Do you know; I used to like the carol “While shepherds watched”. Both the words and Crimond the music it was set too. As a teenager, I used to go carol singing with the Church in Darlington and that would be sung most nights. We were even fortunate enough to have some good enough singers that we could sing the bells to it as well.
The thing that changed my like for this hymn was that I started reading and understanding my Bible too much. The final verse that everybody loves to sing is actually very bad theology. According to the carol, the angels praised God saying, “All glory be to God on high and to the earth be peace. Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men, begin and never cease.” According to the Bible, the angels said some different words:
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests." The angels did not promise peace and goodwill to all on earth. The promise was limited to those on whom God’s favour rests. In other words, it is a promise to those who respond to this baby in a manger. Nobody else.
Just before this misquoted passage, we are told that one angel appeared before the shepherds.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” I would think that terrified was probably an understatement for how these shepherds felt at the time. It would not surprise me if they had had to change their clothes before they went to see this baby in a manger. In the last few years there have been several films released about angels, probably the most famous being ‘City of Angels’. These tend to show angels as almost human figures, certainly nothing to be frightened of. These are not the angels that the Bible talks about; these angels are mighty figures, probably carrying swords rather than harps. The book of Revelation states that at some point in the future there is going to be war between the Archangel Michael and his warriors, and Satan. The angels described there are not gentle figures that you could look at and say ‘O look Darling, there is an angel’. These are mighty warriors of God that if you see them, you have no choice but to fall on your face terrified in front of them. The book of Revelation states that that is what the apostle John did at one point:
So, what did this mighty and glorious angel say to these terrified shepherds? ‘Do not be afraid’. I am sure that Gabriel must have been tired of saying these words by now, it seems that every time he appeared to tell people who was coming, they cringed. Luke 1:12 states, “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” When Gabriel appeared to Joseph in his dream, he had to tell him ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,’ And now, as Gabriel appears before the shepherds, his first words have to be ‘Do not be afraid’.