Posted by: rcottrill | June 3, 2013

While Shepherds Watched

Words: Nahum Tate (b. _____, 1652; d. Aug. 12, 1715)
Music: Christmas, by George Frederick Handel (b. Feb. 23, 1685; d. Apr. 14, 1759)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The hymn tune Christmas is a common one for this carol in our hymn books. But also associated with it is Winchester Old, from Este’s Psalter, published in 1592.

Nahum Tate did not have a great reputation as to his character. One writer describes him as intemperate and careless, another as a drunkard and a spendthrift. However, as a poet, he did work with Nicholas Brady (1659-1776) to produce a new metrical version of the Psalms in 1700, one superior to what the church had used previously.

Tate and Brady also added a Supplement to the book containing a number of hymns of their own creation. As well as this hymn for Christmas, there were others for Easter, and for the Lord’s Supper.

Some appreciated the new songs, others did not. On one occasion, Tate was visiting in the home of friends when it came time for family devotions. The maid explained her refusal to sing with the others by saying, “Sir, as long as you sung Jesus Christ’s Psalms I sung along with ye; but now that you sing Psalms of your own invention, ye may sing by yourselves!” Even so, this Christmas hymn gained early acceptance, likely because it is close to a word-for-word rendering of Scripture passage (Lk. 2:8-14).

There is a lesson in this. “The word of God is living and powerful” (Heb. 4:12). Even when it is recited by unregenerate lips, or put on paper by the pen of a drunken wastrel, the Spirit of God can use it. Years ago I worked in an advertising company managed by a well-known Canadian agnostic named Charles Templeton. My parents had known him years before, when he laboured as a clergyman. My father’s gospel quartet sang in his church. But those days were long gone.

During the years I worked with him, he would occasionally reminisce about those bygone times, and we’d sing a hymn or two as we worked. He knew the words, but his heart was unchanged. Charles confessed to me that he never believed what he was preaching. To him, it was all for show, and an ego trip. My dad continued to pray each day–for decades–that the man would repent and be truly saved but, as far as I know, he died far from Christ.

However, when I later trained for the ministry, and began serving in a church, I met a fellow-pastor who said he was saved under Charles Templeton’s ministry. Amazing! The Word had borne fruit in His heart by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, am I saying it doesn’t matter whether a preacher is a believer or not? No. Hardly. I’m sure Charles misled many people by his hypocrisy, or his open defection from the faith. And he himself missed the joy of serving the Lord Jesus Christ wholeheartedly. But it remains true that God will sometimes speak, in sovereign grace, through some strange instruments. After all He did that one day with Balaam’s donkey (Num. 22:22-35)!

As to the angelic announcement to the shepherds, it was means of tying the Old Testament and the New together. Bethlehem is only five miles south of Jerusalem. It’s almost certain that the sheep raised there were going to be used for temple sacrifices. Sacrifices that had been offered since ancient times, foreshadowing the great and final Sacrifice to come. How wonderful for those men to hear the news that the Saviour had been born, the One John the Baptist would later call, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).

“You were…redeemed with…the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:18-19).

Further, Christ’s humble beginning, with a manger for His cradle, would be a symbol of welcoming grace. Even the shepherds, rendered ceremonially unclean by their occupation, were summoned to Him and went joyfully (Lk. 2:15-16). When He began His earthly ministry, “many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him,” and “the common people heard Him gladly” (Mk. 2:15; 12:37). God’s grace is extended to all.

CH-3) “To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Saviour, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign.

CH-4) “The heavenly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”

CH-6) “All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease.”

1) Can you think of an instance in recent times when God blessed His Word, in spite of the sinful (and perhaps unregenerate) nature of the human instrument?

2) In the shepherds, we have an example of those who shared the gospel message (cf. Lk. 2:11, and 17) though they surely didn’t fully understand what it meant. What lesson is there for us in that?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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