Words: Charles Wesley, 1745
Music: Rowland H. Prichard, HYFRYDOL, 1831; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1951
Charles Wesley's best-known Christmas hymn was his first; "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (originally, "Hark! How all the welkin rings") appeared in the 1739 Hymns and Sacred Poems, the collection that introduced Wesley's hymns to the world. But he returned to the theme of the Incarnation often, reprinting the 1739 hymn as a broadside in 1743 (presumably; no copies survive), and issuing two more Christmas collections in 1744 and 1745.(Maddox, Nativity Hymns)
The first of these, Hymns for Christmas Day, is also sadly not extant, and is known only through its printer's account books. It might have been an early version of the following year's Nativity Hymns, or a collection of Christmas hymns by various authors, or even an entirely different collection of original Christmas hymns by Wesley.(Maddox, Hymns for Christmas Day) Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology dates "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" to 1744, presumably upon the first assumption; many modern sources have followed him, though the hymn cannot be confirmed to have appeared before 1745.
The Nativity Hymns collection consists of 18 hymns, of which "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" is the 10th. Though few in number, these texts are notable for their variety of meters--no fewer than 14 different metrical schemes for 18 hymns--and for their richness of imagery.(Maddox, Nativity Hymns) The rhyme and rhythm of some are quite peculiar, as in the 3rd hymn, "Angels speak, let men give ear," which has the syllable pattern 188.8.131.52 (sometimes 184.108.40.206), or the 6th hymn, "Come all ye joyful nations," which has the syllable pattern 220.127.116.11.7 and the rhyme scheme a b c c b. Unusual stuff for hymns!
Wesley's language is striking as well, getting at the heart of the amazing fact of the God-Man. From the previously mentioned "Angels speak, let men give ear," we have this stanza:
Wrapt in swathsHe touches on the puzzling question of an eternal, omniscient Lord beginning earthly life as an infant, in the 4th hymn, "Glory be to God on high":
th’ immortal stranger
Man with men
We have seen,
Lying in a manger.
Emptied of his majesty,The 5th hymn, "Let earth and heaven combine," makes this pithy observation on the Creator of worlds made a mortal child, and sums up the wonder that Wesley saw in this event: "Our God contracted to a span / Incomprehensibly made man."
Of his dazling glories shorn,
Being’s source begins to be,
And God himself is BORN.
By contrast, "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" is relatively straightforward in structure (18.104.22.168 doubled, rhyming a b a b c d c d) and contains no intentionally jarring language. Instead, Wesley wrote a sweet, uplifting hymn from the perspective of the faithful Jews who were looking for the promised Messiah, and borrows heavily from the language of the Hebrew prophets. Perhaps it was this familiar sound of Scripture that boosted the popularity of this hymn; of all the 18 texts in the collection, only a handful remained in widespread use into the 20th century, and this is by far the most likely to remain for years to come.
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 every nation,
Joy of every longing heart!
The expectation of the Messiah among the ancient Jews probably began in earnest with the writings of Isaiah, who gave the most extensive treatment of an ideal future King descended from David. The spiritual nature of Messiah's mission was predominant in Isaiah, bringing peace and justice, redeeming Israel and showing Gentiles the way.(e.g. Isaiah 11) Even the fairly liberal treatment of the subject in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia admits that the concept of the Messiah as a primarily political/military deliverer was "not a characteristic of the Messianic hope until a later stage of its development."("Messiah") But over time, with the frequent political upsets and disadvantages suffered by the Jews during the period following the close of Hebrew prophecy, the aspect of Messiah as an avenging conqueror eventually overshadowed the more complete view given by the totality of Scripture.
These different expectations of the Messiah are seen throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus' life. Even His cousin John, His own herald, seems to have had doubts based on this: "Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?"(Matthew 11:2-3) At Jesus' birth, the people's belief in a political Messiah was very much on the mind of the paranoid tyrant, Herod the Great:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'"(Matthew 2:1-6)And at the end of Jesus' life, it was this concept of a political Messiah that condemned Him to death: in His trial (whether before Annas or Caiaphas Mark does not specify), "Again the high priest asked Him, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?'"(Mark 14:61)
The common people looked for the Messiah as well, with a variety of expectations. Andrew informed his brother Peter of Jesus with the words, "We have found the Messiah!"(John 1:41) The description of the people who came to hear John the Baptizer gives us a similar picture: "The people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ."(Luke 3:15) After Jesus began His ministry, the crowds that heard Him in Jerusalem debated His Messianic identity with at least as much logic as had their spiritual leaders:
When they heard these words, some of the people said, "This really is the Prophet." Others said, "This is the Christ." But some said, "Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?"(John 7:40-42)A correct conclusion, but based on an incorrect assumption. But on at least one occasion, the people were persuaded to the extent of trying to make Jesus their earthly King,(John 6:15) and Jesus' entry into Jerusalem before His death (John 12:12-16) was accompanied by palm branches, a symbol of royalty. Even the fact that He rode on a donkey was in fulfillment of the description of the future King given in Zechariah 9:9.
If the people saw Him as their rightful King, they were on the right track but thinking on the wrong plane. Christ told Pontius Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world,"(John 18:36) and it is no surprise that the worldly, practical-minded Roman did not know how to respond. But to be fair, even some of His own disciples were not always clear on this point, as they asked before His ascension, "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?"(Acts 1:6) The Lord's simple words in Luke 17:12, "The kingdom of God is within you," took time to understand.
