O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light –
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in Thee tonight.
A much-loved Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was penned by Phillips Brooks, one of America’s greatest preachers of the nineteenth century. It was written in 1868, several years after his return from the Holy Land. Brooks who was in Bethlehem during the Christmas season, had been deeply impressed by his meaningful experience in the little town. Three years later, when the young pastor of Holy Trinity church, Philadelphia, was searching for a new song for his Sunday School children, his vivid memory of the quiet nativity town inspired him to write the hymn.
Known also as “Bethlehemjudah” (Ruth 1: 1-2; I Sam 17: 12), and “the city of David” (Lk 2: 4), Bethlehem was a small village in the hill country of Judah, five or six miles south of Jerusalem.
We first read of Bethlehem in Gen. 35: 19 as the place where Rachel died and was buried. It was in the fields of Bethlehem that Ruth the Moabitess gleaned, and supported herself and her mother-in-law Naomi.
This insignificant town was David’s birth-place. It was here that he was later anointed king by the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 16:4-13). It was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his mighty men “brake through the host of the Philistines” and risked their lives to bring water for David when he was in the cave of Adullam (II Sam. 23:13-17).
About seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah predicted that Christ would be born in Bethlehem: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Mic 5: 2). Sadly, it was also in Bethlehem that Herod sent and slew “all the children … from two years old and under” when he learnt “that he was mocked of the wise men” (Matt 2: 16, 18).
To differentiate it from another Bethlehem, which was in the tribe of Zebulun (Jos. 19: 15), the prophet called it by its ancient name “Bethlehem Ephratah” (cf. Gen. 35: 19, 48: 7; Ruth 4: 11). But Bethlehem Ephratah was distinguished above every other city as the birth-place of the eternal Son of God – “whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5: 2).
Joseph and Mary had travelled to Bethlehem in response to the census decree of Caesar Augustus, “because he (Joseph) was of the house and lineage of David” (Lk 2: 4). It was in this little town that the angel brought “good tidings of great joy” to shepherds who were watching their flocks one wintry night: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Lk 2: 10-12). The angel’s announcement was followed by a chorus of praises by the heavenly host: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk 2: 13-14).
Today, the shepherds have long left the manger scene, the angels’ song on the plains has since ceased and the Star has all but disappeared. Yet, Bethlehem is still there – “a remembrancer of joy and peace, a witness of the ‘Everlasting Life’ which came down from Heaven.
“The city is poor rather than rich. It is not without its attractions; but these are of the more homely kind. Its scenes are not stately; its hills are not lofty; its plains are not wide; its slopes are rocky; it is not like the city of the Great King, beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth. Yet there ‘the Word was made flesh.’ It has neither palace nor temple; only an inn for the travellers passing between Hebron and Jerusalem; its dwellers are not priests nor princes; it is not a sacred city, and is but little noted in history” (Horatius Bonar).
It was in Bethlehem, an obscure village, that the history of the world truly began – Jesus Christ, the Son of God “was made flesh, and dwelt among” men (Jn 1: 14). Bethlehem was “little among the thousands of Judah” yet God had ordained it to be the birth-place of His only Begotten Son – “out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel” (Mic 5: 2).
As the carol goes, “the Everlasting Light” shone in the dark streets of Bethlehem, giving hope, life and light to all mankind. May we not despise the little town nor esteem it lightly. Like the shepherds of old, “let us … go even unto Bethlehem” (Lk 2: 15) and see the place where the young Child lay. Look upon at the manger and behold “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1: 29). Let us give glory to God for the Gift of His only Begotten Son two thousand years ago. May we extend peace and goodwill to all men through the Gospel of grace that came on that wondrous night in the “little town of Bethlehem”.
Wishing all a blessed and meaningful Christmas!