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Wingless Angels and Their Poetry

Copyright © 2019

by
Jim Kerwin

Title image for the article 'Wingless Angels and Their PoetryHere's a fresh view of Luke 2…1

Ah, Christmas! What for others is a time of joy is for me a time to remember and mourn my felonious and heretical past life. The felony? Kidnapping. The heresy? Thinking that I could save God’s Son, Jesus. But like Saul of Tarsus, “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in…” well, not “unbelief” (1 Timothy 1:13), but because I was an innocent five-year old. I guess I need to explain.

Coinciding with my short career in crime, I was also beginning kindergarten. My family had been regularly attending what I think was called Second Presbyterian Church of Amsterdam, New York. I was infant-baptized there at some early age. (Don’t go giving me a hard time doctrinally about this; three-month-old babies don’t have much say in the matter, other than to protest about being wet at both ends.) It wasn’t long before I was attending Sunday School myself like a big boy.

I used to think of the place as “Stone Church,” and in the cold winters of upstate New York, it became Cold Stone Church. Advent began that year on Sunday, December first. The first Advent candle was lit and the manger scenes went up in various Sunday School rooms on that day. That evening at bedtime, my father entered my bedroom, and he discovered me already under the covers. Rather than tucking me in like he usually did, with a deft hand he whisked my covers off to reveal the Baby Jesus, who had been kidnapped from my Sunday-School-room’s manger scene, lying next to me. (Apparently, I had been fingered as a “person of interest” in an ongoing kidnapping investigation regarding said Infant.)

Why did you take the Baby Jesus from the manger in your Sunday School room?”

“Dad, are you kidding?! It’s cold in that room and He doesn’t have any clothes on!” And it was true. This Kid wasn’t “wrapped in swaddling clothes,” bundled up warmly. Nuh-uh! If He had been wearing that Scripturally reported “uniform,” He might not have looked to me like a candidate for double pneumonia. Instead, He was wearing only a diaper, and His outstretched arms were thrown wide open in a welcoming gesture.

The genius of my legal defense must have rivaled that of newly minted TV lawyer, Perry Mason,2 my mom’s must-see black-and-white show every week. The Judge prescribed no corporal punishment, community-service, or even a time-out in the corner. I can’t remember if Baby Jesus was taken into custody or left in my care that week. In any event, the following Sunday morning, having received sufficiently convincing assurances that nothing would harm the Babe’s health, I made restitution for my kidnapping and heresy by returning the Babe to His manger-crib. Other than the lack of swaddling clothes, nothing seemed amiss to me. But back then, I was unfamiliar with the New Testament, so I didn’t see the other inconsistencies presented to me at my Sunday School stable. Like Paul, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child” (1 Corinthians 13:11). I innocently believed what I was told by well-meaning people who knew more of tradition than of Scripture.

“In Understanding Be Mature”

But remember that 1 Corinthians 13:11 goes on to say, “When I became a man, I did away with childish things.” And in his very next chapter, Paul continues the theme by saying, “Do not be children in understanding… but in understanding be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20 nkjv). Over the five decades since I started following Jesus (more than six decades since the “Kidnapping”), I have read the New Testament over nine dozen times, and the Lord has been gracious to teach me by the Holy Spirit as He promised He would.

In my experience, part of the Spirit’s maturing process in our lives as we follow Jesus in obedience, as we feast and meditate on the Scriptures, is to challenge us in our preconceived ideas, empty traditions, and misapprehensions of truth. That’s part of His ministry of guiding us “into all truth” (John 16:13). Just like those who had to surrender their understanding of the Old Covenant in order to enter the New, sometimes we can’t receive a new thing from God until we willingly part with the old.

What I’m sharing with you in this article is a blessing of an insight I received once I surrendered the unscriptural notion that angels have wings. The blessing was a deeper appreciation of the immediacy of heaven and the ministry of angels. And all of this comes into focus in Luke 2:8-20, the story of the night of our Lord’s birth.

Grinching Christmas?

