While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: Psalm 132:10-12
10 For the sake of your servant David,
    do not reject your anointed one.
11 The Lord swore an oath to David,
    a sure oath he will not revoke:
“One of your own descendants
    I will place on your throne.
12 If your sons keep my covenant
    and the statutes I teach them,
then their sons will sit
    on your throne for ever and ever.”

Luke 2:20
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Reflection: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks may hold the distinction as the only Christmas carol written by a British Poet Laureate.

Nahum Tate was born in Dublin, Ireland. Tate was the son of an Irish pastor, Faithful Teate, and both of his grandfathers were also ministers. Despite a history of clergy in his family, Nahum instead pursued a literary career. 

Tate attended Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated in 1672. Within a few years, he moved to London and began making a living as a writer. 

Tate wrote and published a collection of poems but primarily focused his writing on stage plays. After writing a few original plays, he turned his attention to creating adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. His rewrite of the tragedy, King Lear, concluded with a happy ending and was so successful that it became the preferred performance version for over a hundred years.

Due to his significant contributions to the arts, Nahum Tate was named Poet Laureate of England in 1692, a title he held for twenty-two years.

Prior to 1700, church music in English consisted exclusively of Psalms. In 1696, Tate collaborated with Nicholas Brady to update the traditional settings of the Psalter, producing the New Version of the Psalms of David.

Around the same time, Tate wrote the lyrics for While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, a Christmas carol based on the angel’s proclamation in Luke 2.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
all seated on the ground,
an angel of the Lord came down,
and glory shone around.

When Tate and Brady published a Supplement to the New Version of the Psalms in 1700, they included sixteen hymns not based on Psalm texts. While Shepherds Watched was the only Christmas hymn in the collection, thereby making it officially the first Christmas carol approved for usage in the Anglican Church. Prior to that, most carols had roots in folk music and were considered too secular for church services.

The fact that the lyrics were drawn directly from the scriptural account in Luke worked in the hymn’s favor and helped it gain acceptance for congregational singing.

The heavenly babe you there shall find
to human view displayed,
all simply wrapped in swaddling clothes
and in a manger laid.

Tate’s carol is one of the first known hymnic descriptions of this glorious event. Of the sixteen new hymns in the Supplement, it is the only one still sung today. It is a blessed and simple reminder of the moment when the divine birth announcement was delivered quite unexpectedly to humble peasants.

All glory be to God on high,
and to the earth be peace;
to those on whom his favor rests
goodwill shall never cease.

Listen: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Andrew Peterson
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. — Psalm 85.9

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
2 Chronicles 25  (Listen 5:12)
Psalms 132-134 (Listen 2:42)

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Jericho’s Wall

Joshua 5.13-14
Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 
“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

Reflection: Jericho’s Wall
By John Tillman

If you ask most Christians how the inhabitants of Jericho responded to Israel and their silent marching around the city, most will probably say they taunted them and that the point of the story is that the Israelites demonstrated faith by following God’s strange plan despite being made fun of. This is a complete fabrication. There is no textual evidence to suggest that the Israelites were teased or taunted at all by Jericho.  

Scripture doesn’t shy away from a great taunt. The scriptures are full of them. God himself delivers sharply barbed taunts. Even Jesus gently taunts Nicodemus. But no taunts are recorded here.

Jericho wasn’t in a taunting mood. They were terrified. No matter how funny the French Peas are in a Veggie Tales video, the reality is that scripture tells us multiple times how terrified everyone in Canaan was of Israel, but it never tells us once that they taunted Israel or made any comment about God’s plan of marching around the city.

It’s not difficult to see why Jericho was terrified. This gigantic group of former slaves destroyed the entire army of Egypt—the world-wide superpower of its day. Today, this would be comparable to the United States military being wiped out by an opponent. Then this same group traveled through the desert completely destroying any king or nation that stood up to them. Then, these desert-crossing, dangerous, religious fanatics show up at Jericho’s border, crossing the river without permission and in a miraculous fashion.

One possible reason for our extremely poor handling of scripture, in this case, is that, when teaching children, we are so uncomfortable with the idea of God ordering the Israelites to wipe out an entire city, we need a distraction. “Perseverance amidst taunting” is a kinder-gentler lesson to teach children. 

This erroneous reading of scripture turns the power dynamic upside down allowing us to feel “persecuted” like the Israelites and justified in destroying our enemies.

But God isn’t interested in destroying people we call our enemies. If the commander of the Lord’s army was not on Joshua’s side, we can rest assured that the commander of the Lord’s army is not on “our” side today. Especially if we define our side so narrowly as to exclude those outside of something so meaningless and trivial as a political party.

The lesson of Jericho’s wall is not that God’s plans are weird, and people will make fun of us, but we should follow God anyway. The lesson of Jericho’s wall is that it is God who initiates judgment, not us. The lesson is that we don’t deserve what God has given us and that if we are unfaithful, we too will face God’s wrath and no wall will stand in its way.

*Tomorrow, as the United States marks its independence, may we be reminded of our utter dependence on God and that our true citizenship is in the new Heaven and the New Earth to come. 

Prayer: The Request for Presence
Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.
Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, for in his holy Name we put our trust.
Let your loving-kindness, O Lord, be upon us, as we have put our trust in your. — Psalm 33.20-22

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Joshua 5-6.5 (Listen – 2:38) 
Psalm 132-134 (Listen – 2:42)

Tomorrow’s Readings
Joshua 6.6-27 (Listen – 4:47) 
Psalm 135-136 (Listen – 3:53)

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Readers’ Choice Submissions

It is once again time for us to seek out the voices of our readers and hear from you about posts from the past eleven months that have challenged and comforted you and helped you find new meaning in the scriptures.

Readers’ Choice posts will be republished during the month of August and periodically throughout the Fall.

Follow the link to fill out the form. Feel free to fill out the form multiple times for multiple submissions. Please limit your submissions to posts published this calendar year, between September of 2018 and today.

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Read more about Over Jordan
When we cross over the Jordan with Christ, the land has no enemies to be defeated. It has no cities to march around and no battles to be fought. 

Read more about Prayer for Enemies
How quickly do we celebrate our enemies’ sufferings? Should we, rather, pray for them instead?