This hymn, #127 in The Lutheran Hymnal, is a moving petition to Christ Jesus, our precious Savior and our heavenly King. The writer of this edifying hymn was Mr. William C. Dix, a layman, who lived in Bristol, England. During the 19th Century, when most of the British hymnwriters were clergymen, Mr. Dix, a business man, was an unusual exception. In 1860, on the 6th day of January, which was (and still is) the set day in the Christian Church Year for the festival of The Epiphany of Our Lord, Mr. Dix was sick in bed. He read the Gospel Lesson for this festival, Matthew 2:1-12, the account of the wise men coming to worship the new-born Messiah; and these verses moved him to write the five stanzas of “As with Gladness Men of Old.”
In 1861, Mr. Dix privately published this hymn in his very own Hymns of Love and Joy; and during that same year, it was included in the first public printing of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Its lyrics were set to the melody composed by Edward Kocher in 1838.
Let us examine the opening verse of this well-known hymn:
As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
as with joy they hailed its light,
leading onward, beaming bright;
so, most gracious Lord, may we
evermore be led by Thee!
Matthew, in his Gospel account, records that “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.’” (2:1-2). This question startled King Herod; for as far as he knew, he was King of the Jews in Jerusalem and hadn’t heard of any upstart being born to replace him. In fact, Herod and the whole city were “troubled” (v. 3) by the prospect of the Messiah’s arrival, the people no doubt fearing the repercussions that would follow. Herod sprang into action, demanding of the chief priests and the scribes “where Christ should be born” (v. 4); and he received the correct answer from the Holy Scriptures, Micah 5:2, when he was told: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘And thou Bethlehem in the land of Judah art not the least among the princes of Judah, for out of thee shall come a Governor that shall rule My people Israel’” (vv. 5-6). The king then sent the wise men off to Bethlehem with this order: “Go and search diligently for the young Child; and, when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also” (v. 8). Not knowing of the wicked king’s plan to destroy the Christchild, the wise men gladly received this additional information and resumed their quest. “They departed [from Jerusalem]; and, lo, the star which they saw in the east went before them till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (v. 9)
What was the wise men’s reaction when they saw the special star reappear once again? Matthew reported that “when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (v. 10). This verse prompted Dix to pen the introductory words: “As with gladness men of old did the guiding star behold; as with joy they hailed its light, leading onward, beaming bright.”
The timely application of the message of the beginning lines of this first stanza is evidenced by the petition following, directed to the Lord Jesus Himself: “So, most gracious Lord, may we evermore be led by Thee.” As we sing this stanza and ponder its words, we respond with a resounding “Amen,” addressing this same petition to our changeless Savior: “So, most gracious Lord, may we evermore be led by Thee,” not with a special star, not with any other miraculous manifestation or extra-Biblical means, but with the infallible, all-truthful, and ever trustworthy “light” and “lamp” (Psalm 119:105) of “the Holy Scriptures” (II Timothy 3:15). The Psalmist David also prayed for such divine leadership (and may we follow in his footsteps) in the 25th Psalm: “Show me Thy ways, O Lord; teach me Thy paths; lead me in Thy truth and teach me; for Thou art the God of my salvation; on Thee do I wait all the day” (vv. 4-5).
Come with me now as we travel to the second stanza:
As with joyful steps they sped,
Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
there to bend the knee before
Thee whom heav’n and earth adore,
so may we with willing feet
ever seek Thy mercy-seat!
Mr. Dix, in the first two lines of this stanza, echoes the opening words of Matthew 2, verse 11: “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary, His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him.” In the original wording of this stanza, the initial line was “as with joyful steps they sped, to that lowly manger bed.” The writer subsequently approved of this slight revision, directing his words again to the Christchild, who was at that time no longer “lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16) in Bethlehem’s stable but in a house (Matthew 2::11).
