Listen to the Words - Song Four
A series by Pastor Greg Crawford
As I read through song lyrics this week, thinking about which song to cover next, I determined that “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” was too theologically similar to “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Read through the lyrics and you will see that it is very much a song of anticipation from the Jewish perspective. But since I’ve recently written on that perspective, I kept moving along and found myself intrigued by the lyrics of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” However, it was not necessarily in a good way. The song definitely has some elements within it that can, and should, be focused upon theologically, yet it also makes statements that are, at best, biblical assumptions and, at worst, biblical errors. Still, the song has an artistic way of saying the toils and troubles of this world should always be framed within the context of “peace” and “goodwill” brought upon us by the Messiah’s arrival. Let’s take a look.
It came upon a midnight clear
That glorious song of old
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold
The song writer, Edmund Sears, begins by making the same assumption that almost every other Christmas carol makes, that the night of Jesus’ birth was a clear night. As I stated in the last blog post, this is an unsubstantiated claim. I’m not suggesting that it was not clear, but simply saying that the claim is an assumption. Most arrive at this idea because the wisemen followed the star but since a close examination of the wisemen’s involvement leads us to believe that they did not arrive until Jesus was 1 to 2 years old, there is no reason to suggest that the clear sky of that story correlates with Luke’s account of the angles and shepherds. However, it has been suggested that shepherds would not have been out in the fields with their flocks during the cold rainy season, and so the likelihood is that the birth narrative took place during the summer when it would have been dry. And yes, that means December 25th is probably one of the least likely days that Jesus was actually born. At the end of the day, we simply have to make an educated guess as to the date of His birth, the weather conditions of that particular hour, etc.
“That glorious song of old” is a stanza pointing to the next section where they say, “peace on earth good will to men.” That’s really the focal point of this entire hymn and will come full circle on the last verse so hold onto that. But let’s first look at the treatment of “angels” in this verse. The way this verse is written indicates that the angels were flying in the air with golden harps. There are two assumptions here that need to be evaluated.
First, do angels play the harp? And more importantly, does that mean they always have a harp in their hand. In the book of Revelation, there is a reference to harp playing that could be associated with the angels.
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” Revelation 5:8 (ESV).
But later on in Revelation 15:2 it is the saints who had conquered the beast who are playing the harp which leads me to believe that John is using the harp in Revelation as a symbolic statement of victory. So that would mean in Revelation 5:8, it is probably the 24 elders who are holding the harp, not angels. If that’s the case, there is no reason to believe that angels play the harp and there is certainly no reason to think they had them out on Christmas day…which is too bad because the harp is so cool.
Were these angels ever in the air? I know your Christmas card shows it that way. I know the movies depict as such. I know it’s been preached like that and our imagination really can’t see it any other way. But just remember that throughout the Bible, angels spend a lot of time on the ground. They encamp around Israel, they walk, talk, and eat with Abraham, they stand before others, etc. Angels should not be viewed as beings who are eternally suspended by their wings. In fact, they may not even have wings!
GASP! Now before you unfriend me, let me clarify. There are heavenly beings called Cherubim and Seraphim who do have wings and are almost always flying. The Cherubim were guardian creatures woven into the tapestry of the veil dividing the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in the tabernacle, reminding the priests that they were not permitted to enter. This was theologically linked to the Garden of Eden which was also guarded by Cherubim (Gen 3:24), keeping sin-stained humanity from reentry. Seraphim only appear in Isaiah 6 but they are described as having 3 sets of wings. So these two heavenly beings are winged and fly, but that does not mean that all angels do. Often times, they are grounded, which could have been the case with the shepherds in Luke 2.
And probably the greatest shocker of all is that most of us have a skewed category for interpreting the word "angel." If we see a winged creature in the air… “It’s an angel.” If we see a glowing figure with a halo… “It’s an angel.” If we see a pale-faced lady with a harp… “It’s an angel.” But did you know that your pastors are angels? Ok, now you’re really shocked. And you should be if you think of the word "angel" in terms of heavenly beings without sin, because pastors are from that standard. I mean how can I be an angel when I can’t even play the harp? Right? But the word rendered “angel” in the English language is simply the word “messenger.” In both the Hebrew and the Greek, there are no words that single out heavenly messengers of God from those of earthly origin. Scholars have debated the word angel in the opening chapters of Revelation.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus” (Rev 2:1), “To the angel of the church in Smyrna” (2:8), “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum” (2:12), and so on and so on. Each of the seven churches have an angel, but is this a heavenly being, or is he addressing the pastors of these churches? It could be either one, but that is the point being made here. You shouldn’t see the word “angel” in scripture and assume a certain form and figure. You should think in terms of function. All those who have been appointed the divine task of communicating God’s message are possible interpretations of the Greek and Hebrew words rendered angel. Usually context will inform the decision, but sometimes it is ambiguous.
In Luke 2 we know these are a part of the heavenly hosts, not human messengers. But we don’t know if they are Cherubim, Seraphim, or some other category of heavenly beings that are not defined for us in Scripture. Since we do not know, we cannot assume they are winged creatures any more then we can assume they are playing harps.
Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing
Here, the song indicates that the angels were singing. In a sense this is true. While we think of music in terms of beats, rhymes, and melodies, the ancient world did not have the same way of thinking when it came to music or poetry. The Jewish world identified poetry by comparing and contrasting ideas usually within a literary device called a parallelism. The proverbs are full of these as they’ll provide one line, and then follow it up with another that either supports line 1, or is the opposite of line 1. Consider Proverbs 5:5 as an example:
Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol.
Line 1 is “Her feet go down to death” and line 2 is the same thing said in another way, “her steps follow the path to Sheol.” This is what the angels were doing in Luke 2 when they said “Glory to God in the highest” and then follow it up with “peace on earth good will to men.” God's highest glory is equated with peace on earth. It is as if the glory of God is seen in His Spirit of peace moving among His people throughout the earth. And since the Gospels link peace with the message of Jesus, the Great Commission is a prime example of how peace on earth is possible.
So it is music, it is poetry, but not according to our standard today. There may have not been a single chord. If it was contextual to what the shepherds would have been familiar with, it would have been chanted. Of course there’s always the possibility that it was so heavenly that it superseded any type of human comparison…which is what I’m hoping for when I arrive in heaven one day, but God doesn’t always work in the world by heaven’s standards but often meets us where we are and uses our own culture to communicate to us. If so, the hymn should say “The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels CHANT.” But that doesn’t rhyme now does it?
One last point on this verse and I promise the other verses will move along quicker. The phrase “peace on earth good will to men” is probably not the best translation of the Greek. The ESV words it like this, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Or in other words, "peace among those of goodwill." This reminds us that Jesus did not come into the world to bring peace to all people but only to those who believed in Him. Consider Jesus' statement here:
Matthew 10:34–36 (ESV)
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.
Jesus came to instill peace within the community over whom He reigns. Jesus’ arrival made a tax collector named Matthew, and a zealot named Simon, love each other in a Gospel community. This was truly the work of God as zealots wouldn’t think twice about killing a Roman tax collector if given the opportunity. But somehow, men from various backgrounds and social settings were able to live together, minister together, and to share life in Christ. Christian, you will not be loved by this world and Jesus did not come to give you that kind of peace, but he did come to orchestrate a body, a community, a church within which you should find a love that is stronger than biological bloodlines and common last names. It is a love that is rooted in Him who truly is love…Christ our Lord.
Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing
Here is another verse of assumptions that we’ve already covered above. Angels may not have wings, they may not hover. The ones that do have wings aren’t necessarily peaceful either. Usually when they show up there are sounds that are associated with their presence that seem to originate from the force of their wings. Their presence alone causes men to fear and tremble, bowing down in sheer terror. They aren’t like the Precious Moments Dolls who depict their angels as Cupid. These winged creatures are warriors who are not unwilling to strike you down if found unworthy. Now that’s an image for your next Christmas card Hallmark.
This verse does bring up a theological point, that the message of Christmas, the Gospel, is extended throughout a world of “Babel” sounds. This is a reference that goes back to Genesis 11, where humanity was scattered over the earth because of their unwillingness to fill the earth as God commanded. They wanted to stay together, they wanted to build a stairway to heaven, they wanted a great name…but they had already forsaken that because of their sin. What their heart desired was Eden, a place where humanity dwelt in a Holy place with a Holy God and in Holy communion as a Holy family, but sin lost that for them. Now they are trying to regain it by human effort and God spreads them across the globe by “confusing” their language, which is where we get the word “Babel” and eventually that place “Babylon” (a place always opposed to God’s will in Scripture). Even today, the world stands in juxtaposition to the Holy God of Scripture, but the Gospel has not been quenched. The confusion of this age has not shaken the truth of salvation for those who believe. Whether it’s heavenly beings singing the songs of glory, or you, the faithful human servant, taking the Gospel to your neighbor, the peace of God is being spread from heart to heart, despite the confusing world in which we live, as humanity responds to Jesus’ saving grace.
All ye beneath life's crushing load
Whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing
And hear the angels sing
Finally, the writer takes us to modern times, where we are suffering in various ways because of the curse of sin over the world. We covered that curse in a previous blog so we won’t camp there, but remember as we sing these songs that our own plight and predicaments should surface. We should understand we are where we are because of what we’ve done. I’m not saying you have cancer because of a particular sin, or that you lost that loved one because of one corresponding thing that you or they did, but rather, because you and I are sinners, we deserve all of it. We can’t and shouldn’t ask “why me God” because we’ve all fallen short and deserve death and separation from God. What we should do is look at the world around and seek the Lord’s comfort in our pain, and when others suffer in ways that we have not, it should cause us to ask “Why not me Lord?” I have to ask that all the time. “Lord, why did my child get to live when others did not?” “Lord, why did I get blessed with gift of marriage whereas others are searching endlessly for love with no success?” “Lord, why do I have food on my table while others are starving?” These are the questions we need to remember as we sing at Christmas time. Not “Why me?” but “Why not me?” The truth is, as sinners we deserve it all. Every single heartache. All the disease. All the pain. All the death. But God is gracious. The song of grace that permeates the land and is reminder that the pain and struggle we do go through is temporary and signpost to lead us to God’s eternal glory. Let the angel’s (messenger’s) song, or chant, be an eternal reminder of the peace you will one day have and already possess.