While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
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.”
—While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, Nahum Tate (1700)
Above are the first two stanzas of the familiar Christmas carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” Adopted by virtually all hymnals since the time of its writing, this narrative song simply relates the Christmas message as the shepherds heard it. The lyrics represent a very literal paraphrase of the account of Jesus’ birth as recorded in Luke 2:8-20, making it one of the most biblically accurate Christmas carols.
Think of it – the shepherds were the only ones who were given a personal invitation to be present for the joyous occasion of the birth of Jesus Christ. These men were a very unlikely bunch to receive such an invitation because shepherds were generally disliked and mistrusted by practically everyone of that day. Since they were with the sheep almost 24/7 and unable to do frequent hand washing, they were considered ceremonially unclean and could not worship at the temple. Because they had such a low-paying job, they were often considered dishonest and thought guilty of being thieves and robbers. Their reputation was so bad, in fact, that they were not even allowed to bear testimony in a court of law. About the only group of people more despised than shepherds were the lepers.
And yet, God issued a personal invitation to these men on that holiest of nights. As another Christmas carol puts it, “The first Noel the angel did say, Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” Would these lowly shepherds be the kind of people you and I would invite to a birth – especially the birth of the “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS”?
God intentionally chose this group of lowly men – not the Roman officials, the high priest, the Pharisees or Sadducees, or the wealthy of that day – but the heavenly host sang that night for a group of poor, smelly shepherds who were religious and social outcasts. It would be something like the London Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing all year to perform Handel’s “The Messiah” and then giving the concert for a small group of men working in the sanitation department!
Why would God do such a thing? I believe it’s because He wanted to let it be known that His love is for everyone and that all people are important to Him. He wants us to know: “For there is no respect of persons with God” (Romans 2:11).
What’s interesting is that Nahum Tate, who penned these lyrics, was a pauper. He lived in constant financial distress and died in a debtor’s prison in 1715. The music was written by George Frederick Handel, who also experienced severe financial hardship until he had written his timeless masterpiece, “The Messiah.” God used these two men who struggled financially to enrich the world with this beautiful hymn that proclaims the glorious truth that “God so loved the world,” not just a few individuals on the right side of the tracks.
The Bible says, “And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (I John 4:14). Do you know what the good news is? That includes you and me! God loves everyone, and all people are important to Him. You may feel unloved and unimportant in the eyes of the world, but in Heaven’s eyes you are so valuable that Christ came and died just for you. The “good tidings of great joy” brought by the angel on that first Christmas night was “to all people” (Luke 2:10). As the children’s song tells it, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.” Even though people may look different on the outside, we are all the same on the inside. We are all sinners in need of a Savior.
Rejoice! The Savior of the world was born and died for you and rose again. He loves you more than you will ever know. If you do not know Him, wouldn’t today be a good day to invite Him into your heart? Then you will have real cause for rejoicing, just like those humble shepherds.