Timeless Carols

December 17, 2013

by Peter Amsterdam

Something I’ve always loved about Christmas is listening to and singing the beautiful Christmas carols that have been written over the centuries. In fact, I like them so much I often listen to them at different times throughout the year. Many are masterpieces of music and move me deeply. Recently when looking online for the words to some of my favorites, I saw the beauty of their poetry as well as the power of their purpose in a way I hadn’t before.

What struck me was how in the midst of the rhyme and repetition that the songs require, they deliver such powerful and nuanced messages. They speak deep truths about Jesus, His incarnation, mission, purpose, and power, along with His love and sacrifice for humanity. They are not only a strong witness to the message of the Savior and salvation, but are also a reminder to those of us who follow Him of the deep truths that we believe.

As I read these wonderful songs and thought about the masterful way the songwriters crafted the words and rhymes to explain the meaning of Christ and Christmas, I was deeply moved. For hundreds of years these carols have told the story of the birth of the one who left heaven to bring salvation to generation after generation. They remind us, as they did our spiritual ancestors, of the importance of this day we celebrate—the birth of Christ—Jesus, God’s Son, who lived among us and laid down His life for us that we may live forever. Embedded within the beautiful Christmas carols is the truth of what God has done to bring salvation to humanity.

I’ve selected a few lines or stanzas that particularly impressed me from a variety of Christmas carols that present various aspects of the message of who Jesus is, His being born of a virgin, of salvation, grace, redemption, new birth, resurrection, and other foundations of our faith. I’ve also included links to the full version of the carols, most of which include not only the song, but the words as well. As you listen to them I hope they will touch you as I was touched by the power of their message and the love that our Savior, Jesus, has for each of us.

O Come All Ye Faithful

O Come All Ye Faithful, written in the mid-1700s, speaks about the Word of God coming to live as a man on earth, understanding and sympathizing with our human weaknesses, with the well-crafted line, “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.” Jesus, the pre-incarnate Logos, the Word of God, made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.[1]

This beautiful and upbeat carol also reinforces the truths expressed in the Nicene Creed, one of the major declarations of belief within Christianity, by including lines which express that Jesus is not a creation of God, but rather is equal to the Father.

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Listen to the carol here.

Silent Night

Silent Night, originally written in German by Joseph Mohr and put to music by Franz Gruber in 1818, contains a stanza which conveys Jesus, the light of the world, bringing God’s redemption to humanity.

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

The line, “Son of God, love’s pure light” reflects what Jesus said about Himself, as well as what the apostle John reports in the fourth Gospel, that Jesus is the light of the world.

I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.[2]

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.[3]

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[4]

The words “dawn of redeeming grace” speak of the gift of God’s grace, which redeems us from our sins.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us…[5]

Justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.[6]

Listen to the carol here.

What Child Is This?

Written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix and put to the music of a traditional English song, Greensleeves, What Child Is This? speaks of Jesus as God Incarnate, as the King of kings, yet born in a poor and humble situation. It beautifully portrays the Word of God pleading for sinners, and the gruesome death He was willing to experience for each of us.

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word Made Flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him…[7]

When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead … one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.[8]

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him,
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him!

He calls everyone, peasant or king, rich or poor, to own or possess Him within their lives by coming to Him for salvation.

Not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.[9]

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.[10]

Christ, the King of kings, brings salvation.

He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.[11]

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.[12]

The song goes on to say, “Let loving hearts enthrone Him.” That brings to mind a picture of how Jesus is enthroned in us when we open our hearts to Him:

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.[13]

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.[14]

Here are two very different renditions of the carol to choose from, both very beautiful:

Rendition 1

Rendition 2

Mary’s Boy Child

Mary’s Boy Child is a contemporary calypso-style[15] Christmas carol written in 1956 by Jester Hairston. It expresses the fruit of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, eternal life available to all humanity through Jesus.

Hark now hear the angels sing a king was born today
And man will live for evermore because of Christmas Day.

And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.[16]

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.[17]

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.[18]

Listen to the carol here.

Joy to the World

Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts, an English hymn writer, in 1719. The song was based on Psalm 98, which tells us to Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord![19]

Watt’s words were put to their present-day music by Lowell Mason in 1839. Both the music and words make Joy to the World such an upbeat and uplifting song. The carol speaks of the Savior reigning, which He does today in our hearts, and in the future will reign over all the earth as well.

Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

But of the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom."[20]

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever."[21]

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

This stanza refers to God cursing the ground because of the sin of Adam.

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.[22]

The carol goes on to say that Jesus has come to make His blessings flow wherever the curse is found, which means His blessing flows throughout all the earth, for the whole earth is where the curse is found. His everlasting blessing, the blessing of salvation, is proclaimed through the Gospel, which He instructed His followers to bring to all the earth, everywhere the curse is found.

And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation."[23]

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations.[24]

Listen to the carol here.

We Three Kings

We Three Kings, written and composed by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1863, is based on the nativity story in Matthew. It tells of the gifts that were brought to Jesus by the wise men, or magi, and the symbolism each gift holds in relation to Jesus’ role as King, God, and Savior.

