The Story Behind “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”

I have to admit that I’ve never been familiar with this song. Upon re-reading this chapter from Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas that it reminds me of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul,” which was also written under painful circumstances.

Longfellow tragically lost his wife to an accidental death in which she burned herself alive while lighting a match. A few years later the Civil War begins and his son is wounded. His family had played a significant role in the founding of the nation and so he felt the war was unraveling the sacrifices his forebears had made. From Ace Collins’ book:

Longfellow hated the Civil War. It tore at the very fiber of his being to see the United States of America—a nation his family had fought to create and help build divided by the greed and sinful nature of man. An ardent believer in the power of God to move on earth, the poet all but pleaded with his Lord to end the madness of the war. When his oldest son, nineteen-year-old Charles, was wounded in battle and sent home to recover, the poet’s prayers turned to rage.

As Henry tended his son’s injuries, saw other wounded soldiers on Cambridge’s streets, and visited with families who had lost sons in battle, he asked his friends and his God, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up his pen and paper, he tried to answer that haunting question. It was the ringing of Christmas bells that probably inspired the cadence found in his writing on December 25, 1863. That day Longfellow hung his whole message on the tolling of the church bells. Yet while most Christmas verse is light and uplifting, America’s greatest poet set his lyrical ode in tones that were largely dark and solemn.

In the original seven stanzas of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow focused on Christmas during the Civil War. In his lines one can easily sense the writer’s views of slavery and secession; his words divide the war into an effort of God’s love and understanding against the devil’s hate and anger. It would have been a poem completely void of hope, a testament to the power of Satan, if Henry hadn’t finished his work with two verses that embraced the thought, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.” This was a poem that would inspire not only the Union, but soon the whole world.

Almost ten years later, in 1872, an Englishman named John Baptiste Calkin decided to marry music to Longfellow’s Christmas poem. The organist and music teacher wrote a soaring melody that contained the power to not only convey the bleak imagery of Longfellow’s sadness in the poem’s tormented first few verses, but the poet’s deep and abiding faith in the ode’s exhilarating conclusion. When published, this combination of British music and American lyrics quickly made “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” one of the most popular carols in both Europe and the United States. Except for the deletion of the two verses that dwelled on the poet’s view of the Civil War, the song remains the same today as it was when first published.

 

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God Seeks After Broken Hearts

broken_heart

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made.

For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart.

I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners.

Isaiah 57:15-18

In this chapter the Lord is continuing this theme of mercy that goes back to at least chapter 55. He invites the thirsty to come and drink and then, in chapter 56, shows us that His mercy is not just for the Jews but also for men of all nations, peoples, and tongues. Here we see that He is the God of the contrite.

As Jesus said, He came not for the healthy but for the sick. But until a sick person is willing to admit that they need help they will not listen to doctors nor seek their aid. The Lord cannot do anything for, or with, a person who is not humble enough to realize that they need God’s healing. We will not experience the power of God in our lives as long as we believe we are healthy, as the Pharisees believed.

There is a lie from the Devil that is quite pervasive and it leads us to believe that God is harsh and oppressive, if not apathetic about our plight. When we believe the lie we think that the Lord is uncaring and has no interest in helping us. He is like a instructor in basic training who is always yelling at us and telling us we are doing it all wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth and we can thank God the revelation of His compassion and mercy throughout the scriptures.

David understood that God was after those who were broken and contrite. We read in Psalm 51:17:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

In Psalm 34:18 we read:

The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.

In Isaiah 66:1,2 we read:

Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?

For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.

Going to the gospels, in Luke 7:47-48, we read:

Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

The woman who was a sinner had brought her alabaster box full of perfume to anoint Jesus and to wash His feet with her tears. Our Lord perfectly explains that such a heart is so pleasing to God because it draws us to Him in gratitude, appreciation, and love. We are no good to God and His kingdom if we have not been forgiven much because then there is not much love in us. The greatest servants in the kingdom know that God has freed them from a tremendous burden. It is for that reason that they have so much love for the Lord and His people.

