“How Bright Appears the Morning Star”

"…For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him" (Matt. 2:2)

     INTRO.: An old hymn which praises Christ whose birth was announced by the star is "How Bright Appears the Morning Star." The text was written and the tune (Wie Schon Leuchtet, Morgenstern, or Frankfort) was composed both by Philip Nicolai (1556-1608). This German text, beginning "Wie herrlich strahlt der Morgenstern," in seven stanzas based on Psalm 45, is dated 1597 and was first published in the appendix to Nicolai’s 1599 Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens under the heading, "A spiritual and bridal song of the believing soul concerning Jesus Christ, her heavenly Bridegroom, founded on the 45th Psalm of the prophet David."  The melody may be Nicolai’s reconstruction of the setting for Psalm 100, "Jauchzet dem Herren, alle Lande," from Wolff Kophel’s 1538 Strasbourg Psalter, which in turn may have been based on the fourteenth century song "Resonet in laudibus." Nicolai was a Lutheran minister at Unna, Germany, when the bubonic plague was terrorizing Europe and 1300 died in seven months. After seeing thirty graves dug in one day, he felt compelled to pen these words.

     It is said that Nicolai was "one morning in great distress and tribulation in his quiet study. He rose in spirit from the distress and death which surrounded him to his Redeemer and Saviour, and while He clasped HIm in ardent love there welled forth from the inmost depths of his heart this precious hymn of the Saviour’s love and of the joys of Heaven. He was so entirely absorbed in his holy exaltation that he forgot all around him, even his midday meal, and allowed nothing to disturb him in his poetical labors till the hymn was completed–three hours after midday." In 1769 the text was radically rewritten, with a new first line beginning, "Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern" by Johann Adolph Schlegel (1721-1793). Many English translations have been made. The first, beginning either "How bright appears the morning star" or "How brightly shines the morning star," was made in 1859 by William Mercer (1811-1863). One source attributes this same translation to John Morrison Sloan in 1865. Another, beginning "O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright," was made by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). It was published in her 1863 Chorale Book for England. In fact, one person said, "Winkworth made several translations [from Schlegel’s revision] which vary considerably from each other." Another person wrote, "The German of this hymn was altered seventy years after being written, and the two English translations have been altered almost beyond recognition." This explains why there are so many versions of it around!

     Some books today use a translation beginning "How Brightly Beams the Morning Star" by the Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal for the 1955 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, while others use a newer one by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship for the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship. Also a few "composite" translations are available, such as "How Lovely Shines the Morning Star." The standard harmonization of the tune was done by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It appeared in his cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully on high), from around 1730 or 1731. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared, with two stanzas of Mercer’s translation, in the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found, with three stanzas of the 1955 Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal translation, in the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann. For this study, I shall use three stanzas from Mercer and three from a composite translation.

     The song points to Jesus Christ, sent by God, as our Comforter and Guide from earth to heaven.

I. Stanza 1 calls Christ the Morning Star
"How bright appears the Morning Star, With mercy beaming from afar;
The host of heaven rejoices.
O Righteous Branch, O Jesse’s Rod! Thou Son of Man and Son of God!
We, too, will lift our voices.
Jesus, Jesus, Holy, Holy, yet most lowly,
Draw Thou near us; Great Emmanuel, come and hear us."
 A. Jesus referred Himself to as the bright and morning star: Rev. 22:16
 B. He was prophesied to be the Branch, the rod from the stem of Jesse: Isa. 11:1
 C. He is Emmanuel, which means God with us: Matt. 1:23

II. Stanza 2 calls Christ creation’s Head and Lord
"Though circled by the hosts on high, He deigned to cast a pitying eye
Upon His helpless creature.
The whole creation’s Head and Lord, By highest seraphim adored,
Assumed our very nature.
Jesus, grant us, Through Thy merit, to inherit
Thy salvation; Hear, O hear our supplication."
 A. Jesus is creation’s Head and Lord, for by Him all things were create through Him: Col. 1:16
 B. He was made so much better than the angels and adored by them: Heb. 1:4-6
 C. Yet, He assumed our very nature by emptying Himself and coming in the likenss of men: Phil. 2:5-7

III. Stanza 3 calls Christ the great Conqueor
"Rejoice, ye heavens; thou earth, reply! With praise, ye sinners, fill the sky,
For this, His incarnation!
Incarnate God, put forth Thy power; Ride on, ride on, great Conqueror,
Till all know Thy salvation.
Amen, Amen, Alleluia, Alleluia,
Praise be given Evermore by earth and heaven."
 A. Jesus is praised for His incarnation, which simply means "becoming flesh": Jn. 1:14
 B. As both perfect man and perfect God, He is the great conqueror: Rev. 6:1-2
 C. He came to bring salvation to all mankind: Matt. 1:21

IV. Stanza 4 calls Christ our God
"Now richly to my waiting heart, O Thou, my God, deign to impart
The grace of love undying.
In Thy blest body let me be, E’en as the branch is in the tree,
Thy life my life supplying.
Sighing, crying, For the savor of Thy favor;
Resting never Till I rest in Thee forever."
 A. Thomas, who examined the evidence, called Christ "my Lord and my God": Jn. 20:28
 B. As God, Jesus loved us enough to lay down His life for us: 1 Jn. 3:16
 C. Therefore, He makes it possible for us to be in His body, sanctified and cleansed with the washing of water by the word: Eph. 5:23-27

V. Stanza 5 calls Christ the Son
"Thou mighty Father, in Thy Son, Didst love me ere Thou hadst begun
This ancient world’s foundation.
Thy Son hath made a friend of me, And when in spirit Him I see,
I joy in tribulation.
What bliss is this! He that liveth to me giveth
Life forever; Nothing me from Him can sever."
 A. We must believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God: Jn. 20:30-31
 B. God determined His plan to save us by His love through the Son even before the foundation of the world: 1 Pet. 1:18-20
 C. The Son calls His disciples His friends: Jn. 15:13-15

VI. Stanza 6 calls Christ the First and Last
"O joy to know that Thou, my Friend, Art Lord, Beginning without end,
The First and Last, eternal!
And Thou at length–O glorious grace!–Wilt take me to that holy place,
The home of joys supernal.
Amen, amen! Come and meet me! Quickly greet me!
With deep yearning, Lord, I look for Thy returning."
 A. Jesus again referred to Himself as the First and the Last: Rev. 22:13
 B. He has promised to come again and take us to be with Him: Jn. 14:1-3
 C. Therefore, with deep yearning, we look for His returning: 1 Thess. 1:9-10

     CONCL.: Someone might be interested to compare Catherine Winkworth’s translation of the first stanza.
"O Morning Star, how fair and bright! Thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly!
Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son, My Lord and Master, Thou has won
My heasrt to serve Thee solely.
Thou art holy, Fair and glorious, all victorious,
Rich in blessing, Rule and might o’er all possessing."
The Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion notes, "Upon close examination one cannot but agree with the churchman who stated that nearly every word of the text is taken from Holy Scripture." Nicolai’s "Sleepers Awake" ("Wake, awake, for night is flying") is often called the "king of chorales," and this one the "queen of chorales." Like so many other German chorales, it is not well known among us, but because we face an unknown future on this earth, it is a blessing to know that we can look forward to a certain eternity and see "How Bright Appears the Morning Star."


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