It’s not my intent to be a doctrinal “grinch” and take away your cherished Christmas traditions. On the other hand, if those traditions aren’t biblical, why not cut them loose in order to receive something better? You don’t want to be in danger of “invalidating the word of God by your tradition” (Mark 7:13). If I were to take you back to that Sunday school “manger scene” today, the inconsistencies would be glaring to me. For instance, besides the unwrapped, nearly naked Jesus, I remember seeing:

  • Three magi, or “wise men,” with their camels at the stable. Why are they here? Tradition, not Scripture. First, they’re out of sync time-wise. The “magi account” in Matthew 2 makes several things clear:
    • We don’t know how many magi there were. Were there two? Seven? Fifteen? The Bible is silent on the matter. (The number “three” is merely an extrapolation of the fact that they gave three sorts of gifts.)
    • The wise men showed up about the time Jesus would have turned two years of age (Matthew 2:16). By the time they arrive Jesus is no longer a bréphos (βρέφος, a Greek word that runs a time-limited definition-span from fetus through newborn to infant or baby) of the stable visited by the shepherds in Luke 2. Instead, when the magi arrive at the house (Matthew 2:11), they worship the paidíon (παιδίον, a Greek word covering a range from toddler on up3).
    • Joseph was not present at home during the time of the magis’ visit (“they saw the Child with Mary His mother,” Matthew 2:9 — there’s no mention of Joseph in this passage), whereas he was clearly at the stable when the shepherds came.
  • I would also have seen a star, supposedly beaming down on the Sunday School stable (but in reality, glued to the top front of it). Although this is neither the time nor place to investigate that star, it is never mentioned in the Luke 2 account of the shepherds visiting the stable.
  • Speaking of glue, that “manger scene” also had an angel affixed to the roof of the stable. She had blonde hair and she had wings. Never mind that every time an angel becomes visible to anyone in the Bible, it appears like a man,4 and that the pronoun he is always used. And if you read the Scriptures carefully, without a preconceived notion, you’ll discover that angels are not once described as having wings.5

No Longer “Winging It” About Wings

Okay, so I’m probably not doing a very good job of avoiding grinchiness, especially in the matter of angel wings. But you’ll find it’s true, if you do a word study on angels with a good concordance. Cherubim have four wings (e.g.. Ezekiel 1:11). Seraphim have six wings (e.g., Isaiah 6:2). Besides these and angels, we know of no other “heavenly beings.”

Cherubim and seraphim have functions related to God and His throne. But the word angel (whether ἄγγελος / ángelos in the Greek or mal’ākh in the Hebrew) by itself does not necessarily mean a “heavenly being.” In both languages of the Bible, it simply means messenger. For instance, in the New Testament we have an ángelos speaking to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20) — clearly a heavenly being acting as God’s messenger. This is how the word is used the majority of the time in the New Testament. But we also find ángelos used of John the Baptist prophetically (Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27), of John’s disciples on one occasion (Luke 7:24), of Jesus’ disciples on another (Luke 9:42), and of the two spies protected by Rahab in Jericho (James 2:25),6 prior to Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River.

It works the same in Hebrew (the language of the Old Testament), with the word mal’ākh. Just like ángelos in Greek, mal’ākh can mean angel (i.e., heavenly being) or messenger. In 2 Kings 1:3 we find a perfect example of both meanings of mal’ākh being used in the same verse:

But the angel [there’s our word mal’ākh in the singular] of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers [and there’s our word in the plural] of the king of Samaria and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’”

The word mal’ākh appears in four different ways in the book of Malachi, and in that book it never functions “angelically.” Consider:

  1. Malachi’s own name is a form of mal’ākh.
  2. Righteous, teaching priests are called mal’ākh (Malachi 2:7).
  3. As already mentioned above, John the Baptist is called God’s mal’ākh (Malachi 3:1); and in the same verse…
  4. Messiah Himself is designated with the name mal’ākh of the covenant, appropriately translated as “messenger of the covenant.”

When Did They “Grow Wings”?

Yes, yes, all right. Point made — context determines whether mal’ākh or ángelos means heavenly being or human messenger of some sort. But what about angels’ wings (or lack thereof)?

