This last Sunday, we entered the month of December- one of my favorite times of the year for church music and hymn lyrics. While our church doesn’t follow the church calendar strictly, every December we sing songs about the incarnation and the arrival of Christ the Messiah. I’ve come to find that these songs contain extremely rich and beautiful theology that increases our worship of God.
However, because we are so used to singing these songs, we can overlook these wonderful truths. So, to help us all slow down and think upon the mighty work of God in the incarnation, I’ll be writing a series of posts throughout the month about the theology of some well known Christmas songs that we will also be singing at church on Sunday mornings!
First, we’ll look at one of my favorites, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Published by Charles Wesley in 1744, this has been a popular Christmas Carol that was intended to point us to Christ’s Second Advent while remembering His first. According to Ace Collin’s book “More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas,” Wesley was meditating on Haggai 2:7 as he was burdened by the suffering he constantly beheld around him. This produced a great longing in his heart for the return of Christ as the final and righteous King who would have a perfect and just rule over all people.
This resulted in Wesley penning 2 stanzas (#1 and #4), with Mark E. Hunt adding two more (#2 and #3) for the Trinity Hymnal in 1990. Personally, I think all 4 stanzas are worthy of consideration!
1. 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.
This first stanza proclaims an important part of Jesus’s identity. Jesus was sent as the Messiah of Israel, to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6, 15:24). In this way, “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (Rom 15:8). This includes the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:4-17) and the messianic prophecies made to the nation of Israel by the prophets (Deut 18:15, Is 7:14; 9:6-7).
However, the scriptures make clear that the Messiah was not to be sent just to Israel but to all nations: Not only was Christ sent “to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,” but also that “the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy” (Rom 15:9). Wesley reflects this when he writes that Christ is the “hope of all the earth…dear desire of every nation.” We can rejoice that God did not send a Savior to one nation, but that His plan from the beginning was to give His Servant as “a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Is 42:6-7). We can also rejoice that the Messiah is not simply a political figure who provides freedom from governmental oppression (like Roman rule), but that He is also the One who frees us from the dominion of sin (Rom 5:12-6:23).
2. Joy to those who long to see thee, Dayspring from on high, appear;
come, thou promised Rod of Jesse, of thy birth we long to hear!
O’er the hills the angels singing news, glad tidings of a birth;
“Go to him, your praises bringing; Christ the Lord has come to earth.”
In Mark Hunt’s added verse, he describes Christ as the “Dayspring from on high,” which is a reference to the King James Version’s translation of Luke 1:78 in which Zechariah himself refers to the arrival of the Son as the “Dayspring from on high” that will “give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:78-79, KJV). Hunt then refers to Christ as the promised “Rod of Jesse,” from Isaiah 11:1-10. In this passage, there is a promised “branch” from the “stump of Jesse” who will be an amazingly righteous and true King and Judge (11:1). Under His reign, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb… the nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra” (11:6, 8). “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples- of him shall the nations inquire and his resting place shall be glorious” (11:10).
Paul uses this same passage to demonstrate Christ’s Kingship over Jew and Gentile alike, but we also see that Isaiah’s text refers to the Millennial Reign of Christ, in which this perfect reign over the earth will be fulfilled. It is for this reason that we yearn for Christ’s second advent, since it will be with His return that His perfect Kingdom is established.
Finishing out the stanza, we see the reference to announcement of the angels to the shepherds “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of Great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Upon going to Him, the shepherds return “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Lk 2:20). These shepherds realized that the Christ, the Messiah, had finally come to them and it caused them great joy. Imagine how much greater our joy will be when we behold our Savior coming again!
3. Come to earth to taste our sadness, he whose glories knew no end;
by his life he brings us gladness, our Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend.
Leaving riches without number, born within a cattle stall;
this the everlasting wonder, Christ was born the Lord of all.
This verse focuses on the humiliation of Christ in a few ways. First, Christ, though his glories knew no end, came to earth to suffer ultimately on the Cross. However, Christ lived for and dwells among mankind for 30 years as the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14). The author of Hebrews has this in mind when he says that Christ was made lower than the angels (Heb 2:9) and that he “likewise partook of the same things [flesh and blood]” as those whom he would save (Heb 2:10,14). Christ was “made like his brothers in every respect,” even enduring the same temptation that we face, “yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). This is truly amazing: Christ, who is the glorious Son, made himself lower than ever could be imagined by becoming like us, and as a result He knows our sadness and our suffering. He can sympathize with us and our weakness (Heb 4:15).
Second, Christ as the Glorious Son of God, had no lack or want; he possessed everything and was worthy of all praise and glory, and yet He was born in a dirty, muddy, smelly cattle stall? Yet it was this child who was born in such humble circumstances that would be the Lord of all. Our Savior is not arrogant, but He is humble, all the while worthy of true honor and praise above all else.
4. 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.
This was the second of the 2 verses that Wesley originally penned for this hymn, and it continues the seeming contradiction of the birth of Christ. Christ was born a child, and yet a king. By all accounts, the child appeared just as ordinary as any other, and yet the announcements surrounding his birth by Mary (Lk 1:46-55), Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79), the Angels (Lk 2:8-20) and Simeon (Lk 2:29-32) declare that this Child is the true, final, and ultimate King. His kingdom is not merely one of political force and power (though it will be during His Millenial Reign) but it is also one within the heart (Rom 6:17-18). Christ frees us from the reign of sin and death and instead rules over our hearts in righteousness (Col 1:13). Finally, Wesley extols the glorious truths of Ephesians 2:4–9:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
What a wonderful and joyful thing to acknowledge and rest in the sufficient, justifying merit of Christ, and Him alone! Christ is the only one worthy to sit at the “right hand of the Majesty on High” (Heb 1:3), and yet the scriptures tell us that we have been raised with Him and seated with Him. How is that we are not just subjects in Christ’s Kingdom, but that we are participants with Him in His Kingdom? And yet it is to Him that all the glory goes.
“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” is a song that contains a wealth of great theology and doctrine regarding the person and work of Christ the Messiah, balancing the tension of His glory and His humiliation, yet causing us to look forward to His second advent in the great hope of His perfect reign upon the earth.