December 17, 2015

Three exceptional Christmas songs

by Jesse Johnson

Many of the most well-known (and most enduring) songs are Christmas songs—scan through any hymnal, and you will be surprised about the percentage of songs that are devoted to Advent.

Not all Christmas songs are good, of course. In fact, some of them are particularly cheesy. But many more tend toward excellence than silliness, and the reason for this is simple: they start with the birth of the Savior.

But if they focus only on the birth, or the silent night, or the oxen and what-have-you, then they will be mired in shallowness. The reason many Christmas songs do become exceptional is because they don’t stay in the manger. Instead, they use the birth of Christ as a launching point to survey his life. The best of these songs even make it all the way to his cross and Second Advent.

This is true of all hymns, and not just Christmas ones. If any song is narrowly focused, or focused on the softness/stillness/nearness/gentleness of God, it will likely be a lame song. But if a song progresses through—from God in human flesh, to what that God did, to why he died, to his resurrection, and ultimately to eternity—then it is at least set up to be an exceptional song. Here are three Christmas songs that do just that:  

Once in David’s Royal City

At first reading this song (especially with the traditional lyrics) can seem too quaint to move people’s thoughts to the glory of Christ. But the version below (changes by Jamie Brown) is very effective at taking the worshiper from Bethlehem into Glory (sheet music for this arrangement is here, by Joshua Spacht; or you can buy the album here):

Once in Royal David’s City, stood a lowly cattle shed
Where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little Child

He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable, And His cradle was stall;
With the poor the scorned and lowly, lived on earth, our Savior Holy.

For He is our lifelong pattern; day by day, like us he grew;
He was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us He knew;
Thus he feels for all our sadness and he shares in all our gladness.

He was give’n to pay our ransom. By his blood we are set free.
Suffered He for our transgressions, Lamb of God upon the tree.
Then he rose up from the grave, Risen King with power to save.

And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above,
And he leads His children on To the place where He is gone.

Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery

Released in 2013, this song follows the pattern of great Christmas music in that it moves you from the incarnation into eternal glory. Much like Once in David’s Royal City, this song not only puts forth the glory of Christ, but it also stresses the longing in the sinner’s heart to see him. Christmas is the coming of the Light into the world, and this song explains how our darkness requires the light, then how our perception of that need changes with the increasing glory of Christ:

Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity

In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us

Come behold the wondrous mystery
He the perfect Son of Man
In His living, in His suffering
Never trace nor stain of sin

See the true and better Adam
Come to save the hell-bound man
Christ the great and sure fulfillment
Of the law; in Him we stand

Come behold the wondrous mystery
Christ the Lord upon the tree
In the stead of ruined sinners
Hangs the Lamb in victory

See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold

Come behold the wondrous mystery
Slain by death the God of life
But no grave could e’er restrain Him
Praise the Lord; He is alive!

What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes

What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes

Who is He in Yonder Stall:

Mark Dever, in Deliberate Church, uses this song as an example of theologically rich yet responsive music, the kind of music pastors should strive to have in their churches. It pairs the exaltation of Christ with the praise of his people, and moves through an overview of his ministry. Enfield has a sweet arrangement of it–you can get the charts/music for that here:

Who is He in yonder stall,
At whose feet the shepherds fall?


’Tis the Lord! oh wondrous story!
’Tis the Lord! the King of glory!
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! crown Him, Lord of all!

Who is He in deep distress,
Fasting in the wilderness?

Who is He the people bless
For His words of gentleness?

Who is He to whom they bring
All the sick and sorrowing?

Who is He that stands and weeps
At the grave where Lazarus sleeps?

Who is He the gathering throng
Greet with loud triumphant song?

Lo! at midnight, who is He
Prays in dark Gethsemane?

Who is He on yonder tree
Dies in grief and agony?

Who is He who from the grave
Comes to succor, help, and save?

Who is He who from His throne
Rules through all the worlds alone?

What are some other excellent Christmas songs that follow a similar progression? Let us know in the comments below:

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • HFK

    My favorite Christmas song:

    Beside Thy Cradle Here I Stand written by Paul Gerhardt. Though it best unfolds its beauty in German, here is the English version:

    1. Now at the manger here I stand,
    My Jesus, Life from Heaven!
    I stand, and bring Thee in my hand
    What Thou to me hast given.
    Take it, it is my mind and wit,
    Heart, soul, and all I have, take it,
    And deign to let it please Thee!

    2. With Thy great love beyond compare,
    My soul Thou fillest ever,
    Thy glance so sweet, Thine image fair,
    My heart forgetteth never.
    How otherwise e’er could it be,
    How could I ever banish Thee,
    From my heart’s throne, O Saviour!

    3. Ere ever I began to be,
    Thou hadst for me appearèd,
    And as Thine own hadst chosen me
    Ere Thee I knew or fearèd.
    Before I by Thy hand was made,
    Thou hadst the plan in order laid,
    How Thou Thyself shouldst give me.

    4. I lay still in death’s deepest night,
    Till Thou, my Sun, arising,
    Didst bring joy, pleasure, life, and light,
    My waken’d soul surprising.
    O Sun! who dost so graciously
    Faith’s goodly light to dawn in me
    Aye cause; Thy beams how beauteous!

    5. With rapture do I gaze on Thee,
    Ne’er can enough adore Thee,
    Pow’r more to do is not in me,
    I’ll praise and bow before Thee.
    Oh! that my mind were an abyss,
    My soul a sea, wide, bottomless,
    That so I might embrace Thee.

    7. When oft my heart within doth cry,
    No comfort can discover,
    It calls to me, Thy friend am I,
    Thine ev’ry sin I cover;
    My flesh and bone, why mournest thou?
    Let thy heart be of good cheer now,
    Thy debt, I have discharg’d it.

    13. Not for the world’s pride dost Thou care,
    Nor joys the flesh doth offer;
    In human form Thou liest there,
    For us to do and suffer,
    Seek’st joy and comfort for my soul,
    While waves of trouble o’er Thee roll;
    I never will Thee hinder.

    14. One thing I hope Thou’lt grant to me,
    My Saviour! ne’er deny me,
    That I may evermore have Thee
    Within, and on, and by me.
    And let my heart Thy cradle be,
    Come, come and lie Thou down in me,
    With all Thy joys and treasures!

    • Sweet. The shortcoming of my list was that it was confined to English!

  • Jones

    inspired by our Christmas party???

    • Of course. When I had to do the Jingle Bell dogs, followed by a certain someone in my group who didn’t know Once in Royal David’s City (but did know Silver Bells!!!) I knew I had to write this.

  • LT

    It’s unfortunate that “Once in Royal David’s City” was so bad it needs an “arraignment.” Hopefully everything works out for it. 🙂

    • True. I think it plead guilty, and fortunately after Jamie’s tweaks, it is now a free song 🙂
      Fixed it.

  • Doug Evans

    I’ve always loved “I Wonder As I Wander” which came to us from the depths of Appalachia at the height of the Depression

    I wonder as I wander out under the sky
    How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
    For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
    I wonder as I wander out under the sky

    When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall
    With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
    But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall
    And the promise of ages it then did recall.

    If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
    A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
    Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing
    He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King

    I wonder as I wander out under the sky
    How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
    For poor on’ry people like you and like I;
    I wonder as I wander out under the sky

  • Rachel

    Ha! I just listened to Come Behold….by Matt Papa this morning on my drive to work, about 5 times lol. It really is a loaded song.

    1 song I pretty much hate at this point:

    “Mary did you know”

    Answer: Yes, read Luke 1:46-55, the end.

  • Tranwei

    Hey Jesse, our friends John and Lisa Martin (and the whole Enfield band of course) have a great arrangement of “Who Is He in Yonder Stall” on their Christmas CD. You can listen to it free on Spotify. It’s definitely one of my favorite Christmas songs!

    • Thanks Tranwei. No idea how I forgot that. i was even listening to that album yesterday! Anyway, I updated it above.

    • Jeff Schlottmann

      Man, I love that album. I think God of God is my favorite song. And I’ve always liked Go Tell It On The Mountain.

      And I must say that since I discovered Enfield about 2 years ago, I struggle to listen to anything else. I even try to change it up, but always end up going back.

  • kevin2184

    The lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angles Sing” is as close to Scriptural perfection as you can get: “Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth. Born to give them second birth”…I get chills just typing this! Here’s all the lyrics:


    Hark the herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!
    Peace on earth and mercy mild
    God and sinners reconciled”
    Joyful, all ye nations rise
    Join the triumph of the skies
    With the angelic host proclaim:
    “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”

    Christ by highest heav’n adored
    Christ the everlasting Lord!
    Late in time behold Him come
    Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
    Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
    Hail the incarnate Deity
    Pleased as man with man to dwell
    Jesus, our Emmanuel
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”

    Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
    Hail the Son of Righteousness!
    Light and life to all He brings
    Ris’n with healing in His wings
    Mild He lays His glory by
    Born that man no more may die
    Born to raise the sons of earth
    Born to give them second birth
    Hark! The herald angels sing
    “Glory to the newborn King!”

