Douglas Niedt

Merry Christmas

The Three Wise Men

We Three Kings

John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
(arranged by Douglas Niedt)

Copyright Douglas Niedt, All Rights Reserved. This Christmas music for classical guitar may be reprinted, but please be considerate and give credit to Douglas Niedt.

I usually try to make these Christmas songs easy to play (but still sound full and interesting) so they can be learned by Christmas.

The Story Behind the Christmas Carol

"We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar," goes the famous Christmas carol, but from where? Little is known about the Magi, or three wise men as they've come to be known. Over 2,000 years later, the three kings remain one of the great mysteries of Christ's nativity.

The Three Kings, or as they are commonly known, the Three Wise Men or Wisemen, have long been one of the most mysterious aspects of Christ's nativity. They are mentioned in Matthew's Biblical nativity but not Luke's, and Matthew refers to them, without number, as Magi. In the words of the Church of England, "the visitors were not necessarily wise and not necessarily men." So who exactly were these Magi?

We Three Kings or 12 Astrologers, or Magicians

Many traditions surround the Magi. Some people believe that Matthew's nativity is intended to be symbolic rather than literal. But those who believe in the real existence of the Three Kings have put great effort into uncovering their origins.

What is known for sure is that the Magi were followers of the Zoroastrian religion. The word Magi is a complicated one and has been translated many ways, including shaman, sorcerer, wizard, and astrologer. It is also the source of the English words magic and magician.

Zoroastrianism was originally a Persian religion, but in a form of Zoroastrianism known as Zurvanism, Magi was the specific title of a priestly caste that paid great attention to astrology. As Babylon was the center of Zurvanism, some people believe the Magi came from there rather than Persia.

Some traditions embrace both the symbolic and literal aspects of the Three Wise Men story. The "Three Kings" were seen as real-life symbols of worldwide submission to Christ's rule, and under the names Balthasar, Gaspar/Casper, and Melchior, were reported to be the kings of Arabia, India, and Persia, respectively.

Yet the number three is not found in Matthew's nativity. Eastern traditions put the number of Magi visitors at 12. Although there is no scriptural basis for stating dogmatically that there were three wise men, the belief in Three Wisemen stems solely from Matthew's mention of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts to the holy family. Master artists throughout the centuries have depicted three wise men on camels as one of their favorite nativity themes.

The number of wise men is not important, but the fact that they persisted in following the light hat was given them until they found the object of their search, that they responded in worship, and that they returned home to share their experience with others all has much to tell us. Also, the gifts presented to the Christ child were both significant and appropriate: gold, symbolic of His kingly reign; frankincense, symbolic of His priestly ministry; myrrh, symbolic of our redemption through His death.

Following Yonder Planet

The star of Bethlehem that the Three Wise Men were said to follow has also caused great speculation. Skeptics have pointed out that a star would be too high in the sky to indicate a particular town or house, but this has not prevented astronomers from seeking a real-life astronomical event that could have coincided with Christ's nativity.

Some believers in the literal truth of Matthew's nativity story have dismissed astronomy altogether and claimed the Bethlehem star was a one-time miracle. Others have pointed out that the Greek word used, anatole, means star rising, suggesting the possibility that the Bethlehem star was actually a planet. Around 2 or 3 B.C. there were several pairings of planets such as Venus and Jupiter that would have produced great visual interest for astronomers such as the Magi. However, the death of King Herod is set at around 4 or 5 B.C., which would disrupt the continuity of Matthew's nativity story.

Spiritual Symbols

Whatever their number or origin, the Three Kings have become a fundamental part of traditional outdoor nativity scenes. They can be seen as eternal spiritual symbols, or as a mysterious complement to the gospel of Luke's more detailed nativity story. Having endured in our memory, the Three Wise Men certainly deserve their place alongside the holy family.

The Composer

Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., from Pennsylvania, was an author, book illustrator, stained glass window designer, Episcopalian minister and editor of the New York Church Journal. He wrote We Three Kings for an 1857 Christmas pageant put on by the General Theological Seminary of New York City. In 1863, he also published the Christmas carol in his book Carols, Hymns and Song. Hopkins has been credited with contributing much to the development of music in his denomination during the nineteenth century, writing a number of fine hymns and hymn tunes.

Listen to me play it:

We Three Kings, Easy Version (John Henry Hopkins, Jr.) arranged by Douglas Niedt

The Christmas Sheet Music for Guitar of We Three Kings

Here is the free Christmas sheet music for guitar of We Three Kings.

Included are three versions:

  • Standard Notation
  • Standard Notation and Tab
  • Tab only

Also included is an mp3 of me playing the carol. You may download it to all your devices.

You will download the folder from Dropbox. You do NOT need a Dropbox account and you do NOT need to sign in to access and download the files.

Be sure to check out the other Christmas music, free technique tips, and more on this website!