It is sad that perhaps otherwise discerning Bible-believing evangelicals allow sentiment and tradition to muddle their brains when it comes to Christmas. Colossians 3:16 ("Let the WORD OF CHRIST DWELL IN YOU RICHLY, in ALL WISDOM teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord") appears to get relegated to cellar storage for the season. So many accept the idea that when it comes to poetry, whatever the reader/singer understands the text to mean, that is what it means and should mean to the rest of us. What the text says by dictionary definition and rules of grammar becomes irrelevant. That certainly is very dangerous, being contrary to Scripture and common sense. It is amazing what latitude having "poetic license" allows.
Some of our finest defenders of God-honoring music against the inroads of "Contemporary Christian Music" seek to defeat the claim that CCM is needed to attract the unsaved to the Gospel by pointing out that there is no Scriptural basis for using music for evangelism. Therefore, it is baffling that these same champions in the battle for Biblically consistent music justify Christmas musical extravaganzas on the basis of their value for evangelism!
The Oxford Movement, an attempt to make the Anglican Church in England even more liturgical ("High Church") in reaction to the evangelical influence, began in England in 1833. Participants, having an interest in ancient Latin and Greek hymns, sought to restore ecclesiastical tradition which they thought would bring the established church more vitality and bring the advances of evangelicalism to a halt. A number of these leaders took their fascination to the logical conclusion and became Roman Catholics. They published probably the most influential Protestant hymnbook ever -- Hymns Ancient and Modern -- in 1861, which marked the end of predominant Psalm-singing. Between 1861 and 1912, the hymnal reached a circulation of more than sixty million copies. In 1957, it was estimated that sales totaled 150 million. Much of the ecumenical influence in our modern hymnals can be traced to the influence of Hymns Ancient and Modern.
The traditional music of Christmas celebration is spiritually impoverished by what is left out. One has to probe carefully to find any vestige of substitutionary sacrifice, man's dreadful sinfulness, the shed blood, the resurrection, Christ's present High Priestly ministry and indwelling, and the return of our Savior. Also, the Scriptural Messianic promises to Israel are hopelessly mixed in with New Testament instruction about true Christianity. It is sad that even contemporary Christmas music texts perpetuate such falsehoods as "inviting Christ to be born in people today"!
The LIVING HYMNS Hymnal was used as a base for this evaluation because it is the one used by the church of the evaluator, not because it is worse than others. In fact, this hymnal has much better hymn selections than those produced by the major publishers of evangelical hymnals.
Considerations which influenced our evaluation of the "Christmas Section" of the LIVING HYMNS Hymnal include: (1) Each of the foundational passages related to music/singing in the local church (Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16) indicate that our singing is to be done unto the Lord; (2) That which is offered to the Lord ought to be well-pleasing to Him (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15-16; etc.). To please the Lord, an offering should be correct according to His Word and come from sincerity of heart, among other things. It then becomes doubtful that God is well-pleased with doctrinal and factual error in the texts or that He is pleased by the efforts of those who have rejected the finished work of His Dear Son on the Cross of Calvary as their only means of salvation.
Please reflect on the manner in which our Lord Jesus is portrayed in the Epistles and the Revelation of the New Testament -- risen, glorified, coming again, and High Priest. The traditional, seasonal hymns are woefully lacking by not representing this pattern of teaching. Rather than being pleased with mixture of truth and error, there is clear indication in Scripture that such mixture is abhorrent to God! Proverbs 30:6 clearly warns against adding to the Word of God.
The following are brief observations of the many errors and weaknesses to be found in selections generally designed to be used at a certain season of commemoration:
#102 -- O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL
Text: 12th cent. Latin
Tune: Processionale, 15th cent.; adapt. Thomas Helmore, 1854
This song was introduced into Protestant Christianity by John M. Neale of the Oxford Movement. It comes from medieval Roman Catholicism. Only verses 1 & 2 are useable (pertaining to Jewish expectations). Verses 3 and 4 are so weak as to be misleading. In verse 4, Emmanuel is called "The Key of David." The Messiah has the key; in Scripture, He is not called the "key" (Isa. 22:22; Rev. 3:7). Also, the wording implies that one travels a journey to heaven. This kind of language usually signifies a type of works salvation and acceptance that one might lose salvation along the way.
