New Testament

Not So Silent Night Above Bethlehem?

Will Varner recently posted over at Focus on the Family about how, although we often view the first Christmas night as a beautiful and tranquil evening, it was probably anything but that!

Varner notes that although we often visualize angels as messengers of peace and good news, angels were often symbolically gathered for war!

The first matter to consider is our mental image of angels. The biblical word cherubim has morphed into the English word cherub, which evokes images of fat and cute little creatures intended to warm our hearts. Such images are foreign to the Biblical description of angelic beings. The second matter is the Hebrew term tsva, often used to describe a group of angels and translated into English as “host.” But tsva is better understood as a military term, and in Modern Hebrew, tsva means “army.” 

Luke refers to these angels with the Greek word stratia, which translates that Hebrew tsva (“army”) in the ancient Greek Old Testament. “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host (stratia) praising God and saying” (Luke 2:13). The New English Translation is bold enough to render it as “Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying …” Why would they do that? 

Classical Greek uses the word for an army or group of soldiers. In the Septuagint, it is used nineteen times for human armies and often for Israel’s armies (Num 10:28; Deut 20:9; 2 Sam 3:23; 18:16). The other nine uses of stratia refer to nonmaterial “hosts” as is the case in Luke 2:13. All nine of these uses are linked with the word “heavenly.” Sometimes the “host” may refer to the stars (2 Chron 33:3, 5). In at least two of these verses, the “host of heaven” refers to spiritual beings who are on the Lord’s side of the battle (1 Kings 22:19; Neh 9:6). Judges 5:20 describes the stars as fighting against Sisera, obviously referring to spiritual beings who fought for God’s people against overwhelming human odds.

Varner goes on to point out that although we often think of Jesus’s first advent as a time of peace, we ought to remember that Jesus also came to wage war. Even the phrase, “Peace on earth. Good will to men” has perhaps a different meaning that we often think.

What of the verbless expression, “Peace on earth. Good will to men?” This is not a pronouncement but more like a prayer in many NT letters: “May peace and grace be yours.” A better reading in earlier Greek manuscripts was, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:14). This refers to the Divine good pleasure resting on those who have accepted His rule and have ceased to fight against Him! The same word was used by Jesus in Luke 10:21: “Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight.” The peace of Luke 2:14 is not a prayer for disarmament! It is a wish that God’s people may experience true shalom (peace) in their relationship with God. That peace is for those on whom His favor rests and who “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). That is the message from this “not so silent night” long ago that is so needed to be shouted out loudly for today’s world!

As Varner’s post reminds us, there are multiple dimensions to the Christmas story to keep in mind. You can read his whole post here. Also, we had the privilege of interviewing Varner on some of these Christmas issues, and his interview is below. Merry Christmas!

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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