Knowing that the Bible never attributes wings to angels will help us to envision the scriptural passages about angels a bit more clearly, especially our nativity story in Luke 2. Other than confusing these messengers of God with winged seraphim or cherubim, what originally caused people to think that they had wings?

It’s a notion that dates back at least to the Dark Ages, having to do with the location of Heaven. The line of thinking must have gone something like this: “Where is Heaven?” “Why, up there in the clouds, of course!” “And if the angels are in Heaven with God, and they sometimes visit earth, how do they travel from the clouds?” “Well, it’s the same way that birds travel through the air, silly! Everyone knows that birds have wings. So angels must have them, too.”

We can see a quaint, child-like imagination in such reasoning, but it finds no support from the Bible. Angels, the Scriptures tell us, are “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14), that is, they are non-corporeal. They are not of our physical dimension. They needn’t concern themselves with gravity, or any of the four dimensions, or “wind resistance.” Angels can and do appear in our reality whenever God wills it, and disappear just as quickly. It’s merely a matter of God allowing the separating “curtain,” the veil between Heaven and earth, to be pulled aside (or, perhaps, to become transparent) for the length of the necessary interaction. They can be solid and substantial, as shown by history’s most famous wrestling match (Genesis 32:24-32 with Hosea 12:3-4) or so diaphanous as to appear and interact with people in dreams (e.g., Matthew 1:20,21,24).

Angelic Ups and Downs

There are a few times that angels are described as ascending (Genesis 28:12 with John 1:51; Judges 13:20; and Revelation 7:2) and as descending (once again Genesis 28:12 with John 1:51; Matthew 28:2)7 or coming down (Revelation 18:1; 20:1). Wings are never mentioned. Jesus Himself was, is, and will be involved in ascending (John 3:13; 6:62; 20:17; Ephesians 4:9-10; and, of course, Acts 1:9) and descending (John 3:13; Ephesians 4:9-10; and don’t forget the bright hope of 1 Thessalonians 4:16). Yet He manages quite well without wings!

There are only three passages in which angels are reported to fly:

  1. Daniel 9:21 (nasb) — …while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering.8 Where is the flying here? That depends on the translation. You’ve just read the New American Standard Bible translation of the verse. Compare this to the King James translation:

    Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation.

    The two phrases — in my extreme weariness and being caused to fly swiftly — translate the same Hebrew phrase. I bring the matter up simply to: a) record this as a possible example of a flying angel; and, b) to point out that the verb may have nothing to do with flying.9

    Whichever interpretation prevails, neither in this passage, nor in Daniel 8:15-27, is Gabriel represented as having wings. This is also true of Gabriel’s two other appearances (Luke 1:1-20 and 1:26-38). If this heavenly being was possessed of wings, isn’t it reasonable to assume that someone — Daniel, Luke, Zacharias, or Mary — would have bothered to mention the fact?

  2. Revelation 8:13 — Whereas the New American Standard Bible was clearly in the minority on the first point (above), it stands solidly in the majority of modern translations when it gives this reading for the current verse under consideration: Then I looked, and I heard an eagle [άετός / aetós] flying in midheaven, saying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, because of the remaining blasts of the trumpet of the three angels who are about to sound!” In the other camp is the more archaic rendition of the King James: “And I beheld, and heard an angel [ἄγγελος / ángelos] flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice…,” etc.The difference is due to advances in New Testament Greek-text scholarship over the 400 years since the King James was translated. Therefore older translations (e.g., KJV, Bishops’, Geneva, NKJV, RV60) give angel, and newer translations (e.g., NASB, ASV, CEV, Darby, ESV, ISV, NIV, LBLA, Weymouth, and Williams) are uniform in their rendition of eagle. Nevertheless, the point is still the same: If it is an angel, where is the evidence of wings?
  3. Only in one other passage, Revelation 14:6-9, do we find angels depicted10 as in flight. Verse 6 reports an angel “flying in midheaven”; he is the first of three, because verse 8 says, “another angel, a second one, followed him,” whereupon verse 9 tells us, “another angel, a third one, followed them.” But, consistent with everything else we’ve seen, there’s no mention of these spiritual beings needing or using wings.

