Still we see the lie

This time of year I spend a lot of time doing textual criticism of Christmas carols. Tracking down the “authorized version” of the songs we have sung for generations can be quite challenging. And it’s interesting how many similar issues pop up that we face in Bible translation.

Even in those cases where we know the correct words errors can slip in. I was looking through a songbook my wife and I made fifteen years ago and it contains this shocking statement of disbelief:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see the lie!

Now, how did that error sit unnoticed for fifteen years?!

Last night during rehearsal for the Christmas service at our church, the daughter of our flutist was singing that second line, and I asked her, “What does THEE mean?”

She wasn’t sure. Which of course didn’t stop her from singing along with gusto. Finally her mother helped her out, “It means HIM.” To which I nodded, and then she shook her head and said, “It means YOU!”

There are of course many, many examples of strange lines in hymns that make absolutely no sense to modern speakers of English. What do cattle do when they are “lowing?” Is it the same as a “lowly manger?” And what is a “yon” virgin?” Young? Yawn? And why is she round?

The preacher for Christmas day requested that we sing, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Measure.” It is a beautiful hymn based on a French carol:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.


The congregation where we worship is composed mostly of African college students and young families. So my wife was quite reluctant to try to lead them in singing strange things like “Thrones for a manger didst surrender.” Thankfully she discovered a very nice updating of the carol in modern language:

Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor,
Yet, for love’s sake, became so poor.
Leaving your throne in glad surrender
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.

Now, all the archaic language has been removed and it’s mostly intelligible. Notice that the plural “thrones” have been changed to “throne.” I think updating the language works on this carol because it’s not very well known. Imagine if someone tried to change the words to O Come, All Ye Faithful! Would you be able to enjoy singing something like, “Come, all you faithful ones?”

A final example of updating archaic songs is Corde natus ex Parentis, which you might know as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The textual evolution of this hymn is fascinating. It started life as a 5th Century Latin poem. By the 10th Century it had become part of the church’s sacred music. It was translated into English sometime in the 1850s by JM Neale who was also responsible for giving us (afflicting us with?) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Good King Wenceslas.

My wife has been patiently teaching me and our children the parts for Of the Father’s Love Begotten. It is really beautiful and if you modernized the words I don’t think I would be able to sing it. In fact at one point I suggesting that we sing one of the Latin verses. The English is so strange sounding that Latin wouldn’t seem out of place!

Corde natus ex parentis
Ante mundi exordium
A et O cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula

A final example of textual difficulty (Didn’t I already say “finally?”) is in a more modern carol, Amen (Mary had a baby):

Mary had a baby
Wrapped in a manger

My wife wanted to change it to something like “lying in a manger” but I put my foot down. Tradition! The 1965 Impressions version has “wrapped in a manger.” So of course that’s the way it needs to be. I’ve had a tough time tracing the original lyrics on this song. Sidney Poiter also sings “wrapped in a manger” in the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field. Here’s the scene:

I think looking at Christmas carols is a helpful exercise in thinking about Bible translation. It shows that there isn’t an either/or answer to the question, “Which is better clarity or tradition?” Traditional wordings are very important. But after a while we don’t “see the lie” which is hidden in obscure language. It makes sense to us old fogies but is giving wrong meaning to the younger generation or those who speak other varieties of English.

12 thoughts on “Still we see the lie

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    Many churches have congregations with some people who prefer traditional hymns and others who prefer contemporary worship choruses. One solution, the one our church uses, is to have different services with the different worship and song styles.

    It reminds me of the preference many have for a traditional sounding English Bible, while others prefer a contemporary Bible translation which speaks their language.

    There are pros and cons for both styles. As for me, I prefer a more traditional worship service, but a Bible translation which is in current English.

    Interesting post, David. Thanks.

  2. nanbush says:

    Interesting post. Thanks. This morning I visited a new, ’emerging’ church nearby. Couldn’t help noticing the difference in hymn styles–all new, “pop” type, except for one old faithful (felt like meeting a friend in a crowd of strangers).

