GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN

The Joy of Christmas

The English language is in a constant state of flux. New words are being added to our vocabulary all the time, while older words change their meaning over the years. This has led to some puzzlement with the text of the Authorized (or King James) Version of the Scriptures, published in 1611. For example, "We fetched a compass" (Acts 28:13) does not mean the speakers obtained one of those direction-finding instruments. It means they turned their ship around. And "we do you to wit" (II Cor. 8:1), means we want you to know. Such changes in language are one reason for the newer Bible versions, published in recent years.

A similar problem can arise when we are dealing with older hymns. An example of that is the carol "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," which gets its title from the first line of the opening stanza. (To see the full text, click here: link ) This song was written about 500 years ago--long enough for language to alter considerably. And it has not helped that some publishers omit the comma after "merry," obscuring the sense even further. The text does not refer to "merry gentlemen"--as though it were saying, "Have a nice holiday!" to a group of giddy revelers. Nor is the word "rest" used as we would do, today. Five centuries ago it meant make, or keep. A modern paraphrase of the words might read: "May God keep you joyful, gentlemen. May He fill your hearts with gladness!"

The sentiment reflects the message of the angel on that first Christmas night: "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy" (Lk. 2:10). The reason for great rejoicing follows: "For there is born to you...a Saviour" (vs. 11). That is precisely what the carol says: "God rest ye merry, gentlemen, / Let nothing you dismay; / Remember Christ our Saviour / Was born upon this day / To save us all from Satan's pow'r / When we were gone astray-- / O tidings of comfort and joy!" Don't be dispirited or alarmed, says the unknown author. God has sent His Son to be our Saviour.

Carols were extremely popular by the 16th century (the era of the Reformation). Rather than starting out as church music, they were closer to being folk songs--expressions of a joyful faith by the common people. And originally they were sung for a variety of occasions, not just Christmas. But in 1647 the Puritan English Parliament officially abolished the celebration of Christmas, and all other festivals, as being too worldly and pagan. It was 150 years before the practice of carol singing was revived in England. Queen Victoria enjoyed them, and urged that they be used once again. Soon the English clergy were teaching them to their congregations. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" was one of these. Its lively tune appropriately reflects the joy and celebration prompted by news of the Saviour's birth. The angel told the shepherds his message was "good tidings of great joy," and they realized it was so. After they had visited the manger in Bethlehem, they "returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen" (Lk. 2:10, 20).

And why is Christmas a time of joy? Is it the decorations? Or the parties? Or the presents? As delightful as these may be, Christians point to a far more significant reason for rejoicing--the foundation of all the rest. In the Words of Paul, "We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom with have now received the reconciliation" (Rom. 5:11). Through personal faith in Christ, God and the sinner are reconciled. That is the true source of Christmas joy!