"IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR"
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill toward men!" (Lk. 2:14)
INTRO.: A song which discusses the message that the angels brought to the shepherds the night that Jesus was born and its implications to us is "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear." The text was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears, who was born on Apr. 6, 1810, at Sandisfield in Berkshire County, MA, a direct descendent of Richard Sears, a member of John Robinson’s congregation which landed in Plymouth in 1630. After spending nine months in the Westfield Academy, Edmund was educated at Union College in Schenectady, NY, where he graduated in 1834, and the Harvard Theological School at Cambridge, where he graduated in 1837. In 1838, he became minister at the First Church (Unitarian) at Wayland, MA, moving next to Lancaster in the same state in 1840, and then returning to Wayland in 1847.
This hymn was produced during or before Dec., 1849, (Albert Bailey gives the date of 1846). The editor of the Christian Register said that it was sent to him in Dec., 1849, while Sears was living in Wayland, and that before it was published he read it at a Sunday School in Quincy, MA. Most sources say that it was first published in the Christian Register in Dec., 1849, but John Julian says that it did not appear in print until the Christian Register of Dec., 1850, and Fred L. Precht in Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion agrees with this. It is said that this was one of the first hymns to emphasize the "social significance" of the angels’ message. Faithful Christians rightly oppose the "social gospel," but we must also recognize that many things which are called "social issues" (a modern example would be abortion) have their roots in spiritual problems and need the gospel of Christ applied to them. Some might think it strange that a Unitarian would write a hymn about the birth of Christ, but Julian said that "although a member of the Unitarian body….he held always to the absolute Divinity of Christ." Kenneth Osbeck adds that "Sears was more a Unitarian in name than by conviction" and quoted a statement by Sears, "Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the Divinity of Christ." In addition to his preaching, Sears did editorial work for twelve years on the Monthly Religious Magazine and published five books. Leaving Wayland, he moved to Weston, MA, in 1865, where he spent the rest of his life and died Jan. 16, 1876.
The tune (Carol or Northern Tune) was composed by Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900). Its original form was published as Study No. 23 in his 1850 Church Chorals and Choir Studies set to Philip Doddridge’s "See Israel’s Gentle Shepherd Stand" (this same collection contained the the first translated appearance of the old German hymn, "Fairest Lord Jesus," leading many to give Willis credit for both the translation of that text and the arrangement of that tune). Around 1860, he expanded the tune to its present form for Nahum Tate’s "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night," and it was used in this version in a Protestant Episcopal Church collection. The adaptation of Willis’s tune to Sears’s text (c. 1869-1874) is generally credited to Uzziah Chrostpher Burnap (1834-1900). It seems that the 1878 Methodist Hymnal was the first to include it.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 "Great Songs of the Church No. 2" both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1) edited by L. O. Sanderson (with four stanzas and a tune by Charles Edward Pollock), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2 and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 (both with three stanzas and the Willis tune) all edited by Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. N. Slater. Of our hymnbooks in use today, it is found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Praise for the Lord all edited by A. H. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John Wiegand.
The song seeks to explain what the message of the angels means to us today.
I. Stanza 1identifies what the message is
"It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on the eath, good-will to men, From heaven’s all-gracious King;’
The earth in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing."
A. Some poetic license must be granted. We do not know that the exact hour when the angels appeared to the shepherds or how long the visitation lasted, but we do know that the shepherds were "keeping their watch over their flocks by night": Lk. 2.8; so it may well have been at or around or included midnight
B. Also, the text does not specifically say that the angels sang. Harry Rimmer was famous for referring to "The quint fallacy of the ‘angel’s song at the Nativity. No mention of singing (look for it). It was a sermon. (Sorry, singers!)" It is true that the text says, "There was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and SAYING": Lk. 2.13; however, we "speak" to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs: Eph. 5.19; so it is at least a possibility that these angels were "praising God and saying" their message in song.