Someone reading this section might still ask, “Well, if even just these three angels fly, how do they do it if they don’t have wings?” I don’t know — how do angels do the other physics-defying things they do? How do angels appear suddenly, seemingly through solid walls and closed doors? How do they enter dreams? Do we have any idea of the capabilities and powers of beings who are spiritual, and not physical, in nature?

Why It Matters

Okay, so maybe angels don’t have wings. Why should it matter? Well, those non-biblical pinions are more than just leftover superstitions of the Dark Ages. I believe “angel wings” also create a sort of ironic “aerodynamic drag” on our spiritual perception, understanding and thinking. The same apostle who wants us to “put away childish things,” also exhorts us with this: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; …in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20). If an angel doesn’t need wings to fly down from the clouds to earth, he must need them to fly through outer space, or fly (somehow or other) “down from heaven,” or hover above us, right?

Oh, no! They don’t need “wings” to traverse any distance. They are spirits, not bound by the limitations of the physical realm like time and space, so far as we know. Angels — and the entire heavenly realm — are much closer than we realize. Keep that in mind now that we are ready to look with fresh eyes at Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth. With a little bit of mental discipline, we can be aware of what we’re not “seeing” in Luke’s account — neither a star, nor an undetermined number of magi, nor angel wings. But, thank God, we can see the angel (and soon his heavenly cohort) appear with our “new” eyes, unfettered by the unscriptural traditions enshrined in that nativity scene from my Sunday School class. Let’s read the passage together and note what it really does say, starting with Luke 2:7-9 —

7And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.

If you diligently did that word study I suggested earlier, looking at all the verses regarding angels and whether or not they were described with wings, you might have noticed something else in retrospect: Usually when an angel appears, he is standing or sitting or walking when encountered, seemingly earthbound. He just “appears” at ground level. So it is with Luke’s recounting of this most famous of Bible narratives. Look at the two phrases highlighted above. One moment the shepherds are grouped together, probably in the proximity of the night’s campfire. Then — suddenly! — this angel stood before them, NOT “hovered above” them. This heavenly being is right in the middle of their gathering! And note where the glory of the Lord is; it is shining around them, NOT “above them.”

Since we are trying to see this passage with new eyes, let’s think some new thoughts as well. To be sure, angels are glorious beings (people almost invariably fell down in fear before angels when they appeared), but I don’t think this particular glorious light is emanating from the angel. It is quite clearly described as the glory of God. This is that kābôd11 referred to in the Old Testament, the weight of God’s presence. God’s glory appears when He is present. How is this possible that both the angel and God’s glory suddenly appear, and God makes His presence manifest?

Do you remember what we spoke of earlier, the “veil” between the earthly and heavenly dimensions, and how angels (at God’s will and pleasure) pass back and forth through this veil? What’s going on here on the first Christmas night? The veil has been pulled back ever so slightly! One of God’s messengers has stepped through, delivering the most wonderful message the world had ever heard up to that point. And the glory of God is pouring through that opening in the veil! This angel stands amidst the shepherds, and the shepherds stand amidst the glory. No wonder these poor, simple men were terrified!

10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Nearly every human-angel encounter in the Bible commences with this disclaimer: “Don’t be afraid!” How much more when the glory of God is present?! Messiah has come, and He is just down the hill. He has been born, to fulfill the Messianic oracle given to the prophet Isaiah (9:6) —

For a Child will be born to us, a Son will be given to us…

But the shepherds in their terror and wonder and altogether dazzled state had not even an instant for meditative reflection on fulfilled prophecy or anything else. Just as they were absorbing the first experience and processing the angel’s words, the curtain separating heaven and earth was pulled open much wider. The dazed and amazed shepherds went from one “suddenly” to an even more spectacular “suddenly”—

13And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God…

Again, think about where these angels are relative to the shepherds. Or perhaps I’d be clearer if I said, Let’s think about where the shepherds are relative to the angels. These humble herdsmen don’t need to crane their necks to look above in order to see this multitude up in the sky. With the first herald-angel, who stood before them on ground level, there is now a countless host of angels. The shepherds are surrounded by angels and by God’s glory! They stand in the midst of the heavenly choir, the angelic host worshiping before God’s throne, and… Well, wait; if I spill the beans here, it will be a “spoiler.” We have yet one other “new thought” to consider, one which I think will open this age-old story to you in a deep and profound way. This surrounding, shining host was…

…praising God and saying,

15“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

You might think I’m going to spoil the climax of the story by taking us off on a tangent at this point with a seemingly unrelated question. Humor me (since I’m going to do it anyhow!); I think you’ll forgive me (and perhaps even bless me) when the results of our side-trip are applied to this story.

