Hark The Herald Angels sing is a fantastic romp through some truly inspiring theology. It is too good to be only sung at Christmas – its going to feature at my funeral. The more mystically minded Christians speak about the participation with God as being like swimming in the sea. You can paddle in the shadows or go in further until you are surrounded. Either way you are participating in the experience and being of the sea, yet there remains a vast body of which you know nothing stretching out beyond.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is like swimming out from the beach and into the depths. If you allow them, the words will carry you off into unexplored regions, where you are out of your depth. In just a few words the authors, Wesley and Whitfield create a cornucopia of spacious theology. I have been swimming around in it for years and years.
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With angelic hosts proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! the herald angels sing:
“Glory to the newborn King!”
Its exactly as I imagined it. Not.
How do you think about the well- know scene with the shepherds watching their flocks? Something like these Christmas cards perhaps which show the event exactly how I imagined it …
In Luke where this incident is described we read of the Angel of The LORD who appeared, followed by a company of the ‘host of heaven’ … praising God saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” 2:14. Nothing is said where there angelic beings are located – ground, sky, hill. The text doesn’t say they are singing. Neither does it say they aren’t. As with much narrative in scripture we are left with a frustrating desire for more detail. I am sure this is deliberate!
Wesley & Whitfield have the angels singing (and proclaiming) and hint at them being in the skies. This idea of divine beings singing is very widespread – it is widely assumed.(1) Either way this apparent reading between the lines of Luke’s version of accounts should not worry us. Augustine said that ‘he who sings prays twice’ – something that Christians the world over would agree with. Given that for many people singing in praise and worship is a totally natural and unforced response to the lovingkindness of God it is no wonder that the writers have the angels singing.
Show me the video
I have met a very few people over the years who claim to have had some form of angelic encounter. They are trustworthy people, and I have no reason to doubt them. I have asked the LORD on several occasions for such an experience – nothing yet… I have heard of both truly jaw-dropping and almost seemingly mundane accounts of angelic encounter. This encounter definitely belongs in the jaw dropping sector of the ‘angelic encounter venn diagram’. Here is the heavenly realm breaking into the physical earthly one. I wish I could have been there, or at least see the video.
Here, The Glory of the LORD shone around – what the ancient Christians called ‘the uncreated light’ that flows from the majesty of the uncreated God. To see this ‘uncreated light’ – but really “see” is the wrong word. To be present where the presence of God is manifested, such a thing goes beyond normal seeing. Beyond any sensing. Beyond rational understanding. It is too holy for earthly words. Not only has the second person of the trinity come to earth as the ‘Newborn King’ but the presence of God and the heavenly host is in some way that I cannot describe or countenance present to shepherds who didn’t ask for it, who weren’t looking for it, who were probably had their lives turned upside down by it. It is like a view into heavenly realm – the counsel of God.
No wonder Wesley and Whitfield have them singing. There is no other possible response than worship. Its joy. Joy, the settled assurance that all shall be well. How could it be any other way now that he has come?
In this first verse there is a mixing of ideas of both individual and corporate and blessing. These themes are set both in the present and in future, and all flow from the birth of the King. The writers are describing both the ushering in of a new age, and the end of that age. So we have sinners reconciled to God and the current angelic proclamation of glory, side by side with an eschatological glimpse forward to the end of an age when all the nations will joyfully rise to ‘join the triumph in the skies’.(2)
Perhaps Wesley has in mind the phrase that Luke uses for Jesus – ‘the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25) For ‘consolation’ think ‘relief’ and ‘comfort’. The binding up of wounds and the drying of every tear. Since at this stage only a few people know about the birth and not ‘all ye nations’, it seems likely that the nations reference is not set in the present. No, Wesley is pointing forward to the great, glorious and awful ‘day of the Lord’ – a time when the nations will be truly healed, and we will see them as God intended them to be. Can you imagine purified nations! Look at what nations can achieve now, in their fallen state. I want to see them when they fully reflect the Glory of the Uncreated Light of God. No wonder Wesley has them joining the triumph that will surely follow, as night follows day, now that the newborn King has come.
Verse 2 to follow.
- It is really interesting to do a search for this idea of angels singing in the bible…. it is not as common or as clear cut as I thought. CS Lewis has Aslan singing creation into being, rather than just speaking it. This is an area for further study. Perhaps the Hebrew word also carries undertones of song?
- Now, I don’t believe that Wesley had the rapture in mind when he penned this as some suppose. The rapture is a relatively modern interpretation of scripture, and I would want to suggest that it’s a false teaching.