C. Furthermore, there is no mention that the angels had "harps of gold." Some brethren object to any mention of "harps" in songs, possibly because of our opposition to musical instruments in worship. However, the Bible does picture, if figuratively, heavenly beings as having harps: Rev. 5.8, 14.2, 15.2. This may simply be considered symbolic of the beautiful sound of the singing. It seems to me that if the Bible can use the picture of harps in this sense, then we can do the same thing in our songs. The rest of the stanza simply tells what the message of the angels to the shepherds was (for "good-will to men," the 1989 "United Methodist Hymnal" suggests substituting "all" for "men" to avoid offending the feminists).
II. The second stanza talks about the continuation of the message
"Still through the cloven skies they come With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains They bend on hovering wing,
And ever, o’er its Babel sounds, The blessed angels sing."
A. This is not intended to imply that the angels are literally still coming through the cloven skies to mankind, but it just the poet’s way of saying that because their message of "Peace on earth, good-will to men" is recorded in the scriptures for all people all times, it is still available to mankind who will hear: 2 Tim. 3.16-17
B. Another item for poetic license is the idea of wings. Some brethren strenuously object to any depiction, by word or picture, of angels with wings because they say the Bible never specifically says that angels have wings. That may be true, but the Bible does picture some heavenly beings, such as cherubim and seraphim (and many scholars believe that these are different orders of angels) with wings: Exo. 25.20, Isa. 6.2; therefore, it does not appear to do any violence to the scriptures to think of angels with wings
C. The world is pictured as Babel, with a lot of noise and confusion: Gen. 11.1-9; over this the message of the angels as recorded in the scripture still floats to encourage peace
III. The third stanza applies the message to the strife of this world
"Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong;
And men, at war with men, hear not The love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing."
A. In spite of the message of the angels, the world has suffered long because of the sin and strife that the wicked one sows: 1 Jn. 5.19 (if the world stands and this song survives, there will come a time when editors may have to change the one line to "The many years of wrong")
B. When Sears wrote these words c. 1849, the storm clouds of the upcoming war between the states were already looming on the horizon. Sincere people may argue about when a war might be just as opposed to unjust, but all war is the result in one way or another of disobedience to God’s will: Jas. 4.1-2
C. How much better it would be if men of strife would hush their noise and listen to that message delivered by the angels so long ago: Jas. 3.14-16
IV. The fourth stanza personalizes the message to the needs of mankind
"O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, With painful steps and slow–
Look up! for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh, rest beside the weary road, And hear the angels sing."
A. It is believed that Sears may have had in mind New England’s social upheaval resulting from the industrial revolution there when he penned this stanza. Whatever specific events may have prompted the words of a hymn, if those words can be used to teach truth, then we still ought to be able to sing them. The effects of sin certainly do bring a "crushing load" which causes us to "toil along the climbing way": Rom. 3.23, 6.23; Jas. 1:13-15
B. However, the message of the angels urges us to "look up" to "Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith": Heb. 12.1-2
C. Then, when we come unto Him, He will give us "rest beside the weary road" from the burden of sin: Matt. 11.28-30
V. The fifth stanza looks forward to a time when the message will be perfectly fulfilled
"For lo! the days are hastening on, By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years, Shall come the time foretold,
When the whole heaven and earth shall own The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song Which now the angels sing."
This stanza has been much altered by many people for several different reasons. The original read as follows:
"For lo! the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song Which now the angels sing!"
A. The changes made in our books were for the most part copied from other sources. Whether one perceives this stanza to be scriptural or not will depend on what he understands it to be saying. Many brethren have omitted it entirely thinking undoubtedly that it teaches premillennialism. As a Unitarian, it is doubtful if Sears was seeking to promote premillennialism. In any event, it is certain that the days are hastening on, because now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed: Rom. 13.11. The "prophet bards" of the Old Testament foretold of the first coming of Christ: 1 Pet. 1.10-12. However, the New Testament prophets look forward to another event, the second coming of Christ: 2 Pet. 3:10-12.
