It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

“The Songs of Christmas”
(It Came Upon A Midnight Clear)
Luke 2:14


The song titled “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears (Pictured at left) based on the Bible text of Luke 2:14.

The lyrics to the song are as follows…

It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old,
From angels
bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold:
Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds 
The blessèd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife, The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel- strain
have rolled, Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not, The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours, come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, And hear the angels sing!

For lo, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years, Comes round the age of gold

When peace shall over all the earth, Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song, Which now the angels sing.

  • Sears wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” while serving as a part-time preacher in Wayland. Writing during a period of personal melancholy (sadness, gloomy acting, depressed), and with news of revolution in Europe and the United States’ war with Mexico fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of “sin and strife”, and not hearing the Christmas message.
  • I believe it important to note that Sears served the Unitarian congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts, before moving on to a larger congregation in Lancaster.
  • After seven years of hard work, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland.
  • What is a “Unitarian?” What do they believe?
  • I will share with you what I have learned about the religion of Unitarianism, and then I want you to tell me if their doctrine lines up with that of Jesus Christ, The Bible (God’s Word), and what we believe.
  • Unitarian (Description from Webster’s Dictionary) … a) person who denies the doctrine of the Trinity (God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit), accepting the moral teachings, but rejecting the divinity, of Jesus, and holding that God exists in only one person.
  • Now let me break that down for you in simple terms…

A Unitarian believes…

  1. That there is no trinity (No Three in One, as in God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit)
  2. They do accept Jesus moral teachings
  3. The do not believe that Jesus was God in the flesh
  4. Believe that God is only one person
  • According to Ken Sawyer, Sears’ song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the contemporary issue of war and peace.
  • Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears’ response to the just ended Mexican – American War.
  • The song has been included in many of the Christmas albums recorded by numerous singers in the modern era.
  • Sears is said to have written these words at the request of his friend, William Parsons Lunt, pastor of the United First Parish Church of Quincy, Mass. for Pastor Lunt’s Sunday School.
  • One account says the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in Sears’ home on Christmas Eve, but to what tune the carol was sung is unknown as Willis’ familiar melody was not written until the following year.

I.  It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

  A) What is “It”

  • Of all the Christmas carols that is sung at this time of year, this has to be one of the worst, if not the worst.
  • If you read the lyrics (words) to the song, all 5 verses with no Chorus, you will understand why I say “one of the worst Christmas songs written.”
  • Let us start with the first line of verse 1… “It came upon a midnight clear.”
  • What is “It?” Who is “It?”   
  • After reading the entire song, especially this verse, and then reading the Bible verse (Luke 2:14) that Sears claims to have given him the inspiration to write this song, I have come to the conclusion that It means the entire scene and song of the heavenly hosts.
  • When you look at the entire song, each verse, and each word, you will note very “clearly” that it is all about angels, their singing, the world’s response to the angels playing harps, and the world giving back the song.
  • After understanding the beliefs of the writer of the song it makes even more “clear” to me why he wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
  • Now, in trying to give the writer some benefit of the doubt in the reason for his song about angels and nothing to do with the Christ child, I may say that maybe his point of writing the song was to make it specifically about “angels.” You know…like “Jingle Bells” is about jingle bells, “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” is about a reindeer, and “White Christmas” is about a man’s dream for snow on Christmas, and so on.

  B) Realize the imagination

  • Looking at the entire song especially the first verse, note this…
  1. “Angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.” In Luke 2:13, 14, there is only one angel (The angel of the Lord) the “other beings” were mentioned as… what? “Heavenly hosts.”

HEAVENLY HOSTS“host” is a term used to describe an army encampment. In this case it is God’s army and not necessarily his angels. Christ also used the military term of “legion” depicting God’s army of angels in Matthew 26:53.

MULTITUDE – I believe that this same number of hosts is that described in Revelation 5:11…And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;

HARPS – In Luke 2:13, 14, there is not one mention of a harp. In fact, the word “harp” is mentioned 30 times in the Bible and not once is it attributed to an angel playing it. Only humans on earth play it. The word in its plural form (harps) is mentioned only 20 times in the Bible and 3 of those 20 times is in…

  • Revelation 5:8…And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. The “harps” here in Revelation are played by the 4 beasts, and 24 elders that surround the throne. No Angels.
  • Revelation 14:2…And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: These are special beings called “harpers” or they quite possibly be angels designated for the specific purpose of playing the harp.
  • Revelation 15:2…And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. These people here are the “over comers” of the anti-Christ “having the harps.”

II. Description of the Angels

  A) Playing an old song on harps

  • What song were they playing according to Sears? It was Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, From heaven’s all-gracious King.”

  B) Peaceful wings

  • “Still through the cloven (split) skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled (unfolded),”
  • The wings of angels do not transcend peace. It is Jesus who brings peace.

  C) Hovering over the field, singing

  • “Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing,
    And ever o’er its
    babel (confusion) sounds, The blessèd angels sing.”
  • Note the plains are sad and “lowly” and “confused (babel).” And it’s as if the angels singing will cause them to be happy, lifted up, and not confused.

  D) It is a love song that they sing

  • “And man, at war with man, hears not, The love-song which they bring;”
  • Surely it is the “love” of God that they are bringing. Jesus said in John 14:23 (KJV) Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode (home, residence) with him.

III.  It’s All About the Angels Singing

  A) Peace on the earth, good will towards men

  • Each verse ends with… “To hear the angels sing.”& “The blessèd angels sing.” & “And hear the angels sing.” & “And hear the angels sing.” & “Which now the angels sing.”
  • The focus, in my opinion is wrong. The focus of the song according to what I read is that …this whole “midnight” display of the angels singing should be noted and heard by the people of earth who are at war with one another so that they will be at peace.
  • It’s almost like the writer is implying that the angels singing, playing harps and the enormity of their presence would cause people to be at peace with one another.
  • As we know the verse in Luke 2:14…Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And the “peace” mentioned by Dr. Luke here is not the peace of war, but rather “Peace in the heart” of mankind that only comes through “knowing” (Having an intimate relationship with) Jesus Christ, the Saviour, the King of Kings, Lord of lord’s, and Immanuel (meaning God with us.)
  • I am glad to know that “it” is NOT about the angels singing, it is about our Lord Jesus Christ who came to us to give us peace in our hearts.