God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest Christmas carols that we know of, dating back to the 16th century, and possibly even earlier than that. The earliest known printed edition was in 1760, before our nation was even born, and Charles Dickens refers to the song in his classic A Christmas Carol, written in 1843. It was originally published in England, but it became widely known in America in the late 1800’s and is still popular today.
But many people miss the meaning of the first line, mainly because they leave out the comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” Just to clarify, it is not a song about “merry gentlemen,” but rather an exhortation to godly men to hang in there, even in tough times. It helps to understand how language has changed over the past few centuries, including some of the words in that very song.
For instance, the word “merry” originally meant strong or valiant, as in Robin Hood and his “Merry Men,” which referred not to a bunch of happy guys gallivanting through Sherwood Forest, but men known for their bravery. And the word “rest” in the Old English meant “to make.” So, the first line literally means, “God make you strong and valiant, gentlemen.” Which explains the second line, “Let nothing you dismay.”
And what is it that makes us strong in the face of the struggles we face? Look at that opening verse:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy.
The whole essence of the gospel is spelled out in that one verse. It reminds us not only that Jesus came, but why He came: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” And who among us hasn’t gone astray, often repeatedly, and are still suffering for it? Jesus came to save us from Satan’s power that pulls us continually in the wrong direction.
But that last familiar refrain reminds us of the great benefit of the Christmas truth: the glad tidings of comfort and joy. If ever there has been a year when we needed comfort and joy during the Advent season, it is Christmas of 2020. It’s been a hard year, and so many are living in frustration, fear and despair because of it. But God’s promise to us—from the angels to the shepherds, and from His word to us—is that even in the craziest times, we can experience His comfort and His joy.
So, may God give you the strength to get through this year, so that you let nothing dismay you, because you remember the good news of Christmas that Christ our Savior has come to save us, even when we go astray, and to bring us comfort and joy, despite the circumstances.
Have a blessed Christmas week. I look forward to seeing you Sunday.