This week, we are focusing on another great hymn by Charles Wesley that is frequently sung at Christmas:
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.
Apparently, Wesley wrote a prayer in 1744 based on Haggai 2:7, as he considered the plight of orphans in the areas around him. Anyone who has listened to Handel’s “Messiah” may already be familiar with this part of Haggai as it appears in the King James version of the Bible. It is a passage that looks at the end time, when Christ (the desire of all nations) will return and the whole creation will be made new and filled with glory:
Haggai 2:6–7 For thus saith the LORD of hosts; Yet once, it is a little while, And I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; 7 And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: And I will fill this house with glory, saith the LORD of hosts.
Later in the same year, Wesley adapted the prayer into the hymn that appears above. His intent was that through the words of the hymn, we should remember and reflect on the first coming of Christ but be preparing with longing for His return.
With this understanding of Wesley’s motive in writing the hymn, let’s look at each main thought and unpack it.
The first verse of the hymn is essentially a plea for the Second coming in light of the experience and the longings of Jesus’ blood-bought people who live in this fallen world: “Jesus, you came into this world to free us. Please come soon to fully realize that work. We love you, we long to be with you, to be freed from sin finally and fully, and to enter completely into the joy of your rest” (More simply, “Jesus, come again, for our sake”)
Come, thou long expected Jesus: Israel waited a long time for the coming of the Messiah. The church is also waiting for His return for what seems to us like a long time. As they cried out eagerly for Him to come, so should we. Indeed, the penultimate verse of the Bible (Rev 22:20) closes with this exact prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
born to set thy people free; We know from this that the first line is a cry for Jesus to come again, since it looks back at His birth rather than forward. It notes, as well, the purpose of God in sending Jesus into the world – to set His people free.
from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee: This is what that freedom will look like when it comes in fullness for God’s people. Although our spirits are redeemed in this world, we exist in bodies of sin and there is a constant warfare between the old man in us and the new. We are tempted by the world and by all the agents of spiritual darkness around us. Thus every true believer suffers doubts and fears and perpetual conflict. As we have seen in Hebrews, we have entered God’s rest in one sense but our full admission into it and full enjoyment of it awaits the return of our Jesus, which we are really looking forward to!
Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart: Throughout the Old Covenant, Jesus was the strength and consolation of the people of God as they looked forward to His coming. Indeed, Simeon came to the temple when the infant Jesus was presented there and is described as “waiting for the consolation of Israel” and declared that he had found him as he held Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:25-32). Isaiah 40 begins with God comforting His people and indicating that her sin is pardoned because God would come to them in tenderness and strength – indicating that those who waited on Him would renew their strength.
But Wesley goes on to indicate that now it is all the earth, every nation that rejoices in Christ, finding strength and comfort in Him as they await His coming again. It is the reference to Christ as the Desire of all nations that reveals the origin of this hymn to be Haggai 2:7 (in the King James Version).
Then the second verse makes the same request, but here the reason given for the Lord to answer is the glory of His name in the full establishment of the kingdom He came to introduce: “Jesus, you were born a king to deliver a people and to establish a kingdom in their hearts, where you would graciously reign forever. So, Lord, please do it! You are worthy and Your merit is all-sufficient to accomplish this work! Come by your Spirit, be the sole sovereign in all our hearts and by your great power raise us up to glory to sit with you on your throne and reign with you evermore.” (More simply, “Jesus, come again, for Your sake”).
Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring: Wesley is reminding Jesus (and us) of the purpose for His incarnation in three phrases beginning with the word “born”. He came to deliver His people and to establish the everlasting kingdom of God. But as yet not all His enemies have been made His footstool. Wesley pleads with Jesus to fulfill His destiny “now” – revealing Wesley’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and a sense of urgency for Christ’s kingdom to be fully established in His creation.
By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by thine all sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne: Here are two circumstances that will indicate Christ’s kingdom has fully arrived and His reign is unchallenged. First, His people will have undivided hearts. They will no longer be tempted in their hearts to follow the rule of sin, the flesh and Satan. They will have put off their bodies of sin and been given new bodies like that of Christ. Jesus will reign there alone! All this is the work of the eternal Spirit, and Jesus is urged to bring it to pass. Second, His people will be lifted up to reign with Christ on His throne. Wesley reminds Jesus (and us) that He has all the merit to bring about this promised situation – it is not waiting for a contribution from anyone or anything else in order for it to take place!
For our time here on earth, believers are not orphans. Jesus sent His Spirit to be our comforter to assure us of His love for us, to protect us and provide for us. Nevertheless, we are in a situation that stops short of the glorious end to which we have been destined. We are a body whose Head is in heaven. We are a bride whose groom will certainly come, but we don’t know when. We are children of a Father Who loves us with an everlasting love, of which we receive tokens every moment, and yet we are here, somewhat separated from Him. The Spirit comforts us throughout this temporary arrangement, but if the souls of the ransomed in heaven cry to God and ask “how long will it be until the judgment?” (Rev. 6:10) then to feel this way is not wrong. Wesley’s hymn gives us worshipful words with which to plead with God that He would send Jesus soon.
In the meantime, let’s not be so caught up with looking back to the first coming of Jesus that we forget that a greater and more glorious coming lies ahead!