A Shepherd's Song
My name is Heber and I'm a shepherd on the night watch. I don't have an honored position in society. The only ones lower than us shepherds are lepers.
We have a reputation for thinking, “What’s thine is also mine.” But that’s true of only some. The biggest problem with shepherds is that, well, there’s an old saying among us that, “He who walks where the sheep walk has difficulty keeping his feet clean.” We don’t often get a chance to wash. And if you want to be a Hebrew, respected and honored, you have to wash often.
I’m compelled to tell you about an experience I had one winter long ago. I was among those shepherds who watched the flock at Migdal Eder, which means “the tower of the flock.” In the field where I worked there was a round stone tower, ten feet high and ten feet wide. A stairway wound around that tower and at the top a low wall surrounded it. I watched through many nights at the top of that tower with my friend Nathan.
When I joined the night shepherds that memorable winter, Nathan had already been with them for years. I had worked days until my father—whom I dearly loved—died and I filled his slot on the night watch. He loved working nights because it meant he could be with Nathan, who knows the Scriptures. They loved to sit by the fire and talk of the ancient prophecies. Although nobody teaches shepherds the Scriptures, we Jews have lived for many centuries, and our parents see to it that we know our story. Shepherds don’t know as much as the people in Jerusalem or even the people of Bethlehem. But what we do know, we have time to think about.
One particular night it was especially dark. The light from the fire at the top of the tower shone only a few feet. If you could see the surrounding flock, you would have seen two or three hundred sheep. And if you had listened carefully, you could have heard the shepherds playing flute-like music. Out there were Benjamin and Eliezer, our fellow shepherds, whose tunes kept the flock at peace.
Before long Benjamin and Eliezer mounted the steps and it was time for Nathan and me to soothe the sheep. We took our pipes, staffs, and slings, just as David, son of Jesse, had done in these fields centuries earlier.
If you know Jewish custom, and especially if you have read the Mishnah—our record of the Jews’ ceremonial responsibilities—you know it was unusual to have flocks so close to town. The Mishnah required us to keep flocks in the wilderness, but we were less than a mile from Bethlehem on the way to Jerusalem. Yet this flock was close for good reason. There we kept the sacrificial animals for the temple in Jerusalem. Men came from the temple and took from among these choice sheep the animals for the daily sacrifices. Ours had been the repository for the sacrificial animals for centuries.
That night Nathan repeated what he’d told me before: “In this town of Bethlehem the ancient prophets say the Messiah will be born.” I was unimpressed. That promise had been around for generations. Nathan said my father showed much more enthusiasm for such knowledge. As he spoke, the fire crackled.
Suddenly—as if by magic—darkness turned to blazing light. When our eyes adjusted, we saw before us an apparition, a creature, something I’d never seen. Terror gripped me. Nathan trembled too. Then fear turned to awe as that something spoke:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10).
It was an angel. And as he spoke, Benjamin and Eliezer came running. They too stood in his presence, and he spoke again.
“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (vv. 11–12).
At once the sky filled with angels from horizon to horizon, and as far as eye could see, thousands upon thousands of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (v. 14). Then all the angels rose and disappeared.
I suppose all that took no more than a half a minute, and I wondered if I’d dreamed it. But how could four men in one place dream the same thing? We looked at each other, then dropped everything and dashed across the fields, leaping over the low walls that stood in our way.
Panting, we arrived in Bethlehem and found the town teeming with people. We knew that the most likely manger would be at the inn, which looks like a huge stone fort with four walls. We elbowed our way to its large courtyard. There by a fire three men squatted as they drank and talked.
We ran to the side of the inn where a lean-to stable stood against the wall. It had a thatched roof and an outer stone wall with canvas hung over the opening. We pushed it aside and froze when we saw a man motioning for us to be silent. Down toward the center of a line of animals we saw a single flame from a lamp on a stone ledge that illuminated a mother and her baby. Between us and the man were donkeys and oxen with more animals beyond him. He approached and asked, “What do you wish?”
We told him what had happened on the hillside—about the angels and their message that in this place the Messiah had been born.
He nodded. “I am Joseph, and it is true. Just as angels appeared to you, an angel also appeared both to me and to my wife, Mary.” Then he motioned toward the child. “His name is Jesus. Come and see.”