If you want to do great things for God then never forget the work of redemption He did in your life. God can do great things through you when you are broken because that is when your heart is soft and malleable. When you are soft then He will mold you into the image of Christ, and that is the beginning of a powerful ministry.

His Ways Are Higher Than Our Ways

Illustration - your way my way street signs

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8,9

One of the most insightful and motivational elements of studying scripture is when learn the meaning of a popular scripture, like the one above, in its context. Sometimes you realize that the way it is often repeated, or the way you always understood it, is either inaccurate or truncated. This is the difference between studying the meaning of scripture versus using it to come up with life applications.

I have never read this verse in light of the prior verses which provide the context. This chapter has God’s invitation for sinners to come and seek His mercy and enter into an everlasting covenant.

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.

Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people.

Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee.

Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55:1-7

When I read the word “for” in verses eight and nine it made me realize that this may be a reason for what God says in the beginning of the chapter. That is, the Lord calls sinners to forgiveness and repentance because it is His manner of doing things. And since His ways are not our ways (being higher) then that means that mercy and forgiveness are not our ways.

And when we look at scripture we see that whereas God is willing to forgive men are quick to do impose judgment. I think of the parable Jesus tells to explain to Peter how often we are supposed to forgive others.

But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

Matthew 18:28-30

Forgiveness is a very difficult thing for us to attain and we struggle with it our whole lives. It is where the enemy can be very effective in accusing us and creating divisions within the church. We can hold a grudge for decades over the smallest offense and end up spiritually impotent. Forgiveness is a manifestation of the power of God and when we forgive others we witness to that power and use it for their benefit.

The skeptic has been successful in creating this misperception of God as a harsh, angry tyrant who is looking for an excuse to condemn us. That is nothing more than a lie that we must refute. God is the one who is compassionate and it is men are the cruel, evil seekers of destruction. We would not know what real grace and mercy was if we did not have it revealed to us in the scriptures.

We are evil and our hearts are bent towards wickedness. Retaliation, anger, and judgment are our ways. But grace, mercy, and forgiveness are the Lord’s ways and His ways are certainly higher and more righteous than ours.

Can The Pope Assure Atheists Into Heaven?

pope-francis

Pope Francis has caused another controversy last week due to answer he gave to a journalist’s question about whether nonbelievers can be forgiven. Part of the Roman Pontiff’s response:

You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don’t believe and who don’t seek the faith. I start by saying – and this is the fundamental thing – that God’s mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience…

Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience.

The more you read the Pope’s response the more confusing it sounds. While I do not think he went so far as to say that atheists can be forgiven apart from faith I do still take issue with how he misled the public about the nature of sin. He watered it down so much that it does not seem very serious, which then raises the question of why it’s even a big deal. It’s important to keep in mind that he wrote a long letter and the part that is getting the most attention is only a couple of sentences long, so we need to reserve judgment until we know what the context is.

If all we had to go on were these remarks then it wouldn’t be much help. It’s too ambiguous and vague, and there’s good reason to be concerned about just that. But I don’t believe that the press is misrepresenting the Pope because he has made the same point in more direct language in the past. Here is what he said last May in a homily:

“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

It seems that the Pope believes in something of a social gospel in which your good works are given such weight that it overshadows doctrine. Throughout the centuries the pendulum has swung from one to another and many people create a false dichotomy between doctrine and behavior. Sound biblical doctrine teaches us that what we believe and how we treat others are equally important and must be balanced.

When we read 1 John we see that there is a threefold test to distinguish true believers: confessing your sins and walking in the light; love for the brethren; and confessing that Jesus is the Son of God who has come in the flesh. Truth and love cannot be separated and made to stand on their own.

Of course, most important of all is that the Bible teaches us that only those who believe in Jesus Christ will have everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven and they are saved by grace through faith alone, not by their works. So, just because an atheist does good works does not mean that he will then enter the kingdom. That is because the problem with mankind is that we are enemies of God and we are in need of redemption. Our problem is not fundamentally a moral one but a spiritual one.

God Will Have Mercy, Not Sacrifice

les miz forgiveness

Thus saith thy Lord the lord, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of His people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again.