#103 -- THOU DIDST LEAVE THY THRONE
Text: Emily E. S. Elliott, 1864
Tune: Timothy R. Matthews, 1876
"O come to my heart" is confusing--does it reflect Roman Catholic tradition? Directed to saved or unsaved? Christ is already in the heart of the saved! As an Anglican, Miss Elliott was caught up in "Advent" liturgy. The Christian is to yield to the ministry of the Holy Spirit so that his life/heart (Eph. 3:16-17) is increasingly a "home" to the Lord Jesus. But the believer does not need to keep requesting the Savior to come. There is the imagery in Rev. 3:20, where Christ appeals to responsive believers in a local church that has become lukewarm, but that figure does not seem to be used by Miss Elliott here.
#104 -- JOY TO THE WORLD
Text: Isaac Watts, 1719
Tune: George Frederick Handel, 1742; arr. Lowell Mason, 1839
Based on Psalm 98, it is descriptive of the Millennium. Ironically, this song does not directly relate to the First Advent at all! Why not sing it all year round?
#105 -- O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL
Text: Latin hymn, attrib. John F. Wade, 1743; trans. Frederick Oakeley, 1841
Tune: John F. Wade, 1743
The song's introduction into Protestantism is attributed to Frederick Oakeley, who became so enamored by the Oxford Movement that he was suspended by the Anglican Church and he joined the Roman Catholic Church. Note the strange expressions: "born the King of angels" (v. 1) and "born this happy morning" (v. 3). (Jesus was born to be King of Israel and most likely was born in the evening.) "King of angels" is not a Scriptural title. Surely He created them all, but His birth enabled Him to be born "King of the Jews" (a title that appears 18 times in Scripture). The advisability of encouraging people to think in terms of adoring a newborn baby is questionable at best.
#106 -- HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING
Text: Charles Wesley, 1739
Tune: Felix Mendelssohn, 1840; adapt. William H. Cummings, 1856
Probably the best of the Christmas hymns as it is generally filled with Scriptural allusions. One error: the "herald angels" did not sing "Glory to the newborn King" (v. 1 & chorus; see Luke 2:14). Wesley's wording was changed by a later editor because his correct expression seemed quaint: "Hark how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings. ..." It is of interest to note that the music was written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press.
#107 -- ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH
Text & Tune: French, 18th cent.; trans. in "Crown of Jesus Music," 1862
Stretches "poetic license" to invite listeners to visit the manger scene and to call upon Mary and Joseph to join in singing! Also, calls on the audience to adore the newborn Infant (whereas our focus should be on Him as our crucified, risen, and ascended Redeemer!). The song describes the shepherds as singing--something not found in Scripture. Refrain is in Latin, while languages of Biblical times included Hebrew, Aramaic, and common Greek, and we are English speakers! The use of Latin is objectionable because it reflects the ecclesiastical language of the Roman Catholic Church, used for centuries to keep ordinary folks ignorant of God's Word. The expression "Gloria in excelsis Deo" has not become ordinary English.
#108 -- ANGELS, FROM THE REALMS OF GLORY
Text: James Montgomery, 1816
Tune: Henry T. Smart, 1867
Clear Scriptural allusions and the linguistic craft of the poet are marred by incorrect theology and factual error: Verse 1--No Biblical basis for angels to proclaim the message over all the earth. That's our job!; Verse 2--"Yonder shines the infant Light" is very questionable; Verse 4--While Montgomery was of the Moravian Brethren, his description of "saints, before the altar bending" certainly smacks of the Roman Catholic/Anglican tradition associated with Advent.
