I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

I thought how as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Then in despair I bowed my head.
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
For hate is strong
And mocks the song
Of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail;
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Today is blog post day for me, but it’s also Christmas. So laying aside the usual topics (mostly), I turn to one of my favorite Christmas songs. I have a lot of favorite Christmas songs. My very favorite is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”–all four verses. But I do like this short meditation on the message the angels gave the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned those lines on Christmas Day 1863. Those were dark days, especially for him. His wife had died in 1861, and his son, a soldier in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, had been severely wounded in a skirmish of the Mine Run Campaign in late November 1863. Thinking of the incongruity of Christmas, with bells chiming the familiar carols of peace on earth, amid the reality of continuing war, Longfellow wrote two stanzas that didn’t make it into the hymn books. They come between the second and third stanzas of the version that is familiar to us:


Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Our situation need not be as grim as Longfellow’s to feel the contrast of the present Christmas Day with the dark world of our times. War rages in Syria and Iraq, and barbarous atrocities continue there, especially against Christians. Meanwhile here in America, demagogues led by the president have brought bitterness between people-groups such as we had not seen for decades. Congress can’t bring itself even to curtail the flow of taxpayer money to an organization that kills babies. Peace on earth does not seem very noticeable at present, and the times look as dark as ever. Was the angels’ song to the shepherds a mere rhetorical flourish?

No. The song wasn’t talking about that kind of peace. It was dark when Jesus came. Times were hard. Rome ruled Judea, and Rome’s local puppet king, Herod the Great, was about to perpetrate a massacre worthy of Planned Parenthood. During the time of our Lord’s active ministry on earth, he told his disciples to expect “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). He warned them not to suppose he had come to bring peace on the earth. “I did not come to bring peace,” he said, “but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Yet he also said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). Warning of further difficulties to come, he added, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Longfellow was right in the conclusion of his poem. God is not dead. He reigns on high. He will set all things right at last, whether in this world or the next.

That next world is the important one, and that’s why Christ so readily spoke of giving peace to those who were certain to see tribulation in this world. Because Christ, the Son of God, came to earth as a baby that night in Bethlehem–because He lived a sinless life, died a willing sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven where he now appears on our behalf before God the Father–because of all that, God can and will forgive anyone–yes, anyone–who turns to Him in genuine repentance and faith in Christ. “Therefore,” those who have made that choice can say with the Apostle Paul in Romans chapter 5, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”