On the 3rd Day of Christmas Past, a Carol of Three.
Question: In “We Three Kings” what symbolism do the gifts given represent?
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“We Three Kings”
The song: “We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star.
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.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high.
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.
O star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide us to thy perfect Light.”
“We Three Kings” tells the entire Gospel of Jesus in one little song. The context of the carol centres around the Biblical Magi, who visited Jesus during his Nativity and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh while paying homage to him. This song was written by Rev. John Henry Hopkins Jr. He was born on Oct. 28, 1820 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. His heart was set on going to law school, but after receiving his degree from the University of Vermont, (AB-1839 and MA-1845), He felt led of the Holy Spirit to enter the ministry. He entered the General Theological Seminary and graduated in 1850. After he graduated, he took a job as the Seminary’s first music teacher from 1855 till 1857. He was also the editor of the “Church Journal” from 1853-1868. He served as a deacon in 1850 and was priest in 1872. Then he became rector of Trinity Church in Plattsburg, New York, and later served as rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pa.
Hopkins did something extremely uncommon among carol composers when he wrote this song, he authored the lyrics and composed the music. Most carols usually had original lyrics or music but not both. While teaching music at the Seminary in 1857, Rev. Hopkins wrote the hymn, “We Three Kings” for a Christmas pageant that was presented at the Seminary that Christmas. He probably wrote the hymn with his nieces and nephews in mind. Since, he traveled from New York to Vermont every Christmas,where his father, John H. Hopkins. Sr., was the long time Episcopal Bishop for the State of Vermont. He always had a surprise for the youngsters at Christmas, and this year was no different. As usual, bachelor Uncle Henry did not disappoint the children. The family always had a dramatization of Matthew Chapter 2, and the entire Christmas Story. The hymn was sung by the family for the next two years, and was so popular with family and friends that by 1863 it had been published by Rev. Hopkins in his first collection of “Carols, Hymns, and Songs”. It was reprinted in 1865 with illustrations. The original title of the hymn was “Three Kings of Orient”.
Little did John Hopkins know the theological implications of his hymn when he wrote both words and music. The success of his book, “Carols, Hymns, and Other Songs,” became one of the most popular books on music, and Rev. Hopkins became a household name. Rev. Hopkins carved his niche in history with this Hymn. It was the first Christmas carol originating from the United States to achieve widespread popularity.
In Matthew 2:1 the scriptures tell us that “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.” Also Verse 11 tells us, “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and fell down and worshiped him, and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It does not say if there were three kings or that there were only three wise men. Though the event is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, there are no further details given with regards to their names, the number of Magi that were present or whether they were even royal. Hence, the names of the Magi—Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar—and their status as kings from the Orient are legendary and based on tradition. It does not matter how many wise men came, or how long it took to find Jesus. What is important is that they followed the star, and God’s leadership and gave the symbolic gifts.
The notion of three kings stems from the fact that there were three separate gifts that were presented, all of which had a very deep meaning. First there was gold, the most precious metal of all metals in that day. This was symbolic of His reign on earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Second was the gift of frankincense, which was symbolic of His priestly ministry here on earth. and myrrh was symbolic of our redemption through His suffering and death.
What gifts will you present to our Savior this Christmas and what symbolism will be behind them?
Stories Behind the Hymns by Warren Shiver.