Union Chapel Baptist Church



I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

By Stephen Mitchell

In 1861, two years before writing this poem, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s personal peace was shaken when his second wife of 18 years, to whom he was very devoted, was tragically burned in a fire. After Longfellow’s wife trimmed some of the length off their seven-year-old daughter’s curls on July 10, 1861, she decided to preserve them in wax. She failed to notice that some of the wax had fallen on her dress, which caught fire.

Henry first tried to put it out with a rug. It was too small, so he threw his arms around her. She died the next day, and he had suffered such severe burns to his face, arms, and hands that he couldn’t even attend her funeral. He grew his signature beard because it was too painful to shave.

Christmas of that year, he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” On the anniversary of the tragedy he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

On Christmas 1862 he wrote, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” He made no journal entry at all on Christmas 1863—perhaps because his son, a lieutenant in the Union army, had recently taken a bullet that severely injured his spine.

In 1863 Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer”, he wrote. “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good”. Charles soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, he was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia), during the Mine Run Campaign. Charles eventually recovered, but his time as a soldier was finished.

Longfellow wrote this poem on Christmas Day in 1863. Titled “Christmas Bells,” it was first published in February 1865, in Our Young Folks, a juvenile magazine published by Ticknor and Fields. References to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses but are not commonly sung.

It was not until 1872 that the poem is known to have been set to music. The English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, used the poem in a processional accompanied with a melody he previously used as early as 1848. The Calkin version of the carol was long the standard. [The above partially copied from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Heard_the_Bells_on_Christmas_Day]

The following are the original words of Longfellow’s poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

From Longfellow’s poem and his journal entries, there were two things that burdened his soul during the 1863 Christmas Season. These were his sense of profound loss and the burden of man’s hatred to man.

Christmas is a time of great sadness for so many. It is supposed to be a time of family gatherings and rejoicing together in the gift of God’s Son Jesus. Yet, it is also a time where losses in life are felt most intensely. That sense of separation where there should be fellowship and rejoicing is deeply felt and a sadness of heart creeps in. Longfellow felt it keenly. That first Christmas without his beloved wife, he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

But this Christmas of 1863, he not only felt the absence of his wife, he now sat beside the bed of his deeply wounded son as his beloved son struggled to recover. And Longfellow wrote of the sound of the cannons drowning out the sound of the bells ringing “Peace on earth, good will to me.”

Separation and cruelty. Death and evil. Longfellow hurt and mourned these circumstances of life.

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;

“For hate is strong,

And mocks the song,

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

These two things in our lives often bring us to despair, to sorrow, to a deep heartsick mourning.

This is nothing new. David, in his own song before the Lord, Psalm 18, cried out:

The cords of death encompassed me, And the torrents of ungodliness terrified me.

The cords of the grave surrounded me; The snares of death confronted me.

Cords of death, and torrents of ungodliness. Death and evil.

In another of his poems, Psalm 22, David began:

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.

O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer; And by night, but I have no rest.

The struggles we have with the losses of those we love. The heartsickness we know when we see the cruelty of evil upon the innocent, these are age old. Even from the very beginning we hear Eve’s cry at Seth’s birth from the loss of her sons Cain and Able.

God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.1

Eve lost two sons that day: Able from murder, and Cain from the punishment, for God banished him to wander the earth away from his family.

And God has not been deaf to our anguish at the empty places in our hearts because of loss. This is exactly why God sent His Son Jesus to take on humanity.

God knows very well the continuous pain of losing those we love to death. After all, it was exactly that consequence that God warned Adam would begin if Adam chose to disobey God.

Genesis 2:16-17 “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Adam did not grasp the enormous consequences of his act of rebellion, but God did. And God immediately began the program of bringing a solution to death.

Genesis 3:14-15 “The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, Cursed are you more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you will go, And dust you will eat All the days of your life; And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

God had prepared from eternity past the solution to man’s separation at death. God had a remedy prepared.

Heb 2:9 But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.

Jesus knew intimately the pain of losing a loved one. We assume that he lost his earthly father, Joseph, when Jesus was a young man since, by the time He began His ministry, Joseph was no longer around.

And we know He knew the pain of loss when his dear friend Lazarus died. In John 11, when Jesus went to see the family of His friend after His friend had died, Lazarus’ sister Mary went to meet Jesus:

Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They *said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.

Jesus knew the pain of the separation of death. But He also knew something Lazarus’ family had not yet realized. Jesus Himself was the answer to that pain. A little earlier in chapter 11 this event happened:

So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus *said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha *said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” She *said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”

And right there is God’s solution to the pain of the separation of death. Not to bring the loved one back. But to bring us to our loved ones. If we have faith in Jesus, we will live, even if we die. Physical death cannot stop the eternal life we gain from faith in Jesus. This is why Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, in 1Thess 4:13-18:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

There is coming a resurrection day when all of God’s children will be reunited together in the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. It is this truth that is to bring us comfort in the pain of losing a loved one to death.

