Like most people, I enjoy Christmas carols – some more so than others. For example, while cute, I find We Three Kings as one of the more unbiblical songs we traditionally sing (the magi weren’t kings and they weren’t from the Orient). Joy To The World is wonderful, but it really isn’t talking about the first coming of the Messiah. However, there is nothing wrong with singing those songs and if they brighten your Christmas season, go right ahead and enjoy them!
There are some carols where Biblical truth is told. Silent Night and O Holy Night are both great examples of Christmas carols with a Biblical message. But maybe the song I find the most fascinating is God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
As stated by wordwizehymns.com,
“The author of this carol is unknown. It may have originated some five centuries ago. The song was published by William B. Sandys, an English solicitor, in his 1833 volume, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern.”
In the 15 century, most commoners were illiterate and therefore music played a large role in teaching Biblical stories. So this carol tells the Christmas account and gives the story application to all who hear its prose. While most often only 4 verses are used, there are at least 7 in the form of the song from the early 1800’s. Each verse tells a portion of the story and has a lesson for us. I’m not going to expound on every detail, but I will point out a few lessons from this carol found within these verses.
First, we lose of the meaning of the opening line when we miss the comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” The song isn’t speaking of how a giddy group of fine English men were to relax. Further, the word “rest” has a different meaning now than it did 500 years ago – at least in this context.
The term “rest” meant “make” or “keep.” Again, from wordwizehymns.com,
“A modern paraphrase of the words might read: “May God keep you joyful gentlemen.”
But from the first verse we learn the source of our joy. We are saved from Satan’s power. We were gone astray, but God sent a way to redeem us. Sounds much like what the angel told Joseph, “You shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21b).
Verses 2 through 6 tell the rest of the story. In verse 2 we are told He is born in Bethlehem and was laid in a manger. Verse 3 states how an angel came to the shepherds and the Child was called the “son of God.” Verse 4, says He was born of a virgin and that the shepherds were not to be afraid. In verse 5 they rejoice, went to Bethlehem seeking the Child. Finally in verse 6, they find Him, in a manager (just like the angle told them) and how Mary was kneeling worshiping the Child she just gave birth too.
Finally in verse 7, we are told “To all who are in this place” must love each other.
This carol covers the Christmas story as it is told in the Scripture without extra characters (ie a little drummer boy) or talking animals (“said the little lamb to the shepherd boy…” from Do You Hear What I Hear?).
So enjoy all your Christmas carols and look at the Christmas story afresh as retold in this song. I wish you “comfort and joy” as stated each verse of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen this Christmas season.
This is a slightly revised version of a post from December 2016.