Advocates of a "literal interpretation" of the nativity story in church liturgy and hymns greeted "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" with enthusiasm. The reason was simple: The hymn closely replicates the Bible's description of events on the night of Jesus' birth.
It also helped that a distinguished group of musicians contributed to the hymn's creation. George Frideric Handel, composer of the famed oratorio Messiah, wrote the music. Years later, Richard Storrs Willis of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" fame infused Handel's old melody with text adapted from an even older work published by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brody in 1696. And the result is timeless.
"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" Lyrics
1. While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around,
And glory shone around.
2. "Fear not" said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds;
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
3. "To you, in David's town, this day
Is born of David's line
The Saviour, who is Christ the Lord
And this shall be the sign:
4. "The heav'nly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.
5. "All glory be to God on high,
And to the earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav'n to men
Begin and never cease!"
Shepherds in southern France used to shout "Gloria in excelsis Deo, Gloria in excelsis Deo!" from hill to hill to celebrate the coming of Christmas. The song on the next page, "Angels We Have Heard on High," is based on that jubilant cry.