Monday, March 30, 2009

Angels from the Realms of Glory

Praise for the Lord #42

Words: James Montgomery, 1816/1825
Music: Henry Smart, 1867

Montgomery's slight but profitable hymnwriting career is discussed under the post on his communion hymn, "According to Thy gracious word". Montgomery published this poem in his newspaper, the Sheffield Iris, on Christmas Eve in 1816.

Stanza 1:
Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth.

Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

The arrival of Jesus in this world was in one sense anticlimactic. Luke's account, especially, emphasizes the sheer ordinariness of His actual birth, beginning with the fact that He was born away from home because of a tax law. As anyone knows who has ever had a family emergency on the road, of course there would be no place to stay; he would be literally "born in a barn." He was swaddled like any other baby, and (unlike most other babies, one hopes) was put down for His first nap in the only suitable crib available, a feeding trough.(Luke 2:1-7) He was just another Child, in the eyes of the world, born to a very young mother and dependent on a simple tradesman as His earthly father.

But for a moment that night, the heavens opened and the true earth-shaking wonder of this event was revealed; God sent His angels to openly declare the arrival of His Son on the earth. Interestingly, their message was not to the political or religious elite; they spoke instead to ordinary shepherds, who suddenly had reason to be grateful that they had to be at work that night:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."(Luke 2:13-14)

The angels sang at the creation of the world, God tells Job, when "all the sons of God shouted for joy."(Job 38:7) At the birth of Christ they sang again to welcome a new world--a world that, in its fallen state, subject to Satan's corruption, had just been invaded by the liberating King of Kings. It was only the beginning of Christ's work, but for Satan it was the beginning of the end.

Stanza 2:
Shepherds, in the field abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with us is now residing;
Yonder shines the infant light:

The noble wise men of the East would come later, to show the subjection of all the world's wisdom and majesty to Christ; but how appropriate that the first to hear the wonderful news were just shepherds. Their sort were always the first to listen to Jesus and His gospel anyway: "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth."(1 Corinthians 1:26)

Jesus would select apostles by much the same standards--some fishermen, a political rabble-rouser or two, a tax man, with not one prominent rabbi or well-heeled noble among the lot. Only Paul might fit the bill of what the world would consider working material for great leadership. But Jesus did not look for those whom the world considered greater leaders; He looked for those whose hearts were open to His teaching and could obey that simple command, "Follow Me."(Matthew 9:9)

Stanza 3:
Wise men, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations;
Ye have seen His natal star.

Of course the wise men came as well, to their credit. We will never know all that this trip meant to them, but we can surmise that they were passionate about acquiring knowledge, and desirous of honoring this great Person of Whom they knew so little, yet for Whom they were willing to travel from the ends of the earth. They exemplified what God told Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord : "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches; but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord ."(Jeremiah 9:23-24)

Paul was a man wise in the eyes of the world, but he kept that wisdom in perspective as well:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.(1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

Earthly wisdom is a good and positive thing when it is kept in perspective. It is refreshing to think of these wise men whose greatest desire was to know the truth, and to offer their gifts and worship to the Bringer of that knowledge.

Montgomery continued with the following stanzas, omitted in Praise for the Lord:

Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.

Here we are reminded of the touching stories of Anna and Simeon, godly people who had looked long for the Messiah.(Luke 2:21-39) In their old age, having seen much trouble of life come and go, they were blessed to see the Child who would bring salvation to the world. Simeon, a man at peace with God already, could rejoice and say, "Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation..."(Luke 2:29-30)

But Montgomery also references the "sudden" return of the Lord to His temple, calling to mind Malachi 3:1-2,

The Lord Whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; and the Messenger of the covenant in Whom you delight, behold, He is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears?

Those who "loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil,"(John 3:19) did not welcome Jesus at all--starting with Herod, who would try to kill Him as a child, to the religious leaders who finally succeeded in that effort three decades later. There were those who were looking forward to the Messiah, and those who viewed Him as a threat to their status quo. The same is true today; and it will be revealed in even starker relief when He comes to this earth the second time.

The following stanza is also omitted in most hymnals:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you; break your chains.

Isaiah, in particular, spoke to this aspect of Christ's incarnation, even in before His crucifixion:

He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.(Isaiah 9:1-2)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.(Isaiah 40:1-2)

With Christ's coming, both Jew and Gentile were released from the hopelessness of unforgiven sin.

It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the following verse is omitted in most hymnals:

Though an Infant now we view Him,
He shall fill His Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to Him;
Every knee shall then bow down:

The incarnation is a mystery on many levels. What was Christ's awareness of His deity when He was a child? How could God become a baby? People have argued these matters for centuries; we are better off accepting what the Bible says, and going no further.(2 John 1:9) One thing we can be sure of, though, is that someday all the arguments over His deity will come to an end: "For it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.'"(Romans 14:11) This was Montgomery's original conclusion to the hymn, tying together the worship of the shepherds and the wise men with the universal worship that Christ will receive at His second arrival.

Montgomery wrote the following stanza in 1825, which was published in The Christmas Box and later attached to this hymn:(Cyberhymnal)

All creation, join in praising
God, the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising
To th’eternal Three in One.

About the music: Few hymn tunes have such a characteristic opening phrase. The first few notes outline the tonic of the key, a B-flat major chord, in a manner characteristic of herald trumpets or chimes. In Western cultures trumpets have a longstanding association with royalty, and chimes have a similarly ancient connection with religious celebrations. Whether this was by design or not, it is a uniquely appropriate tune for this text. It is also used with the text "Lo, He comes with clouds descending"(PFTL#406), an interesting coincidence.

Henry Thomas Smart (1813-1879) was a London organist and composer who enjoyed a successful if minor career in opera as well as in church music, despite losing his sight during his early 50s. The name of this tune, "REGENT STREET" (in many sources, "REGENT SQUARE"), probably refers to the location of St. Philip's Church in London, where Smart was employed from 1836-1844.(Thompson, 2086)


Cyberhymnal. "Angels from the realms of glory." Cyberhymnal.

Thompson, Oscar. International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1985.

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