I was first introduced to We Three Kings as a child through its parody. On the school bus, other kids and I sang: We three kings of Orient are smoking on a rubber cigar; It was loaded, it exploded, now there are only two… Unfortunately, the Wise Men in our version didn’t learn from their mistakes because one by one they were exploded by the loaded rubber cigar. Then we sang, “Silent Night…”
Yes, it was childish and silly, but I was a child.
The first time I heard the legitimate version was in church, where three deacons dressed in bath robes and head pieces trying to portray the three kings as they followed the star searching for the Messiah. I laughed quietly when I saw them, not only because they looked funny, but because I thought it was kind of hokey to include the Christmas carol in the church production (Again, I was a kid and didn’t know any better). I later learned that the carol was actually written for a Christmas production in 1857 by composer John Henry Hopkins, Jr. He served as a music teacher at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. He desperately desired to write a song which featured the gifts presented by the wise men to baby Jesus.
We Three Kings originally contained five verses. The first and last verses were meant to be sung by all three wise men. Each of the verses in between were written as a solo for the wise man carrying gold, frankincense, or myrrh. Each solo describes the purpose of each respective gift. Gold was a gift for a king. Jesus was born King of kings. Frankincense was often carried by priests in worship of the Lord. Jesus Himself was and is God. Myrrh was a spice used in burial. This signified Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Verse 1: We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar,
Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
Refrain: O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Verse 2: Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never, over us all the reign. (Refrain)
Verse 3: Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high. (Refrain)
Verse 4: Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb. (Refrain)
Verse 5: Glorious now behold Him arise; King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia, sounds through the earth and skies. (Refrain)
Check out this version of We Three Kings by the Hound and the Fox and Tim Foust.
*Image courtesy of Robert Thiemann