We Three Kings

The Men Who Traveled Far

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2 (KJV)

I’ll never forget the intensity with which Charlie studied the words on the paper. I’d been singing “We Three Kings” all my life, so the words were not new to me, but I sensed that he had never read them. Even if he had heard the music or sung the carol, had he sung all five verses? I didn’t know Charlie well; neither did I know what he believed about Christmas, but most of the people at the party I was attending were not believers in Christ.

My experience with the carol included many Christmas pageants with cute children in costumes parading down the church aisle singing:

“We three kings of orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar . . .”
“Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, ceasing never . . .”
“Frankincense to offer have I: incense owns [acknowledges] a Deity nigh”
“Myrrh is mine: its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom–“

I didn’t know then that young men, students of the General Theological Seminary in New York City, performed the first pageant that featured this carol in 1857. The seminary’s music director, Rev. John Henry Hopkins Jr., had written both the lyrics and the music for the event.

Hopkins called them kings even though the Bible calls them magi or wise men—probably court astrologers—and probably numbering many more than three. Caravans wouldn’t have traveled so far with just three men. Hopkins described more than the three gifts the men brought. In fact, he depicted the whole gospel in his carol: “One born in Bethlehem who is a king, God, and a sacrifice; He died, then rose from the dead.”

It’s been many years since I watched Charlie react to the carol at the party. I still pray for him and others who hear the words and ponder about the men who traveled far, following a wondrous star.

How about you? Even if you remember all the words to Hopkins’s carol, will you spend a few minutes this Christmas pondering the meaning of its lyrics and the lyrics of other carols? Many tell the story of who Jesus is and why He came to earth. Read all five verses to this carol and other carols at www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com.

DIG DEEPER:

The magi might have known Old Testament prophecies because Jews had been in Babylon during the years of their captivity. Israelites understood that Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 pointed to a messiah, a deliverer. What did Balaam’s prophecy tell the magi?

Read the full story of the magi in Matthew 2:1-18. What was King Herod’s reaction to a new king’s birth? Why do you think he reacted that way?

The gospel of John does not include the story of Christ’s birth. John goes back much further. Read John 1:1-2, 10-14. What does he say about who Jesus is?

The carol mentions “myrrh,” a bitter gum that was used as a costly perfume and as an embalming agent. Read John 12:1-7. What did Mary (not Jesus’ mother) do that also foreshadowed Jesus’ death?

Nancy J. Baker

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