Essay / Theology

Hark! The Herald Angels… do they sing?

angel announcing Christmas carols are usually pretty reliable teachers of theology. Of the sacred songs that we tend to hear a lot around Christmas time, we have a lot of great doctrine to sing in “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Lift your voice with Watts and Wesley this season, and you will have uttered greater truths about the incarnation of the Son of God than you are likely to speak for the rest of the year.

But one suggestion that the Christmas songs have put firmly into my mind is that angels themselves are big singers, and for the life of me I can’t find any direct evidence in the Bible that angels do in fact sing.

I feel like Scrooge for even bringing it up.

But Will Rogers used to say, “All I know is what I read in the papers,” and when it comes to angels, lacking any direct encounters with them, all I know is what I read in the Bible. So it’s pretty important that what I think and say about angels stays well within the limits of what Scripture teaches.

So, do angels sing?

Flip to your favorite passages to see if you can catch them singing, and you get surprised by the total lack of musical terminology. Just to start with the Christmas passage itself, you consult Luke 2:13-14 and find

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Ah yes, there’s the familiar Christmas hymn… wait… not necessarily a hymn, and the verb for what they did is not “singing,” but “saying.” This story proves that angels speak poetically in unison, but not that they sing.

On the other hand, maybe when the New Testament uses the expression “say,” it could leave room for a musical way of saying something. Paul seems to tell us to “say songs” in Ephesians 5:19 when he says we should “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”

Carol after Carol, we get an over-interpretation of the angels as singing, or of their message as a song, or of the host of angels as a choir. Not a word of that is in the text. Even a careful reader like C. H. Spurgeon forces the text in his 1857 sermon at the Music Hall (!) in Royal Surrey Gardens, entitled “The First Christmas Carol:”

They sang the story out, for they could not stay to tell it in heavy prose. They sang, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace, good will towards men.” Methinks they sang it with gladness in their eyes; with their hearts burning with love, and with breasts as full of joy as if the good news to man had been good news to themselves.

But Handel, of all people, gets it exactly right in the Christmas section of Messiah, when the soprano recitative has the angels “saying” Glory to God, and the full chorus picks up those words and says them, musically.

Of all the Christmas songs about singing angels, the most influential in this regard is probably Charles Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” But while I do not feel compelled to defend the inerrancy of Wesley, I am eager to point out that the first line, as Wesley originally wrote it, was “Hark how all the welkin rings,” referring to the angelic message echoing off the little inverted bowl of the sky. It was a later hand, perhaps George Whitefield’s, that altered the text to include singing angels.

So, do angels sing? The fact is that I can’t find any direct scriptural support for the idea. It’s always possible that the question we’re asking is the wrong one to ask, sort of like asking, “Can we prove that Paul ever ate breakfast?” or “Were any of the apostles left-handed?” On the other hand, it’s not exactly a healthy instinct that leads us to say “Of course angels sing, everybody knows that, and the Bible doesn’t even have to bother saying so because it’s so obvious. How else would angels communicate? Music is the highest form of communication, therefore angels must use it,” etc. I could argue similarly in defense of the thesis that angels communicate using pure math.

I sincerely hope this little meditation doesn’t disturb any of your Christmas singing. After all, we who normally talk are spending this season singing about the coming of Christ, and in those songs it seems appropriate to sing about singing. The evidence, let us admit, does not entitle us to teach dogmatically that angels sang to the shepherds of Bethlehem or sing in heaven. But it does permit us to say that they spoke poetically composed lines, and they probably, at the very least, spoke them so beautifully and artfully that their words can be called singing.

And who knows? They may well have sung, and they may well be singing now. It’s good for us to be stirred up by suggestions of great beauty in the heavens, and also good to be reminded that we don’t know everything we’d like to know about those heavens. Nothing we know about angels was revealed to satisfy our curiosity. Everything was revealed to point us to the glory of God in the highest: that’s the angelic message, said or sung.

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