Worship, adoration, and submission to the Savior (and not to Mary) are an evidence of gratitude and thanks to Him for all that He has done in being the heavenly Father’s appointed, willing and “righteous Servant” (Isaiah 53:11b) in behalf of “the world” (John 3:16a) of sinners. What has He accomplished or “finished” (John 19:30) for all sinners of all time? He perfectly obeyed the Law of God as their Substitute before God. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 5, verse 19, points to this substitutionary obedience to God by His Son in these instructive and comforting words: “As by one man’s disobedience [the] many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall [the] many be made righteous.” As the disobedience of Adam in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6) resulted in all of his offspring being sinners, so the obedience of Christ resulted in all of Adam’s offspring being declared righteous! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Furthermore, God the Father most certainly laid on His Son, Christ Jesus, as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29), “the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6b), doing so already in eternity, as the Apostle John, in Revelation 13, spoke of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (v. 8b). What are the far-reaching consequences of this vicarious atonement by Christ Jesus to God in the stead of all mankind? Drink in these marvelous consequences for every single sinner (without exception) as you read and digest the words of the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 5: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them and hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation. …For He [God] hath made Him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him [in Christ]” (vv. 19 and 21). St. John wrote: “He that believeth on Him [Christ Jesus] is not condemned [for his sins], but he that believeth not is condemned already [for his sins] because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). The wise men revealed their faith in the Savior, adoring and worshiping Him when they found Him in Bethlehem.
Now in our daily lives as God’s “sheep” and “lambs” (John 21:15-17), having been made through “the Holy Scriptures …wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15), and having seen, with our eyes of faith focused on the pages of God’s Word, the wise men falling down and worshiping “Him [Jesus]” (Matthew 2:11), “so may we with willing feet ever seek Thy mercy-seat.” Let us imitate these wise men in their willing and grateful worship of our gracious God and Savior, ever remembering the instruction and the motivation set forth by the Psalmist in the 100th Psalm: “Enter into His gates with thanksgiving and into His courts with praise; be thankful unto Him and bless His name; for the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endureth to all generations” (vv. 4-5). The wise men traveled many miles to worship, adore, and gratefully serve Jesus, the “King of the Jews” and their own gracious King, though yet a “young child,” in a house, in the charge of Mary, His mother (Matthew 2:11). Although God’s “chosen” people (I Peter 2:9a; John 15:16a) are to worship, adore, and willingly submit to Jesus and His Word wherever they are (at home, at school, at work, taking a walk, going for a visit, at an appointment with their doctor, being on vacation, etc.), yet gathering in God’s House, where He is honored by the faithful preaching and teaching of His Word, is not to be neglected (Hebrews 10:25), but is to be cherished and looked upon with delight, as was the case with the Psalmist when he confessed in Psalm 26: “Lord, I have loved the habitation of Thy house and the place where Thine honor dwelleth” (v. 8).
Let us now consider stanza 3:
As they offered gifts most rare
at Thy cradle, rude and bare,
so may we with holy joy,
pure and free from sin’s alloy,
all our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heav’nly King!
The initial wording of this stanza is built squarely on the last part of verse 11 in Matthew 2, where the following is said of the wise men: “When they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts – gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” Mr. Dix, in his first rendering of the first two lines, had this wording: “As they offered gifts most rare, at Thy manger, crude and bare.” The minor revision of this original wording, as also of the original wording of the previous stanza, reflects the fact that Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus were by this time no longer in the temporary, emergency shelter of a stable where the newborn Savior had been laid “in a manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, 16), but were residing in a “house” (Matthew 2:11) under more normal circumstances.
