Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Learning from the Choirs of Heaven

When I was growing up, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley (revised by George Whitfield) was one of my favorite Christmas songs — but the point of the first line went completely over my head.

Don’t get me wrong, I understood lines like “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled” and “Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings / Mild he lays his glory by, Born that man no more may die.” However, there was that lead archaic imperative that escaped me for years: Hark! (Listen!).

In a 2007 Christianity Today article, Gordon Giles notes,

In the Gospel account, the angels praise God, whereas in “Hark! the herald angels sing,” they are inaccurately described as praising Jesus. Furthermore, Luke does not say that the angels “sing,” and so it may well be that this reinterpretation by Whitfield has emphasized the popular but unscriptural picture of angels singing the Gloria.

While Giles is correct, we would do well to listen to and learn from the angels in Luke 2:10. Their praise and adoration towards God about the birth of Jesus is a model for what our attitude should be concerning the Christ Jesus. Why?

Angels didn’t need to be reconciled to God, but man does.

He Didn’t Come for the Sins of Angels

When God brought Jesus into heaven at his ascension, says Hebrews 1:6 (with 2:5), he declares (in the words of Deuteronomy 32:43), “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Angels and humans are different beings. The most notable thing we have in common is that God created us both, and we were perfect in the beginning. But the difference is significant. In particular, Hebrews 2:16 emphasizes that the coming of Jesus doesn’t help angels. The writer declares, “Surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.” John Calvin explains why this glorious truth shouldn’t make us proud, but rather humble us:

By this comparison he enhances the benefit and the honor with which Christ has favored us, by putting on our flesh; for he never did so much for angels. As then it was necessary that there should be a remarkable remedy for man’s dreadful ruin, it was the design of the Son of God that there should be some incomparable pledge of his love towards us, which angels had not in common with us. That he preferred us to angels was not owing to our excellency, but to our misery.

There is therefore no reason for us to glory as though we were superior to angels, except that our heavenly Father has manifested toward us that ampler mercy which we needed, so that the angels themselves might from on high behold so great a bounty poured on the earth. (Commentary on Hebrews, 73–74)

The fact that Christ was “veiled in [human] flesh the Godhead see” speaks not to our worth, “but to our misery” and God’s great mercy. Angels sinned and they were immediately condemned and will be judged by us one day (1 Corinthians 6:3). We sinned and God graciously sends us Jesus so that “God and sinners [would be] reconciled.”

Peter declares that this gracious act of God in the gospel is so precious that the angels long to look (1 Peter 1:12). Unfallen angels understand experientially the righteousness and holiness of God, but they have no experience of what it’s like to have sinned and been forgiven. If they sin, they’re judged eternally, but God in the gospel is merciful to mankind. The angels recognize how precious and significant the gospel is. And instead of responding with envy or questions, they respond with curiosity and worship.

Listen and Learn

The angels demonstrate a reverence and admiration that we, in our fallen state, struggle to display and maintain. The gospel is good news for us, not angels; yet they rejoice and worship as if they were the ones experiencing this peculiar good of our merciful God. We would do well to listen and learn.

Christmas is often weighed down with diversions of gift giving, eggnog, and other festivities. But the fact that Jesus entered the world is bad news that ends with good news. He had to come because of our misery and mess, but he came as a merciful Messiah prepared to take on our sins.

During this final week of Advent (and after), let praise and adoration for Christ consume your thoughts. Worship the risen Savior, for “light and life to all he brings.” Listen to the angels worship and join them in this appropriate adoration.

(@PhillipMHolmes) served as a content strategist at desiringGod.org. He and his wife, Jasmine, have a son, and they are members of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi.