Thursday, November 10, 2005
Hark! The Herald Angels Don't Sing
A mythology has developed about angels singing, “Glory to God” when Jesus was born. Even song writers and preachers who should know better have perpetuated this error. We may become so conditioned to this that we fail to notice the words in Luke 2:13, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, . . .” It is not that Greek has no words for singing. It is that Luke wants us to understand that they were speaking, not singing.
Other places in the Bible are consistent with this in describing angels as speaking, rather than singing. This is noteworthy in the book of Revelation, where many and various persons are praising God. The humans sing, and the angels speak. Your paraphrase (such as The Message or the New International Version) might not preserve John’s distinctions. I personally don’t think “sing” is a dynamic equivalent for “say.”
Revelation 5:8-10 describe the 24 elders (human priestly representatives of believers) and the 4 living creatures (not fully human, but distinct from angels) as singers. “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art Thou . . .’” Then verses 11-12 describe the voice of many angels, “saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb . . .’” If angels were capable of singing, this would be the time and place to do it. I believe this is a strong argument from silence that angels don’t sing.
Someone will ask me about Job 38:4-7 where the Lord challenges Job’s right to confront him, “Who laid [the earth’s] cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Some people consider that the “morning stars” are angelic beings who are clearly said to have sung. However, even apart from the singing problem, there are questions about identifying these objects with angelic messengers. I believe it is more likely that this is a poetic personification of inanimate creation (the literal stars), on the level of the trees clapping their hands or the waves lifting up their voices or the sea becoming sick—and that “the sons of God” represent the non-singing angels.
I don’t think it is a sin for you and me to sing the beloved Christmas carols, even though they distort the Biblical account in this and other ways. But maybe we should hold a mental reservation about the angel’s singing. And when we tell the story, let’s do it right. Keep reading with open eyes.
What a good discipline to be stuck to the text. Thanks Jerry for using your teaching gift in this way.