them, and hence live productive lives, albeit in self-imposed ignorance of their gracious Benefactor. In Matthew 5:44-46, Jesus exhorts his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. In other words, to show grace to them, and not be hardened against them in vengeance. Their example is God the Father, who sends rain upon both those who love Him and those who hate Him. Coupled with the sun He sends to shine on both, I believe this is intended to convey God’s blessings, since in an agricultural society, the regularity of rain and sunshine was something greatly to be desired. God does not favor only His people with the provisions of life; He is gracious to all. Christ Himself not only spoke these words, but He lived a life of grace and mercy toward His own, and those who were not His own. Did He not produce wine for everyone at the feast in Cana? Did He not feed all of those with Him with bread and fish in John 6, even though he would identify many of them as unbelievers (6:60-65), and all but the twelve would indeed desert Him by the end of the chapter?
“Mild He lays His glory by; Born that man no more may die.” Philippians 2:5-11 teaches us that Jesus did not hold tenaciously to the glory that was His with the Father, but, for our sake, for the sins of His people, He laid aside the glories of heaven and took upon Himself the humility of flesh, and eventually death. “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do,” Jesus prays to the Father in John 17. “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Note that Jesus prays this prior to the cross. It is in the cross that the glory of God is revealed: the sacrificial love of the Father for His people; the obedience of the Son to submit to this final, and most brutal, humiliation. All for the sake of the salvation of His own.
“Born to raise the sons of earth; born to give them second birth.” The connection between Christmas and Easter should never be forgotten, because without Easter there is no reason to celebrate Christmas. That the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us is indeed a wonderful thing. But what is most remarkable, and the fact worth celebrating, is why Christ did this. Is was not just so God could experience humanity first hand; it was not to set an example of good behavior; it was not to be a great moral teacher and leader. The reason He came was to die on that cross, having lived a life of willful obedience, and rise from the dead that His people may be truly at peace with God, and receive the promise of heaven.
We who were dead in Adam are raised to new life in Christ. We who were enemies of God are brought near to God and turned into seekers after God. We who were dead in our trespasses and sins have been brought to life by the Holy Spirit who is given to us, giving us faith to proclaim our love for our Saviour. And all of this is because God the Son did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, and for our sake, for the sake of lowly, undeserving God-haters, was born on earth to a young girl in a manger, so that He might become one of us, that He could offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. May the name of our Lord Jesus Christ be praised forever!
May you all have a blessed Christmas, as we join with the angel chorus: “Glory to the new-born King!”