Hark the Herald Angels Sing… To Shepherds?

The Christmas season is in full swing again this year, and Christmas music is playing around the clock on Mix 101.5. If you are fortunate enough to have a station dedicated to Christmas music, you will probably hear the classic, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Here is the Amy Grant version, which I think is the one most radio stations play.

This song celebrates the amazing event recorded in Luke 2:8–20, when the angels came to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. I imagine the scene was beyond amazing. A slew of paintings have tried to capture the moment, but I’m sure they all fall short of the impressiveness of that sight. A host of herald angels announcing the coming of the king, how could you capture that in a painting?

One question that stands out to me is, why waste that kind of show on shepherds? Even Aladdin knew that when your heralds announce you as king, it needs to be impressive. Not impressive to a bunch of nobodies, impressive to the other kings and other people of power. But Jesus does the exact opposite, he brings the most impressive heralds that anyone could imagine and displays them to meager shepherds. Why would he waste his big announcement on people who are of such little importance?

The Humble Jesus
The most common explanation I have seen for Jesus’ big show for the little shepherds is that it highlights Jesus humble origins. After all, Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, a relatively insignificant clan in the nation of Israel. Considered in light of this evidence, presenting Jesus to the shepherds is just another example of the amazing humility of Jesus, who, as Philippians 2:6-7 says, although “he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
We certainly can’t deny that Jesus’ birth, and even his proclamation to the shepherds is a great demonstration of his humility. Still, I think that Luke records the angels’ message to the shepherds to point out something else as well. I think Luke’s purpose is to help us see what the angels meant when, in Luke 2:11, they announce that Jesus is the Christ.Jesus the Christ.
The first thing we should point out is that Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name. It wasn’t Joseph Christ and Mary Christ who had a little baby named Jesus Christ. Christ isn’t a last name, it is a title.The word Christ is actually the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah. In fact, the Holman Christian Standard Bible translates verse 11 as, “today, a Savior who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” And this is a fine translation because both Messiah and Christ mean the same thing. But using the Hebrew word instead of the Greek word isn’t really helpful if we don’t know what either of them mean. So why call Jesus the Christ or the Messiah?

If you look up the word Christ or Messiah in a dictionary you will probably see it defined as “anointed one.” Throughout the Old Testament, we see God anointing certain people, and sometimes even certain alters, to accomplish certain tasks. It is a way of showing that these people are specially chosen by God to carry out certain tasks. For instance, only anointed priests could bring the sacrifices into the temple (Leviticus 4:4-6). Or when God chooses a king for Israel, like Saul or David, He anoints them to mark them as specially chosen people (1 Samuel 10:1, 2 Samuel 5:1-3).

When we read the Old Testament, we actually see several examples of “anointed ones,” or messiahs. But these messiahs are all imperfect and temporary. They are all little messiahs that are looking forward to the final Messiah. The entire Old Testament, whether it be through pictures and examples or through promises and prophecies, is preparing us for the ultimate Messiah, or the Christ, who will finally make all things right.

The Christ in Micah 5
I believe that Luke was especially thinking of a particular promise in the Old Testament when he wrote this story. In fact, when we look at the relationship between Luke 2:1-20 and Micah 5:2-5, I think we will gain a deeper understanding of why Jesus’ heralds would have announced their news to the lowly shepherds.

Micah was a prophet and he wrote this book around the 8th century BC. He is writing for two basic reasons. The first is to warn the nation of Israel that God is about to judge them for their sinfulness. But the second reason is to promise them that even though God will judge them for their sin, he also desires to save them. So throughout a book in which Micah is condemning Israel for their wickedness, he peppers in promises of a future salvation in hopes that the people will repent and return to God. Micah 5 is one of those places where Micah peppers in a promise of future salvation. It’s a reminder that even though God will allow other nations to attack Israel as a penalty for their sins, He also promises that he won’t forget them. He promises to bring them a savior. That’s where our passage comes in.

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure,
for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace. (Micah 5:2-5)

Micah is giving us a list of things to look for as we wait for the coming Christ. We are looking for someone who is from Bethlehem. He is going to be a king, or a ruler. In verse 3 we see that he will be born of a woman (she will be in labor), but in verse 2 we see that he will be coming from “of old” and will be from “ancient of days.” I am sure that one was confusing. In verse 4 we see that this king is called a shepherd, he is a shepherd king. And finally, in verse 5 we see that the Christ will be his people’s peace.

As Luke is writing the second chapter of his gospel, it almost seems like he has Micah 5 opened up beside him. The Christ will come from Bethlehem, Luke 2:4. The Christ will be a king or a ruler; he twice mentions that Jesus is of the line of David in Luke 2:4. He will be born of a woman, Luke 2:6-7. But he will also be of “ancient days,” thus this baby’s messengers are the very messengers of God, the “Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9).”

And then we look to see if he will be the shepherd king. And that, I believe, is why the angels announced Jesus birth to the shepherds. God sent the angels to shepherds as a way to proclaim that this boy, lying in a manger, is the shepherd king. God sent the angels to the shepherds to let us know that Micah’s promise was being fulfilled. God’s promised one, the one who will bring peace to all who will follow him, is finally here.

The Old Testament is written to teach us to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” It tells us that the Christ is coming, but we didn’t know when. Plenty of kings had come and gone, each time reminding us that the perfect king would one day come. But when Luke announces Jesus, he is saying that this king is different. He is the king from Bethlehem, he is the shepherd-king, and he is the one who will bring peace to all who follow him. That is why I believe we sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It is because their song teaches us that Jesus is the one we have been waiting for. They teach us to sing, “glory to the newborn King!”