And Wild and Sweet, the Words Repeat

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was an American institution. His poetry contributed much to the American landscape. Yet, at this time of year, we may find ourselves singing one of his poems. While this may bring to mind the peaceful and joyful times of Christmas, this poem came out of deep despair.

In 1863, Longfellow received news that his son Charles, a Union soldier, had been killed in the line of battle. Two years prior, his wife had died from burns from a home accident. This poem was originally known as “Christmas Bells,” but time has given it another name. This was composed in grief.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

These next two stanzas are not in our modern hymnals for obvious reasons. But you see the forlorn nature of Longfellow as his country is torn apart by ideology and, ultimately, the warfare of the Civil War.

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The external issues became internal!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Longfellow finally found hope and assurance. Granted, there is nothing distinctly Christian about this line (a Unitarian, Mormon, or any theist could write this).

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

We must understand that there is no peace outside of the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Christ came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) and to reconcile a sinful humanity to a holy God through His atoning work on the Cross. This is peace on earth!

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, butbecause of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

You see, behind the scenes, God is working out peace on earth in the hearts of men and women who surrender to Christ who provides the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) by the gift of repentance and faith, lifting our guilt of sin and declaring us righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21). And when the time comes, he will bring all of creation by to himself (Revelation 21:1-4).

So there will be peace on earth—not by the ceasing of firing guns, but by the redemption of sinful hearts that once rebelled against Creator God but now worship Him through Christ’s atoning work on the cross and his resurrection which breaks the back of the enemy of sin, death, hell, and the devil.

So, Merry Christmas! Have a Christ-filled 2019!


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