“Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4 ESV).
We don’t think of this as a children’s carol, but that’s how it started. Cecil Frances Alexander published it in 1848 as part of “Hymns for Little Children.” A writer of many hymns and poems for children, she was the wife of the Bishop of Derry in Northern Ireland. She took her position very seriously, traveling with her husband as he visited different churches, always spending time with the children. History records her love for those on the margins of society. Money from her early publications went to establish an institute for the deaf. She was also a noted supporter of the Derry Home for Fallen Women. She loved to visit the poor and the sick. Several of her other hymns are known the world over, including “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away.”
She wrote a series of hymns for children to illustrate the Apostles Creed. “Once in Royal David’s City” illuminates the phrase “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The phrase “Royal David’s City” refers to Bethlehem and hearkens back to 1 Samuel 16 where Samuel was sent by the Lord to anoint one of the sons of Jesse to be the king who would replace Saul. After passing over the older sons, Samuel asked, “Are all your sons here?” The answer was no, the youngest one, David, was tending the sheep. Surely the Lord would not pass over the seven older brothers, would he? But that’s exactly what the Lord did, teaching us that while man looks on the outside, God looks at the heart. The Lord knew the young shepherd boy had a heart like his. So Samuel anointed David who would become Israel’s greatest king.
Mrs. Alexander had a knack for expressing biblical truth in language children would easily understand. We can see her gift in the first two verses:
Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.
If you doubt she wrote this for children, read the third verse:
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
Near the end, she included a verse about our hope of heaven:
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
If you read the verses carefully, you can see this is truly a children’s song from first to last. But over time it has passed into a wider realm and is now a beloved carol sung by all ages. Since 1918, this carol has been the processional hymn during the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge, England.
Let’s listen to a beautiful version in folk music style by Sufjan Stevens.
Lord Jesus, we pray for childlike faith to trust in you. Amen.