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 Saviour holy.
And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love, and watch the lowly mother
In whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he.
For he is our childhood’s pattern:
Day by day like us he grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feeleth for our sadness,
And he shareth in our gladness.
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.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see him, but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high,
When, like stars, his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
Cecil Frances Alexander
There are many carols that people love to hear and to sing during the Christmas season. One favourite is “Once in royal David’s city”.
This carol was written in the mid-nineteenth century by Cecil Frances Alexander.
Mrs Alexander wrote hundreds of songs and several of them are still popular today, more than a century after her death. “There is a green hill far away”, a song about the crucifixion of Jesus, is still widely known and loved among Christians. And Christians and non-Christians alike continue to be fond of her song about the Creator and his creatures, “All things bright and beautiful”.
“Once in royal David’s city”, a song about the birth of Jesus, is perhaps Mrs Alexander’s best known song. As with most of her songs and poems, she wrote it for children. And as with most good children’s writing, it also appeals to adults.
The carol’s first stanza describes the facts of Jesus’ birth: Once in royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle-shed,/ Where a mother laid her baby/ In a manger for his bed. The mother and the child are named in the last two lines of the stanza: Mary was that mother mild,/ Jesus Christ her little child. The carol begins with “Once”—not because it is a once-upon-a-time story but because it is a once-long-ago story. This story is not a flight of fancy but a fact of history. (The historical accounts upon which Mrs Alexander bases her carol can be found in the opening chapters of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew in the Bible.) Historically, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. He was born in a stable and put to bed in an animal feeding-trough. His mother was Mary and his own name was Jesus (meaning, “Saviour”) Christ (meaning, “God’s chosen and anointed one”).
The second stanza continues the theme of the nativity and touches on the identity of the baby, the irony of his birthplace and the implications of his birth. The first two lines declare: He came down to earth from heaven,/ Who is God and Lord of all. Jesus was no ordinary baby. He was/is God the Son, sharing the same life and nature, the same existence and being, as God the Father and God the Spirit, who together make up the one true and living God, the Trinity. Before he took on our humanity he lived in his deity in heaven from eternity. He did not come into existence at conception, like an ordinary human being. He came down from heaven and, without ceasing to be God, became a human. The next two lines declare: And his shelter was a stable,/ And his cradle was a stall. What an irony! The One who is “God and Lord of all” came not to a palace but to a stable, not to satin-covered bassinette but to a cattle-slobbered feed-box. The last two lines of the second stanza declare: With the poor and mean and lowly/ Lived on earth our Saviour holy. Even more remarkable than the place to which he came are the people to whom he came. He came not to the prosperous but to the poor, not to the distinguished but to the disregarded, not to the haughty but to the humble. And he came to be their “Saviour”—that is to say, he came to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Stanza three shifts focus from the birth to the childhood of Jesus. The first four lines describe the behaviour of Jesus as a child: And through all his
wondrous childhood/ He would honour and obey,/ Love, and watch the lowly mother/ In whose gentle arms he lay. Jesus loved his mother (not to mention his stepfather, Joseph). He considered her example, obeyed her instructions and relished her tenderness. Mrs Alexander’s sentiments about Jesus’ attitude as a boy to his parents are not mere poetic licence, for the Bible states that “he … was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51). Having noted the perfection of Jesus as a child, Mrs Alexander proceeds in the last two lines to hold him up as a model for children to follow: Christian children all must be/ Mild, obedient, good as he. These lines strike the modern reader as moralistic. But they are in fact a right and necessary application. Jesus’ life is not merely of historical interest: it is of ongoing importance. And part of that importance has to do with moral example. So then, Christian children (that is, children who love and trust Jesus, as all children are invited to do) should strive to follow the example that Jesus set as a child.
The fourth stanza continues to focus on Jesus’ childhood and to draw from it practical truths for children everywhere. In this stanza, however, the
practical truths are not moral and challenging but emotional and fortifying: For he is our childhood’s pattern:/ Day by day like us he grew;/ He was little, weak, and helpless,/ Tears and smiles like us he knew. Jesus knew what it was like to be a child. He knew what it was like to be little and helpless. He knew what it was like to be happy and smiling or sad and crying. Children can take comfort from knowing that Jesus experienced the very things that they are experiencing. But more importantly, they can take comfort from knowing that Jesus’ experience creates within him a deep sympathy for them. It is to this thought that the stanza shifts and on which it ends: And he feeleth for our sadness,/ And he shareth in our gladness.
These words touch adults, too. For Jesus sympathises with the grownups just as much as with the growingups. Because of the humanity that he shares with us and the love that he has for us, Jesus understands us perfectly and sympathises with us completely. Referring to Jesus as our high priest, the Bible says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
And it is to the throne of grace that the carol now leads us. For the fifth stanza begins: 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. Jesus is now in heaven and thanks to his “redeeming love” those who trust in him will one day see him there. It is easy to be sentimental about “baby Jesus” during the Christmas season. But Mrs Alexander reminds us that Jesus is no longer a baby. He is Lord of all and he reigns from heaven. Furthermore, his reigning power is able to finish what his redeeming love began. Having brought his followers out of sin he is now bringing them into heaven, as the last two lines state: And he leads His children on/ To the place where he is gone.
The sixth and final stanza continues to focus on the exaltation of Jesus in heaven: Not in that poor lowly stable,/ With the oxen standing by,/ We shall see him, but in heaven,/ Set at God’s right hand on high. Jesus’ present glory in heaven is in marked contrast to his past poverty on earth. Never again will he stoop to live in a stable (and never again will he debase himself in death for our sins), for he achieved his purpose in doing so long ago. And that purpose is expressed in the last two lines of this last stanza: When, like stars, his children crowned/ All in white shall wait around. The time is coming when “his children” will be cleansed completely and admitted to his company in heaven. This will represent both the ultimate triumph of Jesus and the ultimate joy of those who trust in him.
All these extraordinary things have come and are coming about because Once in royal David’s city/ Stood a lowly cattle-shed,/ Where a mother laid her baby/ In a manger for his bed …
Copyright (c) Andrew Lansdown 2005
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