While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks (Advent 10-2014)

Today in Carol Me, Christmas (2014 Advent Devotional Series) we continue our look at the angels communicating the good news of great joy to the shepherds.  One of the great surprises of the Christmas story is that it was announced to shepherds who were considered the dregs of society.  Seriously, shepherds?  (That might have been the popular reaction at the time.)  You’ve got the birth announcement of royalty—the King of Kings—being announced… to shepherds?  (Insert hysterical laughter here.)

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks was versified by Irishman Nahum Tate, a hymn writer and Poet Laureate.  Of the many works with which Tate was involved, this time in collaboration with Nicholas Brady, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is really the only one to endure and appear in our present-day hymnals at all. Tate, in spite of his continual striving for public favor, ended his years fleeing from his creditors.  Perhaps it’s a good time to revisit our own ideas of what it means to be a success.  For many of us, our legacy won’t be a hymn or carol; it won’t even be money or property of any kind, but rather our legacy will be in the lives we touched with the Gospel message that the angels proclaimed!

Luke 2:8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Do you see how the angels pointed to Jesus?  They succeeded in the most important way possible: showing the Way, the Truth, and the Life even though at the time, He was but a baby in a manger.

In the Church of England at the time of this carol, only the Psalms of David were permitted to be sung.  Therefore, this work was included in a supplement to New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) and became the only Christmas hymn permitted to be sung in addition to the Psalms.  The reason for that is many carols (like some of the French ones we’ve seen) had their roots in folk music.  Therefore, they were considered commoner’s secular music, insufficiently holy to be used in church services.  This persisted until the end of the 18th century as Christianity moved to the wider culture of the unchurched (folk, commoners, seculars and the slave community) in revivals such as those in the Great Awakening.

The carol is most commonly sung to Winchester Old (United Kingdom) and an arrangement of a George F. Handel aria arranged by Lowell Mason (United States).  Two other tunes Martyrdom and Shackelford—both from the 1880s—are less commonly associated with While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.

Theologically, not surprisingly given the Church of England’s tight control over what was sung at the time, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is pretty much straight out of the Gospel of Luke.  As you enjoy this beautiful version on harp ponder our Thought Focus for Today:

Thought Focus for Today: the angels proclaimed a message that they were compelled to share though they had no stake in its blessing.  Yet they rejoice in this Good News and praise God….in the presence of shepherds.  If they had any reservations about sharing the Good News with the lowest of society, they certainly did not show it.  What is known about angels is that the angelic host of God do exactly what God tells them to do!  God says, share the Good News with shepherds.  Boom.  Done. 

How ought we view sharing the Good News, even with those who are from different social circles?

while shepherds watchedWhile shepherds watched their flocks by night,

All seated on the ground,

The angel of the Lord came down,

And glory shone around,

And glory shone around.


“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread

Had seized their troubled mind.

“Glad tidings of great joy I bring

To you and all mankind

To you and all mankind.


“To you, in David’s town, this day

Is born of David’s line

A Savior, who is Christ the Lord,

And this shall be the sign,

And this shall be the sign.


“The heavenly Babe you there shall find

To human view displayed,

All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,

And in a manger laid,

And in a manger laid.”


Thus spake the seraph and forthwith

Appeared a shining throng

Of angels praising God on high,

Who thus addressed their song,

Who thus addressed their song:


“All glory be to God on high,

And to the Earth be peace;

Good will henceforth from Heaven to men

Begin and never cease,

Begin and never cease!”


Carol Me, Christmas (2014 Advent Devotional Series) began November 30th.  By way of reminder, if you haven’t signed up yet, you can receive these devotional studies in your email throughout Advent 2014 by entering your email address on the SeminaryGal.com home page in the space provided in the sidebar.  Or “Like” the SeminaryGal Facebook page to access them there.  If you like these devotionals, I’d really appreciate your letting others know so I can continue to spread the Good News far and wide.  Blessings to you, in Christ always, Barbara <><

Categories Articles and Devotionals, Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on December 9, 2014

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