O Little Town of Bethlehem
Massachusetts Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1903) of Boston wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine, especially at nighttime, hence the lyrics of O Little Town of Bethlehem. His church organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) wrote the melody to O Little Town of Bethlehem for the Sunday school children’s choir. Brooks had been educated at the seminary in Alexandria and was ordained in Virginia.
I. Bethlehem Was a Patriarchal City
A. Bethlehem first appeared in Biblical history when Jacob buried his beloved wife Rachel, the daughter of Laban. “And as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan in the way, when yet there was but a little way to come unto Ephrath: and I buried her there in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem.” (Genesis 48:7).
B. The town was also the home of a concubine who figured in a famous murder during the period of the judges. “And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite sojourning on the side of mount Ephraim, who took to him a concubine out of Bethlehemjudah. And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house to Bethlehemjudah, and was there four whole months.” (Judges 19:1-2)
C. Some 123 men of Bethlehem came with Zerubbabel to restore the holy city after the Babylonian captivity. “The children of Bethlehem, an hundred twenty and three.” (Ezra 2:21)
II. Bethlehem Was the City of David
A. The story of David begins with Boaz and Ruth in Bethlehem. “Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehemjudah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.” (Ruth 1:1) “So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19) “So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the LORD gave her conception, and she bare a son.” (Ruth 4:13) “And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, And Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.” (Ruth 4:21-22) Tradition identified Jesse as a Temple weaver.
B. The royal line of David began with an anointing at Bethlehem. “Now David was the son of that Ephrathite of Bethlehemjudah, whose name was Jesse; and he had eight sons: and the man went among men for an old man in the days of Saul.” (1 Samuel 17:12) “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.” (1 Samuel 16:13)
C. As the passage of time sidetracked Bethlehem, the prophet Micah reminded the faithful of the promises to David to establish the messianic line in the city. “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.” (Micah 5:2)
D. The religious leaders in the time of Herod and the Wise Men acted on the message of Micah. “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:1-6)
III. Bethlehem Was the City of Jesus
A. Bethlehem or “House of Bread” was well named as the birthplace for the heir of David who would be the “Bread of Life.” “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
B. The entire story of the savior is counterintuitive; only God would have chosen Bethlehem to keep His gracious promises. “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28)
C. Bethlehem was an appropriate starting place for a life of “living in plain sight” where the world could not see the Lord of Glory. “For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2) “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!