By J. Image is of modern Jerusalem
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Lift up your gates and sing, Hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna to your King!”
You may have heard this famous chorus at Christmas carol services. This song is called The Holy City with music by Michael Maybrick (writing under the pseudonym Stephen Adams) and
words by Frederic Weatherly.
If you pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll notice that the song isn’t actually about the birth of Jesus and is therefore not strictly speaking a Christmas carol, but there is nonetheless rich biblical content that is worth meditating on this Christmas. Let’s have a closer look at the lyrics of this song.
Last night I lay asleeping There came a dream so fair I stood in old Jerusalem Beside the temple there I heard the children singing And ever as they sang Methought the voice of Angels From Heaven in answer rang "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Lift up your gates and sing, Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna to your King!"
This first verse evokes the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As Jesus enters on a donkey (as prophesied in Zechariah 9:9) the people cry out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:1-10, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-40, John 12:12-19). Once Jesus is in Jerusalem, children in the temple keep shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:15) All this celebrates Jesus as the Messiah, a king God promised will sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem forever and bring glory to the city (this is prophesied in 2 Samuel 7:11-13). Weatherly acknowledges the cosmic significance of Jesus entering Jerusalem as Messiah when he imagines the angels singing in unison with the children, “Methought the voice of Angels, From Heaven in answer rang…”
And then methought my dream was chang'd The streets no longer rang
Hushed were the glad Hosannas The little children sang The sun grew dark with mystery The morn was cold and chill As the shadow of a cross arose Upon a lonely hill "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Hark! How the Angels sing, Hosanna in the highest, Hosanna to your King!"
Weatherly beautifully emphasises the contrast between Jesus’ true identity as the triumphant Messiah from the first verse and the surprising reality of his death on the cross in the second verse. Paul writes of this same contrast, that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) The crowd on Palm Sunday expected their Messiah to restore the glory of Jerusalem immediately; they missed the fact what humanity most needs from our Messiah was one who will die in our place, taking the punishment we rightfully deserve in hell. While the significance of the cross may have been lost on the crowd, Weatherly depicts heaven’s continued acknowledgement of the Messiah’s glory as he hangs on the cross: “Hark! How the Angels sing...”
And once again the scene was changed New earth there seemed to be I saw the Holy City Beside the tideless sea The light of God was on its streets The gates were open wide And all who would might enter And no one was denied
No need of moon or stars by night Or sun to shine by day It was the new Jerusalem That would not pass away "Jerusalem! Jerusalem Sing for the night is o'er Hosanna in the highest Hosanna for evermore!"
I love this third verse and how it points to the hope to which Christians look! Weatherly alludes to Revelation 21:23-25 which describes the new Jerusalem after Jesus’ second coming, “The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.” (Also read Revelation 21:1-4 for more glorious detail about the new Jerusalem!) From the very beginning Jerusalem was intended to embody a place where the presence of God could dwell with humanity, something that was broken by sin way back in Genesis 3 at the Fall. In the new Jerusalem this is finally and fully restored. Why didn’t God restore Jerusalem when Jesus first entered the city on Palm Sunday? Because God can only dwell with us when our hearts are purified and transformed by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and resurrection life. How come the new Jerusalem still hasn’t arrived? Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
What was started at the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday was made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and will be finally completed when God dwells with his people who have transformed and purified hearts. I hope this song will go on reminding you of the amazing grace our Messiah has offered us by dying for our sins and promising us resurrection hope. Let’s share this amazingly Good News as much as we can this Christmas.
To watch a video recording of this song click here. or below: