The Postmillennial Character of Christmas Carols

Posted on November 29, 2011 · Posted in Articles

Snow has reached the foothills of the Rogue Valley, Thanksgiving (or officially: Thanksgiving and Praise To Our Beneficent Father Who Dwelleth in the Heavens – can you imagine congress passing that holiday today!) has come and gone, and I’m in a Christmas mood.
Perhaps I’m premature in examining Christmas carols, but their subject matter is relevant in any and every season, so, though I am a bit early, bear with me. I hope to take a look at the reason why we celebrate on Christmas Day, and to give you some food for thought as we enter the Advent season.
R.J. Rushdoony, in his book Institutes of Biblical Law: Volume 1 points out that, “The joyful news of the birth of Christ is the restoration of man to his original calling with the assurance of victory. This has long been celebrated in Christmas carols… The cultural mandate [i.e. fulfilling the Dominion Mandate (Genesis 1:26-28) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20)] and postmillennialism is either explicit or implicit in Christmas carols.”
Before we move on, we must establish what postmillennialism is. It is a particular view of eschatology (end times) that is defined well by Andrew Sandlin in his book, A Postmillennial Primer: “postmillennialism, rather, derives from those passages [in Scripture] that promise (1) a great extended era of earthly righteousness, peace, and prosperity; (2) the incremental advancement of God’s and Christ’s kingdom in human history during the interadvental era (the period between the first and second Advents); and (3) the unique and potent presence of God accompanying and energizing his covenant people… postmillennialists are not obsessed with the precise timing of the millennium in relation to the second Advent, but are concerned with Christ’s advancing kingdom in time, history, and eternity.”
Rushdoony shows this through several carols, particularly in Isaac Watts’ great hymn/carol “Joy to the World”:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow,
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove,
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

What a wonderful song that speaks of the victory brought into the world through the birth of Christ – salvation to be given to the elect of the world by the grace of God through the person and work of Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate on December 25. Also, through that regeneration of man by grace through faith, we, along with all creation are sanctified, redeemed and brought into conformity with the righteous law of Christ, who was Himself the embodiment of the law of God; the “way, the truth and the light”, the righteousness of God imputed to us. The Christian religion is a faith of ultimate victory, where the very gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ and His chosen people (Matt. 16:18). This we see clearly in the Advent season, that, though Christ is a mere baby lying in a manger, helpless and weak, (a picture of how it is with the people of God often, infants in the hands of a gracious Lord) yet, in that small child there is the power of God unto salvation and redemption, and that weakness, in the child Immanuel and in the church, was never impotence. God is sovereign and omnipotent, and He is providentially in control of all things. Undoubtedly, though the church may sometimes falter and faint, still the trajectory of human history is toward victory for the people of God. The focal point of that history is the period from the Advent season to the Cross – the Incarnation. It is the focal point of history, because it is where the battle was won by Christ. Through Christ is victory achieved, not through man-made inventions, and it’s as the gospel is spread and more and more of the world is brought into submission to the King, that the story started in the stable in Bethlehem continues on, until all things are consummated upon the return of the King to reign over His Kingdom. This triumph of the godly over the ungodly is the refrain of many a carol too. Take “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” for instance:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With Peace On Earth, Good Will To Man.

The peace that we all sentimentally sing and dream about during the holidays is not attainable through human striving. Though Yoko Ono and John Lennon believe that “War is over if you want it”, they themselves were in rebellion against the Law-word of Jesus Christ, the King who was born on Christmas. Worldwide peace does not come as we all respect one another’s “humanity” but as we are renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the cleansing blood of the babe born in Bethlehem, Christ. As “O Holy Night” declares:

A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel’s voices,
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.

It’s as we fall on our knees in submission to Christ’s Kingship, heralded at Christmas, that true peace, and the dominion of the Kingdom over the whole earth, is made possible. Only in the blessings of the incarnation, through the birth, testimony, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ can there be the “heavenly peace”, peace with God and man, spoken of in the carol “Silent Night”. Christ is not a King in a metaphorical sense, as with Elvis, who is the “King” of Rock, nor in the merely ceremonial sense, as with modern monarchs who hold a symbolic position with no true power, rather he is actively reigning in the world today. We celebrate the birth of the incarnate Eternal King, who gives us salvation through His blood, and sanctifies us by the power of His Word.
All the material blessings that we enjoy in the Western world, banking on the Christian legacy left to us by generations past and still lingering by the grace God, though in decline currently; all this prosperity has led to songs about gift-giving, (songs like “Jolly Old St. Nicolas”, “Santa Baby”, and others of the sillier, secular holiday kind,) which are forgetting that the tradition of giving presents on December 25, was not started by a fat jolly old elf, who sneaks into our houses, eats cookies that we leave for him, and leaves surprises for the children, but by the wise men at the home of Joseph and Mary, who bowed before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who sing:

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign,

Frankincense to offer have I,
Incense owns a deity nigh,
Pray’r and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God Most High.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice,
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Earth to heav’n replies.