    • Totally. Great example.

    • Christina

      That is my all time favorite Christmas song!

  • Kay

    To go along with this great article, I highly recommend the CD “The Word Became Flesh.” The music is by Dan & Heidi Goeller and narrated by R.C. Sproul. It celebrates the Christmas story, the fall through redemption, from Genesis through the Gospels by integrating beautiful Christmas hymns with Scripture readings between each song. It is a classic. I gave out copies of the CD this season and everyone raved about it. It is a great evangelistic tool because it shares the gospel straight from the Scriptures in a beautiful musical format. Also available as an mp3 download, both formats at

    • Thanks for that suggestion Kay. I’ve also been taking my family through Prepare Him Room, which is a Sovereign Grace Advent book. It has a CD with a dozen or so new Christmas songs as well. I love it.

      • Kay

        Agree. I received Prepare Him Room as a gift last Christmas and I absolutely loved it, as did all my friends that also received a copy.

  • M Davis

    One of my favorite hymns is “O Come, O Come Immanuel” because it speaks of Israel. It was when I came to understand God’s purpose and plans for Israel through studying Scripture that I ceased being tossed to and fro by discordant doctrines and came to rest in the trustworthiness of the One and Only Sovereign Triune God. Christmas makes me think of the Cross. And the Resurrection makes me think of that which is yet to come, and the One or orchestrates history to the minutest details. With this in mind, I wrote a poem a few years ago and have passed it out as a gift to friends and strangers at Christmastime. I append it here trusting that it may be of benefit to some, while dryly analytical to others.

    The Father’s Gift to Us
    No worthiness to claim our own, before God’s Throne, man walks alone.
    In darkness here, God sent The Light, that we might see in Jesus Christ.
    Amidst much noise, God gave His Word, that we might hear, that He is near.
    ‘Tho lies abound, God sent The Truth, that we discern our Savior’s Worth.
    Sin and death – man’s history. Judgment comes. God provides one way to life –
    in Christ.

    He came to die, that we may live, through His shed blood, only once, did give.
    Our debt He paid, our sin atoned, God’s wrath appeased, man not alone.
    Went to the grave, ‘nounced victory, and then set forth the captives free.
    Raised in three days, as prophesied; forty more, reclaimed His Throne on High.
    Then sent the Spirit to indwell, repentant sinners –
    O Immanuel!

    Born again, to sin have died. Forgiven. Purchased. Justified.
    Now in Christ’s Righteousness we live; the Spirit sanctifies those who are His.
    To the Father, Christ intercedes, for His children’s earthly d/needs,
    To walk by faith, His Strength, not ours, through various trials ‘neath the stars.

    And when the trump is sound above – Christ comes – to receive His bride in the sky.
    Those found in Him will rejoice and rise, purged of dross and Glorified.
    Home at last, to sin no more. Found in Him, forevermore!
    (Copyright © 2010 M. A. Davis)

    The Lord Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” ~John 14:6

  • Steve Hardy

    One of my very favorites has been What Child Is This, with a unique
    chorus for each verse. I really like the old English melody, and the
    verses accomplish the criteria you set for a Christmas carol. Certainly
    not in as much detail as some of the songs included in today’s post as
    it’s only three verses, but covers quite a bit.

    What child is this, who, laid to rest,
    On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
    Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
    While shepherds watch are keeping?

    This, this is Christ the King,
    Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
    Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
    The babe, the son of Mary.

    Why lies He in such mean estate,
    Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
    Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
    The silent Word is pleading.

    Nails, spears shall pierce him through,
    the cross he bore for me, for you.
    Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
    the Babe, the Son of Mary.

    So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
    Come, peasant, king, to own him.
    The King of kings salvation brings,
    Let loving hearts enthrone him.

    Raise, raise a song on high,
    The virgin sings her lullaby
    Joy, joy for Christ is born,
    The babe, the Son of Mary.

  • Daniel Leake

    Thanks Jesse! It’s not considered “Christmas” by all, but ‘Come Thou Long Expected Jesus’ is a great song for this time as well.

