Rebel With a Cause

For many years there has been strife between England and Ireland. For a time, an Irishman named James Montgomery was involved in that conflict. Montgomery (1771-1854) was never much interested in school. He flunked out of college, and worked for awhile as a baker's helper. By the age of twenty, he was an unemployed drifter. But he did have one passion in life, and that was writing. The editor of a newspaper in Sheffield, England, apparently saw some promise in him, and took him on.

The Sheffield Register was a radical pro-Irish publication, and young Jim learned first-hand about the hatred of his people for British rule. In 1794, the paper's editor was run out of town for his columns written in support of Irish independence. Suddenly, James Montgomery found himself in charge of publishing the newspaper--a position he was to hold for the next thirty-one years. He changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris, but kept up the strong editorial policy of his predecessor.

The orphaned son of missionary parents, the young editor continued through all these years to study the Scriptures. As his love for the Lord grew, he began expressing the Bible truths he learned as hymns, eventually writing about 400 of them. In honouring Christ he had found a spiritual cause even beyond the social concerns that had stirred his heart in former years. The best of his songs--and perhaps one of the finest hymns in the English language--is one written in 1816 that he called "Good Tidings of Great Joy to All People." We now know it as "Angels from the Realms of Glory." (To see the full text, click here: link )

The author carries us through the main features of the Christmas story, and makes a personal application of the event. He begins by noting how the angels that long ago celebrated creation (Job 38:4-7) were called upon to rejoice in the Saviour's birth: "Angels, from the realms of glory, / Wing your flight o'er all the earth; / Ye who sang creation's story / Now proclaim Messiah's birth." Next, the author turns our attention to the "Shepherds in the field's abiding," and to the later visit of the wise men, with "Sages leave your contemplations, / Brighter visions beam afar." Both of these accounts are a familiar part of the Christmas story (Lk. 2:1-20; Matt. 2:1-11).

But with that the carol makes a personal application to each of us--whether saints or sinners. It addresses "Saints before the altar bending, / Watching long in hope and fear." Then, in a sobering verse never used today, Montgomery appeals to those outside of Christ. "Sinners, wrung with true repentance, / Doomed for guilt to endless pains, / Justice now revokes the sentence, / Mercy calls you; break your chains." He is saying what the coming of Christ (and His cross) have accomplished--that through the shed blood of Christ God is able to "be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26). Through Christ, sin's captive is set free.

Finally, the author moves us on to the triumph of Christ's reign with "Though an Infant now we view Him, / He shall fill His Father's throne; / Gather all the nations to Him; / Every knee shall then bow down." Or, as the Bible puts it, "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11). In the words of this hymn, we are carried from eternity to eternity. May we at this season join the host of angels and men who, in the words of Montgomery's refrain, "Worship Christ, the newborn King."