“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

“And there were…shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Lk. 2:8)

     INTRO.: A hymn which describes in poetic form the scene where the shepherds were abiding in the field keeping watch over their floc by night following the birth of Jesus Christ is “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” The text was written by Nahum Tate, who was born at Dublin, Ireland, in 1652, the son of a minister in the Church of England named Faithful Tate (originally Teate) who also authored some religious verse. After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin, Nahum went to London, England, in 1668 to seek literary fame and wrote for the stage.  Lacking much unique creative talent of his own, he mainly adapted the work of others. Appointed poet laureate in 1692, his chief claim to fame was his collaboration with Nicholas Brady in the New Version of the Psalms of David in 1696, which was dedicated to King William III, with the first supplement in 1698. This Psalter was used for more than 200 years in the Church of England. Most all of Tate’s hymns in this collection have been forgotten except this metrical version of Luke 2:8-14, originally entitled “Song of the Angels, at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour,” which was first published in the 1700 edition of Supplement (some sources give the publication date of the Supplement as 1702). This supplement contained metrical paraphrases of great Biblical hymns (Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc dimmitis); several medieval hymns (Veni Creator and Te Deum); hymns for morning, evening, and communion; and several metrical paraphrases of scripture passages other than the Psalms.

     Although Tate was appointed royal historiographer in 1702, he failed to achieve financial success, and because of his own intemperance and carelessness, he was often in dire straits. His death occurred on Aug. 12, 1715, in the mint at Southwick, London, England, which was a refuge for debtors at the time. The Scottish Translations and Paraphrases of 1745 altered the opening stanza to read:
“While humble Shepherds watched their flocks In Bethlehem’s plains by night,
An Angel sent from Heaven appeared And filled the plains with light.”
John Julian noted, “The alterations were confined to this stanza.” A couple of other Psalm paraphrases from the New Version, “Through All the Changing Scenes” (Psalm 34) and “As Pants the Hart for Cooling Streams” (Ps. 42), have been included in some modern hymnbooks and are sometimes attributed as the work of Tate. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” has been set to many tunes. One (Avon or Martyrdom) by Hugh Wilson has been used with many other hymns as well, including “That Dreadful Night” and in many of our books a metrical version of Psalm 143 beginning “When Morning Lights the Eastern Skies.” Another (Christmas) from George Frederick Handel, the one I grew up hearing with this text, has also been used with other hymn, especially in our books with Philip Doddridge’s “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve.” Richard Storrs Willis composed the tune (Carol) now associated almost exclusively with Edmund Hamilton Sears’s “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” originally for Tate’s words.

     Still another tune (Prince of Peace) which can be used was composed by Newton W. Allphin (1875-1972). Apparently, he produced it for use with John Morison’s “To Us a Child of Hope Is Born” but it fits “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the text appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 (with the Wilson tune) edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1940 Complete Christian Hymnal (with the Handel tune) edited by Marion Davis; the 1963 Christian Hymnal (with the Handel tune) edited by J. Nelson Slater; and the 1978 Hymns of Praise (with the Wilson tune) edited by Reuel Lemmons.  Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise (all with the Wilson tune) all edited by Alton H. Howard; and the 1986 Great Songs Revised (with the Handel tune) edited by Forrest M. McCann.  Interestingly enough, almost all of our books that include the song have had only stanzas 1, 2, and 6 of it (The Complete Christian Hymnal added stanza 3). Allphin’s tune is used with “To Us a Child of Hope Is Born” in Howard’s Songs of the Church.

     The song is a simple retelling of the Biblical account of how the angels appeared to the shepherds of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus Christ.

I. Stanza 1 says that the angel came down
“While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around.”
 A. Shepherding was a very common occupation in first century Palestine, and Jesus used it to illustrate His relationship with His followers: Jn 10:11
 B. The word “angel” means messenger, and God often used His spiritual hosts to deliver messages to certain people: Lk. 126
 C. It is possible that on other occasions when angels appeared to people, the glory of the Lord, perhaps a special light, shone around: Lk. 2:9

II. Stanza 2 says that the angel brought them tidings of great joy
“‘Fear not!’ said he, for mighty dread Had seized their troubled mind;
‘Glad tidings of great joy I bring, To you and all mankind.'”
 A. Quite often, the appearance of an angel brought a sense of fear or dread on people who saw them: Lk. 1:11-12
 B. Therefore, it was frequently necessary for angels to tell those to whom they appeared to “fear not”: Lk. 1:13
 C. This angel came to bring glad tidings of great joy: Lk. 2:10

III. Stanza 3 says that the angel pointed out that the Christ was born
“‘To you in David’s town, this day, Is born, of David’s line,
The Savior, who is Christ the Lord, And this shall be the sign.'”
 A. David’s town, of course, was Bethlehem: Lk. 2:4
 B. The One whose birth was being announced was of David’s line: Matt. 1:1
 C. Peter also preached that Jesus was both Lord and Christ: Acts 2:36

IV. Stanza 4 says that the angel told them how to find the Babe
“‘The heavenly Babe you there shall find To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands, And in a manger laid.'”
 A. Jesus, while begotten miraculously, was a Babe, a child, born of woman: Gal. 4:4
 B. The sign for the shepherds was that they would find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes: Lk. 2:12
 C. He would be lying in a manger because there was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn: Lk. 2:7

V. Stanza 5 says that the angel was joined by the heavenly host
“Thus spake the seraph, and forthwith Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus Addressed their joyful song.”
(or, “Of angels praising God on high, Who thus addressed their song”).
 A. The angel who announced Christ’s birth is not specifically identified as a seraph, but we do know that seraphim were angelic like beings which are sometimes thought of as a particular order of angels: Isa. 6:1-6
 B. Then with this angel there suddenly appeared a multitude of the heavenly host: Lk. 2:13
 C. It appears that one of the functions of angels is to praise Christ: Rev. 5:11-12

VI. Stanza 6 says that the angel and the heavenly host gave glory to God
“‘All glory be to God on high, And to the earth be peace:
Good will henceforth, from heaven to men, Begin and never cease!'”
 A. We should always seek to give glory, in the sense of praise and adoration, to God on high: Rev. 4:9-10
 B. God wants there to be peace on earth, specifically His peace which surpasses all understanding: Phil. 4:7
 C. This was the message that the angels brought to the shepherds: Lk. 2:14

     CONCL.: Many brethren through the years have objected to including songs about the birth of Christ in our hymnbooks, either possibly believing that it is unscriptural to sing hymns that relate to the subject or, perhaps more likely, fearing that they will be thought of as “Christmas” carols and misused. However, while admitting the need for wisdom in how and when we might use them, I have never found any scriptural argument against singing songs related to the birth of Christ any more than those related to His life, death, resurrection, and second coming. Many children’s Bible class teachers find that singing songs about the birth of Jesus helps children to understand the subject when it is taught in children’s Bible classes. Christ’s birth, while misunderstood and misapplied by many in the religious world, is certainly a Biblical subject, so there can be nothing wrong with being reminded of what happened “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.”


2 thoughts on ““While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

  1. Would it be worth it to mention the tune associated with this carol in England? There’s a stately tune called Winchester Old that is associated with this text in England.

  2. As I have said before, my research has been primarily in American hymnbooks and most specifically in those used among churches of Christ. Interestingly enough, I am familiar with the use of “Winchester Old” with “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” from an orchestral arrangement of it in a piece I think by Albert Ketelby. However, in the books used by churches of Christ, that tune is almost exclusively used with Thomas Cotterill’s communion hymn “In Memory of the Savior’s Love”


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