Christmas: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”

Christmas: A Look at “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” 12/17/15.

Last week at our church’s Wednesday Night Bible Study the worship leader sang a few songs, one of which was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” When my wife heard it she said it was one of her favorites and, like any good husband, I immediately took note! But it really made me look at the lyrics a little more closely then I have in the past. Last night I lead our Wednesday Night Study and I based it around this famous Christmas carol. Why is there so much controversy about it? How does it match up to the Bible? What are the origins of the song?

We’re going to look at the two verses that we sang at church, although there are more, which I’ve put at the bottom of this blog. It actually makes sense that there are so many verses and variations (Wikipedia gives three: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_Rest_You_Merry,_Gentlemen) considering it’s older than the United States! There are people who claim it’s been around since the 1600’s but there isn’t any physical proof of that so it’s best to stick with the earliest printed edition date of 1760 (ibid).

Let’s look at the First Verse:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power, When we were gone astray

The first line probably needs the most explanation: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” There is an theory passed around, mostly through those awful unfounded email forwards, every year that we misunderstand this line and we’re not living to our full potential unless we truly understand it. The theory goes like this: when the carol was written “rest” meant “make” or “continue to be” as in “rest assured” and that’s what it means here. Also “merry” in the Middle Ages did mean “happy” as we use it today, as in “Merry Christmas”, but that it also meant “mighty” like Robin Hood’s Merry Men. With that wealth of knowledge we’re told to translate this as: “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Even if it were true I’m not sure how much that would help us, maybe that some dead writer commanded God to make some people strong…? Anyway, Snopes debunked it (here: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/godrestye.asp) and also it doesn’t fit with the context of the next line.

So my next question is, who are the “gentlemen” here? Oddly enough with all the different theories and web pages and news articles no one really definitively states who they think the “gentlemen” are here. Maybe it’s just clear to everyone but me. My best shot at it is that it’s the writer’s (who is unknown) contemporaries. Maybe she or he had a specific group of male friends who were going through depression. Or maybe the use of “gentlemen” was just to grab attention since it kind of makes your ears perk up. Or maybe it was to the everyday people who were going to hear the song but living in fear and without rest. I think it shows the mentality of 16th century England. Looking at the complete lyrics the writer seems to have aimed the song at everyone: church-going or not and just gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were respectable (“gentlemen” and ladies). We’ll talk more about that in a bit but either way the song was sung in the streets and loved especially because at this time the church only had somber music, nothing up-beat was allowed.

Interestingly, the punctuation is often wrong and gives a different spin: it’s usually written and therefore thought of as: “God Rest Ye…Merry Gentlemen” as if the gentlemen have been partying so hard that God just needs to give them a little rest. Instead it is: “God Rest Ye Merry…Gentlemen” as in “God will give you rest and make you merry….gentlemen.” So after all that the first line pretty much says what it means: “May God give you rest and peace with happiness and merriment.” But what do we need “rest” from?

The answer is in the next line: anything that would dismay us. Any of the weight of the bad stuff we’ve done or the hard stuff we have to go through. We’re told to let “nothing…dismay” us, in other words “don’t be sad and panicked.” Why? What hope do these “gentlemen” (and ladies!) have? It’s to “Remember, Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day”! Yes! That’s it, the most important thing in the whole song and in the whole world. To be mindful that Jesus the Savior came and we are saved! We are saved from whatever temporary problem we’re going through. Someone might say, “How can you tell me not to be sad and panicked? You don’t even know what I’m going through.” You’re right I don’t know what you’re going through but Jesus does and this is the only message that can speak a blanket statement to millions of people and actually offer hope and restoration! Jesus came to earth with the goal of giving love and hope to every human ever. And He had to do that from the cross, where He died for all the bad stuff we’ve done. That’s why we call Him “Christ” translated “our Saviour”! And yet, although He had no beginning being fully God, Jesus had to have an earthly beginning for His Human body. And that brings us to the next line.

It says, “Was born on Christmas day”. We must acknowledge that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in our month of December. It is probable Jesus was born somewhere in our September/October (the Hebrew month of Tishri). Now to be fair the writer of this carol doesn’t say December 25th here. And that’s important: remember that we are thankful of the birth of Christ even if we don’t know what day exactly. So why do we celebrate it on December 25th? Well, in 336AD Constantine wanted to unite his people. He took the date of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and said that the celebration of Jesus would be celebrated on that day also. Who knows Constantine’s motivations but personally I don’t think it was good to crunch the one true Lord’s birth into a pagan celebration. That said, I don’t know anyone celebrating Saturnalia and there is a lot of documentation that, that was church leaderships goal at that time…to overcome pagan celebrations and give glory to Jesus. (As I mentioned in one of my blogs prior, I did a series on Early Church History that’s available on sermonaudio, if you want to listen see below under “References: sermonaudio”).

So…we don’t throw baby Jesus out with the bathwater (bad joke?). There are plenty of people who don’t know or maybe don’t acknowledge the great things that have happened over the past 1700 years of celebrating Jesus’ birth.

