The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Words: Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), 1868.
Source: Phillips Brooks, Christmas Songs and Easter Carols (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1903),
except for the second verse.

Version by Dr. Steve H. Hakes © 2016; Used with permission.

Music: "St. Louis," Lewis Henry Redner (1831-1908), 1868.
MIDI / Noteworthy ComposerPDF

"Forest Green" by Ralph Vaughn Williams in The English Hymnal (1906), page 24.
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF

Meter: 86 86 76 86

Source: Dr. Steve H. Hakes, O Little Town of Bethlehem
@ Lyricology Hub: Christian Songs for Life

See generally: O Little Town Of Bethlehem - Notes On The Carol

1. Oh little town of Bethlehem
how silently it lay
Above its deep and dreamless sleep
the special star did stay
And in its dark streets God did shine
the everlasting light
the hopes and fears of all the years
were met in it that night.

2. For Christ was born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals slept, the angels kept
Their watch of wondering love
the heavenly choir together
Proclaimed the holy birth
And they did sing to God the king
and of his peace to earth.

3. How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift was given
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven
No ear can hear his coming
But in this world of sin
Where needy will receive him still
the dear christ enters in.

5. The holy one of Bethlehem
is with us to this day
He's cast out sin and entered in
was born in us his way
We can hear the Christmas angels
who glad tidings did tell
He's come to us, to live with us
our lord Emmanuel!

Notes by Dr. Hakes:

O Little Town of Bethlehem

In 1865, Rev. Phillips Brooks (Episcopalian) went to Bethlehem, and three years later wrote a Sunday School Christmas song, for which a friend (Lewis Redner) wrote its tune. Brook's biographer, Rev. Louis Benson, reckoned that the tune sold the lyric. For construction, each stanza has the same weight. Each stanza has 8 lines. Looking at stanza three, typical of all, we can see that Line 1 & 5 lack rhyme, that L2 & L4 rhyme (given/heaven), that L3 rhymes in itself (imparts/hearts), that L6 & L8 rhyme (sin/in), and that L7 rhymes in itself (will/still). That's a double ABCB1 sequence in each stanza. Yet for content, the stanzas have different weight. One stanza (which, incidentally, urged children to pray to baby Jesus) was challenged. Brooks changed a line from [the Undefiled] to [the Mother mild], to avoid sounding Romanish, then wisely dropped the whole stanza.1 A far better stanza, How Silently, possibly had a young friend, the deaf & blind Helen Keller who had 'always' felt God, in mind. A 1903 song book transposed the 2 halves of stanza 2, an error long righted. Benson was uncertain about whether the carol should be called a hymn, because until the last stanza the singer sings to Bethlehem—but carol or hymn, tweaking could make me happy.

Firstly, I'm not happy to sing to a town, especially to a ghost town of history. Obviously some are. Ernst Anschutz wouldn't talk to daisies, yet he affectionately sung to Christmas trees destined for the fire (Isaiah 44:14-7)—much pleasure they didst give him.2 Call Anschutz a nutter, if you like, but Christmas trees, Christmas towns, is there really much difference between singing to Bethlehem and singing to its trees? Ask no favours of your firs. Secondly, Phillips Brooks' song has picked up archaism—the new becomes old—but from the word Go has had an annualism, whereby the past is imaginatively presented as the present: it's what I call a tardisial song.3 I would rather sing the lyrics historically, as if looking back on an event, than look at it unfold. Thirdly, its line, peace to men on earth, besides showing sageism, is based on a scribal error with Luke 2:14.4 Fourthly, I jib at asking Jesus himself for anything. True, there are rare critical circumstances permitted, such as maranatha.5 But to actually ask him as if he is a holy infant, is probably something that even the Blessed Virgin would not have done. Jesus is no baby, though he has been one. If we ask Jesus, it should at least be to one who has been a baby, not as one who still is. Is it the cute & cuddly fantasy we seek, or the nail printed lord? It gets worse, since the request, if by Christians, is asking him to convert the converted. Ask him no folly. Have we not even the sense of Nicodemus, who gaily joked about his mother rebirthing him (John 3:4)? 6 On a positive note, as Benson noted, is the line about hopes and fears converging, which is a powerful take on salvation history: at last, God has come when we feared he'd given up on us, though to some it's "the dreadful smell of death and doom" (NLT: 2 Corinthians 2:16)! Those who loved God hoped he would visit, and feared he would not. Those who hated God hoped he would not visit, and feared he would.

Footnotes by Dr. Hakes:

1. Composed & dropped by Brooks: [Where children pure and happy / Pray to the blessed Child / Where misery cries Out to Thee / Son of the [Undefiled/Mother mild] / Where Charity stands watching / And Faith holds wide the door / The dark night wakes, the glory breaks / And Christmas comes once more. Return

2. I think of a Germany 16th Century song about a fir tree that picked up contrasts to human relationships not staying ever true/green, and eventually became the dubious custom stateside. Return

3. A Tardis is sometimes a blue box, bigger inside than out, an acrostic for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, and a fun way to visit the Manger. Return

4. Luke wrote eudokias, the genitive form, meaning not that it was God giving peace & goodwill, but giving peace/shalom to those of goodwill towards him, the faithful such as Simeon (Luke 2:29f.). My college's notes Bible Text & Translation 2 (CE03) cover this text more. Return

5. If from marana tha (invocation), rather than maran atha (declaration). In any case, see Rev. 22:20. Return

    Ed. marana tha (the invocation) is roughly translated "Come, Lord", while maran atha (the declaration) is roughly translated as "the Lord has come."

6. See [see John 3:1-8] Return

Editor's Footnotes:

Except as noted, all translations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV [UK (NIVUK)]® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Isaiah 44:14-7.
14 He cut down cedars,
or perhaps took a cypress or oak.
He let it grow among the trees of the forest,
or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow.
15 It is used as fuel for burning;
some of it he takes and warms himself,
he kindles a fire and bakes bread.
But he also fashions a god and worships it;
he makes an idol and bows down to it.
16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’
17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
‘Save me! You are my god!’
New International Version - UK (NIVUK). Return

Luke 2:14. ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
New International Version - UK (NIVUK). Return

John 3:4. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
New International Version - UK (NIVUK). Return

2 Corinthians 2:16. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this? (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. Return

Luke 2:29-35.
29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.’
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
New International Version - UK (NIVUK). Return

Revelation 22:20. He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. [Ed. the Greek is ëρχου Κυριε Ίπσοũ.]
New International Version - UK (NIVUK). Return

John 3:1-8
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. [a]’
4 ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’
5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit [b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, “You [c] must be born again.” 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ [d]

a. John 3:3 The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7.
b. John 3:6 Or but spirit
c. John 3:7 The Greek is plural.
d. John 3:8 The Greek for Spirit is the same as that for wind.

New International Version - UK (NIVUK)  Return

Editor's Note:

Dr. Benson's notes have been incorporated into the notes on this carol; see O Little Town Of Bethlehem - Notes On The Carol.

This carol is the result of work by Dr. Steve H. Hakes, who created the website Lyricology in order to help authors improve their songs. He writes:

Lyricology is dedicated to the proposition that not all songs are created equal, that the most important songs are Christian songs, and that Christian songs that do not perform well, let down the faith they claim to serve. Christian songs that perform well, lift hearts & minds in joy. The site encourages the bad to become good, the good to become better, the better to become best, and the best to be loved.

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