We are told to pay homage to our Lord and Savior, and to put our trust and hope in Him as we strive to be faithful to His revealed Word. The promises of God are what we celebrate on Christmas, as in this classic carol:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

Our only comfort in life and in death, as the Heidelberg Catechism tells us, is “that I am not my own, but belong – body and soul – in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.” That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Christ has set us free from the bondage of sin, He has brought us out of the house of slavery that we might worship Him, and live our lives under the total authority of His commandments, contained in the complete witness of Scripture.
The “tidings of comfort and joy” within all these great carols are tidings about the victory of the seed of the woman over the seed of the serpent, of the triumph of the City of God against the City of Man; a triumph which will continue on in expectation of Christ’s return, and which is being worked out in history today, though we may not always see it, the promises of God are sure.
“Hark! the Harold Angels Sing”, also joins in with the testimony of carols to the Kingship of Christ:

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 angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

That good news, heralded by the hosts of heaven to the shepherds that night, was news “that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Luke 2:10-14) The peace that comes with the Christ-child is not just to all men, but specifically to those “with whom He is pleased”. However, this promise is for “all people”. There will come a time when the whole world will submit to Christ’s Lordship. We see this clearly in Isaiah’s messianic predictions:

“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has a light shined.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the trampling warrior in battle tumult,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is give;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
(Isaiah 9:2-7, emphasis mine)

This passage has been the source of many a Christmas carol, including, that great work of music, Handel’s “Messiah”. Note that it mentions that “the increase” of Christ’s kingdom shall have no end, implying a worldwide victory of the gospel over the peoples of the earth. But there’s another messianic passage from Isaiah that is explicitly post-millennial and has also been the inspiration of many carols and hymns:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them,

They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples – of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise a signal for the nations
and will assemble the banished of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.”
(Isaiah 11:1-12, emphasis mine)

This passage predicts the coming of the Messiah, the root of Jesse and King David, the Christ, the great judge and lawgiver. It also predicts that the millennium shall be ushered in by His coming, an age of peace where the lion lies down with the lamb, because the whole world is “full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”. But this is not some distant paradise that will only come at the end of the world, but rather, Isaiah tells us “In that day [i.e. the time when the world is full of the knowledge of God] the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time.” The Second Coming, which will consummate all of redemptive history ushering in Eternity, will happen once the world is in obedience to the Kingship of Christ. (Matt. 28:18-20; 2 Cor. 10:5; etc) Obviously there will still be godly and ungodly, regenerate and degenerate, for the passage tells us that God will “recover the remnant” (i.e. the elect people of God) from the world. Yes, there will still be those, many perhaps, who are not saved by Christ in the end times, but the Bible is clear that the end times are marked by a widespread submission to the Word of God. This has been the course of history from the beginning, when God first covenanted with man, and it is what was set fully into motion at the coming of Christ the King. This anticipated victory is fulfilled already in Christ, in the sense that the atoning work of Christ on the Cross has paid the price for salvation and destroyed the works of the devil; but its fulfillment is still being worked out in the sense of the redemption and sanctification of all Creation, which is the task of the people of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, until the Bridegroom arrives for the wedding feast.
Isaiah 11 is brought to mind in the carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, where the final verse boldly rejoices:

For lo, the days are hast’ning on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of Gold,
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendor fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

The victory born to the world in the person of Jesus Christ, born on Christmas morn, is the reason that we celebrate the upcoming holiday. A defeatist, pessimistic view of the world is absent from the confidence trumpeted in the traditional carols of Christendom. This nation was once characterized by Christianity. The American people, our forefathers, once submitted themselves individually, corporately, ecclesiastically and civilly to the Lord, the King of Kings; and we as a nation celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving out of gratitude and praise for the blessings we received from our Heavenly Father. But what will the people of God do today? Will they participate in the momentum of history, the victory of Christmas, and shout with one voice “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” or will they settle for defeat?
Regardless of our current decision, there is ultimate and imminent triumph for the people of the covenant. Postmillennialism anticipates that definitive conquest of the elect, those who hold to that eschatological view work toward the Great Commission and the Dominion Mandate with hope and excitement for what God has in store for mankind before the world ends, and the carols you sing every Christmas proclaim this truth. God is the sovereign Lord, so worship Him this holiday season.

God bless you and send you a happy New Year!