Glory to God; Peace on Earth

December 23, 2012 | 7 comments
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JohnMMacfarlaneSome time ago while singing Christmas carols at a non-Mormon event, I suggested that the group sing “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.” I was greeted with blank stares and questions. “What song?” “Never heard of it.” It turns out I was so immersed in Mormon culture (I still am to a large degree) that I didn’t know that “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” is an LDS hymn by a 19th century Utah author, and is therefore unknown to most non-Mormon audiences, even though its doctrine is universal enough for most of them.

The story of its composition is interesting, so I’ll summarize it: Its author, John Menzies Macfarlane, was a Scottish convert who emigrated to Utah in 1852 and to Cedar City, Utah in 1853. There he did a little of everything; while farming was listed as his principal occupation, he also taught school, was the first postmaster for Toquerville, was the county’s first superintendent of schools, and was a surveyor. He studied law and was elected probate judge of the county1.

But Macfarlane was also a musician, and an “anxiously engaged”one, to say the least. He organized a choir at Cedar City, founded a brass band in the town and spearheaded efforts to purchase an organ for the Cedar City chapel. The concerts of his choirs were known throughout southern Utah in the 1860s and 1870s and records of the time are replete with praise for the performances. One St. George performance in 1868 led Apostle Erastus Snow to ask him to move to St. George, which he did2.

It was in St. George that Macfarlane composed “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains.” In the Fall of 1869 he decided that his choir needed a new hymn for the Christmas season, and asked his frequent collaborator, Charles L. Walker, to write text that he could set to music. Walker did so, but Macfarlane struggled to come up with the music. One night the music finally came in a dream, along with the words. He awoke and cried out to his wife, “Ann, Ann, I have the words for a song, and I think I have the music too!”

The words were, of course, very different from those written by Walker, and Walker then refused to take credit, saying “These are not my words, John. I have never seen them before. These are your words. You have written both the words and music yourself, and you must take the full credit3.”

The first verse of Macfarlane’s text reminds us of a particular time and place:

Far, far away on Judea’s plains,
Shepherds of old heard the joyous strains:

Unfortunately, Macfarlane has the setting a little off. I’m told that the geography around Bethlehem doesn’t actually contain plains. Shepherds in that area kept their flocks on rocky hillsides. Macfarlane can, I think, be excused for the error, and may even have used poetic license in his wording — I’m not sure the hymn would work if it described hills: “Far, far away on Judea’s hills, / Shepherds of hold heard the joyous rills” doesn’t work as well, nor can I suggest any alternative.

Macfarlane’s chorus comes from Luke 2:14, a 2-line poem inserted into his version of the Christmas story that is widely known as the Song of the Angels:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Unfortunately, this song is often misinterpreted in the King James Version text. Here “the highest” doesn’t refer to the degree or how much glory is given to God, but to where God is, i.e., the highest heaven. Nor does the original Greek speak of “good will” being given to men, but instead of peace given to men favored of God, i.e., those in his good graces.

Fortunately, neither of these translation difficulties causes problems for us today. We certainly do wish good will to men, even if the angels didn’t say that to the shepherds. And no one will argue that God doesn’t deserve the highest degree of glory.

Macfarlane’s text continues:

Sweet are these strains of redeeming love,
Message of mercy from heaven above,

This description of the Song of the Angels fits well, I think. The giving of glory to God appears frequently in the scriptures. When we give glory to God we give Him credit for the good. Indeed, if you search recent conference addresses for the term “Glory to God” the Song of the Angels doesn’t appear, but instead descriptions of Christ healing of the ten lepers in Luke 17, in which only one of the lepers, a Samaritan, returned and thanked Christ. This story is always told as an example of gratitude.

But elsewhere in latter-day revelation, we get a broader understanding of glory. The Doctrine and Covenants defines the glory of God as “intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth4.” And in Moses, the Lord goes further, saying “this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man5.”

In addition to glory, the angels also wish peace. The peace they speak of is not the lack of war that so often comes to mind today. Instead it is an inner peace. The Hebrew word for peace, Shalom, has its roots in a concept of completeness. We should think of peace therefore as being content with ourselves, as being integrated instead of divided, as lacking any internal conflict. This peace comes from righteous living, from repenting of, and by so doing, resolving sin.

