“The First Noel”

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field…" (Lk. 2:8)

     INTRO.: A song which basically narrates the story of how the angels appeared to the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem following the birth of Christ and then later the Wise Men came to see Him is "The First Noel." The text is a traditional English carol of unknown origin. It is usually dated from the seventeenth century, but some think that it may possibly go back to the thirteenth century. It was first printed with nine stanzas in Davies Gilbert’s Some Ancient Christmas Carols, 2nd edition, of 1823. The tune (First Noel) is believed to be a seventeenth century traditional English melody. It first appeared with an altered version of the text in William Sandys’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern of 1833. The source of the music is unknown, but some theorize that it was originally a descant to Jeremiah Clark’s "A Hymn for Christmas Day" which is an elaborated form of another tune (St. Magnus) by Clark which our books use with "The Head That Once Was Crowned with Thorns." The modern arrangement was made by John Stainer (1840-1901). It is taken from Bramley and Stainer’s 1871 Christmas Carols New and Old.

     For me personally, this is the most problematic song in our books about the birth of Christ for a couple of reasons; first, the song contains several questionable statements, and second because the word "Noel" is the term commonly used in French to identify the holiday which in English is called "Christmas." One source says that the term "was a joyous expression, shouted or sung, commemorating the birth of Christ."  There is some dispute about the origin of the word. It is supposed by many to have come from the Provencal "nadal," a corruption of the Latin "natalis" or birthday. However, there is also a possible association with the word "novella" or news. The use of the "Noel" is defended in our books on the basis that it is just a term referring to the good news of the birth of Christ as an expression of joy. There are books which use the Anglicized spelling of "Nowell," perhaps to avoid confusion with the French name for Christmas. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found in the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed. and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise both edited by Alton H. Howard; and the 1997 edition of the 1961 Best Loved Songs and Hymns originally edited by Ruth Winsett Shelton and published by Ellis J. Crum.

     The song is apparently intended as a simple narrative of some of the events surrounding the birth of Christ.

I. Stanza 1 talks about the angel and the shepherds
"The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep."
 A. If one still objected to the word "Noel," the first two lines could be altered to "’The Christ is born,’ the angel did say To certain poor shepherds…" because this was what the angel told the shepherds: Lk. 2:11
 B. Thus it was humble shepherds who were the first to come and adore the newborn Christ: Lk. 2:15-17
 C. Since it is a common misconception that Jesus was born on Dec. 25, the phrase "a cold winter’s night" would be what we might expect from a song about the birth of Christ that originated in England; it is highly unlikely that shepherds would have been out in their fields during the Palestinian winter, not so much because of cold but because of rain. The word "deep" here seems to take the meaning "profound or intense" with the idea of great, powerful, or heavy, possibly referring to the intensity of the night’s silence.  We do not know what time of year that Christ was born, so it is best to let that remain one of the secret things which belong to God: Deut. 29:29 (this could be altered to "a dark, starry night that was so deep.")

II. Stanza 2 talks about the star
"They looked up and sat a star
Shining in the east, beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night."
 A. William J. Reynolds, a Baptist, in Hymns of our Faith noted, "The second stanza, while traditionally found in even the most carefully edited hymnals, is not true to the scriptural account; for the shepherds did not see the star." The Baptist Hymnal of 1990 changed it to read, "For all to see there was a star." In any event, there was a star: Matt. 2:2
 B. And this star was evidently shining in the east because that is the direction from which the Wise Men came: Matt. 2:1
 C. Also, this star must have continued both day and night for some time, perhaps for as much as up to two years: Matt. 2:16

III. Stanza 3 talks about the Wise Men
"And by the light of that same star,
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went."
 A. The number of the Wise Men is not given; most of our books alter the second line to read, "The wise men came…," because the scriptural account just says "the wise men": Matt. 2:7
 B. The Wise Men came from a far country; the Greek term "Magi" used of them is also used of Babylonian and also Persian wise men: Dan. 2:2, 10
 C. Their intent was to seek the King who had been prophesied throughout the Old Testament: 2 Sam. 7:12-16

IV. Stanza 4 talks about Bethlehem
"This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest,
And there it did both stop and stay,
Right over the place where Jesus lay."
 A. Some have questioned whether the statement, "The star drew night to the northwest," is geographically accurate, since Bethlehem is southwest of Jerusalem, but we really do not know the exact route taken by the Wise Men except that it was generally toward the west. It appears that perhaps the Wise Men lost the star when they got to Jerusalem, but when they saw it again, they were glad: Matt. 2:10
 B. In any event, Jesus was born in Bethlehem: Lk. 2:1-7 (and was still there when the Wise Men came)
 C. The star led them on to Bethlehem and "did both stop and stay right over the place where Jesus lay": Matt. 2:9

V. Stanza 5 talks about the gifts of the Wise Men
"Then entered in those wise men three,
Full reverently upon the knee,
And offered there, in His presence,
Their gold and myrrh and frankincense."
 A. Again, the number of wise men is not given; Best Loved Songs and Hymns has "Then entered in those wise men there" (although that could be a typographical error for "three" but I doubt it); unfortunately this does not rhyme with "knee," so I have suggested "Then entered in those wise men now, Full reverently to Him did bow." The text says that they came to Jesus in a house, not in the stable: Matt. 2:11
 B. They did fall down and worship Him, just as even the angels of God are commanded to worship Him: Heb. 1:6
 C. And they did present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; it has been suggested that the gold may have represented Christ’s position as King: Rev. 19:16; the frankincense His function as priest: Heb. 3:1; and myrrh His role as sacrifice for our sins: Eph. 5:2

VI. Stanza 6 talks about our response
"Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord,
That hath made heaven and earth of nought,
And with His blood mankind hath bought."
 A. We should sing praises to our heavenly Lord: 1 Pet. 2:9
 B. He is the one who made heaven and earth: Jn. 1:1-3
 C. And He has bought us with His blood: Acts 20:28

     CONCL.: The short chorus is intended to shout the good news of Christ’s birth.
"Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel."
All of our books have only three or four stanzas; other books have no more than six, most using the ones given above. The omitted stanzas are as follows:
5. "Then they did know assuredly
Within that house the King did lie;
One entered it them for to see,
And found the Babe in poverty."
7. "Between an ox stall and an ass,
This Child truly there He was;
For want of clothing they did Him lay
All in a manger, among the hay."
9. "If we in our time shall do well,
We shall be free from death and hell;
For God hath prepared for us all
A resting place in general."
The Bible simply does not authorize the celebration of a special day in commemoration of the birth of Christ such as Christmas. However, there may be occasions when a children’s Bible class or even a sermon may discuss the birth of Christ from the scriptures, and some could feel that a song which might be appropriate for such an occasion would be "The First Noel."


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