Good Carols: We Three Kings of Orient Are

This was my childhood favourite. I’d not sung it for years until I came to Martin Top and, being in charge of the carol service, I resurrected it. It should really be a great carol, but for its first, misleading line. Christ was visited in Bethlehem by magi- wise and learned men, not regal rulers. The only king mentioned in the story is Herod, and his role does not end well. ‘Oriental kings’ speaks more of Victorian Europe and North America’s obsession with the exotic east than a correct translation of the natal accounts. Still, if we can forgive its author, John Henry Hopkins Jr., this glitch, the rest of the carol is ours to be enjoyed. When he wrote it in 1857, he anticipated verses 2-4 being sung by male soloists, each representing a member of the magi. Each brings his gift and offers theological explanation for his choice. Verse 2’s magus speaks of Christ’s royal kingship, of which gold is symbol; verse 3’s contemplates his priestly office by offering frankincense; verse 4’s anticipates his atoning death, supplying myrrh for the embalming of His body. Whereas the first verse is sung by all for the sake of introduction, the fifth is sung by all to provide glorious conclusion. Matthew says when the magi

‘… were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him’.

The final verse is a great crescendo of worship, not just from these exotic Easterlings, but from the whole communities of heaven and earth.

Hopkins was an American Episcopalian (ie Anglican) clergyman, and the theology of his verse is rather splendid. I have thought of ways round his initial inaccuracy (“Three Magi of Orient are”, “We Wise Men of Orient are”), but the original title has stuck. The first suggestion of the wisemen’s royal status seems to originate with Tertullian (died 240), but the final word for those who insist the wisemen were kings goes to John Calvin:

But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings... Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.

Commentaries, Volume 31.


We Three Kings of Orient are,

Bearing gifts we traverse afar,

Field and fountain,

Moor and mountain,

Following yonder Star.



Star of Wonder, Star of Night,

Star with Royal Beauty bright,

Westward leading,

Still proceeding,

Guide us to Thy perfect Light.


Born a King on Bethlehem plain,

Gold I bring to crown Him again,

King for ever,

Ceasing never

Over us all to reign.


Frankincense to offer have I,

Incense owns a Deity nigh:

Prayer and praising

All men raising,

Worship Him God on High.


Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom;—

Sorrowing, sighing,

Bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.


Glorious now behold Him arise,

King, and God, and Sacrifice;

Heav’n sings Hallelujah:

Hallelujah the earth replies.


J.H. Hopkins