The third verse of Macfarlane’s hymn brings us into the Song of the Angels:

Lord, with the angels we too would rejoice,
Help us to sing with the heart and voice,

When we understand the text of the Song of the Angels, we should not forget the context of the song. The angels appeared at the birth of a child. If His “work and glory” is the “immortality and eternal life of man,” then the birth of a child represents the hope for realizing that glory. In our Mormon terms, each child is an increase for us, we are ‘added upon’ and our joy is more full. What parent doesn’t understand that while a family of one or two people is perfectly happy, the addition of one more paradoxically makes the family more perfect. In my own case, the birth of each child didn’t mean that my family wasn’t great before, that our joy wasn’t perfect, but somehow each birth gave us more joy.

Of course, the context of the Song of the Angels wasn’t just that of the birth of a child, it was the birth of a specific child, the savior of the world. What an addition to God’s glory! This child was not just an increase to God, but the key to the plan of salvation, the one life without which all would fail. It is not mere gratitude that leads the Lord himself, after describing his suffering and shrinking from the bitter cup, to say:

Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men6.

The last verse of Macfarlane’s hymn foresees a final time when all men will sing this glory:

Hasten the time when, from every clime,
Men shall unite in the strains sublime,

The scriptures too prophesy of this time. They say that before the judgement “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” that Jesus is the Christ, that God’s glory has been, is and will be fulfilled.

Macfarlane’s hymn and the Song of the Angels remind us of this confession, the confession that true Christians all share. They invite us to participate. We should and do want to give glory to God, to bow our knee and confess Christ, serving as examples and witnesses of that glory.

So let us go forth today, and everyday, perhaps especially in this Christmas season, singing His praises, giving glory to God; singing of those “plains” of Judea and the mighty moment they represent.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Parshall, Ardis. “John Menzies Macfarlane: Far, Far Away and Not So Long Ago” Keepapitchin, 14 December 2008.
  2. Parshall, Ardis. “John Menzies Macfarlane: Far, Far Away and Not So Long Ago” Keepapitchin, 14 December 2008.
  3. Davidson, Karen Lynn. “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains” in Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages. (Salt Lake City, Utah. Deseret Book, 1988), pp. 223-224. Davidson cites Macfarlane, Lloyd Wayland. Yours sincerely, John M. Macfarlane. Privately printed, 1980.
  4. D&C 93:36
  5. Moses 1:39
  6. D&C 19:19

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7 Responses to Glory to God; Peace on Earth

  1. ji on December 23, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Thank you!

  2. Hamlet F. G. on December 24, 2012 at 3:03 am

    What a great post. Let us all work hard to remember the spirit of Christmas and share it with all.

  3. Wilfried on December 24, 2012 at 6:07 am

    Thanks, Kent, for this appropriate message. Always interesting too to know the story behind a hymn.

    Your comments on the KJV text from Luke 2:14 made me wonder how “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” has been translated in other languages. Hymns are never translated literally as the translator must match syllables and rhymes. At the same time the meaning should remain close to the original. One advantage in another language is that the ambiguities of the KJV are often lifted.

    In French:
    Gloire au Seigneur dans les hauts lieux! = Glory to the Lord in the high places
    Douce paix, viens-nous des cieux! (2x) = Sweet peace, come to us from heaven.

    In Dutch:
    Ere zij God in den hoge! = Glory to God in the high place
    vreed’ op aard’ is Godes wens = peace on earth is God’s wish
    welbehagen in de mens = pleasure in man / good will toward man

    In German:
    Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, = Glory to God in the high place
    Fried und Freude aller Welt, = Peace and joy to the whole world,
    wie’s den Menschen wohl gefällt! = as it is pleasing to mankind! (I hope that is correct?)

    Who can provide these verses from the same Mormon hymn in other languages?

  4. john willis on December 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

    I hate to be Scrooge on Chirstmas Eve, but according to the Walker, Turley and Leonard book on the subject McFarlane may have been a participant in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  5. ji on December 24, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    john willis (no. 4) — Even if he was, isn’t such wholly irrelevant to the original posting? Even a distraction?

  6. Carole Jenkins on December 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    This shows us that God knows our hearts and our desires. He puts these wonderful messages into our minds through dreams or visions, etc. Especially with music we can feel the love of our Savior and our Heavenly Father. So much of our great music has come through Divine Revelation.

  7. Kent Larsen on December 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    The above is the text of a talk I gave on Sunday in Sacrament meeting.

    For the record, I DID know about Macfarlane’s possible participation at Mountain Meadows as I wrote this — but I did not think it relevant.

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