O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
Bethlehem is a pivotal town in the story told throughout Scripture. Rachael, Jacob’s beloved wife, died and was buried in Bethlehem. Genesis 35:19. Bethlehem is mentioned as one of the cities in the inheritance of Zebulun. Joshua 19:15. In the book of Ruth, we find that Ruth and Naomi returned to the land of Israel and went to the town of Bethlehem where, as Providence would reveal, Boaz lived. Ruth 1:22, 2:4, 4:11. Notably, Boaz is listed in the genealogy of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke. Matthew 1:5 and Luke 3:22. David lived and loved the town of Bethlehem. 1 Samuel 17:12, 2 Samuel 23:!5. While there are numerous other references to Bethlehem in the Old Testament, the most relevant one for this time of year comes from Micah 5:2 where we read:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”
This is the verse that is referenced in Matthew 2 as the priests and scribes told Herod that the prophesy was that the King would come from Bethlehem.
Long after the coming of the King as a Babe in the manger at Bethlehem, Dr. Phillips Brooks, the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Philadelphia, spent a year-long vacation traveling in Europe and the East. In 1865, he wrote home during Christmas week he visited the hills surrounding Bethlehem and it was the sight of the town below that had an impact on him. He recalled the Scripture describing the events of that Christmas night as he, personally, watched shepherds keeping watch over their flocks or ‘leading them home to fold’.
The carol was not written until 1868. It was printed in the program for the Christmas Sunday School service at the Church of the Holy Trinity in 1868, and it was sung to the music written for it by Mr. Lewis H. Redner who was the organist at the church. Mr. Redner asserts that he was awakened from his sleep late in the night hearing an “angel strain” whispering in his ear. He jotted down the treble of the tune and then filled in the harmony in the morning. Thus the carol was born.
Dr. Phillips Brooks passed away on January 23, 1893 after a short illness.
Much more of the story of the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem can be found in Studies of Familiar Hymns, by Louis F. Benson, D.D., published by the Westminster Press in 1903.
What strikes me as significant in Dr. Brooks’ life is his connection with hymns and carols. When we think about teaching our children of the Christian faith, I don’t know how many of us consider the hymns, carols and songs that the children sing. In his Studies of Familiar Hymns, Dr. Benson relates the training that Phillips Brooks received in his family home, referencing a connection with hymns he learned as a child:
And that connection is in the fact that his own mind and heart were stored with hymns, to such an extent and in such a way that they were one of the real influences of his life.
In one of the letters (regarding the family traditions) we read:
“the father regrets that Phillips could not have been with the family on the last Sunday evening when the boys recited hymns.”
This was a beautiful custom, which called from each one of the children the learning of a new hymn every Sunday, and its recital before the assembled family. In a little book, carefully kept by the father, there was a record of the hymns each child had learned, beginning with William, who had the advantage of age, and had learned the greatest number, followed by Phillips, who came next, and the record tapering down until John is reached, with a comparatively small number at his disposal. Most of them were from the old edition of the Prayer Book, then bound up with a metrical selection of Psalms and a collection of two hundred and twelve hymns.
When Phillips went to college there were some two hundred that he could repeat. They constituted part of his religious furniture, or the soil whence grew much that cannot now be traced. He never forgot them. (Emphasis supplied)
Phillips Brooks’ experience is an example of that which we read in Proverbs:
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
Proverbs 22:6 ESV
It was said of Phillips:
“The language of sacred hymns learned in childhood and forever ringing in his ears was one of the channels through which he had felt the touch of Christ.”
Beloved, what is the soil which we are nurturing in our children and from which they will feel the touch of Christ?
Encourage your children to sing of the Lord and of His praises. Teach hymns and carols to young children so that when they are old, they will not depart from the truths found therein.
Listen now to the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as presented by the Canterbury Choristers and Dr. Newell B. Wright.
Father, I pray that we would remember that little sleepy town of Bethlehem as they missed the opportunity of welcoming the Lord of the Universe into their homes. Lord, I pray that You would open our eyes so that we would see You in our world today, and that we would not ignore those times when You are speaking to us. Enable us to teach our children of You and Your Love throughout the year, not just at Christmas.