#109 -- IT CAME UPON THE MIDNIGHT CLEAR
Text: Edmund Sears, 1849
Tune: Richard S. Willis, 1850
Written by a Unitarian. None of the verses are true to Scripture. Does not even mention Christ! Reflects social gospel. Edmund Hamilton Sears spent most of his life as a Unitarian pastor in Wayland, Mass. His text clearly reflects the supposed social implications of the Gospel and then humanism of nineteenth century Unitarianism. Once again, please note that our Lord Jesus is not mentioned, and not one of the verses is correct to God's Word! To read the text as truly expressive of God's people anticipating the Millennium is too great a stretch. The last verse as probably originally written, and as it appears in many hymnals, is: "When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling. ..." The same portion found in one of our hymnals from 1935, and in the Majesty Hymns (1996) hymnal, reads: "When the new heav'n and earth shall own The Prince of Peace their King. ..." We don't know who changed the text. There is still reason to be suspicious of Edmund Sears, who was such an involved Unitarian. If he really stood for clear Biblical convictions (as some would claim today), it would seem that he would have been forced out of the Unitarian church. Also, it was common in Sears' day to appear favorable toward Christ by supposedly acknowledging His "divinity," yet at the same time, denying His true Deity.
VERSE USUALLY OMITTED:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife;
And hear the angels sing!
#110 -- LIFT UP YOUR HEADS, YE MIGHTY GATES
Text: Georg Weissel, before 1635; trans. Catherine Winkworth, 1855
Tune: "Trurs" from T. Williams' Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789
It is based on Psalm 24 and is by a Prussian pastor, Georg Weissel (1590-1635), who wrote the text for Advent. (About half the original text was used.) It was translated from German and introduced into England by the Anglican, Miss Catherine Winkworth (1827-78). While the sentiments sound good at first, further reflection reveals confusion as to whether it describes salvation or the response of the believer.
#111 -- SILENT NIGHT! HOLY NIGHT!
Text: "Father" Joseph Mohr, 1818 (Roman Catholic priest);
Tune: Franz Grüber, 1818 (Roman Catholic)
Unscriptural: Was it a "silent" night (angel proclamation, angels singing, birth of baby, shepherds visiting, shepherds reporting, etc.)? Where in the Bible does one get "all is bright"? Where does it say that the angels sang "Alleluia"? Where does it say that light radiated from the Baby's face? There is no record that the star's light was a part of the scene. The Scripture does not call that evening "silent" or "holy." A few phrases meaningful to the true Bible believer deceive many who think they are pleasing God while they sing a hymn depicting Roman Catholic tradition.
#112 -- THERE'S A SONG IN THE AIR
Text: Josiah G. Holland, 1844
Tune: Karl P. Harrington (also to other tunes)
Strange expression: "star rains its fire"! Verse 3 is totally unscriptural and untrue to fact! Verse 4--Strange that we should greet our Savior in His cradle! How can one or two correct phrases sanctify an entire poem of mixed up, muddled poetry that is contrary to Scripture?
#113 -- GOD REST YOU MERRY GENTLEMEN
Text & Tune: English carol in "Christmas Carols Old and New"
Verse 1--It is historic fact that Christ was not born on "Christmas Day"! Verse 4--"This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface" is completely contrary to New Testament teaching concerning "holy days" (see Gal. 4:9-11). The error still taints whatever may be good.
#114 -- THE FIRST NOEL
Text: traditional English carol
Tune: arr. John Stainer, 1871
"Noel" (from French) means birthday. Verse 1--"Cold winter's night" most unlikely. Verse 2--Shepherds seeing the star, or the star shining in the daytime, is not Biblical. Omits wise men visiting Jerusalem. Verse 6--Expression "mankind hath bought" could be misconstrued to imply universal salvation.
#115 -- WHILE SHEPHERDS WATCHED THEIR FLOCKS
Text: Nahum Tate, 1700 (died a drunk, 1715)
Tune: George Frederick Handel, 1728; arr. in James Hewitt's Harmonia Sacra, 1812
Perhaps it is unfair to note Tate's sad end. This is more of a note of interest than a criticism of the song. First appeared in New Version psalter (of which Tate was co-publisher) along with 15 other "hymns." Because Tate's focus was on the Psalms, apparently he tended to strive to be more consistent with the Biblical text for a poem of his own.
#116 -- AS WITH GLADNESS MEN OF OLD
Text: William C. Dix, 1858
Tune: Conrad Kocher, 1838
The text was written for Epiphany (January 6) by an Anglican layman (insurance company manager). Connects star and wise men's gifts with manger, while the Bible says that the Child and Mary were in a house (Matt. 2:11). There may also be a danger with emphasis on bringing gifts to God. In a significant sense, we have nothing to offer Him. We present ourselves as living sacrifices. Only as He produces His fruit in us will there be anything of value to Him.
