His name was Phillips Brooks. And the year was 1865. It was Christmas Eve, and Philips was riding horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he was to assist with the midnight Christmas Eve service. The memorable journey impacted him, and though he tucked away the inspiration from that night for three years, finally in 1868 Phillips Brooks shared that experience in the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Originally a 5-stanza poem, he gave it to the church organist, Lewis Redner, who gave the poem its musical background.
In fact, Phillips writes about this experience… “I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.”
Ah, Bethlehem…the Christmas City. Small, but oh, so important. After all, it was the birthplace of a King. It’s also the subject of the literary apex of Micah’s prophecy (i.e., the climax of what comes before and after) — Micah 5:2 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
Culturally and geographically, Bethlehem was nothing compared to Jerusalem (Judah’s capital) or Samaria (Israel’s capital). It was a small town just south of the main city. Yet, it would be the centerpiece of the Savior’s birth! (It is actually set against these two major cities in 1:1.)
And Bethlehem isn’t the only small thing going on in this book. Professionally, Micah was not a major player compared to other prophets (like his contemporary Isaiah). Meaning ‘Who is like the Lord?’, Micah was one to do exactly that – lift up the Lord and hide himself behind the great character of God. He never left Judah from what we know, and doesn’t mention a single of Israel’s kings in his opening verse. He was a prophet without much attention.
Politically, his message wasn’t ringing well with the hearers. With all the kings in power at that time of Judah (Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah as described in the books of the Kings and Chronicles), who was going to listen to a lesser-known prophet from the region of Moresheth-Gath?
But God sees things differently, doesn’t he? Possessions, position and performance don’t make me more valuable to God, for he sees through the outer layer to the heart. Could there be any better message at Christmas?
Think about it – When most of the world will be wrapped up in these very things – possessions, position, and performance – does anything speak more powerfully to the message of Micah than a lowly manger in a stable, the air around it filled with the cries of a little baby? What could appear to be more “insignificant” than that? But the reality is this – nothing is more significant or important than the child in that manger!
No wonder the carol “Away in a Manger” became an immediate Christmas favorite when it was published. Though the actual author is unknown, verses 1 and 2 appeared anonymously in Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families in 1885, and verse 3 was later added by John Thomas McFarland. James Ramsey Murray printed all of them together in Dainty songs for Little Lads and Lasses: For use in the Kindergarten, School and Home in 1887. With no original tune, it was sung to tunes well-known already in England and America. Yet, the carol that seems to be a “lucky” collection of words and music from all over captures the heart of what really matters – the significance of a baby in a manger, the Christ child!