Sing it with me. “Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.’”
Most of us are familiar with this beloved Christmas carol, written by Charles Wesley, which tells of an angelic chorus singing praises to God. In fact, many of our favorite Christmas hymns portray angels singing following the announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night.”
The idea of an angelic chorus singing praises to God has become very common in our culture. Many churches depict it in their annual Christmas programs. Even Charles Spurgeon, the famous nineteenth century preacher, waxed eloquent on singing angels:
And notice how well they told the story, and surely you will love them! Not with the stammering tongue of one who tells a tale in which he has no interest; nor even with the feigned interest of a man that would move the passions of others, when he feels no emotion himself; but with joy and gladness, such as angels can only know. They sang the story out, for they could not stop to tell it in heavy prose. They sang, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men.” I think they sang it with gladness in their eyes; with their hearts burning with love, and with breasts as full of joy as if the good news to man had been good news to themselves.1
But does the Bible state that the angels sang that night? The passage in question is found in the Gospel of Luke. On the night Christ was born, an angel appeared to some shepherds who were keeping their flocks:
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. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men! (Luke 2:10–14, emphasis added)
The Greek word translated as “praising” is αινουντων (ainountōn) from the root αινεω (aineō), and in a general sense, it means “to speak of the excellence of a person, object, or event.”2 More specifically, in the New Testament it is used to denote “the joyful praise of God expressed in doxology, hymn or prayer, whether by individuals (Lk. 2:20; Ac. 3:8 f., the group of disciples (Lk. 19:37), the community (Ac. 2:47; Rev. 19:5) or the angels (Lk. 2:13).”3
Notice that one of the references above is Luke 2:20, which follows shortly after the announcement to the shepherds. Luke stated that when the shepherds returned from seeing the newborn Jesus, they were “glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen” (emphasis added).
There is a strong connection in Scripture between singing and praising. The Psalms often instruct believers to sing their praises to God. For example, Psalm 47:6–7 states, “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with understanding.” Also, James instructed cheerful believers to sing praises to God (James 5:13).
Many people have thus been led to believe that “praising” always involves singing, but, while the two are closely linked, praise is not limited to singing. A person can also praise God in many ways, such as praying, proclaiming, or shouting (Ezra 3:11).
The word translated as “saying” in Luke 2:13 is λεγοντων (legontōn) from the root λεγω (legō). This is a very common word in Scripture, and it means “to speak or talk, with apparent focus upon the content of what is said.”4
The idea of angels singing on the night of Christ’s birth has become so common that many are surprised to learn that the Bible does not unequivocally state this.
So we see that an angel announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds. That angel was then joined by other angels who praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
The idea of angels singing on the night of Christ’s birth has become so common that many are surprised to learn that the Bible does not unequivocally state this. This example provides a good opportunity to discuss traditions. In and of themselves, traditions are not wrong, but they must be based on and consistent with Scripture. If they contradict Scripture, then they must be rejected.
At the same time, we don’t want to be guilty of going too far in the other direction. Just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly state that they did sing does not necessarily mean that they did not. Some have even argued that angels do not or cannot sing at all, but those who make this claim must adequately address Job 38:7 and other passages that seem to support the idea that they can and have sung. Furthermore, there is no biblical or logical reason why they could not sing. Angels are highly intelligent beings who are capable of speaking. Why would they be incapable of putting those words into song, especially since other beings in heaven sing (Revelation 5:9–14)?
One of the points of this series on misconceptions is to lead us all to look closely at what the Bible teaches. Far too often traditions have been the basis of our thinking, and we end up believing things that are not found in Scripture. We have heard and sung about angels singing on that night so often that many do not bother to look closely at the text.
As we wrap up this Christmas article (pun intended), you are probably wondering if the angels did sing to the shepherds. In light of the fact that there is a strong connection between praising and singing in the Bible, and since angels, in all likelihood, are capable of singing, there exists biblical support for the tradition of singing angels found in the Christmas hymns.
Angels might sing praises to God all the time. There may indeed have been a heavenly choir of angels singing joyous songs to their Creator on the night Christ was born. Perhaps the eloquence of Wesley and Spurgeon could not even do justice to the singing angels that night. Perhaps, but the Bible doesn’t explicitly state this.
In any case, when we think about God’s amazing gift of a Savior to mankind on that night, we should glorify and praise God, whether in spoken word or in song, just as the shepherds did on that incredible night after they had seen the newborn King.