We Three Kings
An Episcopal deacon by the name of John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote We Three Kings in 1857, as a Christmas pageant piece for the General Theological Seminary in New York City. The wildly popular carol was later published in Hopkins’ 1862 songbook titled, Carols, Hymns, and Songs.
The song attempts to describe the journey of the Magi, mentioned in Matthew’s account of the nativity (Matthew 2:1-12). However, many details in the song are based on layers of legend, myth, and apocryphal writings. The image of three swarthy kings, dressed in royal garments, riding camels, and carrying large trunks has become the traditional imagery for art, nativity displays, and pageants—but these images are not supported by Scripture.
When tradition begins to trump Scripture—and skews our perception of truth, it’s important to return to the source of truth for a closer examination of the facts. “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him … After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:1-2; 9-11).
Matthew’s account doesn’t identify the travelers as kings, but as Magi. It also doesn’t specify the number of Magi in the group. And Scripture doesn’t indicate that the Magi were from a faraway Eastern country like India, Persia, or China. These and many other traditions, like the Magi’s names and their mode of transportation were legends that evolved from one speculation to the next. When Scripture tells a different story than the carol we’re singing, we must rely on Biblical truth to inform our theology.
Should Christians Purge Errant Carols?
The songs we use for worship matter. When we lift our hearts and voices in praise, the words that echo God’s truth back to Him reinforce our understanding of who He is—and they acknowledge our joyful surrender to His lordship. But the condition of our heart is even more important than our words, “for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
If we want our hearts to overflow with truth, we must stay in God’s Word so that He can instruct our hearts in righteousness. When we do that, our theology will be grounded in truth, and we need not be afraid that an errant line in a hymn will lead us astray. The truth will also prepare us to gently expose error to others who may be vulnerable to deception.
Christmas carols can draw us closer to God and each other, as we celebrate the incarnation of our Lord and Savior. So … “Come all ye faithful. Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. O sing hallelujah. He alone is worthy.”
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Robert Thiemann