WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

The poetic device of asking a question is not uncommon. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning posed the rather famous question, “How do I love thee?” she was not intending to leave the question open. Fast on the heels of the question came the answer: “Let me count the ways.”

The poetry of hymns includes any number of examples which use this same device. Frederic Baue’s hymn “What Is This Bread?” (Christian Worship Supplement #742) is reminiscent of catechetical question and answer methodology. The African-American spiritual “Were You There?” (Christian Worship #119) acknowledges that we weren’t there at the crucifixion but places us there in spirit simply by asking the question. Isaac Watts asks, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (The Lutheran Hymnal #445) so that the singer, through all the trials of being a Christian, will know that the answer is, “Yes,” and will pray, “Increase my courage, Lord!” Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be,” includes the question, “How can it be that you, my Lord, should die for me?” and provides the answer: “Amazing love!”

So, during the Christmas season, when we sing the question of hymn writer William Dix, “What Child Is This?” (Christian Worship #67), we understand that the stanza is going to unfold the marvelous answer.

What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the Son of Mary!

With the current world population, a baby is born every four seconds. In the lesser populated world in which Mary and Joseph lived, the birth frequency rate was undoubtedly a little lower. But still, plenty of babies were being born. Of all of those births the question could be asked, “What child is this?” Of only one of those births—the firstborn son of a virgin, a birth greeted with angel anthems, a birth announced to shepherds—of only one of those births could the answer be given, “This child is Christ the King!”

What is the King of kings doing lying in a manger?

Why lies he in such mean estate where oxen now are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross he'll bear for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary!

The answer of the hymn is the answer of the scriptures. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him” (John 19:17-18). “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear” (John 19:34). This particular child wouldn’t be any more precious than any other child born in Bethlehem or anywhere else were he not the God-man whose holy sacrifice removed from the sight of God the sin of the world.

With the child’s identification and mission clearly delineated, the questions fade and the invitation is extended.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings Salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high; the virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy, for Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary!

The invitation is to believe (“Let loving hearts enthrone him.”), to worship (“Raise, raise the song on high.”), and to rejoice (“Joy, joy for Christ is born.”).

The haunting melody of GREENSLEEVES reaches a highpoint twice in each stanza. In two of three stanzas the melody soars where the answer to the question is being given. “This is Christ the King!” “Nails, spear shall pierce him through.” And in the third stanza, that melodic highpoint fittingly cries out, “Raise the song on high. Joy, for Christ is born.” It is well worth it to take in an extra measure of breath to belt out those phrases that fall on the high notes. Why?

You are reading these words in December, the month during which we celebrate the birth of the King. In this article’s treatment of this hymn, you may not have come across anything that is startlingly new to you. That of itself reminds you of the priceless gifts you’ve been given. The Lord has given you the answers to these questions and the faith that holds them fast. This child is Christ my king. Nails and spear pierced through him in my place. I have a song to raise on high. I have reason to rejoice, for Christ is born for me.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Thank you to all those who took the time to share their thoughts on, "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel." We hope you enjoy hearing a recording of this hymn and seeing some of the comments that we received.

Next week we'll feature another hymn from the list of Fifty Favorite Hymns: "What Child Is This?" (Christian Worship #67).

As a child, I remember my parents having us count down the days to Christmas with an Advent calendar. There was the usual haranguing among siblings over whose turn it was to open that day’s door. But each door revealed something about the coming Savior—an Old Testament reference, a picture of Gabriel, Mary or Joseph, a shepherd or sheep—all leading up to the manger behind the December 25 door. We looked ahead to the celebration of our Savior’s birth by looking back to God’s promises.

The hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” has us looking forward by looking back. We look back to the Old Testament pictures of the coming Savior: Emmanuel, Root of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David. The coming Savior will be God with us. He will be descended from the family of King of David. He will be the key that opens the gates of heaven. He will be the light shining in the darkness of this evil world.

This ancient (12th century) and well-loved hymn with its chant-like melody also directs our thoughts forward to what the coming Savior accomplishes for us.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Like the people of Israel in captivity in heathen Babylon, we were enslaved by our own wickedness in this evil world. The blood of the Son of God made flesh is the ransom price to set us free.

Oh, come, O Root of Jesse, free
Your own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell your people save,
And bring them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Jesus has rescued us from the fear of death and the reality of hell by his death and resurrection.

Oh, come, O Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Pain. Suffering. Sadness. Death. They hang over us like a black cloud and can sap the joy out of life. But the good news of our Savior’s coming comforts us and cheers us.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Even though our sins cause great trouble and would keep heaven closed to us, great David’s greater Son has opened the door to the joys of heaven.

As children, we anticipated the opening of gifts on Christmas. As children of God, we also anticipated the celebration of the Gift in Christmas services. We looked back at the Old Testament promises and saw their fulfillment in the baby laid in Bethlehem’s manger. As we look back to God’s promises and “look back” by singing an ancient Advent hymn, may we look forward and rejoice at what our Savior’s coming has done and won for us.


Thank you to all those who took the time to share their thoughts on, "Jerusalem, the Golden."

A good number of people shared their thoughts about the tune paired with this text. Some expressed their preference for EWING (Christian Worship #214), while others enjoy the newer pairing with THAXTED (Christian Worship Supplement #728). Please know that these comments are very valuable as we wrestle with this and many similar decisions. It's not unthinkable that a text could appear with multiple tunes in the next hymnal, as is the case in Christian Worship.

Some of you are aware that this text paired with THAXTED has been the closing hymn at the National Worship Conference since its beginning in 1996. For the 2014 conference, a special setting was commissioned and written by Mr. Dale Witte. We thank Mr. Witte for giving us permission to use the recording of the performance of his setting for the video above.

Next week we'll feature another hymn from the list of Fifty Favorite Hymns: "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel" (Christian Worship #23).

“Look at the finish line, not your feet.” When my daughter Priscilla and I were running in a race, those were the words I told her. The Third Sunday of End Time, Saints Triumphant, is that sort of Sunday. It’s a day where we lift our eyes up to the finish line and those waiting for us there in heaven. One of the hymns we sing on that Sunday is “Jerusalem the Golden.” It was written by Bernard of Cluny in the 1200s. With beautiful words it lifts our eyes up above the crosses we bear and the trials we endure to the finish line of heaven. In the first stanza, he writes:

Jerusalem the golden, With milk and honey blest—
The sight of it refreshes The weary and oppressed:
I know not, oh, I know not What joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, What bliss beyond compare:
To sing the hymn unending With all the martyr throng,
Amidst the halls of Zion Resounding full with song.

There are so many pictures and promises of heaven in God’s word. Bernard reminds us that even though we do not know exactly what heaven looks like, we have every right and joy of pondering what these pictures and promises in God’s word are portraying. In verse 2 he writes:

Oh, sweet and blessed country, The home of God’s elect!
Oh, sweet and blessed country That eager hearts expect,
Where they who with their leader Have conquered in the fight
Forever and forever Are clad in robes of white.
Jesus, in mercy bring us To that dear land of rest
Where sings the host of heaven Your glorious name to bless.

Can you see yourself there in heaven? Can you see your sins washed away in Jesus’ blood, wearing the white robe of his righteousness? Can you focus in on the victory that the Lamb of God has won for us and gives to us? Do you yearn for “that dear land of rest?” That’s why this is one of my favorite hymns. It focuses our faith on the finish line. It gives us the privilege of singing a heavenly song knowing that even this song is nothing compared to singing with all the assembled hosts and martyrs when we get to heaven. That is a finish line worth lifting our eyes up to.