Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
- Desire of Nations: In an age when our political process is imbued with all the worst parts of religion (divisiveness, apocalypticism, fundamentalism, & idolatry), we need this reminder that Jesus – and Jesus alone – is the “desire of nations” (a reference from Haggai 2:7). Oliver O’Donovan expounds on this theme in his classic work of political theology of the same name. In Christ, every ruler and authority sees their importance relativized and their significance made temporary. There is only one King, and he is not subject to any vote. We touched on this notion that Jesus alone is our hope and discussed ministry post-election in the most recent WesleyCast episode (#24).
- Bruise in us the serpent’s head: This comes from Genesis 3:15, the prophecy after the Fall that the offspring of the Adam and Eve would “bruise the serpent’s head.” Traditionally, this has been taken as a foreshadowing of Christ’s defeat of Satan. An older Latin translation mistakenly had it that this was a reference to Eve rather than the offspring, and gave rise to art such as the image to the right (which, despite the nuances of the translation, I find quite moving). We need this reminder that the incarnation begins Christ’s great reversal, the overthrowing of every fiefdom and power that is against God and God’s people.
- Mystic union join: Wesley revels in the “mystic union” of God and humanity in Jesus, with the joining of God’s nature to human nature displaying his “saving pow’r.” This expands on the earlier reference, in a stanza we do find in the UMH, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see/hail th’ incarnate deity” and makes clear that this union restores what was broken. Like elsewhere, Charles is not afraid to confront the deepest mysteries of Christian faith and practice in his hymns. (All the more reason we need more Charles Wesley, not less, in future hymnals.) I believe we need to cleave to this aspect of Wesleyan hymnody and theology that does not shy away from the full weight of Christian doctrines.
- Stamp thine image/second Adam: This stanza picks up on the rich New Testament image of Christ as a second Adam, and asks God to replace Adam’s likeness with the Divine image in which we were made. This is, famously, John Wesley’s favorite language to describe salvation. I came from a fundamentalist culture in which sin was something that made us disgusting, something that made God view us with disdain. Many people have a similar experience with Christian preaching and teaching. All the more reason we need to retain Wesley’s therapeutic, as opposed to juridical, language about being healed from sin. From Sermon 44, “Original Sin”:
Ye know that the great end of religion is, to renew our hearts in the image of God, to repair that total loss of righteousness and true holiness which we sustained by the sin of our first parent.
- To all Thyself impart: this short line packs in two classic Arminian and Wesleyan themes. The incarnation is, as the angels sang, “good news [literally: gospel] of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) Emmanuel is not merely good news for a select few, an elect. The incarnation, like the atonement, is for all. Also, true to form, Wesley’s hymn asks “to all Thyself impart.” Protestants, in their zeal against even the appearance of works, re-emphasized imputed righteousness in justification – that is, that we are “declared righteous” simply by the gracious Word of God. The early Methodists,
good Anglicans that they were, were tied enough to the Great Tradition that they went back to the well and left room for impartation, the classic teaching that God sanctifies us as we cooperate with God and grow more and more into His grace. In justification we are declared righteous through imputation, and in sanctification we become righteous through God, synergistically, working through us to make us holy. This emphasis on the evangelical call for “all” to hear the good news and the message of what John Wesley called “full salvation” – beyond imputation to impartation – both need to be retained in United Methodist imagination.
Conclusion: Methodists have always been a people who sing our theology. One of my professors in seminary, a historian of American religious history, once went so far as to say that no one would have heard of John Wesley today if not for Charles’ hymnody. These hymns are one of the great founts of wisdom that Wesleyan Christians have, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is perhaps one of Charles’ greatest works. We need more of the Wesleys, more of Charles’ hymns, and we need the entirety of this particular hymn. For when we cut our hymns short, we are quite literally selling our theology and doctrine short.
What other Wesley hymns do we cut short (or leave out) to our detriment? What hymns do you hope are included in the next hymnal? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!