Christmas Carol Countdown | No.19 – While Shepherds Watched

Today’s devotional is by Alan Dourish

“‘While Shepherds Watched’ is arguably one of the best known Christmas carols, sung – sometimes well but often with questionable melody - in countless carol services, school nativities, television shows etc. The words spring into your mind as soon as the first line is played, as does the image of a few simple shepherds watching over their sheep outside Bethlehem. 

When I was little, my Dad taught my sister and I an alternative version of this carol, which went “While shepherds washed their socks by night, while watching BBC, the angel of the Lord came down, and changed to UTV…”. I still regularly sing this version to myself, although it’s hard to do so without images popping into my mind of Julian Simmons talking about Coronation Street! Still, it brings a smile to my face, and the fact that a carol written in 1700 is still being enjoyed and adapted today speaks volumes about its popularity and longevity.

The lyrics are based on the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2, as the songwriter – an Irishman called Nahum Tate – takes us through the announcement of the angels regarding Christ’s birth. There is much to feast on here in theological terms, including Good News for “all mankind” (v2); the fulfilment of God’s promise to raise up a Saviour through the line of David (v3); and the glory of God given voice through the chorus of the angelic host (v5).

As the old saying goes, “familiarity can breed contempt”, and I think ‘While Shepherds Watched’ is victim to this. It is easy to ‘rattle off’ the words without thinking much about them, and yet, if we do slow down and consider them, there is much blessing to be found, as our minds think once more about what God – full of truth and life and grace – did to redeem mankind, by sending Jesus to save us from our sins.

The shepherds were the first to hear the proclamation but they were by no means the last, and I, for one, will forever be thankful.” 

1 While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

2 "Fear not," said he for mighty dread
had seized their troubled mind
"glad tidings of great joy I bring
to you and all mankind. 

3 "To you, in David's town, this day
is born of David's line
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord;
and this shall be the sign:

4 "The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid."

5 Thus spoke the angel. Suddenly
appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God, who thus
addressed their joyful song:

6 "All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease."