by Pastor George Van Alstine
One of our best Christmas carols tells the story in these memorable words:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new born King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
The author of these words was Charles Wesley (1707-1788), one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. Far be it from me to question such a respected lyricist, but the phrase “mercy mild” has always bothered me. I remember stumbling over these words when I was caroling as a young person. “Mercy mild” seemed too anemic for angels to sing about. “Mercy mild” is what a young girl might feel when she hears a kitten crying for milk. I know Charles Wesley had to find something to rhyme with “reconciled,” but I think he missed on this one.
Actually, even Bible translators have had trouble putting the angels’ shout of praise into English words. We are all familiar with the traditional King James Version, which has “On earth peace, good will toward men.” But more recent translations, using earlier manuscripts, seem unanimous in seeing the Greek word behind “good will” as modifying “God” and not “men.” They translate the phrase as “On earth peace among those whom he favors” (New Revised Standard Version), or “On earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (New International Version). The idea seems to be that the angels are proclaiming the birth of a new King and, at the same time, assuring those who embrace and become part of his Kingdom that they will experience peace by being fully reconciled to God.
Now, Wesley couldn’t be expected to explain all that in one line of a poem, but I think he could have done better. Here’s my suggestion:
“Peace on earth through mercy wild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
The gulf between God and the entire race of rebellious humans was wide and deep. In a wild display of reckless mercy, God sent this Baby into the chaotic and dangerous mess caused by sin. “God and sinners reconciled”: that reconciliation didn’t happen easily. Ultimately, the Baby would have to die to bridge the chasm. It took “wild mercy,” not “mild mercy” for God to accomplish his goal.
I know Charles Wesley is very grateful for the work I’ve done improving his lyrics, and I’m sure he’ll remember me when the royalty checks come in.