On the other hand, there were those who understood more of the spiritual nature of the Messiah's reign. Even the rather flippant Samaritan woman Jesus encountered in John chapter 4 had a vague concept of the Messiah as a spiritual teacher: "When He comes, He will tell us all things."(John 4:25) This understanding is most clearly seen in Simeon, a man "waiting for the consolation of Israel,"(Luke 2:25) who spoke these beautiful words over the infant Jesus at the temple:
Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.(Luke 2:29-32)Simeon's words might reflect the language of the Messianic prophecy in the 9th chapter of Isaiah:
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time 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)It seems likely that Wesley's words in this first stanza are derived from these passages. The very next words in Isaiah chapter 9 are,
You have multiplied the nation; You have increased its joy; they rejoice before You as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, You have broken as on the day of Midian.(Isaiah 9:3-4)Jesus was "born to set His people free," releasing them from the yoke of oppression. Yet it was not the oppression of Rome He came to break, but the more permanent and deadly oppression of sin. When Jesus spoke of throwing off a yoke, He only said gently,
Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.(Matthew 11:28-30)Wesley emphasizes freedom from spiritual tyranny of "sins and fears," perhaps referencing Matthew 11 when he says, "Let us find our rest in Thee."
Jesus was the One "long-expected" by the nation, and by Simeon himself, whom God had promised would live to see the Messiah.(Luke 2:26) Jesus was "Israel's Strength and Consolation" that Simeon had waited for.(Luke 2:25) Wesley also references the prophecy to Zerubbabel from the 2nd chapter of Haggai:
For thus saith the LORD of Hosts: "Yet once, it is a little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.Though the import (and translation) of Haggai's phrase "desire of all nations" is debated today, Wesley would certainly have taken it to mean Christ, as expressed in his words, "Dear desire of every nation," which intersects nicely with Simeon's prophecy of "a light to the Gentiles."
"And I will fill this house with glory," saith the LORD of Hosts. "The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine," saith the LORD of Hosts. "The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former," saith the LORD of Hosts, "and in this place will I give peace," saith the LORD of Hosts.(Haggai 2:6-9)
The first stanza is a reflection upon the ancient Jews' earnest expectation for the coming of the Messiah into the world. The second stanza speaks to our own individual need to accept His reign in our lives.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a Child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Wesley turns here, as he so often did in the Nativity Hymns, to the incongruities of the scene at Christ's birth. The King of Kings was a baby; "God contracted to a span," as Wesley said in another hymn, the Creator of the Universe lying in the span of His mother's arm. As if there could be further shock in this scene, He is laid in a feeding trough for lack of a bed, having been literally "born in a barn." My grandfather Hamrick, one of ten children in an Oklahoma pioneer family, slept in a shed with his brothers, the two bedrooms of the house being given over to his parents and sisters. There is no shame in that necessity; but if God wanted to show us that He was coming down to the level of the very least among us, there could be no greater demonstration than the place of Christ's birth!
And for the first royal reception of the King of Kings upon this earth, He was honored with a visit from shepherds who had been watching their sheep in the fields at night--which denotes them as men who either had not enough means to hire someone to do this for them, or as the ones who had so been hired. Again, there is no shame in that or in any other kind of honest work; but if God wanted to show us that He cares not for earthly dignity, but rather for honest and open hearts, there could be no greater demonstration than in the honors brought by these first visitors on that blessed night!
For it is a kingdom "not of this world,"(John 18:36) not enforced externally by force of law and arms, but willingly accepted into the heart and mind:
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."(Luke 17:20-21)When Christ's kingdom comes into a person's heart through obedient faith, it is a "gracious kingdom," as Wesley says, both in the sense of beauty and mildness but also in the literal sense of a "kingdom of grace:"
For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. . . . So that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.(Romans 5:17,21)As subjects of this gentle sovereignty, we must remember to Whom our allegiance lies, and to Whom we in fact belong: "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."(1 Corinthians 6:19-20) Our King has "put His seal on us and given us His Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee."(2 Corinthians 1:22)
In one sense, songs about Christ's birth are a reflection back on a fixed event in the past--a historical reality that we did not ourselves witness. But as we sing such songs, we remember the importance of what Jesus' incarnation still means for us today, and will for eternity. And though we also see the coming of His kingdom as an event that took place in that generation of the first century, we ourselves must decide at some point whether we will allow that kingdom to come into our own hearts. Even after becoming Christians, we decide every day whether to submit to the reign of that long-exepected Messiah, with all its blessings. "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful."(Colossians 3:15)
About the music:
The Lord blessed Wales with an abundance of great tunesmiths, and HYFRYDOL is one of the best from that tradition. The harmonization is by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a modern English composer who respected the beauty and diversity of folk music. For a discussion of this tune and its setting, see my post on "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus."
Maddox, Randy L., editor. Hymns for Christmas Day (1744). Charles Wesley's Published Verse. Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke University. http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cswt/25_Hymns_for_Christmas_Day_%281744%29.pdf
Maddox, Randy L. Nativity Hymns (1745). Charles Wesley's Published Verse. Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke University, 2009. http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cswt/31_Nativity_Hymns_%281745%29.pdf
"Messiah." Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10729-messiah