Isaiah 51:22

Note: I wasn’t able to get some time in to study in the morning so here is the aforementioned thoughts I had promised last night on the Facebook page. If you haven’t been there please check it out: https://www.facebook.com/bibliablogger. You’ll see all of the posts here on the webpage but also extra good stuff that is not on the blog. There you will see links to interesting articles I find from around the web, among other things.

I think understanding this part of Isaiah was as much of a challenge for the people in Isaiah’s lifetime as it is in ours. For them this was the unthinkable, the worst case scenario. For us, it is an obscure historical reference that is so distant it does not seem relevant. Its meaning was significant to the Jews living in exile.

This message is as much for those who were in Babylon when they read this as it is for anyone. They needed the reminder that God knew this would happen and that He is in control even in the most desperate of times. They also needed the hope that His promise of deliverance would bring.

He threatened to punish the people for their disobedience and He did exactly that. Being the merciful God that He is, now the promise is to take the cup that His people drank from and give it to their oppressors. I believe that God does this, in part, because He does not get glory from destroying His people but from showing that He has the power to deliver them who trust in Him.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6 in Matthew 12 when He tells the Pharisees that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. As long as we draw breath God’s hand of redemption is stretched out. Religious people think they do not need God’s help but those who truly know Him know that He wants them to take His hand. We are restored when we remember God’s nature and put our lives into His hands, as did the prodigal son with his father.

It is only a matter of time before you find yourself away from God’s presence. The funny thing is that we do everything we can to deal with the guilt and shame before we finally give up and repent from it. We can save ourselves the heartache by remembering that the Lord wants us to immediately turn back to Him.

The Lord is already running to meet us with open arms. He is not waiting or expecting us to fix ourselves up before we go back to Him. Never forget that He is pleased with us for Christ’s sake and not because of our own merit. We do not have to earn His favor because we already have it.

Justified: In Real Life

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He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.

Isaiah 50:8

In this chapter we see a contrast between sinful Israel and the obedient Servant of the Lord. One of the differences is that the Servant, who is Jesus, knows His standing with God. He completely trusts in the Lord.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 8:1

This confidence in God’s grace and justification extends to followers of Christ. We now have the same privilege of being acceptable in God’s eyes because of Christ’s righteousness. This is absolutely crucial to remember if we are going to resist the accuser of the brethren.

We must also keep in mind that God desires to justify us and bring us near to Him. He is not looking for a way to trip us up and cause us to fail. He is not stern and mean like some grumpy old man. He is fierce to the wicked but He is tender to any who call on His name. He keeps no one at arm’s length but He does welcome us with open arms.

Israel’s Sin And Jesus’ Obedience

jesus praying

Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

Wherefore, when I came, was there no man? when I called, was there none to answer? Is my hand shortened at all, that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a wilderness: their fish stinketh, because there is no water, and dieth for thirst.

I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.

Isaiah 50:1-3

The opening part of this chapter describes the sinful nature of Israel. She has gone astray and has the audacity to think that it was God who abandoned her. But we shouldn’t be disappointed or surprised because this should sound familiar.

We often do the same thing with God when our life is a mess. When everything is going well we forget about God and when it falls apart we get impatient with Him and expect Him to fix it. Why is God good sometimes but so harsh at other times?

But God is always faithful and He never changes. We’re the ones on the roller coaster and that’s why it looks like He’s moving.

I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.

The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakeneth morning by morning, he wakeneth mine ear to hear as the learned.

The Lord God hath opened mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back.

I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.

For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed.

He is near that justifieth me; who will contend with me? let us stand together: who is mine adversary? let him come near to me.

Behold, the Lord God will help me; who is he that shall condemn me? lo, they all shall wax old as a garment; the moth shall eat them up.

Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.

Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks: walk in the light of your fire, and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.

Isaiah 50:4-11

With this passage we see the contrast between sinful Israel and the obedient Servant, who is Jesus. He is truly the Servant of the Lord because He listens to the Father and does whatever He commands.

