Is it appropriate to say, as so many Christmas hymns do, that the heavenly host sang of Jesus birth? In Luke 1:21, the evangelist wrote:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying (λέγω) …
Saying, not singing. But since this is not the end of the article, you might guess that there’s more to the question, at least from my perspective. Linguistically, the verb λέγω’s range of meaning encompasses speech that ancient writers also described as songs. And the speech that comes from the heavenly multitude fits a pattern of material in Luke that later readers would consider to have song-like qualities.
What the heavenly beings said was this:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
Most modern translations format this as two half lines, in the form of Hebrew parallel poetry, much like the Psalms and other poetical portions of the Old Testament. To a greater or lesser degree, poetry naturally has a rhythm and a tonality common to music.
The first part of Luke’s gospel is filled with a number of these poetical sections, what you might describe as The Song of Mary, The Song of Zechariah, The Song of Simeon – and this song – The Song of the Angels. I’ve even described the prologue of the third Gospel as Luke’s Christmas cantata, but nowhere does Luke use any of the words translated “sing” elsewhere in the New Testament. Mary said. Zechariah prophesied. The heavenly host said. Simeon said.
Still, we’ve come to think of these passages as songs or canticles. The early church recognized their liturgical character and they quickly became a part of the church’s worship. They are commonly known by the Latin words that begin each of them: Magnificat. Benedictus. Gloria in Excelsis. Nunc Dimittis.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the words we often find translated as “sing” or “song” are forms of the words for “psalm,” “hymn” and “ode.” The Revelation of John is also filled with poetical sections, some of which which the author identifies as songs. In fact, in Revelation, a “song” can be “said.”
And they sang (ᾄδω) a new song (ᾠδή), saying (λέγω) … Revelation 5:9
I’m not sure that it is necessary or appropriate to think of there being a strong division between poetry and music in the ancient Mediterranean world. Indeed, the heavenly host in Luke 2 functions something like a Greek chorus to the angelic messenger. The Inter-Varsity Bible Background Commentary note on the heavenly chorus is significant: “This choir contrasts with the earthly choirs used in the worship of the emperor.” Caesar’s choirs extolled him for the peace he brought to the world; God’s choir does the same.
“Singing” clearly means different things in different ages. Medieval plainsong doesn’t sound like Handel’s Messiah. Motown hits from the 60’s don’t sound like rap from the 90’s. In some instances, the distinction between music and speech is very blurry. Is chant music or speech? What about the rhythms of the auctioneer? A novelist or poet might describe the auctioneer as “singing”.
When I recite Psalm 96:1 – “Sing to the Lord a new song” – with my brothers and sisters in the assembly, am I not in fact fulfilling the Psalmist’s direction to sing, whether I do so melodically or not?
I am not convinced, then, that “sing” is a terribly inappropriate way for a modern lyricist to describe the liturgical and poetical speech of the heavenly host. Call it “singing” or call it “speaking” if you like. Its form would have certainly sounded foreign to us. Emotionally, though, I think text is closer to a song than to a speech.