Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town

Advent Hymn #2 – O Little Town of Bethlehem by Philip Brooks, 1865

Theme: PEACE

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This week we consider the theme of peace. Christ has brought us perfect peace; something the jews for ages have desired. His blood and sacrifice bring us the true peace that we hope for. The peace that renders our soul free of guilt and sin. However, we often think of peace as quietness, like the little town where Jesus was born.

O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks around 1865. He wrote it for a children’s program at church, but it has become a favorite among adults as well. Phillips had visited Israel a few years earlier and took a tour that included riding a horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and arriving at dusk. He was so impressed by the little town. So quaint and peaceful. When he sat to write a song for the Christmas service, he was reminded of his time in Israel and these beautiful words came forth.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Phillip Brooks, 1865

O Little Town of Bethlehem:

Why did God choose Bethlehem over other places? Why not Jerusalem?

Oh Little Town
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Perhaps you know that Bethlehem is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. The prophecy of Micah tells us that the Savior would come from Bethlehem,
But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.” Micah 5:2

The City of David

Bethlehem was always known as the city of David. It is where David grew up and shepherded his father’s flocks. (1 Samuel 17:15) It is also the place where Samuel came to anoint David as King of Israel. (1 Samuel 16). Just as we sometimes long for home, David yearned to be home as well. He spoke of the good water from Jacob’s well while he and his men were at war. (1 Chronicles 11:17-18) We also know that Jesus was born in the lineage of David, (Matthew 1) so it is natural that they would be traveling to Bethlehem for the census. Perhaps the shepherds that heard the angels that night were in the very fields that David watched his flock and wrote so many Psalms. We’re not certain but this could possibly be true.

David’s Ancestors Lived in Bethlehem

Ruth was King David’s great, great, grandmother. Naomi, her mother-in-law, was originally from Bethlehem when she and her husband left for Moab due to the famine. When Naomi returned to Bethlehem, Ruth came also and married Boaz, her kinsman-Redeemer. (Ruth 1, Ruth 4:11, Ruth 4:18-22)

Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died along the road here when she gave birth to Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother. She was buried there in Bethlehem near the Tower of Egdal. This made it a sacred place as well.

Things I Just Learned About Bethlehem

  1. There are two Bethlehems – Interesting fact is that there were 2 Bethlehems in Jesus’ day.  So which one was it?  The most famous Bethlehem is located in the hill country (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) of Judah. Situated on the main highway to Egypt (which came in very useful just after the birth of Jesus Christ), it was known variously as Ephrath (Genesis 35:16), Bethlehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2), Bethlehem-Judah (1 Samuel 17:12), and “the city of David” (Luke 2:4). (King David was born in Bethlehem-Judah).
  2. Bethlehem means House of Bread – Jesus is the Living Bread!

NOTE: the following points are based on assumptions. I could not find credible resources to make this fact; only speculation from many sources.

Bethlehem was where Sacrificial Lambs were Born and Raised.

According to Rabbinic writings,  the lambs born and raised in Bethlehem were used for temple sacrifices. The shepherds in charge of these special lambs were from the tribe of Levi. They were Levitical shepherds (shepherd-priests). Their job was to raise animals that were healthy and without blemish and pure enough for the temple sacrifices as stated in the Eternal’s instructions in the book of Leviticus. Does it make sense to you that the Lamb of God would also be born in Bethlehem? It is also likely that the shepherds who heard the angels and came to the manger were these very levitical-shepherds.

How did the shepherds know where to go?

There must have been many caves or places where the animals were kept. The Bethlehem sheep stayed in the fields at night under the guard of shepherds, rather than being moved into a sheepfold, as was typical.  When the ewes were ready to deliver, the shepherds moved them inside.  The place these special Temple sheep used for delivery of their lambs was called the ‘Tower of the Flock,’ (a clean and safe place for the lambs to be born.) It was also located close to the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem which may have been near where Joseph and Mary passed when they could not find a place to stay. [Note: No archeological findings support this. It is pure speculation since the Tower, Migdal Eder (Tower of the Flock) is mentioned in Micah 4:8.]

Swaddling Clothes

When the levitical lambs were born, they were “wrapped in swaddling clothes” to keep them from being scratched or getting a broken leg. The strips of cloth were cut from levitical robes that had worn out. It is possible that Mary had received swaddling clothes from her cousin Elizabeth whose husband was a priest, even a high priest. Perhaps Jesus was wrapped in levitical swaddling cloths; either from Zecharias, Elizabeth’s husband, or from the shepherd priests.

The Manger

Some say that the way the shepherds knew where to find Jesus was because of all the above mentioned. In the Greek language, the angels said, “the manger” not “a manger” as translated in most versions.

Bethlehem – Home of the Kings of Kings

All these things about Bethlehem were signs that Jesus was indeed the coming King and Messiah, the Savior of the World. Our precious Jesus had humble, peaceful beginnings but everything pointed to the Truth. He was indeed the Long-Expected Messiah.

Meditate on The Lyrics

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

Other Christmas Hymn Studies

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

One Day – Glorious Day

Mary’s Magnificat


Hymn Story: O Little Town of Bethlehem | ReasonableTheology.org

Two Bethlehem’s in Israel at the time of Christ – Church Under A Bridge (cuabtyler.org)

A LAMB BORN IN BETHLEHEM – NAZARENE NOTES (nazarenesoftheworld.info)

The Tower of the Flock | The Plan of Time

About Mandy Farmer

Pastor's Wife (retired) &  Chronic Pain Warrior blogs about how to make it through anything by relating her own life experiences to her writing. She is passionate about her love for the Lord and desires to spread that passion to others. She has a great desire to encourage women who are following behind her.

View all posts by Mandy Farmer

2 Comments on “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting and educational post on the hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and on Bethlehem the city, Mandy. So fascinating!

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