Born a king on Bethlehem's plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Throughout the Old Testament, as well as symbolically in the book of Revelation, gold is used in relation to royal authority. When Joseph was given authority to operate in Pharaoh’s name, he was given a gold chain to wear. Likewise, in the book of Esther Mordecai was given a royal robe and a gold crown to show he gave orders in the king’s name. Royal crowns were also made of gold.[25] The wise men followed the star in search of “the king of the Jews.”[26] The gold referred to in the song points to the birth of Jesus as the birth of the King of kings. [27]

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Frankincense was a resin taken from balsam trees grown in southern Arabia, which was ground into powder and burned to produce a fragrant odor. It was one of the main ingredients of the holy incense used for the worship of God in the tabernacle, and was placed on some of the sacrifices burnt on the altar.[28]The reference to frankincense in the song symbolizes the deity of Jesus, God on high, whom we pray to, worship, and praise.

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Myrrh was a pleasant-smelling gum or resin taken from bushes which grew in Arabia. One of its uses was as a perfume for garments.[29] It was also the main ingredient in the anointing oil, used to anoint the vessels in the temple and the priests. It was also employed in embalming the dead, hence the description of myrrh in the carol as “bitter perfume.”[30] [31] When people were crucified, myrrh was mixed with wine and given to the one on the cross in order to drug them.[32] The Roman soldiers offered it to Jesus as He suffered on the cross, but He refused it.[33]

Jesus’ authority and kingship, His high priesthood, as well as His sacrificial death for us all are all represented in this beautiful and moving carol.

Listen to the carol here.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, was written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of the famous preacher and evangelist John Wesley. The original music was solemn; it was revised a hundred years later by Felix Mendelssohn into the joyous and beautiful carol it is today. The message of reconciliation with God, the peace brought by the Prince of Peace, the rejoicing that Jesus is the Messiah, the King, make this a deeply meaningful Christmas carol.

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 newborn King!”

As this carol proclaims, God and sinners are reconciled:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.[34]

Jesus is seen as King:

The whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”[35]

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 them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Jesus is proclaimed in this carol as the Prince of Peace.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.[36]

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.[37]

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.[38]

He brings healing in His wings.

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.[39]

And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.[40]

He was born that we may be reborn.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.[41]

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.[42]

He was born to raise the sons of earth.

And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.[43]

Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.[44]

Listen to the carol here.

O Holy Night

O Holy Night is my favorite Christmas carol; in fact, my favorite all-time song. It is so powerful in both melody and word, and drives home the overall message of hope available to all who believe in Jesus and the effect His life has on the lives of those who come to know Him. Today generally only two verses of the song are sung, which contain beautiful word pictures with powerful messages, such as:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Besides the two verses and the chorus which are normally sung, there is another verse which I couldn’t find in any recorded version of the song. This additional verse, which is seldom sung, contains a touching word picture about comfort in difficult times.

The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our Friend!
He knows our need; to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend!

Jesus is always there for us. Through the journey of our lives, through our tests and trials, He is there. As the carol says, He’s born to be our Friend. He’s no stranger to our weaknesses and frailties. He knows all about us: the good, the bad, and the ugly. He loves us in spite of how we are. He loves us because He is love. He wants to be part of our lives, to share not just in our difficulties when we cry out to Him in need, but also in our times of joy and happiness, when we celebrate our achievements and those of our family and friends.

Christmas is a time when we are reminded about His birth, and it’s a wonderful time of year to think about Him and all that He has done for us. But what He has done for us goes way beyond the Christmas season; it affects our lives every day. He is an integral part of our lives; we have a personal relationship with Him. He wants to be part of all we do—and He can be—every day, as much as we’ll let Him.

As we sing the Christmas carols this year, it’s a great time to reflect on what they mean, what Jesus has done, the love He’s given, and how deeply He loves each one of us and each one of our fellow human beings.—And to carry those thoughts and that love throughout the new year ahead. Love Him, love His creations, be grateful for all He’s done. Enjoy Him. He loves you deeply. Have a wonderful Christmas in Christ.

Listen to the carol here.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Philippians 2:7–8.

[2] John 12:46.

[3] John 8:12.

[4] John 1:4–5, 9.

[5] Ephesians 1:7–8.

[6] Romans 3:24.

[7] Luke 23:33.

[8] John 19:33–34.

[9] 2 Peter 3:9.

[10] John 3:16.

[11] Hebrews 5:9.

[12] 1 Thessalonians 5:9.

[13] Romans 10:9.

[14] Colossians 1:13–14.

[15] Calypso is a style of African-Caribbean music that originated in Trinidad and Tobago during the early to mid-20th century.—Wikipedia.

[16] 1 John 2:25.

[17] John 10:28.

[18] John 3:36.

[19] Psalm 98:4–6.

[20] Hebrews 1:8.

[21] Revelation 11:15.

[22] Genesis 3:17–18.

[23] Mark 16:15.

[24] Matthew 24:14.

[25] And David took the crown of their king from his head. He found that it weighed a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone. And it was placed on David's head (1 Chronicles 20:2).

Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced (Esther 8:15).

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand (Revelation 14:14).

[26]Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:1–2).

[27] L. Ryken, J. Wilhoit, T. Longman, C. Duriez, D. Penney, and D. G. Reid, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[28] W. A. Elwell and B. J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).

[29] Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions; your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia (Psalm 45:7–8).

I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon (Proverbs 7:17).

[30] Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews (John 19:39–40).

[31] P. Perkins, M. A. Powell, ed., The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (revised and updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).

[32] M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).

[33] And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it (Mark 15:23).

[34] Colossians 1:19–22.

[35] Luke 19:37–38.

[36] Isaiah 9:6.

[37] John 14:27.

[38] Romans 5:1.

[39] Malachi 4:2.

[40] Matthew 15:30.

[41] 1 John 5:1.

[42] 1 Peter 1:3.

[43] 1 Corinthians 6:14.

[44] 2 Corinthians 4:14.