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Incarnation Hymnody: "Angels, from the Realms of Glory"

Continuing our series on incarnation hymnody, we take a look today at “Angels, from the Realms of Glory.”

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“Angels, from the Realms of Glory” is nearing its bicentennial, having been first published in 1816 by James Montgomery.  Hymnals nearly universally include the first four stanzas, but omit the fifth:

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,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

Shepherds, in the field abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant-light;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar,
Seek the great Desire of Nations;
Ye have seen his natal star;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord descending
In His temple shall appear;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doom’d for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you–break your chains;
Come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.

This is, of course, a fairly straightforward hymn calling a number of groups to “worship Christ, the newborn King.” In turn, we have angels, shepherds, sages, and . . . saints? I’ve sung this song for years without giving serious thought to who in the world Montgomery is referencing with “saints”.  When singing the fourth stanza (“Saints…”) before, I have had a vague notion of Christ’s second advent when his “saints” would see him “descending” in power.

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This morning in church, however, before leading this song congregationally, I was thinking through the text, and it occurred to me that contextually, it is likely that the “saints” Montgomery has in view would be in the same historical context as the angels, shepherds, and sages, one in which they could “worship Christ, the newborn king.”  In light of that context, I suggest that the “saints” are those Old Testament saints who were “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38) and “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), most notably Simeon (Luke 2:22-35) and Anna (Luke 2:36-38).  Both Simeon and Anna, clearly elderly, had been “watching long” for the Promised One.  The scriptural allusion in this stanza is clearly to Malachi 3:1 (KJV):

“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.”

Luke 7:27 and parallels identify “my messenger” of Mal 3:1 with John the Baptist, and Christ by implication is the “Lord” who “shall suddenly come to his temple.”  It appears that Montgomery has made a connection between this prophetic reference to Christ coming to his temple and Simeon and Anna seeing Jesus in the temple with his parents.  And strengthening the case that this is what Montgomery had in mind, this is the only appearance of Christ in the temple at which it would have been possible to “worship Christ, the newborn King.”

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About Chuck Bumgardner

I seek to be a student of the Scriptures — New Testament in particular — and also have a deep love for the praise of God through music in the church. I have at the present time the privilege of overseeing the music and leading the singing in my local church, a ministry which brings me great joy and provides a God-ordained outlet for my musical energies. I've enjoyed serving in music-related areas in the church since high school — some 25 years now — as a vocalist, choir member, choir director, and congregational songleader. In addition to serving as a member — and for a time as an assistant pastor — in various local churches, I've also had the privilege of traveling during my college years to many churches throughout the United States and Canada as part of a vocal ensemble. I hunger to see, both in my own church and beyond, an increased appreciation for the great historic music of the church in which theologically rich texts are wedded to music which provides an appropriate setting for those texts, and through which our affections are turned toward God. I'm also eager to see new contributions to the rich heritage of Christian music which share in the same characteristics.

One Response to Incarnation Hymnody: "Angels, from the Realms of Glory"

  1. Thanks for your observations on Montgomery's great carol–first published 194 years ago today. I agree that the fourth stanza fits the longings of Simeon and Anna to see Israel's Messiah. But I don't think it's an either/or. Frequently, the Old Testament prophets predicted things that were fulfilled in part at Christ's first coming, but which will find their final fulfilment at His return. The Malachi passage begins (3:1) with words that certainly apply to John the Baptist. But the verses that follow speak of judgment, not of grace. They better relate to the second coming.

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