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The nations in Christmas hymns

The nations in Christmas hymns

Chorus member singing. | Unsplash/David Beale

Christmas is just around the corner, a season perfect for refocusing our attention on Christ and his Incarnation. God the Father sent his Son to earth to redeem his people, and Jesus accomplished that mission through his perfect life and sinless sacrifice on the cross.

Yet this focus on Christ’s mission on earth motivates our mission as well. As Jesus prayed in his “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Just as Christ was responsible to accomplish the mission his Father sent him to do, so we who Christ sent into the world are responsible to accomplish what he commanded of us, to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19)

It is no surprise, then, that Christmas hymns are full of references to the nations.

In one of the earliest Christian hymns ever written, Ambrose of Milan composed in the fourth century, “Savior of the nations, come, virgin’s Son, make here thy home!” (Download this hymn) Known today as the “Father of Latin Hymnody,” Ambrose set a pattern for other hymn-writers after him in focusing Christmas hymns on the nations.

The Angels’ Song to the Nations

Several Christmas hymns remind us of what the angels themselves sang to the shepherds on that first Christmas night. As John Byrom recounts in his 1749 “Christians, Awake!” (Download this hymn):

Then to the watchful shepherds it was told,

who heard th’angelic herald’s voice, “Behold,
I bring good tidings of a Savior’s birth

to you and all the nations of the earth;
this day hath God fulfilled his promised Word;

this day is born a Savior, Christ the Lord.”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (Download this hymn), penned by Charles Wesley in 1739, calls the nations to join in with the angels’s song, rejoicing in the incarnation of Christ:

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 th’angelic hosts proclaim,

“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark, the herald angels sing, 

“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ came, not only to the people of Israel, but also to redeem people from all nations, and this is cause for great rejoicing.

Calling Magi from the Nations

Other Christmas hymns relate the calling of magi from other nations to come and adore the Christ-child. For example, the familiar hymn, “Angels from the Realms of Glory” (Download this hymn), written by James Montgomery in 1816, begins with a focus on the angels but then calls magi from the east to worship the newborn King:

Sages, leave your contemplations;

brighter visions beam afar; 
seek the great Desire of nations

ye have seen his natal star:
come and worship, come and worship, 

worship Christ, the newborn King!

Prophecy of the Redemption of the Nations

Montgomery’s reference to Christ as “the great Desire of nations” explains one of the key reasons Christmas hymns often have the nations in view: prophecies of Christ’s coming foretell the redemption of all nations. Montgomery’s phrase is a quote from a Messianic prophecy in Haggai 2:7: “And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts” (KJV). This prophesies the day when a “treasure of all nations” would come and deliver the nations from oppression.

Charles Wesley quoted this same phrase in his 1744 hymn, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (Download this hymn):

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,

born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,

let us find our rest in thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,

hope of all the earth thou art;
dear Desire of ev’ry nation,

joy of ev’ry longing heart.

Christ’s Future Rule of the Nations

Yet this quotation of a Messianic prophecy reveals another important reality about Christ’s coming to earth that is reflected in Christmas hymns: while Christ’s first coming accomplished atonement on the cross, the final redemption of the nations will take place at his Second Coming. This is why many Christmas hymns lead us to anticipate Christ’s return.

For instance, Paul Gerhardt reminds us in his 1653 “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” (Download this hymn) that when Jesus comes again, “He comes to judge the nations.” Those from the nations who reject Christ will be condemned, but another hymn by James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” (Download this hymn), gives us hope:

Kings shall fall down before him,

and gold and incense bring;
all nations shall adore him,

his praise all people sing;
for he shall have dominion

o’er river, sea, and shore,
far as the eagle's pinion

or dove’s light wing can soar.

Montgomery’s hymn is a paraphrase of Psalm 72, a Messianic psalm predicting the future reign of Christ over all people he has redeemed from every nation.

This is similarly expressed in what is likely one of the most well-known hymns associated with Christmas, Isaac Watts’s 1719 “Joy to the World” (Download this hymn). Watts paraphrased another Messianic psalm for this hymn, in this case Psalm 98. Like Montgomery, Watts anticipates the day when Christ will reign perfectly over all the nations, when “his blessings flow far as the curse is found”:

He rules the world with truth and grace,

and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness

and wonders of his love.

As we enjoy the Christmas season’s focus on our Savior’s incarnation, let us allow the hymns of Christmas to create a longing within us for the day when Christ will redeem the nations. But until then, this season and its beloved hymns should propel us on our mission to spread the gospel to all nations!

Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol, and you can listen to his podcast here.

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