O Little Town of Bethlehem
By Nathele Graham
We learn Christmas songs at a young age, and most of us can sing at least one verse of our favorite Christmas carol without looking at the words. It’s good to have songs memorized, but it’s good to understand the truth behind the songs. A favorite for many years has been “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, written in 1868 by Phillip Brooks.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light.
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Bethlehem was a small town near Jerusalem. It was the home town of King David. He spent much time in the surrounding fields shepherding his sheep. It was a quiet life, but even at that time, there had been important events involving Bethlehem. David was the son of Jesse, and Jesse was the son of Obed, who was the son of Boaz and Ruth. Their love story is recorded in the Old Testament book of Ruth. It’s a record of the love of a Jewish man for a young Gentile widow named Ruth. Ruth came to understand Jewish ways, and know the One True God because of her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi had left Bethlehem with her husband and two sons. The sons grew up and married Gentiles. Naomi’s husband and both sons died. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem where she hoped to find a kinsman redeemer to redeem the land her husband had lost. Ruth went with Naomi There was a near kinsman named Boaz, who owned fields around Bethlehem. Were these the same fields where Christ was born? Boaz fell in love, and took a Gentile bride, Ruth, and redeemed the land Naomi had lost. Jesus is our Kinsman Redeemer. His mother and step-father were Jewish. He shed His blood, as our Kinsman Redeemer, to redeem what Adam had lost. Jesus took a Gentile Bride (Christians) and faith in His death, burial, and Resurrection brings eternal life. Both Joseph and Mary trace their bloodlines through King David, so there is no doubt that Jesus is rightful heir to David’s throne. When the angel came to Mary to announce she would have a child, he told her:
“He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” – Luke 1:32-33.
Isaiah had given a prophecy that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and Micah had foretold He would be born in Bethlehem in Judah.
“But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” – Micah 5:2.
So, how did a young virgin in Nazareth, who was engaged, but not yet married, to a carpenter named Joseph, happen to give birth to the Son of God, miles away in Bethlehem? Mary was a virgin…engaged to Joseph, but not yet married. The Holy Spirit had come upon her and she became pregnant…a virgin just as Isaiah had foretold.
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…and all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.” – Luke 2:1 & 3-5.
It’s interesting that God chose Mary, who lived many miles away from Bethlehem, to give birth to the Messiah. Somehow, she had to be in Bethlehem when Christ was born. God used a pagan ruler to issue a decree requiring everyone to be taxed. That decree forced Joseph to travel with Mary to Bethlehem. God’s timing is perfect, and the decree was issued when Mary was “great with child”, but still able to travel. They made it to Bethlehem.
“And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:6-7.
Movies and Sunday school plays like to dramatize their arrival in Bethlehem just as Mary is ready to give birth. That makes for exciting stories, but Scripture seems to indicate that they were settled into the manger before Mary went into labor.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And, gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth,
And praises sing to God the King
And peace to all the earth.
On that day when prophecy was fulfilled, most of the residents of Bethlehem were ignorant of the miracle which took place in the fields around Bethlehem. People haven’t changed much over the years. Today, prophecy is ignored and, even though it’s unfolding daily, most people are sleeping. Long ago the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to shepherds. I can only imagine the fear that took control of their minds. Imagine lying in the grass looking up into a dark sky full of twinkling stars. Maybe there was some idle chit-chat about the crowds of people in town for the taxation, or talking about any new lambs that had been born. Suddenly, out of the tranquility, an angel of the Lord appeared. The shepherds were afraid.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone around about them: and they were sore afraid.” – Luke 2:9.
I’d be afraid too.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” – Luke 2:10-11.
That’s the best news that has ever been proclaimed. Christ was born!
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Once again, Sunday school plays and Hollywood movies dramatize what happened. The angel spoke to the shepherds. More angels appeared, but they too spoke the words.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:13-14.
We usually picture the multitude of angels loudly singing the words, but Scripture doesn’t indicate that they sang the words. It does say they spoke their praises to God. Christ fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophecies. Although He was crucified and buried, He arose from the grave and conquered death. Invite Him into your life, and you will be forgiven your sins (past, present, and future sins) and gain eternal life. Receive His gift of salvation today.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray,
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!
Christ’s birth is as important today as it was when the angels appeared to the shepherds. All a person needs to do to receive Christ is to humbly admit you’re a sinner and need a Saviour. Jesus Christ is that Saviour. He is the only way of salvation. The angel’s announcement of peace on earth good will toward men is still valid. God wants people to come to Him for salvation, and we need to seek His peace by accepting His son. When the shepherds heard the announcement of Christ’s birth, they left their sheep and went to find the Baby.
“And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:15-16.
They responded exactly the way everyone should when told about Jesus. Hear about Him, then seek Him. After the shepherds found Him, they went and told others about Him. Have you told anybody about Jesus? Have you told anyone about His free gift of salvation?
When I was much younger, I would sing the words, not really understanding the reason for singing about Bethlehem. Now I know how important it is to understand the words to the hymns I sing. God gave us prophecy to let us know the future and see signs that prophecy is being fulfilled. Because people ignored prophecy and didn’t look for His birth, many missed Him. Preconceived ideas can cause blindness to prophecy being fulfilled. It was shepherds who first heard the joyous news and responded. I wonder what the people said who heard the shepherd’s tale of angels and finding the baby in a manger. Were they mocked? Shepherds weren’t highly respected people, so when they told of angels appearing and finding the Messiah, most who heard their words didn’t respond with joy. The shepherds didn’t allow mockers to steal their joy.
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” – Luke 2:20.
Have you heard the Good News that Christ was born? Have you responded to that news and asked Jesus to forgive your sins? Tell someone about it. If they laugh at you, don’t allow their mockery to take your joy away.
By human reasoning, it would have made more sense for Christ to be born in Jerusalem, but God chose the little town of Bethlehem long before His birth. By human reasoning it would have made more sense to have the Son of God be born to a married couple. Long before Mary was born, God said a virgin would give birth to His Son. By human reasoning it would have made more sense for Jesus to be born to a wealthy family, but Immanuel, God with us, was born in a manger to very poor earthly parents. They were faithful to their Jewish faith, and on the eighth day after His birth He was circumcised, and all other Jewish Laws were fulfilled.
“And after the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” – Luke 2:22-24.
Once again Sunday school plays and Hollywood have confused the story. The magi hadn’t been to visit yet. When they arrived, they gave expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Had Joseph and Mary had these expensive gifts, they could have afforded an offering of a lamb, but they had to sacrifice an offering of a poor person. In God’s timing, the magi would arrive at a house, not a manger, to find the Child, not the Baby, and their gifts would pay the expenses for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s order to kill all male children. God always provides what is needed when it is needed.
During this time of year, there are so many secular pressures to buy gifts, go to Christmas parties, and bake goodies, we forget that we are celebrating the humble birth of God’s Son…our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Be sure to tell someone about the reason for the season.
God bless you all,
All original scripture is “theopneustos” God breathed.
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