But what about the problem Longfellow specifically wrote about in his poem?

For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

This has troubled all of the descendants of Adam. We call this the Problem of Evil. How can a good God, who declares “Peace on earth, good will to men,” allow such evil as warfare, violence, suffering, and every other manifestation of the presence of evil in this world?

I do wish I could give you ‘Three points and a poem’ and solve the dilemma. I cannot.

This is an old dilemma with no human solution in sight. This is why we have the Book of Job.

Job lost his possessions and then his family through natural disasters and through evil done at the hands of men. And last of all he lost his health, suffering greatly physically. All of it ultimately at the hands of Satan, our great enemy and the ultimate cause of all the ills and suffering in this world. It was Satan who tempted Eve and Adam in the garden and who has been laboring to destroy mankind ever since. The Apostle Peter put it this way in 1Peter 5:8

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

But, as it is today, the opinion of society in Job’s day was that, if bad things, evil things, happened to you, it was because of evil things you yourself were doing. That is the accusation Job’s three friends, and Elihu, a younger friend of Job’s friends, brought against Job.

But Job maintained his innocence against all accusations. He knew that he lived in obedience to God, a claim that God Himself stated at the beginning of the book.

So while they accused Job of being evil, Job begged God for an explanation of why he was suffering the way he was. And God gave Job an answer in Job chapters 38-41.

Let me summarize God’s four chapter answer for you.

Job! You cannot possibly understand why evil happens to those who are good and/or innocent.’

That’s it. Not what we want to hear. Not what Longfellow wanted to hear. Not what we want to hear as we endure or see the innocent suffer. But it is all the answer we can handle.

In fact, God asked Job a very significant question right in the middle, in Job 40:1-2:

Then the LORD said to Job, “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.”

Do we want to find fault with God’s handling of this world? That is what God asked Job. And it is often what we do when we see evil in this world. But that is not all. God continued to confront Job and his suppositions about justice done him. Job 40:6-14

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said, “Now gird up your loins like a man; I will ask you, and you instruct Me. Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? Or do you have an arm like God, And can you thunder with a voice like His? Adorn yourself with eminence and dignity, And clothe yourself with honor and majesty. Pour out the overflowings of your anger, And look on everyone who is proud, and make him low. Look on everyone who is proud, and humble him, And tread down the wicked where they stand. Hide them in the dust together; Bind them in the hidden place. Then I will also confess to you, That your own right hand can save you.”

How often do we see evil and want God’s power to attack and destroy it, as if we ourselves would clothe ourselves with the majesty and power of God and strike all evildoers and bring them low.

But, if we could do that, if we even had enough knowledge to do it right, then we could provide our own deliverance, which we, of course, cannot. That arrogance has no rightful place in our hearts.

There is a truth about the Problem of Evil we rarely consider. You and I are fully as much a part of the Problem as everyone else. We often act as if we stand outside of the problem demanding that God deal with the problem. But we do not stand outside of the Problem of Evil. We are fully a part of it. Paul put it this way in Romans 2:3:

But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?

When we demand that God deal with Evil, never forget to include ourselves in that demand. Thank God that He does delay His righteous judgment of evil because that delay has given us the opportunity to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus and to escape the judgment that rightly belongs to us.

Longfellow, in the last verse, actually gave himself and us the right answer to the problem of evil.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail, 
The Right prevail, 
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

God is not dead. God is not asleep. God has not lost control.

God will bring about justice. Evil will fail and be eradicated. Justice and Righteousness will win and be administered by God.

The prophet Amos wrote, looking forward to that day, “But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

It is the knowledge that God is still in control and will bring about righteousness that brings us hope in the face of evil and suffering.

The answer to our struggle with the Problem of Evil is simply faith. We cannot, in any way, shape, or form, understand God’s handling of this earth. But God never asks us to. He simply asks us to trust Him and what He is doing.

This is what God said to Habakkuk when Habakkuk struggled with what God planned to bring down on the rebellious land of Israel. “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.

The proud one, the one who refuses to humble himself under the mighty hand of God, that soul is not right with God. There is a future promised to that one of eternal torment. But the righteous? We are to live by faith. Such a powerful statement. One so important, it is quoted four times in the New Testament. The righteous will live by his faith.

And that, my friend, is the answer to the problem of evil. Trust God that He knows what He is doing and live by that faith day-by-day, no matter what the day may bring forth. We cannot know what God is doing here on earth, but we will see when we gain Heaven.

The Apostle Paul wrote, in 1Corinthaisn 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

Accept that we cannot know fully why things happen until we gain Heaven and then we will praise Him for what He has done.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight.

And what about the peace on earth of which the angels spoke to the shepherds?

The last instruction recorded in the Gospel of John that Jesus gave His disciples before His greatest confrontation with the Problem of Evil is appropriate for us to remember. Jesus said, recorded in John 16:33:

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.

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