While nativity scenes usually include shepherds and magi (often called wise men and sometimes portrayed as kings) together worshipping Jesus, we do not read about them both being there at the same time. (Note that the description of the shepherds’ arrival is in Luke’s account and the story of the magi is in Matthew’s account.) In fact, the logic of the story of the magi itself would necessitate that they did not come to see Jesus when he was born; their arrival would come much later and long after the shepherds returned to their flock since they had to journey to find him. Other details also point to their arrival some time later, such as the fact that Jesus is now in a house (Matthew 2:11), called a child instead of a baby (Matthew 2:11), and Herod orders boys two and under to be killed (Matthew 2:16). The traditional Christian calendar recognized this fact, with the holiday of Epiphany (January 6) being the day to remember the arrival of the magi. That also points to the fact Jesus came not not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles and people of all nations. Thus, it may be better to label the song “We Three Kings” as an “Epiphany song” rather than a Christmas song! Because of that, I’ve waited to examine this song until Epiphany as a way to conclude this journey through Christmas songs we started in December.
The stories behind the writing of many of the songs we sing at Christmas included an individual writing a poem and another individual putting that poem to music, but this song had one single author who wrote both the words and the music. This individual was John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote the song when he served as the rector (pastor) at a church in Pennsylvania. He did not write the song for his church, though, but rather for a Christmas pageant that was taking place in New York City. He served as a music teacher at General Theological Seminary in New York City for a number of years, even while serving as a pastor in the Episcopal church. His work as a teacher helps explain the oddity of a pastor in Pennsylvania writing a song for a pageant in New York City, as the year he wrote “We Three Kings” (1857) was his last year teaching music at the seminary.
Hopkins’s friends and family continued to sing the song (originally titled “Three Kings of Orient”) and liked it, which led to Hopkins publishing it in 1863 in his Carols, Hymns, and Songs. It would continue to grow in popularity throughout America and England and be printed in various hymnals on both sides of the ponds. Written a little bit earlier than “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Philips Brooks and Lewis Redner (see this post from a few weeks back on the history of that song), “We Three Kings” is often viewed as the first Christmas song written in America that became a staple; this stands as yet another well-known Christmas song that came to us in the 19th century.
The song also features a memorable refrain sung after each of the verses: “O Star of wonder, star of night / Star with royal beauty bright / Westward leading, still proceeding / Guide us to thy Perfect Light.” This refrain reminds us of the perseverance required for such a trip and the majestic star that both guides them and conveys the glorious reality that Christ is born. As we sing these words about their journey, we are encouraged to do likewise – seek after Jesus throughout our lives.
The first verse is probably the most well known, introducing the figures (“We, three kings from Orient”) and where they travel (“we traverse afar/ field and fountain, moor and mountain”) guided by a star (“following yonder star”) to bring gifts to Jesus, the newborn king (“bearing gifts”). Looking at the words made me realize there is an odd word – “moor.” When I looked it up in the dictionary, I discovered it means “a tract of open, peaty, wasteland, often overgrown with heath, common in high latitudes and altitudes where drainage is poor; heath.” The terrain covered by these visitors from the East was not a well-paved highway but a wide variety of topographies.
The next three verses go through the different gifts that we read are brought to Jesus, explaining their significance. First is “gold,” which reflects the kingly quality of this child (“gold I bring to crown him again”). This gold does not make him king, but proclaims that and recognizes him as the everlasting king (“King forever, ceasing never”). The third verse then turns to the incense which reminds us that he is also divine (“incense owns a Deity nigh”), though some would connect it to his work as priest. As the Son of God, they approach him with “prayer and praising, voices raising / worshiping God on high.” The gift that leads to some fun mispronunciations or misidentifications in Christmas programs – frankincense – appears in the fourth verse. This item was something used in the anointing of people before burial, so it reminds us of Jesus’s death, which is reflected in the words of this verse (“breathes a life of gathering gloom; /
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / sealed in the stone-cold tomb”). The king who is God has come to die. The final verse ties these themes together noting that he is “King and God and sacrifice,” which should lead us and all the earth to praise God (“Alleluia, Alleluia, / sounds through the earth and skies”).
While intending to teach us what is described in Matthew 2, there are a number of places in which the song does not accurately reflect what the text actually says. In fact, none of the key words in the title of the song (three, kings, Orient) are found in Matthew 2. Since others have written good posts on this, I’ll try to summarize the issues and direct you to check out this post.
Tradition has said that there were three individuals who came and even gave them names (Gaspar or Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). This is in large part because there were three gifts, presuming that each person brought one; one finds this as early as Origen who lived in 185-254. However, we find pictures in various catacombs of two or four individuals and lists from medieval times can be as many as eight or twelve.
The text also does not say they were kings. Rather, they are called “magi.” These individuals were interested in dreams and astrological events, so it would not be surprising that they would spot the star and be interested in what it means. The idea that they are kings probably arose because of passages like Isaiah 60:3 and Psalm 72:10 that describe kings coming with gifts and to serve the anointed of God. Seeing these figures as kings also meant that the high (king) and low (shepherds) would worship Jesus. The identification of them as kings would become a common view by around the year 500 and has persisted even though many biblical scholars have pointed out that this is not what the text says. The alternative term of “wise men” that is often used may also be confusing and inaccurate, as we likely would think of these individuals as philosopher teachers rather than who they were, and there was a different Greek word for that term.
The individuals also did not seem to come from the area that is commonly associated with the word “Orient.” While it is not used a lot today, when it is used, people associate “Orient” with East Asia. The word comes from Latin and means “east,” and the text does say they came from the “east,” but the original audience of Matthew would think of areas like Persia, Arabia (modern Syria/Jordan), and Babylonia when they hear “east.” Therefore, when sung today, people probably think they start their journey in a much different location than they actually did.
It is not just the number, vocation, and originating location noted in the song that has caused people to have qualms with its accuracy in conveying the biblical message, as the description of their following of the star reflects popular descriptions of the event, but not how Matthew tells it. These magi see a star when Jesus is born (as Numbers 24:17 talks about a star when the messiah is born), but they do not follow this star to find Jesus at first. Rather, it seems that they see a special star and then go to Jerusalem, the capital city where they would presumably find the newborn king (see Matthew 2:2). They then learned that the king would be born in Bethlehem, and Herod sent them to Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:3-8). It is this last leg of the journey (which would only have been five or six miles) which they seem to have been guided by the star, as it would identify the home in which Jesus now was (see Matthew 2:9-10). Therefore, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that they were going through “field and fountain, moor and mountain / following yonder star.”
In light of the number of details that reflect traditions not found in the text or may even misrepresent the text, should we still sing this song – and if it is an Epiphany song, should we sing it at Christmas? In light of its rich history, I don’t know if we need to throw the song out and delete it from our song lists and memories. In some ways, having the song invites us to be able to explain some of the differences or details and can actually drive us back to the text and past traditional understandings of Christmas. While the magi did not come on Christmas Day, singing this Epiphany song is a reminder at Christmas that Jesus came for all the nations. The song also can convey some truths that can be confusing to people, particularly why these gifts were brought and their importance. The opening words obscure the text, but the overall point of the song is not on these messengers or when they visited as much as who they are visiting – the newborn king who would come to die for our sins. May we stand in wonder of that and be guided by the light of that truth and seek to spread it to all nations of the world both during this Epiphany season and beyond.
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