    Your RSS link is not working.

    Merry Christmas.

  3. Rich Rhodes says:

    Our church has a bunch of odd things on the worship music slides.

    Some come from the inanity of spell checkers.

    Walk in the light, beautiful light,
    come where the due drops of mercy shine bright.

    But there are some that come from people wanting to edit away from Elizabethan English but being constrained by the meter not to. This can lead to things that grate on the ear.

    My soul doth magnify the Lord,
    And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.

  4. Kirsty says:

    I think, for well known Christmas carols, it’s worth keeping the old words. Not primarily for the sake of those in the church, but for those from outside, who may come only at Christmas.

    People often come solely because they love the tradition of singing carols. It is very disconcerting and irritating to be singing a song you know and love (perhaps not even looking at the words) and keep tripping over changes. This might not be the best way to make people feel welcome!

    Of course, this would mean carefully choosing which carols you did sing, and omitting those that you felt were too unintelligible. Perhaps supplemented by some good new ones.

  5. Kirsty says:

    I like that ‘Amen’ song – never heard it before.
    If you added a comma, it would be grammatically OK and also make sense:
    “Mary had a baby, wrapped, in a manger”
    Now you can sing it with a clear conscience!

  6. Daniel Buck says:

    There appears to be a parablepsis in the sentence “The 1965 Impressions version has ‘in a manger’.” But who knows if it is ‘wrapped’ or ‘lying’? From internal evidence, I would say the former. In fact I would bet my SBL membership on it.

    [Ed. fixed this. Thanks, Daniel.]

  7. Dru Brooke-Taylor says:

    I have to admit I get very irritated by hymn books that fiddle with the words of hymns that are well known, and sing the words I know, not what’s in the book. I think it’s only OK with the revival of hymns that have largely been forgotten. I’m particularly suspicious that there’s one major UK publisher of hymn books which appears to have fiddled with the words of old hymns that are out of copyright simply so as be able to purloin copyright in their words for itself.

    There was also Percy Dearmer, who in his day was well known in England, who produced a hymn book that was quite popular in the 1920s and 30s, in which he altered a number of widely known hymns so that they no longer contained doctrines he personally, rather than the church at large, disapproved of.

    Incidentally, I think ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’ is older than J M Neale. If the objection to it is the word ‘gentlemen’, I don’t think we can condemn anyone in the C19 for not foreseeing something that nobody thought of until about 1985.

  8. jp says:

    The story of Christmas start with the house of David. Note Solomon is listed as the son of David and the bloodline of Joseph the step father of Jesus. Yet Nathan is also listed as the son of David which leads to the step dad Josephs bloodline.


    Read Matthew and Luke and you will see this amazing secret from the House of David.

    I know how important songs are, but the BIBLE is being ingnored here?

  9. Dennis Clough says:

    To me, this fits into the category of those who want to change all language in the bible that might require someone to think. Can’t we just teach people what “washed in the blood” means and not delete it?

    After all, perhaps people are just as intelligent as the writer of this article and will be able to research whatever they need to know or that they feel warrants such scrupulous attention.

    When one learns a foreign language, medicine or the law, unfamiliar terms (some in Latin even) are not modified for ease of assimilation are they?

    I have sung O Little Town of Bethlehem for years picturing IT as lying still (read quiet) which the line ( yet in thy dark streets shineth) seems to suggest is the proper take on the carol. So far, I have not found my spiritual appreciation for what happened there so long ago terribly hampered. 🙂 Dennis Clough

  10. jp says:

    Most manger scenes are incorrect. The lords angel appeared to THREE SHEPHERDS and those fellas found the saviour in a horses trough behind an inn. The three kings visited MARY AT A HOUSE and were no where near a barn behind an inn…..much more to what is going on in the book and what people want to discuss these days.
    Blessings from El

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