Here’s the question: What do you know about Hebrew poetry? It’s “poetic” in a different way from English. In classic English poetry, we deal with concepts like rhyme and meter (i.e., the number of syllables in a line). If this were a treatise on English poetry, we could explore more technical aspects like alliteration, simile, metaphor, etc.; but rhyming and meter will function well enough for our purposes here. We imbibed rhyme and meter in our nursery “rhymes” from the time we could mimic speech:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star, [7 syllables]
How I wonder what you are! [7 syllables]
Up above the world so high, [7 syllables]
Like a diamond in the sky… [7 syllables]

But Hebrew poetry doesn’t consist in rhyme, nor is meter a primary element. Instead, the “soul” of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. That is to say, a couplet of two lines (or sometimes a tercet of three lines) isn’t joined on the basis of rhyme, but by two thoughts or concepts that are paralleled either by their similarity (“synonymous parallelism”) or contrast (“antithetical parallelism”).12 Here are two poetic couplets from Psalm 1 with which you’re probably familiar:

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
—Psalm 1:2—

That’s an example of synonymous parallelism. The last verse is an antithetical parallelism, contrasting two ideas:

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
But the way of the wicked will perish.
—Psalm 1:6—

Once you see how it works, you’ll notice it everywhere, not only in Psalms, but Proverbs, frequently in the Prophets, and various other songs encountered throughout the Old Testament.

So there’s an oversimplified thumbnail-sketch introduction to Hebrew poetry. But what does this have to do with the worship song of the angels? Knowing that the shepherds spoke Aramaic (a successor language to Hebrew) and that they understood its poetic form, what parallelism did they hear in this joyous, angelic outburst? —

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.

Look at the words again. I would suggest to you that, as written, the parallelism is skewed; or perhaps it is theologically naïve. What is the parallelism? As normally translated, it seems to be a comparison and contrast between God in heaven (“in the highest,” or, possibly, “Most High”), to whom glory is given; and men on earth, to whom peace is proclaimed. This is part of our tradition; but it is listening with a child’s ear. “When I became a man, I did away with childish things.”

Let me ask a question: Why is there “a multitude of the heavenly host” present to chant or sing these words? Why does it require so many to make the proclamation (if this is a proclamation)? Even with the earth-shattering proclamations that interweave through the Book of Revelation, each monumental declaration requires only one angel. Where is the need of a “multitude” in Luke’s recounting of this event?

In fact, while we’re on the subject of the “multitude,” how many angels were there in this company? The Bible doesn’t give us a number, but it does give us the sum total: all! Where does it say that?

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews actually speaks of this “Christmas story” event from the perspective of a fulfilled prophecy. Have you ever thought about these words in Hebrews 1:5-6?

5For to which of the angels did He ever say,

“You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You”?

And again,

“I will be a father to Him
And He shall be a Son to Me”?

6And when He again brings the Firstborn into the world, He says,

“and let all the angels of God worship Him.”13

Note that only God can receive worship, so angels offer their praises to Him and no other.

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These angels, who surround and flank the flocks of sheep and their astonished shepherds, normally worship before the throne of God. And that is still the case in this very instant — because the veil that separates earth from heaven has been pulled aside, they can be seen still before the throne of the Most High God.

But God, the Omnipotent One, the One in whom we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), the very same God who spoke Creation into existence, is also now incarnate. He has taken on human nature and lies as a helpless Baby in a manger in nearby Bethlehem. He is still “very God,” as the creed says, and therefore angels find delight in worshiping Him also on earth, as strange and inexplicable as His circumstance might seem to them.

The prophecy said, “Let all the angels of God worship Him,” when the Firstborn comes into the world. But where is His worship in the song we read here in Luke 2 that the shepherds heard?