The following line is “To save us all from Satan’s power, When we were gone astray.” Have you ever gone “astray”? That simply means “off course” and everyone has been “off course” before. What’s interesting is to be “off course” insinuates that there is a course and that there is only one way to be on course. If you didn’t catch my symbolism, Jesus is the course and He is the only way to the destination of heaven. If Jesus “saved us all from Satan’s power” then what can we do about staying “on course”? Psalm 119:1-6 gives us great insight:

You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him. That’s right – you don’t go off on your own; you walk straight along the road he set. You, God, prescribed the right way to live; now you expect us to live it. Oh, that my steps might be steady, keeping to the course you set; Then I’d never have any regrets in comparing my life with your counsel” (The Message Version).

Second Verse:

From God our Heavenly Father, A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds, Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born, The Son of God by Name.

Do you know which of the gospels the story of the shepherds is in? What about the Magi (wise men)? Actually only Matthew and Luke have the story of Christ’s birth. Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve found that reading a little bit from the Bible on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day reminds every one of the true meaning of Christmas. I’ve also had friends who are religious and want to argue about Christmas and friends who are adamantly opposed to God who have questions about Jesus’ birth and it’s helpful to know where to find the story you’re looking for. Where is your conversation headed? Talking about giving gifts? The story of the Magi bringing the gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) fits! Or talking about celebrating the birth of Jesus or sharing it with others? The story of the angels celebrating His birth and the shepherds sharing it with anyone who would hear, works for that! And speaking of that…

This whole second verse in the carol comes from Luke 2:8-15, which says,

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’ 15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us’” (NKJV).

See how spiritually sound this song verse is? Indeed it was God the Father that had sent the angel, since they are messengers of His and do nothing unless He has told them to, to bring this message to the shepherds. But why to the shepherds? The truth is that the Hebrew culture at this time looked down upon shepherds. They were below even the working class. God choses to use the simple things to confuse the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). God can go to those looked down upon because He’s not interested in earthly riches or power or any of the things that we would think would be important for effectively communicating a message. I think this would resonate with the working class of England at the time this carol was being sung in the streets. Which got me thinking about the use of “gentlemen” above. You know, if a person heard the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible when this song was written they would affiliate with either the shepherds (probably the working class) or the Magi (maybe the upper class of “gentlemen” and ladies). But the reality is that whoever you are, if you come to Jesus, God has made you into His heirs as “gentlemen” and ladies of royalty. Romans 8:15-17 tells us, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (NKJV). When the book of Romans was written the Roman culture wasn’t like the Hebrew culture or most others when it came to adoption. When a kid was adopted into a family that child received an equal share of inheritance just like the kids born into the family. Paul knows this and uses that understanding here. We’re told that we get to be “sons and daughters of God”, in status the same as Jesus. What an amazing thing to receive the full inheritance of God’s family!

The next line is “Brought tidings of the same”, but the same what? We would think it was something already mentioned and yet in a beautiful inspiration of poetry it is actually what follows: “How that in Bethlehem was born, The Son of God by Name.” Notice that He was born in Bethlehem. Did you know that the Old Testament prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? In Micah 5:2 it says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.” Beyond that in Matthew 2:4-6 we see that the Hebrew scribes knew that Bethlehem was the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah.

Then comes the lyric, “Son of God by name.” In my last sermon on John 20:1-31 (listen here: tinysa.com/sermon/126151353454) I talked briefly about the titles of Jesus and also His name. So this line isn’t saying that “Son of God” is His name but it is a title of Him…and it rhymes! However, it does draw attention to the Name that is above all names (Philippians 2:9) and certainly to the nature of Jesus’ deity. John 20:31 says that we have life in His name. Not His titles but in His name. Whether you call Him Yehowshuwa  in Hebrew or Iesous in Greek or Jesus in English or Jesús in Spanish, His name is the only name that saves us from hell (Romans 10:9-10). Interestingly the Bible is primarily written in Hebrew and Greek and when we look at what Jesus’ name means in both languages it is: “Yahweh is salvation”. Yahweh was the personal name God gave us in the Old Testament so that we could know Him and have a relationship with Him. Who better to save us than “Yahweh” who “is salvation”…Jesus!!?

I think it’s good to conclude with the chorus: “O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy O tidings of comfort and joy.” That sounds familiar doesn’t it? We just read it in Luke 2:10 where the angel said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy…” These tidings (or “news”) were for the shepherds but also for us now! Isn’t this “comforting”?! Isn’t it “joyful”?! I know in the busyness of the holidays I can “dismay” but the good news is that “Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day” and that really does comfort and bring joy! Merry Christmas and God rest you merry, ladies and gentlemen!!

References.

Sermonaudio: Here is the link to all six studies on Early Church History. Covering from the disciples to roughly present day:http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakerWithinSource=&subsetCat=&subsetItem=&mediatype=&includekeywords=&exactverse=&keyword=houseofgracehemet&keyworddesc=houseofgracehemet&currsection=sermonssource&AudioOnly=false&SourceOnly=true&keywordwithin=Early+Church+History&x=4&y=5

 

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (Full Lyrics)

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
“Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind:
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

And when they came to Bethlehem
Where our dear Saviour lay,
They found Him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His Mother Mary kneeling down,
Unto the Lord did pray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

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