People often listen to and even sing songs without understanding what they are singing. A case in point is “God rest ye merry gentlemen.”
Why would the composer of this Christmas carol wish God to give rest to “merry gentlemen”? Is it that they were partying too much and are in need of rest? No.
Why would the composer of this Christmas carol wish God to give rest to “merry gentlemen”? The answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t.
Modern listeners may be confused by the archaic meaning of some words and the pattern of sentences.
“Merry” means joyful. It is related to our modern English word “mirth.”
Often, we do not punctuate song lyrics. I don’t know why. Punctuation would help us understand. In this case, a comma should come after “merry” rather than before it. The gentlemen are not merry.
Something that is “at rest” is not in motion; it remains in one place. So the writer of the carol is asking God to help the gentlemen to remain merry.
The next line may also be confusing: “Let nothing you dismay.” The writer here is telling the gentlemen not to let anything cause them “dismay”; that is, he is telling them not to be worried or afraid of anything.
In modern language, we might phrase the first two lines of the carol this way, “Men (and women and children), cheer up! Don’t be afraid! Don’t worry!”
The carol writer was not addressing “merry gentlemen.” He was addressing people who were not merry and telling them that they should be. Why? Because “Christ, our Saviour was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.” People have sinned and are thus in the power of Satan, the evil one. But people should be joyful because Jesus came to earth to save them from evil and from sin.
No wonder the carol writer said this is “tidings (news) of comfort and joy.” God comforts us when we are feeling fear and worry, and He gives us joy when we are not feeling merry because of our sin.
So, cheer up! Don’t be afraid! Don’t worry! Merry Christmas!