Beckett: Hymns – What Child Is This?

I am kicking off a new ongoing series where I will be analysing the theology of worship, starting with Christmas music, considering the season we’re currently in. We live in a technological age, so it is easy to forget the purpose of worship. Some Christians, unfortunately, approach worship like a concert—if they’re not entertained by the worship band, then they’ll find a different church where they can be entertained or they’ll just complain about the music. Yet worship was never intended to entertain us. The best use of worship we see is through David. David used music to refresh King Saul’s spirit (1 Samuel 16:14-24). Saul never summoned David’s musicianship for entertainment purposes, but rather so that God may use his musical talent to refresh his soul. Even better examples are the Psalms, which many were written in song style and there are many worship songs today taken from the Psalms and other parts of Scripture. For example, the hymn Bless the Lord Eternal, O My Soul is from Psalm 103Many worship songs we sing today are based on other parts of Scripture, such as the Revelation Song—one of my favourites—is based on Revelation 4:8. The purpose of worship is not to entertain us; that’s what the secular music industry is for. Rather, the purpose of worship is to remind us of who God is—to remind us of His unconditional faithfulness to His people.

With that being said, let’s take a look at our first Christmas song, What Child Is This?

Verse 1

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

Chorus: This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.

I believe this verse follows mostly the birth narrative of Luke’s gospel. “What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping” follows Luke 2:7, “And she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Reading this verse alone without the prior knowledge of the promised Messiah to be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:10-17) indeed leaves you with the question, “What child is this… whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?” After the angel told the shepherds this baby is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11), the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16)—”haste, haste to bring Him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.” In other words, “Let us hurry to bring praise to Him the baby of Mary!” (Laude in Latin means praise.) This chorus is repeated after each verse, turning us to give praise to Christ the King with haste. Even after seeing the baby Jesus, the shepherds returned to their fields and continued their praise, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20). So after we finish our praises each Sunday morning, let us continue to praise Him when we return to our homes.

Verse 2

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce Him through,
The cross He bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary.

The song goes from Christ’s infant narrative to His ultimate purpose—death on the cross for our sins. In verse one, it confesses Christ as the King. Since He is King, why does He lie in such a filthy estate where domesticated farm animals feed? Certainly, that is no place for a king. A king ought to be born in a palace where there are riches, not in poverty where smelly farm animals feed and defecate. Mary’s Magnificat captures a motif of God’s character throughout all of Scripture, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52). God has a habit of lowering the mighty—the prideful—and exalting the humble; that’s just who He is. Many times throughout Scripture we see God choosing the humble over the mighty—the humble Abel over the prideful Cain, the man with the speech impediment Moses over someone who excelled in public speaking, the humble David over the mighty Saul, and so on. So, God humbled Himself as a man in Christ by being born in poverty of the humble young woman Mary.

Twice this verse draws from the gospel of John, referring to Christ as the Word, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). Christ is the Word who is pleading on behalf of all sinners, “who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). And in a short line it gives us a beautiful Gospel message, “Nails, spears shall pierce Him through, the cross He bore for me, for you.” Interestingly, it speaks with the future tense rather than the past tense. This verse is drawing from Isaiah 53:5-6 who, unlike the Christmas hymn, speaks of this crucifixion in the past tense (even though he is prophesying of a future event), “But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” 

Verse 3

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary.

After prophesying about the future of our King, it returns to the “present” where the wise men “offered Him gifts, gold, and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11)—all things fitting for a king. Christ as King of kings is language coming from Revelation 19:16, “On His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.” Even though we serve kings (or presidents), Christ is our ultimate King—we serve Him our King over the kings of men. Salvation comes from Him alone. As He has said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). As the verse continues, “Let loving hearts enthrone Him”—let us say with David the psalmist, “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together!” (Psalm 34:3). Christ is our King, and we enthrone Him—we exalt Him—as our King with loud voices of praise. We raise Him with voices along with the angels, saying: In excelsis Deo—that is, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14)! We sing these praises with joy this Christmas season because His birth means the salvation of us all through His death and resurrection.

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