And as we tiptoed in, I realized that on that cold night the stable with its many animals might have been the warmest place in all of Bethlehem. A baby lay in the cattle-feeding trough, the manger. I looked at the child with His tiny limbs individually wrapped according to our custom of swaddling—wrapped so that his arms and legs would be straight. Several weeks earlier I’d seen my father wrapped similarly. But for the absence of myrrh, aloes, and spices, you would have said that this little infant was wrapped for his burial. Yet this was no time for such thoughts. The Messiah was born—the future King of Israel, the Deliverer!
We recounted to His mother the events we’d seen. We were thrilled anew by our own repetition of the angels’ message. The young woman only listened and didn’t speak. She seemed fragile and tiny, too soft for such a hard experience as this.
In Israel when you are expecting a child, if you have money, you hire musicians who wait outside your house. When the news comes that a son is born, they play and everyone rejoices in the birth. I leaned toward Nathan and whispered. “How unfortunate that there are no minstrels.”
Nathan slipped his arm around my shoulder. “Heber, this Son is honored indeed—minstrels from heaven have celebrated His birth.” I had to admit that there wasn’t a Jewish father in all of history who had ever seen his son welcomed with such fanfare.
After we bid them good-bye and departed, we started to pass the men by the fire. In our exuberance we told them what had happened, but they didn’t share our enthusiasm that we would soon be free from Rome!
When we returned to the field, our sheep were still there. I don’t know whether some angels guarded them in our absence. I hadn’t been thinking about the sheep.
Sometime later we heard about a large caravan that accompanied some Magi who came into town to worship the baby, and their arrival had caused quite a stir. Herod had many children killed because of that, and the years that followed were long. But we never again saw Jesus, nor did we hear any more about Him for decades.
Regularly from the temple the priest’s servants came to get sheep, and we’d ask them about news of the Messiah. But there was nothing.
As we grew older, Nathan became so feeble that he had to be carried up the steps. But still he kept coming. One day we heard that a prophet had appeared in the wilderness speaking like Elijah of old, calling the nation to repentance. My heart leaped within me and I cried, “It’s the Messiah!”
But Nathan shook his head. “No, Heber. This man’s name is John, and Joseph told us the Messiah’s name was Jesus.”
Soon we heard that this John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. The temple servant told us, “John proclaimed that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” That was a shock! We envisioned the Messiah as a shepherd, so why was John saying that He was a sacrificial lamb?
Then news came like a flood—word of His ministry throughout Israel. Many flocked to follow Him. We felt anticipation.
But then we heard that Jesus had been betrayed, that the priests had taken Him, that He had been crucified. The Messiah? Crucified? Laid in a tomb? It seemed that our hopes for Israel had gone to the grave with Jesus. But Nathan comforted me. “Ah, Heber,” he said, “remember that when God makes a promise, He will keep it, even though we do not know the way.”
Some years later a man named Prochorus came from Jerusalem. He introduced himself as a deacon from a newly formed “church” there. He’d heard about us from the temple servant and had come to ask us about what had happened that night so long ago. He told us about Jesus’ resurrection and that He had ascended on a cloud, promising to return to bring redemption to Israel!
A few months later Prochorus brought to us a doctor named Luke. Dr. Luke asked us to repeat in detail the events that had happened on that night long ago. He said he was writing an account of the life of Jesus for a friend. Then he explained that the Messiah was in truth God’s sacrificial Lamb, that Christ died for the sins of all, and that all who believe this and believe that Jesus rose from the dead will have eternal life.
And I believed!
I mustered the courage to ask, “Dr. Luke, why do you think the angels came to lowly shepherds? Why didn’t they appear to the priests or at least to the scribes and Pharisees?”
The doctor thought a moment. “Surely the answer is in the message that the angels gave. They proclaimed that the good news was for all, that everyone—from lowest to highest—needs and can know this wonderful Savior.”
Now I gladly share that message with all who come near: “Christ died for you; whether you are rich or poor, wise or ignorant, washed or unwashed. You need Him. He died and rose again for our salvation. If you have never believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, will you do so right now?”
Dr. John W. Reed is director of the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program at Dallas Seminary.