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I accompany our church choir, and for this year’s Christmas morning service we sang a choral version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”: God Rest Ye, arranged by David Chase.

In worship planning, I had arranged for “God Rest Ye” to come right after my sermon, and so I did a little bit of research on the carol in order that I might preach into it. What does “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” mean anyway? I had a vague sense that it might be a prayer of rest for joyful people: God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.

What I found in a snippet from Ace Collin’s book, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, is that the the words ‘rest’ and ‘merry’ meant something a lot different 500 years ago when this song was written than they do now. ‘Merry’ meant ‘mighty’ or ‘strong’ (as in Robin Hood and his Merry Men). And ‘rest’ meant ‘make’ or ‘keep.’ Add a well-placed comma, and the title of the song is: God make you mighty, gentlemen.

I love this.

I love the strength of this prayer. God make you mighty! Let nothing dismay you. Remember, Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas day.

And I love how the old English word ‘rest’ meant ‘make’ or ‘keep’. When God is acting upon me in a making-way or a keeping-way, God is resting me.

And I love how the old English word ‘merry’ meant ‘mighty’ or ‘strong’. For is not the joy of the Lord our strength?

This song title, in its journey of meaning, is an intersection of rest and work and joy. And it is an intersection of God’s activity and ours. It reminds me of Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11:28-30: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (The Message).

Dear Gentlemen and Gentlewomen, may God make you mighty. May God rest you with joy. And may God keep you in comfort.

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ontario. She and her husband, Tim, a CRC chaplain, parent three grade school daughters. Heidi enjoys cake decorating, cycling, and digital scrapbooking.

5 Comments

  • Emily Brink says:

    Love this, Heidi! God rest ye too, merrily, this second day of Christmas

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    You just made my day by teaching me this new meaning! Not just the literal meaning of the song–though that is very cool–but it’s spiritual meaning. Thank you!

  • Fran Siems says:

    Heidi, this is lovely, so simply and beautifully written. Teaching us the olde English version of probably our oldest Christmas carol is precious. Many thanks!

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Love this post! Adding Heidi’s wisdom to the OED entry for “merry man,” I hear richness in “God keep you sturdy in your following of that knight/outlaw chief/political leader named Jesus”:

    merry man, n.

    Pronunciation: (in sense 1) Brit. /ˈmɛri ˈman/, U.S. /ˈmɛri ˈmæn/ (in sense 2) Brit. /ˈmɛri ˌman/, U.S. /ˈmɛri ˌmæn/
    Forms: see merry adj. and man n.1; also Eng. regional (Devon) 18 murrymins (plural), 18– murrie-man; also Sc. 18– merriman, 18– merryemen (plural).

    Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: merry adj., man n.1
    Etymology: < merry adj. + man n.1

    1. A companion-in-arms or follower of a knight, outlaw chief, etc. (now hist.). Also in extended use (frequently humorous): a follower or acolyte of any (esp. political) leader. Usually in plural.
    In hist. use most commonly associated with the English legend of Robin Hood, as Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

  • James Dekker says:

    Monhstrous cool, Heidi. “Keep” indeed works w/ “rest” and also w/ stewardship. We are to “keep the sabbath” in the same way as we “keep/guard” the garden (Genesis 2). In Spanish, “guardar el septimo dia” and English “keep the seventh day” also provides rest, strength, MIGHT! Lovely associations to keep our spirits and the world in far better shape than we can without resting, trusting God to rule the world.

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