Twelve Songs of Christmas #12
We Three Kings of Orient Are
They weren’t kings.
Nowhere does the Bible say that there were three.
Matthew says they came from the east, so they very well could have been oriental. Possibly.
Still, when the title has two, and possibly three mistakes, you’ve got a problem.
We Three Kings of Orient Are is an imagined narration by the magi who traveled to see the one born king of the Jews. The writer of this song is not the only one who has assumed that there were three who followed the star. Writers since the middle ages have said that there were three. Every modern nativity set and Christmas play has three people following a star.
People have also written that they were kings for many years.
Most likely, they were astronomers.
They were following a star, after all.
Matthew describes the scene this way:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him”…Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route (Mt. 2:1-2, 7-12)
They did follow a star, they came from the east, and there are three gifts mentioned in the story. The writer of the song gets these elements correct. Most of the rest of We Three Kings of Orient Are, however, is imagined. A more realistic song title would be “We, Undisclosed Number of Astronomers of Possibly the Orient Are,” but that’s a little long and unwieldy.
We Three Kings of Orient Are begins with a focus on the long journey to Bethlehem.
We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright.
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
The next three verses focus on the gifts given to the Christ child, and the reasoning for each gift.
Gold is said to be given because of the kingship of Jesus.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown him again King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.
Next, the writer says that frankincense was given to declare and to worship Christ as God.
Incense was very often used in temple worship throughout the First and Second Temple periods.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.
Myrrh has many uses, from embalming, to being used to make incense and anointing oils, to purification rituals. Myrrh often was used in burials as well, which is obviously the connection that the song writer is making in verse 4.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb.
The song writer closes by celebrating the resurrection. The “kings” in the story honor not only the kingship, Lordship, and death of Christ, but his resurrection as well.
Glorious now behold him arise;
Once again, the writer reminds us of the reason for each of the gifts:
King and God and sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia sounds through the earth and skies.
This song, while an imaginative exercise, is a reminder of the many elements of Christ and his life--his kingship, his Lordship, his death, and his resurrection. Much like "What Child is This?," We Three Kings of Orient Are is an attempt to breathe new life into a well-known story by looking at it from a specific perspective. We can argue over details of the story, but the message of Christ's kingship, Lordship, death, and resurrection are eternal and powerful.