#117 -- O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Text: Phillips Brooks (Episcopal), 1868
Tune: Lewis H. Redner, 1868
Verses 1 and 2 may be "okay," but Verses 3 and 4 reflect Roman Catholic tradition of the birth of Christ in human hearts at the time of Advent celebration. Verse 3 describes the time of Christ's birth as "silently giv'n." Events described that evening were not particularly silent. Guye Johnson, in Treasury of Great Hymns and Their Stories, describes Brooks' theology as: "rather weak, for he had a low view of biblical inspiration. Though he spoke warmly of Christ and often sounded evangelical, his dislike of precise doctrinal statements and his emphasis on the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man put him in the moderate camp of his day." The concept of the holy Child of Bethlehem coming and being born in people on Christmas can be traced to the tradition developed and perpetuated in the Roman Catholic Church.
#118 -- WHAT CHILD IS THIS?
Text: William Chatterton Dix, 1865
Tune: "Greensleeves," 16th cent. English folk song
Verse 1--No record of angels greeting the Infant. Verse 2--The second line is illogical. Verse 3--calls for "loving hearts" to enthrone Him, when the real need is for sinful hearts to repent and receive Him (the adult, risen Lord and Savior). Chorus--No indication that the shepherds "guarded" the Infant. It is not just that there is not much of a message in this hymn--it is the falsehood. What sense can one make of "for sinners here the silent Word is pleading"? Why call to "peasants" to "bring Him incense, gold and myrrh"?
#119 -- GENTLE MARY LAID HER CHILD
Text: Joseph S. Cook, 1919
Tune: "Piae Cantiones," 1582; arr. Ernest C. MacMillan, 1930
Verse 2--Wise men and shepherds out of chronological order, and light only described in Scripture as shining around the shepherds' location (Luke 2:8-15). Verse 3--Sadly, "no more a stranger" is not true in most of the world.
#120 -- COME WITH ME, YE CHILDREN
Text: Christian Schmidt
Tune: Karl F. Shulz
Verses 2 and 3--No indication in Scripture that the angels were to be found at the manger. While there may be value in trying to put oneself into the events described in the Bible, we certainly should not encourage children to see the manger as the ultimate location.
#121 -- AWAY IN A MANGER
Text: unknown, 1885 (wrongly attributed to Martin Luther)
Tune: James R. Murray, 1887, "Mueller" true name (another tune by William J. Kirkpatrick, 1895)
"But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes," undermines Jesus's manhood. Since Jesus did cry as a man, being fully human, He probably also cried as a baby. Moreover, there is nothing in the Bible that mentions crying or not crying during this time; the hymn just adds something that's not there. "The little Lord Jesus," like other hymns of this nature, focus on the little baby Jesus and worshiping Him as such; the truth is that He is the risen, exalted Lord to whom we must bow. All the religionists would love to keep Jesus a little babe in the manger.
#122 -- WHO IS HE IN YONDER STALL?
Text & Tune: Benjamin R. Hanby, 1866
Verses 4 and 5 questionable. Note verse 4--Strictly speaking, Christ on the cross asked the Father to forgive them, He did not pronounce blessings. Verse 5 suggests an improper emphasis on healing.
#123 -- COME, ALL YE SHEPHERDS
Text & Tune: Bohemian folk song; trans. Mari Ruef Hofer and arr. E.S.B.
Message weak and misleading. No Scriptural basis for adoring a Baby in a stall. We are to exalt our Risen Savior! Verse 3 is worse than weak--"seeking this Savior from all earthly woe." People need to be worried about eternal woe. Christ does not deliver us from all earthly woe. We are brought through much tribulation for His Name's sake!
#124 -- WE THREE KINGS OF ORIENT ARE
Text & Tune: John H. Hopkins, Jr., 1857
Number of wise men unknown from the Bible, and there is no indication that they were kings. Who are the "us" in the chorus? Gifts of the wise men are presented as symbolic of royalty, Deity, and suffering. While this symbolism of the gifts is interesting, does that justify making this a standard hymn of the faith, with its distortion of the facts of Scripture? What does the refrain mean by the request, "Guide us to thy perfect light"? Was the star "perfect"? In what way?