B. William J. Reynolds in Hymns of our Faith quotes Henry Wilder Foote as saying, "Its ‘backward look’ to a golden age is not Biblical but is derived from the Fourth Eclogue of the poet Virgil." Foote must have concluded that Sears’s statement "comes round the age of gold" refers to a previous utopia that existed on earth in man’s primeval state and will someday return. Carlton R. Young in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal wrote, "In 1966, with the century-long ‘age of gold’ promise still unfulfilled [2 Pet. 3.3-4?, WSW], ‘prophet-bards foretold’ was changed to ‘by prophets seen of old’ and ‘comes round the age of gold’ to ‘shall come the time foretold’" (as it is in our books). And Fred Precht in Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion said, "Stanza 4 has been considerably altered to obviate the false chiliastic [millenniarian, WSW] hope of universal peace with the entire converted world joining in the hymn of praise." The Lutherans made the most drastic changes so that the verse looks back only to the first coming of Christ rather than to anything in the future. However, the "age of gold" need not be thought of as a pagan utopia on earth, a mere "pie-in-the-sky" fantasy, or even a literal millennial kingdom, but as simply that day when Christ returns and "the whole heaven and earth shall own The Prince of Peace their King": Rom. 14.10-12
C. While I prefer the third line in our books, with this view, the original phrase, "When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling," can be understood to mean that time when Christ’s coming will bring perfect peace to all the earth, even though it will not be on the physical earth, but, as Hope Publishing’s "Hymns for the Living Church" reads, "When the new heaven and earth shall own The Prince of Peace their King": 2 Pet. 3.13, Rev. 21.1-4.
CONCL.: I want to take this opportunity to deal with a question that I have sometimes heard discussed, and that is, should non-denominational, New Testament Christians sing hymns and spiritual songs about the birth of Jesus? I have known of brethren who answered that question with an unequivocal and absolute no. Their argumentation has frequently been that in the minds of the world these hymns are associated with "Christmas," and since we do not recognize Christmas as the birth of Christ, then we should not sing these songs at all. Of course, any song that does identify the birth of Christ with the human observance of Christmas, such as "God rest ye merry gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay; Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day," would be wrong. However, it is a fact that most hymnbooks published for use among churches of Christ have contained some songs about the birth of Christ, as noted above (Sacred Selections for the Church by Ellis J. Crum is a notable exception). While this does not necessarily prove that anything is right or wrong, it does indicate that a good number of brethren through the years have seen nothing unscriptural about including songs concerning the birth of Christ in books to be used by Christians. Furthermore, there are other songs which we do commonly sing (even in Sacred Selections) that, while they may touch on other aspects of Christ’s life, do specifically mention His birth. For example, "One day when heaven was filled with His praises…Jesus came down to be born of a virgin," and "Tell me the story of Jesus…Tell how the angels in chorus Sang as they welcomed His birth." If it is wrong to sing about the birth of Christ, then these songs, or at least certain portions of them, should be omitted. Also, no one, at least to my knowledge, has argued that in the minds of the world hymns about the resurrection of Christ, such as "Christ Arose" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," are associated with Easter, and since we do not recognize Easter as the resurrection of Christ, then we should not sing these songs. We are to teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Col. 3.16). Spiritual songs are those which relate to Biblical truth. And since the birth of Christ is definitely a Biblical truth, then I am forced to conclude that if it is right to sing songs about the life of Christ, the death of Christ, the burial of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the ascension of Christ, the present reign of Christ, and the second coming of Christ, then it must be right as well to sing songs about the birth of Christ. Can we not praise Him for His birth as well as for these other things? Of course, if such songs are misused as part of some "Christmas celebration," then that is another matter, just as it is when various passages of scripture are misused as part of a "Christmas celebration." Obviously, good judgment will need to be exercised. However, the fact that others misuse either the passages or the songs does not mean that we cannot use them rightly. Often times in Bible classes, children study (whether in February, March, July, September, or whenever) about the birth of Christ, and teachers will often have them sing these songs to impress the facts in their minds. At various times I have presented several sermons based on different facts, people, and events related to the Biblical story of the birth of Christ. We often encourage song leaders to choose songs that will go with and enhance the lesson, and some of the songs that so many look upon as "Christmas carols" would certainly do exactly that in the instances cited. In fact, during those lessons, I even quoted from some of those songs because they drive home in a memorable way the point that I was trying to make. Thus, I conclude that there cannot be anything inherently sinful in singing a hymn about the message of the angels when "It Came Upon The Midnight Clear."