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Hark! Thoughts on a Christmas Classic

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We often recite Christmas lyrics from memory without meditating on the words. Recently, though, I was listening to the classic Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley. I was in my car mindlessly singing, “Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.”

But then I began to reflect on the words for once, and they didn’t make a ton of sense. Jesus isn’t an angelic being, I thought. He doesn’t even have wings. But if He did, would these wings have magical healing powers? My inner dialogue continued: Is this hymn heretical? Should I add this to the list of songs that I cannot sing because they are theologically inaccurate?

I went home and looked up the lyrics. The song mentions Sun, not Son, of Righteousness. In fact, the phrase “Son of Righteousness” is never found in the Bible, but “Sun of Righteousness” is. Jesus is called the Son of David (Matthew 21:9), Son of Man (81 times in the Gospels) and the Righteous One (Isaiah 24:16), but never the Son of Righteousness.

These questions sent me on a nerdy Christmas carol investigation. I wanted to know what this verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was all about.

To answer that question, we must start in Malachi.

But for you who fear My name, the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

Malachi 4:2
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” invites us on a journey through man’s depravity, our need for salvation and Jesus’ incarnation.

“Hail the Sun…”

The sun serves many critical roles in our existence on planet earth. Its gravitational pull keeps the planets in orbit. It provides light, warmth and energy. It governs the waves and weather patterns. I am not usually an early riser, but I love to watch the sunrise over the ocean. In these times, I am reminded of how small I am and how God is in control of all things. Consistency. Stability. The peek of orange and pink illuminating the clouds over the horizon has given me hope through some of my darkest days.

Similarly, Jesus is the center of all things in the spiritual realm. The Sun of Righteousness brings light and life to all. He sovereignly governs and nothing happens outside of His control. He is stable and consistent. As we tune our hearts to praise, we are reminded of how small our story is in the grand redemption story. As we fix our eyes on Him, may we have hope through our darkest days.

“…of righteousness!”

Jesus came to make things right. The beginning of Malachi 4 describes a cleansing fire of justice. Make no mistake: the Sun of Righteousness will reconcile all things. John Piper says, “Where He is trusted, He can reconcile and restore; where He’s not, He will have the last word in judgment.” Let’s not only have the vision of fun, warm and bright when we think of the sun. The sun is powerful. It can burn you and cause severe devastation. The prophecy of the second coming is only good news for those who have trusted Christ. It is the opposite of good news for those who haven’t.

“Light and life to all He brings…”

The Sun of Righteousness does bring light and life to all. There is a hint of common grace in this line of the song. Everyone gets to enjoy some of the benefits of God’s blessings. We can see the beauty of creation. We can enjoy a good meal with friends. Our hearts continue to beat and our lungs continue to inflate.

We see many references in the New Testament about Jesus being light and life. The angel Gabriel visited Zechariah to tell him about John the Baptist’s coming. Because of unbelief, Zechariah was made mute for months. He broke the silence as he spoke confidently about the sunrise visiting from on high bringing light and peace with Him (Luke 1:78). After 400 years of silent nights, he must have known that the angel’s news was the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. The promise was arriving after a long season of advent.

On the mount of transfiguration, Peter, James and John desired to stay as they saw that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2). John explains that Jesus existed from the beginning and in Him was life and light (John 1:4). Jesus Himself explains that He is the light of the world and the light of life (John 8:12). In one of the last chapters of the Bible, John explains that Jesus will be the light of heaven for all eternity (Revelation 21:23). Heaven will not need the sun because we will have the Sun of Righteousness!

“…Risen with healing in His wings.”

And what are we to make of these healing wings? We see the Hebrew word kanaph is sometimes used in the Old Testament to refer to angelic wings (Isaiah 6:2), but sometimes translated as the hem of a garment. It was believed that sometimes the hems of garments of powerful leaders had healing powers. When Jesus heals the woman who touched the hem of His garment (Luke 8:43-48), the Jewish people in the crowd would have known the significance of this from reading and hearing the stories from the Jewish tradition.

Kanaph is used in the book of Ruth to describe the care that Ruth receives from Boaz underneath his “wings” (Ruth 3:9). In 1 Samuel 15:27, kanaph is used to refer to the hem of Samuel’s robe that Saul rips. Also, some scholars associate wings with the rays extending from the Sun of Righteousness. Regardless of which meaning Malachi is referring to in this text, we can be sure that there is safety, protection and leaping joy for those who are covered by the reach of the Sun of Righteousness.  

Conclusion

Charles Wesley gifted us with the entire gospel story in a Christmas hymn. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” invites us on a journey through man’s depravity, our need for salvation and Jesus’ incarnation. While the song primarily celebrates new birth, it also incorporates man’s reconciliation of man to God and Jesus’ return to carry believers into eternity. It is an invitation for all nations to joyfully sing praises and celebrate the birth of Christ, the everlasting Lord.

I pray that, as followers of Christ, we will be like a full moon, having no light of our own, but shining brightly in a darkened world. We give testimony to the light and life He brings. Our main job during our vapor of time on earth is to reflect the light of the Sun of Righteousness. The more time we spend with Him, the more we will be willing vessels for His light and life to flow through.

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Sara Beth Fentress

Sara Beth Fentress is the founder and executive director of 127 Worldwide, a non profit that helps Christians tangibly live out James 1:27. God has grown a passion in her heart for orphan care, advocacy, education and discipleship. She lives in Raleigh, NC and is a covenant member of Imago Dei Church.

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