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  • Still Waters

    As a (amateur) musician who makes the hymns and carols a regular study, I can tell you there are many more out there with the whole story – you just need to go further back. This unique English carol dates from at least the 1600s:

    Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
    I would my true love did so chance
    To see the legend of my play,
    To call my true love to my dance;

    Chorus: Sing, oh! my love,
    This have I done for my true love

    Then was I born of a virgin pure,
    Of her I took fleshly substance
    Thus was I knit to man’s nature
    To call my true love to my dance.

    In a manger laid, and wrapped I was
    So very poor, this was my chance
    Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
    To call my true love to my dance.

    Then afterwards baptized I was;
    The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
    My Father’s voice heard from above,
    To call my true love to my dance.

    Into the desert I was led,
    Where I fasted without substance;
    The Devil bade me make stones my bread,
    To have me break my true love’s dance.

    The Jews on me they made great suit,
    And with me made great variance,
    Because they loved darkness rather than light,
    To call my true love to my dance.

    For thirty pence Judas me sold,
    His covetousness for to advance:
    Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!
    The same is he shall lead the dance.

    Before Pilate the Jews me brought,
    Where Barabbas had deliverance;
    They scourged me and set me at nought,
    Judged me to die to lead the dance.

    Then on the cross hanged I was,
    Where a spear my heart did glance;
    There issued forth both water and blood,
    To call my true love to my dance.

    Then down to hell I took my way
    For my true love’s deliverance,
    And rose again on the third day,
    Up to my true love and the dance.

    Then up to heaven I did ascend,
    Where now I dwell in sure substance
    On the right hand of God, that man
    May come unto the general dance.

    • Still Waters

      Then there are the ones which tell the reason why Christ came, starting with Creation and the Fall. This haunting carol is an English folksong:

      1. This is the truth sent from above,
      The truth of God, the God of love;
      Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
      But hearken all, both rich and poor.

      2. The first thing, which I do relate,
      That God at first did man create
      The next thing, which to you I tell,
      Woman was made with him to dwell.

      3. Then after this, ‘twas God’s own choice
      To place them both in Paradise,
      There to remain from evil free
      Except they ate of such a tree.

      4. But they did eat, which was a sin,
      And thus their ruin did begin;
      Ruined themselves, both you and me,
      And all of their posterity.

      5. Thus we were heirs to endless woes,
      Till God the Lord did interpose
      For so a promise soon did run
      That He’d redeem us with a Son.

      6. And at this season of the year
      Our blest Redeemer did appear
      He here did live, and here did preach,
      And many thousands He did teach.

      7. Thus He in love to us behaved,
      To show us how we must be saved
      And if you want to know the way
      Be pleased to hear what He did say.

      8. Go preach the Gospel new, He said,
      To all the nations that are made
      And he that does believe in me,
      From all his sins I’ll set him free.

      9. God grant to all within this place
      True saving faith—that special grace,
      Which to His people doth belong—
      And thus I close my Christmas song.

  • Andrea Sanford

    So many great hymn suggestions already posted! I love the Prepare Him Room album by Sovereign Grace, as new worship music focusing on Jesus coming to save. Another song my kids particularly like singing any time of the year, is from the group Go Fish “It’s About the Cross”. Lyrics follow:

    Verse 1:

    It’s not just about the manger
    Where the baby lay
    It’s not all about the angels
    Who sang for him that day

    It’s not just about the shepherds
    Or the bright and shining star
    It’s not all about the wisemen
    Who travelled from afar

    It’s about the cross
    It’s about my sin
    It’s about how Jesus came to be born once
    So that we could be born again

    It’s about the stone
    That was rolled away
    So that you and I could have real life someday

    It’s about the cross
    It’s about the cross

    Verse 2:

    It’s not just about the presents
    Underneath the tree
    It’s not all about the feeling
    That the season brings to me

    It’s not just about coming home
    To be with those you love
    It’s not all about the beauty
    In the snow I’m dreaming of

    Repeat Chorus


    The beginning of the story is wonderful and great
    But it’s the ending that can save you and that’s why we celebrate

    It’s about the cross
    It’s about my sin
    It’s about how Jesus came to be born once
    So that we could be born again

    It’s about God’s love
    Nailed to a tree
    It’s about every drop of blood that flowed from Him when it should have been me

    It’s about the stone
    That was rolled away
    So that you and I could have real life someday
    So that you and I could have real life someday

    It’s about the cross
    It’s about the cross