The proper, most worshipful parallelism seems to have been obscured because of a misplaced comma. Our translations don’t take into account what the angels knew, but at which they wondered exceedingly, that mystery Charles Wesley described as

Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.14

As the angels’ poem stands, glory is only given to God in heaven. But now God, who can be said to be everywhere at once, is now in two spheres, as it were — in heaven15 and on earth; and in two “when’s” — in timeless eternity and also the temporal realm. Where is the indication of the worship of God on earth, in the flesh?

We find it if we change the punctuation of the poem’s parallelism; then all becomes clear:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth!
Peace to men of good will.

This phrasing meets the conditions both of Hebrew parallelism and the Psalm 97:6 prophecy: “Let all the angels of God worship Him!”

  • Glory and peace are compared, the first for God, the second for men;
  • God and men are contrasted and reconciled;
  • All the angels of God worship both God upon His throne and the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, as He makes His appearance in human flesh on this benighted planet.

It’s for this reason that the veil between heaven and earth had to be parted. The proclamation of Messiah’s birth could have been announced by a single herald-angel. But “for all the angels of God” to worship the Incarnate Son and the Father on His heavenly throne at the same time, the separating curtain had to be opened for a moment in time. Their “glory!” had to be directed both to God on high (as they had always done) and to God now on earth.

15When the angels had gone away from them into heaven…

Once their loving duty and privilege of worship is completed and this Messianic prophecy is fulfilled, the veil closes once more. These wingless angels need not “fly away” into heaven; they simply “disappear” to human eyes. They never had to leave heaven for this encounter, because for a brief moment, heaven had opened and spilled over into earth.

Perhaps now we can understand this angelic intersection and worship better now than we did before. But it’s all a moot point until we focus on the real Subject of Luke’s narration, the newly arrived Babe. Therefore let’s follow the astonished shepherds through the rest of their memorable night.

…the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”

If we were looking for parallels between the angels and the shepherds, this would be the first — like the angels, the shepherds now “disappear” from the place where they encountered heaven in order to seek the One they were told could be found.

16So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.

The shepherds don’t proclaim the good news like the herald-angel had done; their station on earth was too humble, and their angelic encounter had been too intimidating. But in their childlike obedience and simplicity, they report and testify what they were told. Their simple testimony is “proclamation” enough to cause wonder “in all who heard it.”

19But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Those who marveled included Mary, Jesus’ mother, who had the God-given wisdom to hide things in her heart that she did not yet understand.

20The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

In the end, the shepherds returned to their sheep, worshiping, praising, and glorifying God. In a sense, they had finally joined in with the angelic chorus, the heavenly host they had been surrounded by earlier in the evening.

The shepherds’ post-manger-visit testimony and worship never got acted out or mentioned (as far as I recall) in my kindergarten Sunday school class. Maybe that little “manger scene,” solidly built in a time before our disposable-junk generation, would still be in use, had it not been consumed when the church building was completely destroyed in a conflagration in January 2000.

But even before the fire, the Lord had been faithful to burn up the chaff of my traditions about the Nativity, so that I might better understand the wonder of what actually happened that momentous night. Star over the stable? Nope. Magi at the manger? Definitely not.16 Shepherds at the stable? Absolutely! Angels surrounding the shepherds? One-hundred-percent attendance! Wings on angels? An unnecessary flight of feathery, fanciful fiction.

Now as I read Luke’s inspired narrative, I remember how the shepherds stood surrounded by the angelic host, realizing how thin the veil is between heaven and earth, and how very present those “ministering spirits” are. More importantly, I’m impressed anew at the marvel of God Incarnate, the One who would take on human nature, a “body of flesh,” as one of the final steps in redeeming us.

And I appreciate more deeply what the shepherds experienced that night, surrounded by the “all” of the “multitude of the heavenly host” — angels in every direction as far as their eyes could see. In my “mind’s ear,” I can hear the words of their angelic poetry ascending before God on His throne and cascading down to the manger in Bethlehem below:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth!
Peace to men of good will.


Endnotes:

  1. The chapter-title graphic uses four free-to-use elements, and we wish to credit the artists involved. The starry-sky background is a photo from Unsplash.com by Adam Mescher. The other elements come from Pixabay.com: 1) the NO symbol is a graphic by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay. The wings come from a graphic by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay. And the Baby Jesus/kidnap victim (from the first two pages of the article) are cropped from a photo by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay. We thank all four artists for their generous involvement with the free graphics movement!
  2. Perry Mason broadcast its first episode in September 1957, barely two months before my crime of compassion.
  3. For instance, paidíon (παιδίον) is used of the the boy in Mark 9:24 who was demon-oppressed or the twelve-year-old girl brought back from the dead in Mark 5:39-41.
  4. Not because the Bible is “sexist,” but because angels, being spirit beings, are sexless. At least, that seems to be the import of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:30 and the parallel passage in Mark 12:25.
  5. Sooner or later, someone will think they’ve had an “ah ha!” moment and point me to Zechariah 5:9 to “prove” that angels are female and that they have wings, so let’s head this off at the pass. Nipping something like this in the bud is almost always a matter of reading the supposed “proof text” in context, so let’s do that, noting from the outset that a clearly designated angel (mal’ākh) is speaking with Zechariah in Zechariah 5:5-11 —

    Then the angel who was speaking with me went out and said to me, “Lift up now your eyes and see what this is going forth.” 6I said, “What is it?” And he said, “This is the ephah going forth.” Again he said, “This is their appearance in all the land” 7(and behold, a lead cover was lifted up); “and this is a woman sitting inside the ephah.” 8Then he said, “This is Wickedness!” And he threw her down into the middle of the ephah and cast the lead weight on its opening.

    And now here comes the “proof text” for female angels with wings.

    9Then I lifted up my eyes and looked, and there two women were coming out with the wind in their wings; and they had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the ephah between the earth and the heavens. 10I said to the angel who was speaking with me, “Where are they taking the ephah?” 11Then he said to me, “To build a temple for her in the land of Shinar; and when it is prepared, she will be set there on her own pedestal.”

    So these two “women,” whoever and whatever they are (note that, unlike Zechariah’s guide, they are not called angels) have stork wings (v. 9). The stork is an “unclean” animal (Leviticus 11:19; Deuteronomy 14:18) in Jewish law. These beings are carrying a woman, Wickedness personified (v. 8). Where is she being carried? To Shinar, an older name for the area of Babylon. The purpose of their trip and labor is to build a temple for Wickedness in Babylon/Shinar, setting her on a pedestal to be worshiped (all v. 11). “Angels”? Do you really think so?

    As a point of interest, the final phrase in v. 11 is the source of our modern phrase “to set her on a pedestal.”

  6. This is probably also the sense of the word as it is used in Revelation 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14, where the idea is the messenger (or possibly even the pastor) of a given church comes to the exiled John, who could not himself visit the churches mentioned. After all, why would Jesus ask John to “take a memo” for any angel? Wouldn’t that be “the long way around” to get a message from the Lord of Heaven to an angelic being? The same is probably true for Acts 12:15; those gathered for prayer are making the assumption that Peter’s messenger is knocking on the door. Translating the word as messenger would probably help make better sense of Galatians 4:14 as well.
  7. Daniel 4 verses 13 and 23 speak of a “watcherdescending, and some translations (like the NASB) provide the modifier angelic, though that adjective is not in the original text. Whether a watcher is an angel is unclear. Other translations render the word watcher as sentinel, guardian, a holy observer. Only translations targeting basic-English readers “simplify” the word as holy angel.
  8. The Holman Christian Standard Bible also renders the phrase “in my extreme weariness.” The Lexham English Bible reads, “Gabriel… in my extreme weariness touched me.”
  9. Clearly, most translations follow the “flying” thought of the King James; the New American Standard translators are in the minority. However, the NASB represents a solid rendering. For instance, Alfred Barnes, in his commentary on the passage, brings out some interesting points, writing of “the difficult Hebrew expression here.”

