Favorite Carols: "We Three Kings"
“Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and sacrifice.”
John Henry Hopkins Jr.
Last year I began a series on my favorite Christmas carols. The first was a popular canticle in the nineteenth century, but rarely sung these days: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman.” This year I offer a classic that continues to enjoy widespread acclaim, even if it’s often truncated in our singing: “We Three Kings.”
When Ebenezer Scrooge knelt in the snow before his own grave he confessed to the Spirit of Christmas Future, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” Keeping Christmas year round is a worthy endeavor, especially when it comes to one of the most enduring and important Christmas stories because regardless of what nativity figurines depict, Christmas cards proclaim, and the beloved carol “We Three Kings” declares, the story of three wisemen kneeling with shepherds and sheep before the King of Jews didn’t happen as tradition and popular culture portray.
This isn’t to say the story of the wisemen is mythological. It isn’t. It’s just that the traditional retelling isn’t biblical. Their worship of the new king of Israel occurred on any given day about a year or two after the birth of Jesus. Here’s how the biblical scene played out.
We start in Bethlehem in the winter of 5 BC or 4 BC—December or January—at the nativity of Jesus. It was a time of heart-leaping joy as shepherds knelt in rapt wonder and angels announced the birth of Emmanuel.
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men
with whom He is pleased.” (Luke 2:14)
Within a year, maybe two, that same Yuletide joy endured—until it turned to heart-breaking sadness. When the wisemen first saw the baby Jesus—the King of the Jews—Matthew said, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). But when they didn’t return to Jerusalem, King Herod “became very enraged, and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and its vicinity, from two years old and under” (2:16).
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.” (v. 17)
Magoi apo anatolon—“Magi from the east”—is how Matthew begins his story of Emmanuel—and of the Eastmen who came to worship Him. Magoi (magi) was a title for Persian priests of Zoroaster. Skilled in the mathematics of astrology and students of ancient wisdom, the magi knew the prophecy of the coming Messiah from Daniel 9. Some time in 3 BC or 2 BC, while searching the heavens, they spotted Messiah’s star, as prophesied in Number 24:17: “A star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel.” This star might have been an astrological event—the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces or a supernova—or it might have been a miraculous event—the shekinah glory of God. Whatever it was, they set out on a desert trek from Babylon (probably) to Jerusalem—the city of kings—to pay homage to the newborn King.
Matthew was careful to note that the magi arrived in Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (v. 1). Naturally, they came to Jerusalem, believing a new heir to the Jewish throne had been born into the family of King Herod. But the baby Prince was not there. Told of a prophecy from the book of Micah, predicting Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem (vv. 4–6), Herod dispatched the magi to Bethlehem to find “the Child”—the paidion, not the brephos or “infant” (Luke 2:12, 16)—with instructions to report back to him so “[he] too may come and worship [Messiah]” (Matthew 2:8). Of course, that old schemer had no intention of worshiping Jesus. He wanted to locate the Child so he could get rid of a potential usurper of his throne.
With information of where Messiah would be born, the magi took the road down the hill to the little town called House of Bread—the City of David—and stopped when the star “stood over the place where the Child was” (v. 9). Having found the right location after such a long journey their joy was palpable. “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (v. 10). Invited “into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother.” Glancing into the seraphic face of God incarnate they prostrated themselves in adoration—just as it should be and will be for all who lay their eyes on the risen Lord. “Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11).
That evening, a divine warning disturbed their dreams: Do not return to Jerusalem and report to Herod, but return to your own country by another route. And so they did, dissolving into the haze of history (v. 12).
The adoration of the magi encapsulates the story of the gospel—that Israel’s Jewish Messiah accepts the praise of Gentiles from all nations, if they would but submit and bend the knee before the One who was born to die. It’s a story beautifully retold by an American clergyman who wrote one of our most popular Christmas carols.
Each year John Henry Hopkins Jr.’s family performed a Christmas pageant and reenacted the story of the magi. In 1857, as a Christmas gift for his three nephew and nieces, and in hopes of implanting the gospel in their young hearts, Hopkins penned the carol originally titled “Three Kings of the Orient.” The carol remained a Hopkins family favorite for years before it became popular to a broader audience. Published in 1863 in Carols, Hymns, and Songs, “We Three Kings” for nearly a century was considered the only American carol in the collection of English language carols.
Though we know the events depicted in the carol didn’t take place during the nativity of Christ, but sometimes afterward, shouldn’t damper our love for this beloved Yuletide song. Nor should the fact that many of the details are just not so biblically.
The number “three” was assigned by Origen in the third century based on the number of gifts given to the newborn King. And yet, according to Matthew, all we know for sure is that there was more than one magi. However many there were, they undoubtedly traveled with a caravan of more than three.
The designation that the magi were kings came about in the thirteenth century, inspired by the prophecy in Psalm 72:10–11. But they weren’t kings. They were servants of and advisors to kings.
That the wisemen traveled from the “Orient,” perhaps as far away as China, is more legend than fact. As are the names, races, and ages of the wisemen: Gaspar—white and twenty-years-old; Melchior—yellow and forty-years-old; Balthasar—black and sixty-years-old. Matthew said they were men from “the east,” most likely from Persia orArabia (perhaps India).
Skillfully weaving together swatches of Scripture, church tradition, and legend, Hopkins composed the story of the magi and set their journey to a plodding three-four meter and a melody with a mystical chord, befitting mystical men from a mystical land, making the melody move like the rolling gate of a camel (which finds its origin in Isaiah 60:6).
Though we don’t know how many Gentile pilgrims came to worship the King of the Jews, we know they brought three kingly gifts, which foretold who and what this kingly Child would be.
Gold to honor His reign.
Frankincense to venerate His holiness.
Myrrh, a spice used to embalm the dead, to eulogize His death.
“We Three Kings”—Eastland wisemen who traversed desert sands to reach the Westland in order to worship the enfleshed Wisdom of God. We too would be wise to follow in their footsteps and worship the newborn King—all the year long, as the Spirit of Christmas Present told Scrooge.
“We Spirits of Christmas do not live only one day of our year. We live the whole three-hundred and sixty-five. So is it true of the Child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in men’s hearts one day of the year, but in all days of the year.”
“Glorious now, behold Him arise, King and God and sacrifice.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, in Christmas Books (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005), 71.
Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), directed by Brian Desmond Hurst (2011; London: Renown Pictures, 1951), Blu-ray.