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Hark, the Herald Angels "Say"?

December 24, 2009

I’ve heard it said before that the first line of Wesley’s glorious carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is technically wrong since Luke’s Gospel records that the regiment of angels were “saying” (λέγω).

For instance, Luke 2:13-14 reads in the ESV:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

The Greek reads for this passage reads:

13και εξαιφνης εγενετο συν τω αγγελω πληθος στρατιας ουρανιου αινουντων τον θεον και λεγοντων 14δοξα εν υψιστοις θεω και επι γης ειρηνη εν ανθρωποις ευδοκια.

Rod Decker notes (on the authority of Danker’s new lexicon) that this is a spurious objection. I agree wholeheartedly. It is true that λέγω can refer to speaking, but a similar word in Ephesians 5:19 (λαλουντες εαυτοις ψαλμοις και υμνοις και ωδαις πνευματικαις αδοντες και ψαλλοντες εν τη καρδια υμων τω κυριω) also quite evidently refers either to singing (specifically) or to communication that includes singing (generally). The idea of these words, both of which English translations often render “saying” or “speaking,” carries a broader referent than non-singing discourse.*

For more on the carol itself, you could read Dave Doran’s post on it.

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing by the King’s College Choir, directed by Sir David Willcocks

*The original post read, “It is true that λέγω can refer to speaking*, but in Ephesians 5:19 (λαλουντες εαυτοις ψαλμοις και υμνοις και ωδαις πνευματικαις αδοντες και ψαλλοντες εν τη καρδια υμων τω κυριω) it quite evidently refers either to singing (specifically) or to communication that includes singing (generally).” See the helpful correction posted by Dr Decker below in the comments.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2009 9:22 pm

    Ryan, Your point is correct, but Eph 5 has λαλέω, not λέγω. In koine those two words, unlike classical usage, are largely synonymous, so the Eph text can be used as a supporting argument (i.e., a valid example of a general verb of speaking being explicitly defined in the context as including singing).

  2. December 24, 2009 9:30 pm

    Ah, that’s what I get for not checking my work. In looking at the passage this last week, my mind went to the Ephesians passage, and thought of lego.

  3. December 24, 2009 9:49 pm

    I first heard this from a professor who has now gone to glory. I have held to the literal understanding of the words, not for any deep theological point but just to have a little fun with our people. Who knows if angels can sing or not?

    Anyway, we ran across Job 38.7 which probably blows the theory completely, but I still attempt to stoutly defend my position.

    KJV Job 38:7 When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

    The passage is talking about the creation. The ‘sons of God’ here are presumably angels, and ‘morning stars’ as a parallel expression is likely just an alternate poetic form.

    So… probably angels can sing, but we have a little fun with this in our church.

    Maranatha!
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  4. Greg Linscottt permalink
    December 25, 2009 12:29 am

    FWIW, Wesley’s original words were:

    “Hark, how all the welkin rings,
    “Glory to the King of kings;
    Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
    God and sinners reconciled!”

  5. December 25, 2009 9:51 pm

    Yes, the post by Dave Doran to which I linked makes that point.

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