The Profound Simplicity of “Away in a Manger”

Scott Aniol

Photo by Jon Carlson

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year to sing good hymns. Some of our traditional Christmas hymns really are quite profound, the queen of them all being “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

Yet some Christmas hymns are far from perfect. Others have addressed the problems with some of these hymns. One hymn that often gets marginalized is “Away in a Manger.” Usually critics target the line “No crying he makes,” insisting that such a phrase belittles the humanity of the Christ child. Could be, but it could just as easily be interpreted as saying that Jesus didn’t happen to be crying just then. Some newborn infants just don’t cry very much.

Others, however, will point out that the hymn just doesn’t contain a whole lot of doctrine. True, it’s mostly a narrative and doesn’t contain all of the rich Christology found in hymns like “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

Yet, I do believe that the hymn, although admittedly simple, does say some things quite profound:

First, the simple narrative, referencing the stars and the cattle and so forth, clearly affirms the historical reality of the incarnation. This is an important and profound doctrine, for without the incarnation there is no atonement for sin.

Second, the beautiful poetic narrative captures the imagination and causes us to wonder at the night of our Savior’s birth.

Third, the hymn does not simply revel sentimentally in the cuddly infant, but affirms his deity and lordship by expressing dependance upon and trust in the God wrapped in delicate human flesh.

Finally, while not articulating all that the gospel is (a good hymn does not have to fully express every facit of the gospel to be good), the text does clearly affirm that Jesus is the only way to “fit us for heaven,” thus leading the singer to ask, “How?”

Simple does not have to be trivial, and simple does not have to be bad. With “Away in the Manger,” I believe we have a hymn that is simple, yet profoundly good in its simplicity.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
the stars in the heavens looked down where He lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
and stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay
close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.

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Author Photo by Jon Carlson

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.