    Barnes continues, “It cannot be determined with certainty, from the words used here, that the coming of Gabriel was by an act of ‘flying’ as with wings.” That is because the words used can mean “to go swiftly, and then, to be wearied, to faint, either with running, Jer. 2:24, or with severe labor, Isa. 40:28, or with sorrows, Isa. 50:4. If derived from this word… the form used here, would be,

    ‘wearied with swift running,’ and the sense is, that Gabriel had borne the message swiftly to him, and appeared before him as one does who is wearied with a rapid course. If this be the idea, there is no direct allusion to his ‘flying,”’ but the reference is to the rapidity with which he had come on the long journey, as if exhausted by his journey.”

    Interesting, so far as it goes. In fact, two translations omit the idea of flight altogether and apply the idea of exhaustion to Gabriel. Consider the Common English Bible: “He (i.e., Gabriel) was weary with exhaustion.”

    But one has to ask: “Is it possible for a spirit being to be ‘exhausted’?” Exhaustion is a physical state. Even mental exhaustion is a physical state brought on by physical weariness and the physiological side-effects of stress. But for an angel there is no physical component to enter into the equation that could cause exhaustion.

    What seems more likely is that the exhaustion applies to Daniel, who was fasting (as explained in Daniel 9:3), though for how long we don’t know. As shown by his prayer in vv. 4-19, he is in a distressed state of mind and heart during his time of “prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (v. 3). Therefore, given the ambiguity of the phrase, it’s quite possible that the flight-less interpretation of the NASB, HCSB, and the LEB (that is, “in my {Daniel’s} extreme weariness”) is the preferable one.

  10. I say depicted because it’s difficult to discern in Revelation what is meant as apocalyptic/spiritual imagery from what is meant as actual “future history.”
  11. You may use the word Shekinah, if you prefer, and we will understand what you mean. But it should be noted that Shekinah only came into use among the Jewish rabbis after New Testament times; it does not appear in the Scriptures.
  12. For the sake of simplicity, I am omitting three other types of parallelism found in Hebrew poetry. In emblematic parallelism, an emblem or metaphor in the first line illustrates the thought of the second line, e.g.,

    As the deer panteth after the water brooks,
    So my soul panteth after Thee, O God.
    —Psalm 42:1—

    In form(al) parallelism, the two lines have no obvious similarity or contrast; rather, the lines are joined to express a common thought.

    With synthetic parallelism, the second line builds up the idea of the first line, e.g.,

    The Lord is my Shepherd;
    (Therefore) I shall not want.
    —Psalm 23:1—

  13. A diligent English-Bible student might feel confused, being directed by marginal notes to Psalm 97:7 as the source of this quotation, for this is what they discover:

    Let all those be ashamed who serve graven images,
    Who boast themselves of idols;
    Worship Him, all you gods.

    Claiming this verse to be the source of the Hebrews 1:6 quotation seems tenuous, at best, until one realizes that the writer to the Hebrews is not quoting from the Hebrew Old Testament (on which our Bibles are based), but from the Greek Old Testament (otherwise known as the Septuagint or the LXX). The English translation of the Greek Old Testament reads this way:

    Let all that worship graven images be ashamed,
    who boast of their idols;
    worship Him, all ye His angels.
    (Brenton’s translation)

    “Worship Him, all you gods (elohim in the Hebrew).” Elohim is a multi-use word in Hebrew, and its meaning is determined in part by context. It can be plural for El, one of the names of God; it can mean gods, in contrast to the true God; and it’s often a word used in the phrase bene elohim — the sons of God — another phrase for angelic beings. Thus, when the Jewish translators who produced the Septuagint encountered the phrase “Worship Him, all you elohim,” they rendered elohim (which most translations render as gods) as οἱ ἄγγελοι αὐτοῦ (“angels of Him” or “His angels”). This is the translation used by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

    Let all the angels of God worship Him.

  14. From Wesley’s Christmas carol, Let Earth and Heaven Combine.
  15. I use the phrase that God is “in heaven” as a convenient simplification. In reality, Heaven cannot contain God (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 2:6; 6:18), so it seems more likely that Heaven (and all Creation) are in God.
  16. Lord willing, we will delve into their story in Messiah’s Missing Months and the Magi.
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