This contrast shows us that only Jesus can be the perfect example of what it means to live by faith. It shows that the law cannot save or bring life, as Paul writes in Romans 8. Only a perfect man can meet a perfect standard.

Moreover, by God’s grace we can, through Jesus, be the servants that God seeks. Jesus repeatedly called us to drop everything and follow Him. Jesus is the way that shows us how it is done. Will you be the sinful traitor or the obedient servant?

God Is Not Finished With You

Hanging

Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away.

Isaiah 50:1

God’s faithfulness is a source of comfort and hope and a reason why we praise Him. It is also a very difficult and painful lesson to learn. The reason it is so painful is because you realize how much God will allow you to endure and it will be more than you ever considered.

He will take you through the worst case scenario and let you spend more time in it than you want. You will go past what you think is your breaking point and then some. All the while, though, God is making His arrangements for you. Soon enough you see His hand at work through a major breakthrough.

This part of the prophecy in Isaiah is for Israel in exile but was written when they were still in the land and dwelled carelessly. They did not trust God and they had yet to go through the painful lesson to learn that God is faithful. For the Jews in Babylon who were desperate for a reason to be hopeful this was a prophecy that was too good to be true. It sounded nice but it was just unbelievable.

Nevertheless the prophet was hopeful and his faith was based on the passage in Psalm 22:27-29. God comforts those who are being scorned as they continue to serve Him faithfully, as did the remnant under Babylonian rule. He reminds them, and us, that He will have the last laugh and we will be rewarded for enduring to the end.

You will know you’re trusting God because it feels like your life is unraveling. Nothing is happening the way you had planned or hoped. You may even be greatly suffering. God has not forgotten you and, in fact, He is preparing something glorious for you. As with Daniel in chapter 10 of his book, there may be a delay in answering the prayer that was immediately heard but it’s only a delay. The more bitter the pain the more sweet the victory.

God’s Yoke Is Easy

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Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth, their idols were upon the beasts, and upon the cattle: your carriages were heavy loaden; they are a burden to the weary beast.

They stoop, they bow down together; they could not deliver the burden, but themselves are gone into captivity.

Hearken unto me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, which are borne by me from the belly, which are carried from the womb:

And even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you: I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.

Isaiah 46:1-4

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

Are you anxious or stressed? Well then, stop weighing yourself down carrying those idols.

The difference between my good and bad days is whether I have truly sought the Lord, especially in the morning. On a bad day I am doing what I think is important, which doesn’t sound bad except that the problem is I invariably end up stressed and frustrated.

It’s not that I only have problems on bad days and none on good days but that the same problems that I face on a good day become unbearable. It’s only a matter of time before my cunning only gets me so far. The harder I try the faster I get nowhere. That is the price for serving Mammon.

Adam and Eve could not stand the shame of being naked when they first sinned. Martha, when she was slaving away in the kitchen, could not handle the burden of all her cares and snapped at Jesus. All sin offers is a life of unbearable cares followed by the worst kind of death, one that leads to condemnation.

In these chapters of Isaiah (between 40 and 50) God talks much of liberating Israel from captivity which was brought about by their betrayal of the Lord. Paul later writes about how we were slaves to sin before Jesus set us free. Now that we are free we are the servants of God.

The difference between God and idols is that we have to carry our idols but God offers to carry us. God does not weigh us down with a burden that cannot be lifted. Jesus offered His yoke which was light.

As I mentioned before, this is not a promise of a care-free life because it is full of troubles. But Jesus has overcome the world and so we do not have to fear. All we have to do is lean back and let Him carry us. His grace is sufficient to for us to be strong and courageous as we serve Him.

I think this song is just right for the topic, Lay My Burden Down.

Is Preaching The Gospel Still Relevant?

In this video Voddie Baucham, John Piper, and Miguel Nunez discuss the nature and uniqueness of preaching. They talk about what it is and how it’s done. One insight about preaching is that it is concerned with calling forth a response from the hearer. The response can be either acceptance or rebellion, but preachers must proclaim the gospel at all times. I believe the rebellion that we see in some people to the message is an evidence of the authority that underlies preaching.