The offering of gifts by the wise men to the young Savior — gifts specifically named in sacred prophecy (Isaiah 63:6) — was part of their worship of Him, part of the expression of their loving gratitude to Him who came into this world for them, to “save” (I Timothy 1:15b) them and the whole “world” (John 3:17) from what they justly deserved as “the wages” of their sins, which is everlasting “death” (Romans 6:23a), “everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46a) in “hell” (Luke 16:23). With their gifts, the wise men gave evidence of their “faith” (James 2:18b) in the promised Messiah, their trust in the promised “Seed” of the woman (Genesis 3:15), and their confidence in Him who “was wounded for [their] transgressions, …was bruised for [their] iniquities, …and with His stripes [they] are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), even if they had not yet been exposed to this and other Messianic prophecies.
“So may we [like the wise men] with holy joy,” “not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loveth a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7b), as part of our worship of Christ, our heavenly, gracious, and merciful King, bring our “gifts,” “the first fruits of all [our] increase” (Proverbs 3:9b), our “costliest treasures,” “to prove the sincerity of [our] love” (II Corinthians 8:8b) for Him who “first loved us” (I John 4:19b) and “gave Himself for [us]” (Galatians 2:20b) to redeem “us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree’” (3:13).
Let us now ponder the intercessions to our Good Shepherd in stanza 4:
Holy Jesus, every day
keep us in the narrow way;
and, when earthly things are past,
bring our ransomed souls at last
where they need no star to guide,
where no clouds Thy glory hide.
The sheep of Jesus petition Him, who is “holy,” “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15b), to “keep” (I Peter 1:5) them, through His living, powerful means of grace, which are the Gospel (Romans 1:16) and the Sacraments (Galatians 3:27; I Corinthians 11:26), in the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:14), the “Way” or “road” of Christ Himself (John 14:6), the “way” of His vicarious (substitutionary) atonement, and the “way” of His active and passive obedience (which we have the privilege of reviewing as we read through the Passion History during this Lenten season); it is this Savior alone, and none other, who is “THE Way” (John 14:6), the ONLY Road to everlasting life in heaven. The Apostle Peter, in Acts 4, confirmed this changeless truth when he declared: “Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is none other Name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved” (v. 12).
God’s “people” (I Peter 2:10) confidently know and trust that, at the time of their death or on the day of Jesus’ second visible advent, whichever comes first, “when earthly things are past,” their Savior will safely “bring [their] ransomed souls at last” to paradise, to their heavenly and everlasting home; for it is most certainly true that whosoever “believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36a). Their preservation in the saving faith “unto the end” (Matthew 24:13) is assured as they, His sheep, “hear His voice …and they follow [Him]” (10:27). And Christ Himself says of these sheep who hear His voice and follow Him: “I give unto them eternal life [as a priceless gift of grace], and they shall never perish, neither shall any man [lit., anyone] pluck them out of My hand” (v. 28).
Now for the final stanza of this endearing hymn:
In the heavenly country bright
need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down.
There forever may we sing
alleluias to our King!
In heaven there is no need for God’s great “created light,” the sun (Genesis 1:16). Why not? Christ is not only “the light of the world” (John 8:12a), of this present world and of all its inhabitants, but He is also the light of heaven and of all who dwell therein, as the Apostle John testifies in Revelation 21: “The city [the city of God, another name for heaven] had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it; for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof; and the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it; …for there shall be no night there” (vv. 23-24a, 25b).
To be with the only Savior in heaven brings “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11b) forever and ever; He is the everlastingly-shining “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2a), “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6b). Oh, how immensely blessed we are to be “the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26) and to have promised to us and waiting for us “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for [us]” (I Peter 1:4), the precious “Crown of life” (Revelation 2:10b). While we are still in this world, having by faith the sure victory over sin, the devil, death, and the grave “through our Lord Jesus Christ,” let us, out of God-wrought gratitude for our creation, redemption, justification, sanctification and preservation in the true faith, be “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as [we] know that our labor is not in vain in the Lord” (I Corinthians 15:57-58). Then, when we have “finished [our] course” (II Timothy 4:7) here in this world, we will be privileged to sing, “in the heavenly country bright,” perfect “alleluias to our King” for His name’s sake.
— R. J. L.