What one New Testament verse contains the two most common phrases found in Christmas music?
Now, I'd have to be clear that I haven't done a statistical study on this question, and I have no intention of doing so. But if you've done much singing or listening at all during this season you've come across these:
“Glory to God in the highest” (also rendered as“In excelsis Deo”).
“Peace on earth, good will to men.”
These are words recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Two very short statements with a depth of meaning. Here are some questions and answers to help tease out some of that significance:
Who is speaking, to whom, when, and where?
“A multitude of the heavenly host” says these words. In other words, a huge group of angels. And they appear to “shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” The site is somewhere outside of Bethlehem, as we are told that it's “in the same country,” and it's on the same night as the birth of Christ. While in previous posts I've talked about mistaken notions in portrayals of the Magi and the star they followed, there's not much room for error in this information about the angels and the shepherds.
Okay, I think most of you knew that already. The more interesting questions are:
Glory to God in the highest what?
A look at other translations usually shows the word “heaven” added, so the meaning becomes something like, “Let God's glory be known in the highest heaven.” That makes a certain amount of sense, I guess, but logically speaking the highest heaven would be the one place where His glory would already be known, wouldn't it? Trying to figure out what this six-word phrase literally means has resulted in one of the few, if not the only, times I've wished I knew Greek. However, one can always consult the experts, and Matthew Henry's classic commentary makes a good point: “Other works of God are for his glory, but the redemption of the world is for his glory in the highest.”
What kind of peace are the angels talking about?
“There is no peace on earth,” Longfellow says in our eponymous selection. And that's true, isn't it? We can't shut our eyes to the trouble and turmoil of the world even in this celebratory season. So why did the angels say that the coming of the Messiah would bring “peace on earth”? Did they not know what they were talking about? Or were they giving some sort of generic blessing, as in “Peace, brother”? We can get into some pretty deep theological waters here, so let me summarize by saying that the angels aren't talking about that peaceful feeling you have when all of your shopping is done, nor the absence of war. Instead, this is peace between God and man: the peace of reconciliation that comes from the forgiveness of sins. It's peace bought at a great price.
What is meant by “good will toward men”?
There are two possibilities here. One is that the good will is coming from God and being directed towards mankind. A translation I particularly like says, “to those with whom God is pleased."
However, other translations switch the idea around to put the good will in the hearts of people: “Among men who please Him.” And you can see, I'm sure, that there's no real difference here. God's favor is toward those who have turned to Him. It's a reciprocal cycle, but it begins with God, not man.
I'd love to get into a discussion of why our conceptions of angels are pretty unbiblical, but perhaps we'll save that for next year. I will close instead with a couple of decidedly minor points that have rather tickled me and may do the same for you:
Is “excelsis” pronounced“egg-shell-sees” or “ek-shell-sees”?
I had a choir director in years past who was trying to come up with a way to get all of us to say the word the same way, so he used a word we already knew. Alas, he was wrong, and I sang the word his way, incorrectly, for quite some time—until a rehearsal for this very concert, as a matter of fact. There are no eggs in “excelsis.” However, as in so many Latin words, you can see the roots of a word we use today: excel. Just try not to think of a spreadsheet or a good grade!
And, finally, what example concerning correct comma usage can be garnered from Luke 2:16?
The King James Version reads: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” But if you put a comma after “babe,” then all three of them end up in that very crowded manger.
Y'all have a great holiday season!