Famous Christmas Hymns: “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”


Title: Famous Christmas Hymns: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen


Text: Isaiah 40:1-2, Luke 2:10-11, 1 John 3:8


Time: December 16th, 2013




I’m continuing with our series on famous Christmas hymns this holiday season. Last time, I analyzed the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but today I’ll be looking at a really interesting Christmas hymn, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” What’s first of all interesting about this hymn is that it’s right off the bat interpreted by most people incorrectly. Most people think it’s talking about “merry gentlemen,” or in other words, happy fellows or laughing men, and so forth. But that’s not what it’s saying at all. It all depends on where you place the comma in the title. Most people put the comma just after the “Rest” and just after the “Ye,” in order to make it sounds like the writer is talking about “Merry Gentlemen.” But that’s not where the comma goes, according to the song itself. The comma should go after the “Merry,” in order to make it say, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” So instead of talking about “merry gentlemen,” it’s wishing the gentlemen merry rest, that God would give them a merry rest. Now this makes all the difference in the world because the hymn is talking about why these gentlemen should rest merry when they all go to sleep in their respective homes that night. The verses go on to describe why their sleep should be merry – because of the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Savior of the world. The presupposition is that these so-called gentlemen, who really represent anyone and everyone, are disturbed, worried, anxious, bothered, burdened, and so forth by the cares of this world. And who isn’t concerned about life in this world, about the problems and troubles of earthly life? Everyone knows the world is not right; it isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Something is wrong with our earthly existence, and we feel it in the depth of our being. These so-called gentlemen represent the common man, or we could even say, common woman, or in other words, the generic “everyman.” The troubles, problems, and cares of this world do weigh on our hearts, and not only externals but also the difficulties we experience within our own heart – our own sins, temptations, and struggles. So this famous Christmas hymn fits perfectly together, makes perfect sense, if we understand that it isn’t speaking to “merry gentlemen, but rather to troubled men and women everywhere. Now I hope that doesn’t surprise too many people here to learn that the song you’ve been singing in church for so many years isn’t really talking about “merry gentlemen.” If so, it’s not such a surprise, even if it does change a little how you think about the song. But I’d really like to go into detail a lot more because the hymn is really rich in spiritual meaning. I’m not going to tackle the whole hymn, just the first verse, but the remaining verses basically explain the account of the shepherds traveling to see the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. But the first verse is really the richest in theological and spiritual meaning. Here’s what it means.



First, “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.” Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for. . . .” Many old hymn books link Isaiah 40 to this famous Christmas hymn. Why do they so link it? Because it talks about speaking comfortably to Jerusalem – and as Christians we interpret this in the context of Christ paying for our sins on the cross, freeing us from the fear of death, the dread of judgment, and the agony of damnation. If you remember, this verse in Isaiah is also sung in the famous Handel’s Messiah in respect to the birth of Jesus also. So there is the real possibility that the author of this hymn – and we really don’t know who wrote it, just that it’s a traditional English melody or carol – that he might have been thinking of Isaiah 40 or some similar verse of comfort. The verse seems to be saying, “Rest easy gentlemen, don’t despair or dismay.” Or also, “God give you peaceful and sweet sleep gentlemen, and don’t feel bad or discouraged.” Now why would these men or gentlemen feel despairing, dismayed or discouraged? Like I said before, it’s probably simply the natural reaction to a fallen, sinful world. Every day we are confronted with sin and evil in some form or fashion. Murders take place. Deaths occur. Thieves steal, and criminals commit crime. Bad things happen. Wars take place. People get hungry, and some starve to death. People are injured, or come down with a sickness or disease or illness. Even within ourselves we struggle to make sense of the world, we search for meaning and purpose, and we cry out to God for answers to questions. A lot weighs on our minds, often when we go to sleep at night. We may toss and turn in bed about issues, problems, struggles. Depending on our circumstances in life, sleep or rest may not come easy at night. If we have a lot on our mind, we might not be able to get to sleep at all. Sometimes the cause is the sins of other people, but sometimes we carry guilty consciences of our own. What’s the cure for anxiety and worry? Or as the philosopher’s call the “angst” of life. Who can save us from our own restlessness in the quietness of our own heart? Well, this famous Christmas hymn talks about the cure for a restless heart. It was St. Augustine who said, “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” That’s still true today. So the hymn begins with encouraging restless souls to not despair about life, to rest easy. And then the hymn goes on to explain why or how this is possible.



Second, “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.” Luke 2:10-11, “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” What is the basis for the exhortation to “Be not dismayed?” It is the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ. So then we see the hymn starts out assuming the so-called gentlemen are discouraged over the world and over their own sins, but then they are quickly encouraged not to despair because the Savior Jesus was born on Christmas day. Now if you try to do a little research on this famous Christmas hymn you’ll find that the most basic issues most people have is the meaning of the “merry gentlemen,” which we’ve already seen is a mistranslation of the song. There are no “merry gentlemen,” as in Robin Hood and his merry band of men! No. There’s no merry gentlemen, only discouraged gentlemen who are encouraged to rest easy or merrily because of Christ the Savior’s birth. The song is basing human happiness on the birth of the Savior Jesus. That’s exactly what we Christians are saying with the good news of the gospel. We may not always practice what we preach, but the entire basis of Christian joy and peace is found in the truthfulness of the gospel. Remember, the gospel means “good news,” and so the birth of the Savior Jesus is the beginning of the good news of salvation. Now you can see why this is such a profound traditional Christmas hymn – it essentially preaches the gospel to everyone who sings or hears it. It presupposes sin, death and judgment. it presupposes a negative assessment of the world, and despair or discouragement over it’s condition. But then it points to the spiritual cure for the ills of the world, and that is in the Savior Jesus who was born in Bethlehem on Christmas day. “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day.” That’s the reason for the season of Christmas – remembering Jesus Christ born in Bethlehem. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again just to remind us over and over again, that the proper celebration of Christmas is the remembering of the birth of Jesus. Today in our modern society Christmas has come to mean a lot of things, so many things that our holiday season is now cluttered with a lot of useless trivia that actually takes away from the real reason for the season. The key to the proper celebration of Christmas is in the remembering of Jesus. Do you remember Christ properly at Christmas? Or are you more powerfully moved by other side distractions at Christmas? We all need to be led back to Jesus and away from other things, even false idols, not only at Christmas, but all year long as well. The words of this famous hymn lead us back to Christ. Are we listening?



Third, “To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” 1 John 3:8, “. . . The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” The theology of this famous Christmas hymn is really good and solid! You don’t often run into this quality of hymn writing very often, even among the traditional favorites. Now it’s interesting that the writer emphasizes our salvation from the power of the devil. We don’t often hear that angle of salvation. We often think of salvation in terms of, “salvation from sin,” or, “salvation from judgment,” or, “salvation from eternal punishment.” But we are reminded here in the Christmas hymn that we are saved also from the power of the evil one, the devil. And wasn’t it the devil that led the whole human race into sin originally? Yes, in the Garden of Eden. Our original parents, Adam and Eve, lived in a perfect world with only one rule – don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the midst of the Garden. But apparently the devil, Satan, Lucifer or whatever you want to call the fallen angel who rebelled against God even before humanity existed, he tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God, and they eventually did fall into sin. So in one sense, through the power of Satan humanity fell into sin, although it wasn’t just the devil’s fault; it was man’s fault as well. The late comedian Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it,” but that’s a cop out. The devil can tempt us, but he can’t “make us do it.” We have to use our own free will and choose to sin – and we do, unfortunately. But the devil’s work wasn’t finished after he tempted Adam and Eve, or even after they fell into sin. The devil is still “alive and well on the planet earth” – as is the title of a popular Christian book a couple of decades ago by author Hal Lindsay. He’s still tempting and leading men and woman into sin, as if they weren’t tempted enough already by their own natural sinfulness as children of Adam and Eve. Today, the devil isn’t the only source of sin and evil, but he’s a major player in the world of spiritual rebellion, encouraging us all to sin, and discouraging us from following God. One of the main reasons why Christ came to earth is to save us from the power of the devil. That isn’t the only reason Christ came, not even the main reason why he came, but it’s a big part of it. Of course, the main reason why Christ came is to die in our place on the cross to take away our sins. It’s interesting that the writer of this Christmas hymn emphasizes the role of the devil leading us astray rather than our own sinful flesh or the original sin we inherited from Adam and Eve. It’s a little bit of a different angle, although it’s one hundred percent accurate. Isaiah the prophet of the Old Testament says, “We like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah 53:6. Jesus saves us from the devil’s false influence over us.



Finally, the refrain goes, “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.” So the first verse of the famous Christmas hymn, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” begins with encouraging men (and women) to be at peace or rest content. Why the encouragement? Because it’s assumed that they are, the people, are struggling with the doubts, fears and anxieties of life in a fallen, sinful world. The hymn points people to remember Christ the Savior born on Christmas day to save us from Satan’s power that leads us into sin. If we remember Christ, if we trust him and look to him for salvation through the cross, we are saved. We don’t have to live lives of discouragement and despair. The world is a very discouraging place. It’s been especially discouraging the last few years, especially in our country the United States, as we’ve seen God’s moral standards decline so rapidly. Before the last few years, the big concern was baby killing or abortion. Since 1973 the United States has legal abortion, over a million babies killed each year, legally. That’s very discouraging because it doesn’t seem to be changing, and the killing continue. But over the last few years this whole gay marriage thing has come up out of nowhere, and that’s very discouraging. It’s really bad when most of the media is actively promoting it and serving as cheerleader for it. God’s moral will for humanity is being totally ignored, which means God’s wrath and judgment is coming to the earth soon. That’s also discouraging. I almost feel like Abraham watching as the angels of death come down from heaven and head towards Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy it. It’s coming to the United States if something doesn’t change. We’re bringing judgment upon ourselves. But the hymn encourages us to remember the Savior who came to save us from the influence of the devil. We don’t have to be despairing because God is in control. God is ruling from heaven. Yes, he’s allowing humans a lot of freedom today to do as they please, but things won’t go on like this forever. We can’t stop the devil’s activity, and we can’t stop the world from sinning, but we can look to God for help in our own life. We can end our own rebellion against God. We can put away our own sins. We can soften our hearts towards God even if the whole world, it seems, is rebelling against him. Are at peace with God? Have you bowed your own will to the will of God in every area of life? Why not do so today if you haven’t. Follow Jesus in this life and into the life to come. Don’t be discouraged by the world, or even you own sinfulness. Realize that Christ came to save sinners, people like you and me. Call upon him today, he won’t refuse you.



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