“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby,
Keeping watch over their flocks at night”
Most of the earliest hymns were originally poems set to music, and usually not by the same person who wrote
the poem. Sometimes a poem wasn’t set to music until decades later. One such poet was Nathan Tate who
was certainly a departure from the traditional image of a saint. He lived from 1652-1715. His family history
was sad. His father, Faithful Tate, was an Irish clergyman. Faithful was attacked and robbed,
and his home was subsequently plundered and burned to the ground.
Three of Nathan’s siblings died after they and their mother had been brutally beaten.
In spite of his unfortunate beginnings, Nathan made his way to London, overcoming his troubles and then
writing many successful plays during his lifetime. His profession as a dramatist won him the role of
Historiographer-Royal in 1702 as well at the Poet Laureate of England. Unfortunately, he drank in excess
and died in a debtor's prison called the Mint in 1715. One of his most popular poems,
set to music in 1703, was titled While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.
It was not unusual for people in days gone by to be familiar with the Bible. They had no TV or other
distractions, and very often a person read him or herself to sleep by candle light. What did they read?
Usually the Bible. For Nathan Tate, although his lifestyle was anything but saintly,
he reflected on the birth of Christ just like anyone else would during the Christmas season.
It is debatable as to how accurate the date of December 25th is in accordance with Jesus’ birth. Probably it
was springtime, rather than the deep cold of winter. With newborn lambs everywhere, the shepherds would
have been found on the hillsides feeding orphaned babies and tenderly caring for their flocks. Most of the
shepherds would have been sitting. In such a peaceful setting, it’s no wonder that they were overwhelmed
when a huge host of angels appeared in the heavenlies, singing in announcement of the newborn King.
The brilliance of any angelic being alone would be enough to scare anyone out of their wits, much less a
huge choir of them. Inevitably whenever anyone encountered an angel in Scripture, usually it is recorded
that the angel tells the person to “be not afraid.” Nathan envisioned the scene, just as we are likely to.
The first stanza goes:
While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel(s) of the Lord came down
And glory shone around