Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Caroling the Gospel IX: The First Noel

[NOTE:  This is from a 12-part series I did on another blog.  Hence the tardiness.  I promise, it was timely when I first wrote it.  The rest of the series is available here.  Enjoy!]

'Noel', of course, is the French word for 'birthday' (as in 'joyeoux noel'), from the Latin 'natalis'.  Despite this French connection, the carol has its origins in 18th century England, specifically Cornwall (which is why you may have seen it anglicized as 'the first nowell').  This is yet another carol that tends to be excerpted in popular versions (of which there have been many).


The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherd in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night


And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went


This star drew nigh to the northwest
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest
And there is did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay


Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord
That hath made heaven and earth of nought
And with His blood mankind hath bought

There are four other verses that pop up here and there--two continuing the wise men's tale (they came, they found, they gave, etc.), one mentioning the manger and the animals present at the birth, and one rather atrocious example of legalistic theology implying that we earn salvation by good works.  But since I've never heard any of those four extra verses sung, I won't address them here. 

The first verse is straight out of Luke 2--there were shepherds, there were angels, there was a baby, it was winter.  True stuff, but no gospel message.  The chorus rightly notes that this baby is the King of Israel (John 12:12-13), but does not discuss the implications of this royal birth.

The second verse implies that the shepherds saw the star, and notes that the star shines during the daytime as well as at night--neither statement is made in Scripture.  The third verse introduces the 'wise men', who saw the star and followed it, seeking the King of the Jews (much to Herod's chagrin). (Matthew 2:1-11)  As the fourth verse notes, the star stopped over the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.  (Matthew 2:9)  This is all pretty straightforward Christmas narrative--fitting in a song entitled, essentially, 'The First Birthday'.

The fifth verse is where it starts to get really good.  We are encouraged to praise the Lord together because he created the world out of nothing (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 11:3).  It may seem like this verse is speaking of God the Father--the person of the Trinity most associated with creation.  But the last line of the verse makes it clear that we are being called to praise the second person of the Trinity--that is, Christ--for creating the world.  This is a fairly theologically sophisticated statement, and quite accurate.  (See John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17).  Accurate, but still no gospel. We have Christ as God and Christ as King, but that is all.

Until the very last line:  'and with His blood mankind hath bought.'  This simple line ties in the whole of the gospel--the blood that was the basis of the Jewish sacrificial system (Hebrews 9:1-7, 13, 19-22) has been replaced by the blood of God's own son (Hebrews 9:12).  This blood symbolizes the death of Christ as a sacrifice for our sins against God (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 9:28) By His blood we are justified--saved from the wrath of God which we have earned, forgiven for our countless sins, and reconciled to God through Him. (Romans 5:8-10; Ephesians 1:7-8, 2:13).  With His blood, He purchased us--we are no longer our own, nor do we belong to sin.  (I Corinthians 6:19-20; Revelation 5:8-9)  This kind of financial language is often used to explain the gospel--we are redeemed, our debt is forgiven.  (Job 19:25; Matthew 6:12; Luke 7:36-50; Galatians 3:13-14).  It's nothing we have earned--it is a unilateral act of God in Christ.  The God who created the world out of nothing has shown His infinite mercy and justice on the cross, saving us through Christ's blood.  While the song does not specifically address the problem of sin and our rebellion against God, the reference to the blood of Christ and the purchase of mankind thereby is enough to qualify this as a genuine gospel carol.

To read the next entry in the series, 'Caroling the Gospel X: O Holy Night', click here.

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