One of the blessings of holiday season is the opportunity to sing Christmas carols. Each year we dust off many of the old favorites and, for several weeks, get to sing with friends and family. Part of the charm that accompanies these songs is the archaic language. Like a unique and obscure feature of an old house, sometimes these words blend in and go unnoticed. Other times, something grabs our attention, and we stop to ask, What is this doing here?
Recently I asked this question about the hymn “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I have used four out of five of these words fairly regularly in the last year, and I’m reasonably confident I understand what the fifth means (who would’ve guessed “gentlemen” would be a controversial or archaic term?).
I’m not ashamed to admit I was a bit unsure of their meaning when considering them as arranged in the song. This is not entirely surprising. The song is estimated to be older than the United States. It seems to have gained traction in the mid-18th century (and may even date back to the Reformation era). It was further popularized by its inclusion in Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol. Upon hearing the first lines of the song, Scrooge responds with an intimidating level of intolerance. He had no patience for the song.
What does it mean? How are we to understand this song and its title? Is the song addressed to merry gentlemen? Or is the word merry connected to God’s action? Is this a petition for God to make people merry?
As I researched the song, it seems the issue comes down to two words: rest and merry. And second, the placement of a comma (before or after the word merry). As we’ll see, I think the comma should be after the word merry. This is along the lines of what we find in Shakespeare, “God rest you merry, sir” (Shakespeare, 1599. As You Like It, Act V. scene 1).
The first is the term rest. What does this mean? This use of “rest” is not from the Germanic root meaning our usual “rest” (to cease from work or motion), but from the Latin root restare, meaning to continue in or remain. It’s most commonly preserved in the word “arrest,” to hold someone firmly.
So, we have God rest (keep or hold) ye. Now the question is with the word merry. Some have argued that the word merry is referring to strong like Robin Hood’s mighty men. But did this historically mean strong? The Oxford English Dictionary refers to it merely as a companion or follower. It seems better to understand merry in this song in the way we would naturally say it. For example, when we greet someone with the phrase Merry Christmas we mean to say Happy Christmas. I think this is the sense that we get from reading the song itself. The context of the song seems to indicate a potential for discouragement and then pleas to be kept happy in and by God. It is about being made joyful in God by God himself.
Throughout the song we read,
God rest you merry gentlemen
Let nothing ye dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray
Again and again, the song acknowledges our tendency towards discouragement and points us to the person and work of Christ. I think the hymn-writer wants to make us happy in God. He does this by reminding us of the kindness that ordered and accomplished the incarnation, as well as the success of the mission itself.
Think about some of the older translations of these verses in light of the song.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. (Isaiah 40:1)
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; That bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; That saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” (Isaiah 52:7)
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:10)
And then the song’s refrain:
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
God saves sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He saves weak people like you and me with a very strong Savior. It’s as if he is saying, May God keep you joyful in the truth of the gospel, friends.
The human heart is often weighed down, and we know that many struggle with seasonal depression. But amid and even despite the sadness that comes from this cursed world we can be made joyful. The tidings of comfort and joy (the good news of the gospel) is the grounds by which God can arrest us in joy.
In the midst of this spiritual dryness, we have this hymn—a fresh benediction of gospel tonic! What a providential Christmas present to open each year. This is why I think the song means and should be written like this: God rest you merry, gentlemen.
May God keep you joyful, friends!